Monday, May 23, 2011

Comparing Translations

As I mentioned in my last post, there are multiple translations of the Homeric Hymns.  I've gotten a chance to peek through several attempts.  From what I've seen, my two favorite editions are the ones by Diane Rayor and Sarah Ruden.  Both volumes have luscious poetry and very smart introductions that explore not only the historical context but the themes and politics of the Hymns.

Here's a section from the beginning of the "Hymn to Demeter," as translated by each author:

1. From Diane Rayor's translation:

I sing of the revered goddess, rich-haired Demeter,
and her slim-ankled daughter, whom Hades snatched
(far-seeing, thundering Zeus gave her away)
while she and Ocean's deep-breasted daughters played,
far from the golden blade Demeter, who bears shining fruit.
She picked lush meadow flowers: roses, crocuses,
lovely violets, irises, hyacinths--and a narcissus
Gaia grew as a lure for the blossoming girl,
following Zeus' bidding, to please Lord of the Dead.
Everyone marveled at the bewitching sight,
immortal gods and mortal folk alike:
from its root blossomed a hundred sweetly
scented heads, and all wide heaven above,
all earth, and the salty swell of the sea laughed.

2.  From Sarah Ruden's translation:

Here I sing fearsome, lovely-haired Demeter
And her trim-ankled child seized by Aidoneus.
Far-seeing, thundering Zeus had sanctioned it.
Gold-sword, bright-grain Demeter did not know.
The girl played with the Sea's deep-bosomed daughters
In a lush field, picking hyacinth's, bright violets,
Irises, crocuses, roses--and the narcissus,
Which the earth grew to trap the flower-faced girl,
By Zeus's tactics, for the hos of many.
Gods whose life never ends and mortal people
Were dazzled by the flower when they saw it.
From a single root a hundred blossoms flourished
And smelled so sweet the whole wide sky above it
Laughed, and the whole earth and the salt sea laughed.


I am really glad I'm looking at both translations.  This passage is completely approachable, as is the vast majority of the poetry of the Hymns--but the two translations emphasize different images.  Rayor' makes me hear "the Ocean's deep-breasted daughters"--because of her rhythmic, almost onomatopoetic translation?--in ways that Ruden's "Sea's deep-bosomed daughters" doesn't.

On the other hand, Ruden's "bright-grain Demeter" seems much more immediate than Rayor's "golden blade Demeter"--again, perhaps partly because of the sharpness of the rhythm.  The two stresses next to each other--"bright" and "grain"--definitely put an emphasis on the phrase.  Rayor's translation seems like a formulaic metaphor (very Greek) where Ruden's seems poetically literal.  The literal is far more appealing (or surprising, as Iser might say) to me, even though the formula might be more faithful to the original.  The translator Apostolos N. Athanassakis, whose translation is admired by scholars searching for a faithful rendition, uses the very formulaic "mother of the golden sword."

In my next post, I'll talk a bit about the larger themes of the "Hymn to Demeter" and try to compare it a bit to some of the other themes that weave throughout the Homeric Hymns as a whole.

1 comment:

  1. Slow Plot-Driven ReaderMay 23, 2011

    Thanks for pointing out how the double stress works in the structure of the poem. I missed that and appreciate having it pointed out. The images in the first translation also sang out to me more as well. I think the rhythm had more to do with this than I thought.

    I look forward to your discussion of the larger themes of this hymn. Already I am intrigued by Gaia/Earth participating in ensnaring Persephone. Without analysis or reason, I simply assume Demeter and Gaia are strong allies. This may help to remind me that the Earth is more than the harvest.

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