Greek Lyric Poetry by M L West

It’s an interesting experience coming to M. L. West’s Greek Lyric Poetry after reading Stanley Lombardo’s and Anne Carson’s Sappho translations. With Lombardo and Carson, in any of the longer fragments and even in short phrases you find yourself reading English words that immediately strike home as living poetry. To be sure, something similar can happen in short snatches in West’s translations, as in these lines addressed to a bridegroom:

How handsome you are with your gentle eyes
and your lovely face all radiant with desire.

West was of course an extremely distinguished classicist, and I can’t judge the relative accuracy of his, Lombardo’s and Carson’s translations. It may be that his are in a sense the most faithful. The kind of sense I have in mind can be seen in his introduction, where he writes:

Another necessity sometimes forced upon the translator is the use of words or expressions that have an old-fashioned air, simply because they correspond better than any current idiom to the Greek concept. This arises particularly in moral and ethical contexts.

He suggests that “righteousness” corresponds better to the concept of dik? than the standard translation as “justice” does, and goes on

Again, the early Greek poets very often contrast the ‘good’ man (agathos or esthlos) with the ‘bad’ man (kakos or deilos). In English, ‘good’ and ‘bad’  applied to persons refer simply to moral character, unless further qualification is added (as in ‘a good man in a crisis’). But in early Greek the terms refer predominantly to social status, inherited wealth, breeding, or the lack of these, often with the assumption that moral worth is their natural concomitant. In many cases agathos is best represented by a phrase such as ‘man of quality’, ‘man of class’, or ‘man of worth’, and kakos by ‘rogue’, ‘rapscallion’, ‘bum’, ‘man of low degree’ or the like.

The explanatory part of that statement seems true, illuminating and valuable in an introduction but the conclusion West draws in that final sentence already suggests, before we read them, how ludicrously ineffective as poetry the language of some of his translations will be. Reading them, I found myself feeling that he’d begun to approach English itself like an archaic dead language, an assemblage of dictionary definitions straddling centuries of usage. After all, the concepts he represents by his archaic phrases haven’t simply died from the modern mind, they just require more indirect expression and harder work than he gives them. The truth, I think, is that words like “rapscallion” simply don’t jar his sense of living English. Look at this translation of Xenophanes:

But if at running someone won a victory
…..or in pentathlon at Olympia
by Pises’ stream and Zeus’ precinct, or again
… wrestling, or the boxer’s painful art,
or that demanding trial they call pankration,
…..he’d be more glamorous in the city’s eyes;
he’d get a front seat at competitive events,
…..and meals provided from the public purse
by vote of the city, and a prize to keep for aye –
…..e’en if he won with steeds.

“For aye”, “e’en”! As for the dogged hammering of the rhythm, I’ve no way of judging whether that’s a fair representation of Xenophanes’ own style. If it is, I think it’s an unkindness to represent it without improvement.

In the end, we have to decide what we want verse translations to be for. I think one that fails to take fire as poetry is pointless – much better a prose translation that renders dictionary meanings as precisely as possible and gives context by detailed cultural and linguistic notes. At the end of his introduction West says,

It has been an enjoyable task. I do not delude myself that all parts of the end product are likely to give equal pleasure to the reader. But if I have succeeded in opening any eyes, ears, or hearts to some portion of the manifold beauty, wisdom and wit that shines from these precious remnants of a brilliant culture of long ago, I shall be well content.

His own love of Greek culture shines out movingly there. As a scholar, he seems to have made an impressive contribution to spreading knowledge and understanding of it. I’m glad to have read his book for the information it contains. However, opening the reader’s ears and heart through poetry is work for poets and the true delight of his book is in the all too rare moments when he himself seems to become one.





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