From The New Criterion:
by John Talbot
On the "finest critic of Classical literature in English translation since Matthew Arnold."
Keats’s emphasis—that it was Chapman’s voice, and not Homer’s only, that he heard speak out loud and strong—exposes a gulf between him and us. It has implications for literary culture, English poetry, and the survival of the Classics.
Keats knew perfectly well that in reading Chapman’s Homer he was not reading the Iliad. Those rolling rhymed fourteeners, those pauses and those plunges, those metrical inversions: that is Chapman’s sound, not Homer’s. Yet Keats was pleased rather than perturbed. Chapman’s job, he knew, was not to give us Homer, who exists nowhere but in the original Greek. Not that Chapman was writing an autonomous poem in English, ontologically independent of Homer’s. But neither did he produce a crib, and much of what is good in Chapman’s translation can be understood as distinct from what it strictly owes to Homer. An original energy crackles in the relation between Chapman’s English and the Greek on which it draws. In particular, Keats seems to have been responding to Chapman’s sweeping Elizabethan truculence and vigor, as against the refinement and relative tidiness of Pope’s Iliad, the more recent and then-dominant version. A translation can hardly be expected to give the original, but a great translation can give much else, and Keats’s sonnet shows he knew the difference, and knew how gratefully to receive the gifts that Chapman had to give.
To see the translator as an artist, and to take his translation on its own terms as a work of art: Keats’s attitude was not exceptional. For generations of English poets, especially during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, translation from the Classics had been integral to their art, and included some of the summits of English literature: Golding’s Ovid, Dryden’s Virgil, Pope’s Horace. And Pope’s Iliad where, in one passage, Achilles is found vowing allegiance to his beloved Patroclus, lately slaughtered:
If, in the melancholy shades below,
The Flames of Friends and Lovers never ceased to glow,
Yet mine shall sacred last; mine, undecay’d
Burn on through death, and animate my shade.
Ardent verses, but all that burning comes from Pope, not Homer, who had written simply that even if, in Hades, the dead are forgotten, he will still remember his comrade there. Of Pope’s thirty-one words, only seven have warrant in the Greek. Yet Pope’s invention is not irresponsible. He is looking beyond Homer’s words into the soul of Achilles and finding there a fiery intensity that is present in Homer’s characterization but latent in his language. Much of the power of these lines is original to Pope. There’s the rhythm of the words, including the eruption of that long hexameter line (at one with Achilles’ longing for prolongation). There’s the arrangement of antitheses neatly around caesuras, so characteristic of Pope, and so unlike Homer. And there’s a ruefulness in the way Pope rhymes “undecay’d” with “shade,” two words which resist being brought together, and so making Achilles’ grief even more poignant. Pope is writing as a translator and a poet at once. He is writing a poem which has a profound relationship to Homer’s, and much of what is great in the Iliad comes through. What most comes through, though, is Pope’s voice and style and often his substance, all of which demand attention in their own right. That’s the view of translation that Keats was voicing in praising the Homeric translation that most deeply spoke to him. That’s why it was “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer,” instead of “Homer (tr. Chapman).”
Keats wrote his sonnet in 1816, but by then notions about the purpose of translation from the Classics were already beginning to shift. It’s not that Classical culture was disappearing. Latin and Greek remained at the center of the school curriculum—even the Greekless Keats had Latin, and instruction in both languages boomed during the nineteenth century. Instead, the relationship between the Classics and the business of creating English poetry was altering subtly. Great poets, for example, were no longer turning to translation as an integral part of their work. In the 1820s, Wordsworth Englished a fraction of the Aeneid, but aside from that abortive attempt, what major Romantic or Victorian poet can show a great translation to set beside Dryden’s Virgil or Chapman’s Homer? I can’t think of a single example of a major poet translating a Classical author in that high creative mode that Keats so admired in Chapman. The poets of the nineteenth century let that tradition slide.
Into the breach stepped a different breed of translator, producing a very different kind of translation. “The time appears to have gone by,” reported an Oxford classicist in 1861, “when men of great original gifts could find satisfaction in reproducing the thoughts and words of others, and the work, if done at all, must now be done by writers of inferior pretension.” That was John Conington, the most famous of Victorian translators, whose Virgil and Horace were the standard versions of his time. By “writers of inferior pretension” he meant people like himself, scholars most often but also amateurs, whose aim ceased to be to produce translations as works of art. Instead the new goal was accuracy. Not the accuracy of feeling, tone, structure and nuance that art requires, but the accuracy of the schoolmaster. One of this new breed, an Oxford scholar who in 1854 had translated Virgil, stressed the importance of preserving “the strictest grammatical accuracy in the translation of Classical poets.” And, in 1883, a certain A. H. Palmer, in a preface, felt bound to apologize for his father’s lovely versions of Virgil’s Eclogues as having “no pretension to the scholarly accuracy of the present day.”
