Consider the following identical pieces of poetry:
Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon –
The Greek warlord – and godlike Achilles”
“ACHILLES’ baneful wrath resound, that impos’d
Infinite sorrows on the Greeks, and many brave souls los’d
From beasts heroic; sent them far to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their limbs to dogs and vultures gave:
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begun
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike son.”
Likely the first thing you will notice is that I lied to you. These passages are not identical. The former does not rhyme, the latter does. The former talks of “Hades’ dark,” the latter of “that invisible cave / That no light comforts.” The former discusses “Achilles’ rage / Black and murderous,” the latter “ACHILLES’ baneful wrath.” The former opens by commanding a goddess to sing, the latter jumps directly into Achilles’ temper. The former has “Zeus,” “Agamemnon” and “Achilles” as characters, the latter “Jove,” “Atrides,” and “Achilles – but also “Thetis’ godlike son.” And yet, these passages should be identical. They are both the opening lines of the Iliad, an epic poem accredited to an Archaic Greek bard called “Homer.”
So, from where do these differences originate? How did they come about? They come from translation. Stanley Lombardo published the former translation in Indianapolis in 1997, while George Chapman published the latter almost four centuries earlier, in 1611, in London. These circumstances create major differences between the two translations. Lombardo and Chapman even seem to disagree on what work they translate: Lombardo presents to the reader “The Iliad” while Chapman puts forth “Homer’s Iliads.” The divergent times and places that produced the two translations, as well as the different tastes and styles of the two translators, created a divergent works. Through the process of translation, the two authors injected their own contexts and their own selves into the preexisting Iliad. Because of this, when one translates a work, it becomes, to a particular extent, both a copy and an original. It partially sheds the context of the time, place, and author that produced it and replaces it with the that of the time, place, and author that translated it. It becomes a hybrid piece, mixing contexts and languages.
I am not the first to discuss the various translations of the Iliad. In his 1932 essay the Homeric Versions, the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges used Homer to discuss the problems and peculiarities of translation. Borges calls Samuel Cowper’s 1791 translation “innocuous” and “as literal as the requirements of Miltonic stress permit,” while designating Alexander Pope’s 18=725 version “extraordinary,” and “luxuriant,” summing it up as “speeches and spectacles.” Borges calls Chapman’s translation “extraordinary,” but Samuel Butler’s 1900 edition “a series of sedate news items.” This demonstrates the transformative nature of translation. When we translate it into English, a poem can simultaneously consist of “speeches and spectacles” and “sedate news items.” It can become both “innocuous” and “luxuriant.” “Sing” can become a synonym for “resound,” and “dark” one for “invisible.” Goddesses can pass in and out of existence. “Atrides” can change his name to “Agamemnon.” The whole work becomes demolished, and then reconstructed in a place that sits both intimately close and desperately far.
Given this information, given the numerous ways in which a translation can go, how does one translate anything? How can we faithfully reproduce a word, let alone a sentence or an entire epic, in a different language, remote from the conditions which created the original word. Can we really call anything “translatable?” Borges attempted to answer this question with regards to Homer: “Which of these many translations is faithful? […] none or all of them.” Depending on the how we choose to view it, translation can breathe new life into a work, or it can present only a hollow version of the original. A translation can become a resurrection, or a death mask. Through translation, a work takes on new words and a new language, but a new time, new places, and new contexts. As a process, it has both a familiar and a foreign character. Therefore, everything is translatable, and therefore everything is untranslatable.
As you peruse Untranslatable, look for this theme. Notice how the writers and artists which we publish deal with translation, with difficult communications, with strangeness and familiarity. Look for what translation can mean to writers and artists, and how they confront this. Consider how the works we’ve collected deal with universal translatability and untranslatablity. After you’ve read the issue, think about what these concepts mean to you, and how the inherent uncertainty – but also the inherent renewal - of translation can hold meaning in your own life.
Readers can find Lombardo’s translation of the Iliad online through the Poetry Foundation, and Chapman’s in the Library of Old Authors. Readers can find a copy of the Homeric Versions at the Leaving Years.
J. RANSEL ROMINE IV is an undergraduate at Temple University, studying History and Spanish. Fae enjoys modernism, critical theory, Beethoven, and peanut butter sandwiches. Fae worked as an editor at Danse Macabre, an online literary magazine now defunct.