That revolution in our notion of a translator’s work has altered both the course of English literature and the place of the Classics in our culture. I can point to two concrete effects. First, readers are now far less critical in their engagement with translations from the Classics. Translators, publishers, and reviewers alike, in making claims for a translator’s accuracy or transparency, have led us to assume that we are “getting,” say, Homer. But we’re not. We’re getting (say) Richmond Lattimore or Robert Fitzgerald or Robert Fagles, Americans writing a book in English, and each writer very different from the others. Readers of Classical translation today most often lack what Keats had: an awareness of the particular qualities of a translation itself, of whatever (good or bad) the translator adds to whatever of Homer has managed to come through.
A second effect has been a diminishment in the ambition of translations. The new expectation that the job of a translator is to adhere to scholarly accuracy, to become invisible to his readers, has stunted the growth of one of our literature’s fruitful boughs. The market—and it is now, as we will presently see, largely a classroom-driven market—demands a narrow sort of fidelity that would be hostile to a Chapman or a Pope. If Homer (to stick with that example) is to have a living place in the literature of the English-speaking world, as opposed to merely in the academy, he must have translators of superior original gifts, poets who can give us versions capable of inspiring readers, including poets, as Chapman had inspired Keats. But translators of the Classics now rarely speak out loud and strong.
I have been leading to this point: that for the sake of English literature and for the future of the Classics in our culture, we need critics who will attend closely to the literary character of translations from the Classics. Fortunately there has been such a critic, and a great one.
D. S. Carne-Ross, who died in early 2010, was a frequent contributor to these pages. George Steiner called him one of the great readers of literature in modern history—Steiner put him on a list that included Montaigne, Coleridge, Heidegger, Nabokov, and Empson. He was also a superb prose stylist. His criticism ranges over many topics, and both in and (crucially) between many languages, especially Greek, Latin, and Italian. But he had a particular interest in the kinds of illumination that could occur when a writer of great gifts brought Greek or Latin over into a modern language. In essay after essay published over the course of four decades, he submitted contemporary translations to the test of his extraordinarily sensitive ear, assaying their value not just as serviceable cribs for the Latinless or Greekless, but for whatever creative and enlightening relations the translations created between themselves and the original. A selection of these essays has now been gathered into a single volume and edited (with some judicious splicing) by Kenneth Haynes, who calls Carne-Ross, without exaggeration, “the finest critic of Classical literature in English translation since Matthew Arnold.”
Carne-Ross was not, like Arnold, a poet, but he fought in the corner of the poet whenever poet-translators came under attack from academics on the grounds of some narrow notion of linguistic accuracy. That attitude pervades these essays and is expressed in a hundred variations. He had a great respect for scholarship. But he also knew the limits of scholarship: its business is “with those many and complex questions which only an exact scholarship can handle.” It cannot by itself handle the nuances of literary translation, which call for the related but distinct gifts of poetry and critical judgment. Yet poetry must take into account other standards of accuracy no less stringent than the scholar’s. “If we are looking for a faithful account of the letter of the original, we should use a crib, not a translation,” he writes. “The accuracy of a translation is of a very different kind.” Scholarship may be the “approved highway” into our understanding of the ancient Classics, but there are also “unlicensed byways.” The poet-translator’s inventions are not “licenses, they are necessary freedoms,” and they must be held to demanding standards—not the schoolman’s literal linguistic equivalence, but a no less daunting standard: they must be “dictated by insight into the original.”
This could amount to serious critical insight: “Our poets and translators can reveal qualities in the Latin Master”—he was speaking of Horace—“that expert Latinists seem often to miss.” Even a poet with little Classical training, but with acute linguistic instincts, may produce an insightful translation, given a proper crib and a chance to get a feel for the original by “nosing around the Greek on his own . . . poets pick up a good deal this way.” And so on. Carne-Ross never lost faith, as the nineteenth century had done, in the ideal of the poet-translator. He approached each new translation from the Classics in the hope that he might find not just an “accurate” translation, but a contribution to, and enrichment of, English literature—that special and neglected branch of English literature that is both translation and great English poetry.
It is for that reason especially sad that one of Carne-Ross’s signal contributions to our understanding of English literature was to identify, and to anatomize with forensic accuracy, a cruel new twist in the history of literary translation from the Classics. He didn’t give it a name, but it might be called “The Classroom Turn.” In the nineteenth century, great poets had mostly deserted the literary translation, and scholars moved in to fill the gap. In postwar America a further development occurred: university students supplanted the general literary reader as the main readers of Classical literature, with great consequences to the art of translation and place of Classics in our culture. When Chapman and other poet-translators spoke out loud and strong, it had been to reach lovers of poetry. But, Carne-Ross notes,
the situation is different today. Translation of classical poetry is for the most part not directed to the lover of poetry or even to the general reader but to the classroom, where it is taught by people who probably do not know Greek and Latin and want to be sure that the version they are using closely follows the original.
Classics are now read chiefly in English by American undergraduates in compulsory world literature surveys. (Recently a classicist from UC-Davis has noted that because of such students, Homer has had, in the last seventy years in the United States, more readers than in the whole world in all previous eras combined.) Carne-Ross is probably right to hint at a distinction between lovers of poetry and general readers on the one hand, and students slogging away on the forced march of World Lit 101 on the other. But his crucial insight lies in detecting the anxiety of the professors saddled with such courses, teachers who, because they don’t know the originals, have tended to demand safe, more nearly literal, translations. This helps Carne-Ross to account for the spate of depressingly flat and lifeless mid-twentieth-century translations.
Chief among them was Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad, which quickly became the standard Homer on American campuses and, though it must now compete with later translations, is still widely used in the classroom. As such Lattimore’s Homer is, for a great many readers, their chief experience of what it must be like to read our culture’s greatest poet. Carne-Ross thought Lattimore’s dedication to literal, word-for-word accuracy—the very quality for which the translation is ordinarily praised—had produced a perverse and unreadable distortion of Homer. He was right. Lattimore’s Iliad is tone-deaf and often unclear, and Carne-Ross, in various reviews and articles, challenged the fashion of praising Lattimore.
But Carne-Ross could also see, with great clarity, a larger point—the reason why such an undistinguished translation was just what the age demanded:
The main reason for buying Lattimore’s translations has always been that you had to take—or teach—a survey of Greek or world literature. They came at exactly the right time, a time when Greek literature, read in translation, was starting to play an important part in undergraduate education all over the country. Since the instructors for the most part knew nothing of the ancient world, the need was for translations of certified philological accuracy.
So university classrooms have helped to create a market which encourages crudely literal notions of accuracy. Bad enough, but there’s more—such translations must be leveled to suit, and so to perpetuate, the increasing insensitivity and ignorance not only of students, but of their teachers:
And these translations had to be written in the kind of undemanding English that ordinary students could understand. Whatever its merits or demerits, the Lang, Leaf, and Meyers Iliad, with its pseudobiblical diction, is no use to those who have never read the Authorized Version. A poetic translation like Pope’s (or like Christopher Logue’s) is equally useless, since it demands both of instructor and instructed a knowledge of English and Greek. . . . To the critic who knew no Greek, and yet needed to discuss a passage of Greek verse, Lattimore’s translations were invaluable. Their neutral diction and avoidance of personal idiom and of the English poetic tradition in general allowed him to pretend that he was talking about the original.
If such a critic had been using a translation such as Pope’s, or the twentieth-century poet-translator Robert Fitzgerald’s, “he would have been forced to admit that he was dealing with an English poem that demanded attention in its own right.”
From these conditions emerges “something new” in the history of translation: neither an honorable straightforward crib, nor a creative version, but one which avoids the virtues of either,
a kind of translation that kept close to the original (raising no awkward questions like “Is this in the Greek?”), that reduced the intervention of the translator’s personal style and interpretation to the minimum, was neither too stiffly traditional nor too brashly modernist. It was essentially a new kind of translation.
And here we brace for the bitter conclusion: the sad diminution of the status of translation, which has helped to drive the Classics from the center to the margins of our culture—
a new kind of translation directed neither to the cultivated reader who wanted to see the great original caught in the contrived distortions of an English mirror, nor to the more general reader who thought it might be fun to take a look at Homer. It was directed to a classroom of students and their instructor who had to meet for an hour on mwf to study Greek Lit.
The rueful accent is an echo of Ezra Pound: “The lecturer is a man who must talk for an hour.”
The lucidity in Carne-Ross’s analysis of the causes of this latest revolution is as thrilling as his conclusion is grim. And yet grimness is not the prevailing tone of the essays. There is gaiety transforming all that dread. One reason is that Carne-Ross was one of the last century’s great close readers, and his gift for bringing to light the subtle beauties of language brightens every other page of this book. With an ear extraordinarily attuned to the minutest verbal echo, he does for literary translation what Christopher Ricks might have done had he read Latin and Greek.
He notices, for instance, when Robert Fitzgerald, translating the Odyssey, deviates felicitously from the Greek. Odysseus is visiting the underworld, where he comes face to face with the departed spirit of his old rival, Ajax. Fitzgerald wrote: “Aîas, it was—the great shade burning still.” Homer had written simply “the spirit of Ajax,” so why Fitzgerald’s interpolation, “great shade burning”? Carne-Ross hears behind those words not Homer but Virgil who, centuries after Homer, had sent his own hero Aeneas to the underworld, where he encountered, uncomfortably, the spirit of his estranged lover Dido. Virgil describes her as ardentem et torva tuentem, “burning and glaring savagely.” A narrowly scholastic view of translation would castigate Fitzgerald’s Virgilian interpolation, but Carne-Ross’s justification is masterly:
Fitzgerald lets the Latin speak through the Greek because his vision is synoptic; he knows that the Odyssey is part of a larger whole in which the poems of Virgil and Milton and the other great poets of our tradition have a simultaneous existence (to borrow words from Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent”).He does what Pope does when, translating the Iliad, he lets Milton’s “High on the throne of Royal State . . . Satan exalted sat” speak through his English Homer: “High in the midst the great Achilles stands,” “High o’er the Host, all terrible he stands.”
Fitzgerald’s departure from literal accuracy brings his translation into expressive relationship with the whole epic tradition in Greek, Latin, and English, and makes his translation resonate through time. This is what Carne-Ross meant when he wrote that a translator’s liberties must be dictated by insight into the original. Carne-Ross’s critical insight is no less remarkable.
Elsewhere in the Odyssey, Calypso, in elegantly ceremonious Greek, asks Hermes why he has come to see her: “Tell me please, Hermes of the golden wand, why have you come?” It’s that Homeric epithet, “Hermes of the golden wand,” that Carne-Ross seizes upon. In Greek it is a single word, chrysorrapis, literally, “gold-wanded.” How, he wonders, is this to be done in English? In his translation, Robert Fagles had written, “God of the golden wand, why have you come?” Perfectly accurate: one would think that would do. But Carne-Ross is troubled; here is an instance when a linguistically faithful translation is, in a wider sense, less than faithful. It is not “a convincing form of address; neither in real life nor in a novel can someone say, ‘Man in the black mask, what are you doing in my house?’” But Carne-Ross catches a stroke of genius in Fitzgerald’s rendering of the same line: “O Hermês, ever with your golden wand,/ what brings you to my island?”:
Fitzgerald solves the problem by making a point of it. He hears a coquettish half-mocking note in Calypso’s voice as though she were saying, “I see you have brought your golden wand with you. You never leave home without it, do you?”
It is one thing for Carne-Ross to detect, in that slight difference between the two translations, the psychological subtlety of Fitzgerald’s version. But there is something more: Carne-Ross is indicating, though implicitly, how an English poet-translator can teach us to read Greek with fresh eyes. Once you have seen what Carne-Ross saw in Fitzgerald’s rendering of chrysorrapis, you can never discount those Homeric compound epithets as cloying formulaic repetitions. They have great powers of characterization and nuance, and Carne-Ross sees that a translator of original powers could register an insight into the Greek that a professional scholar might miss.
Those are lexical subtleties; when it comes to metrical subtleties, no reader of contemporary translations from the Classics has been so attentive as Carne-Ross. His attention matters, not just for the field of translation, or for the Classics, but for poetry in general. During the twentieth century, for the first time in at least five hundred years, the general reader’s capacity to hear and appreciate poetic meter evaporated. Metrical illiteracy has extended to poets themselves: there are now any number of well-known, garlanded poets who, whatever else they may have achieved, could not write, on pain of death, fourteen lines of convincing blank verse, let alone any other more intricate measure. Since Classical verse is always formal, any verse translation of a Greek or Latin poem which does not evince at least rhythmic competence, let alone subtlety, not only fails on its own terms, but also contributes to the general deterioration of metrical sensibility by suggesting that the foundational works of Western literature are as rhythmically inert as the mediocre poetry of the present.
So when Richmond Lattimore, writing in a lax six-beat approximation of Homer’s dactylic hexameters, gives us this formulaic line from the Odyssey—“and sitting well in order dashed the oars in the grey sea”—Carne-Ross pounces. Once again, he can hear another, later, poet behind the Greek: Tennyson in his “Ulysses”: “Push off, and sitting well in order smite/ The sounding furrows.” But where Fitzgerald in his Odyssey had echoed Virgil with a sure critical touch, Lattimore, in alluding to Tennyson, finds himself out of his depth:
What happens is that Tennyson’s strongly marked rhythm invades the indeterminate rhythm of Lattimore’s “free six-beat line,” with the metrically disastrous result that we are bound to read his first eight words as a piece of conventional blank verse (and sítting wéll in órder dáshed the oárs), which leaves the last four words dangling in an arhythmic limbo and so destroys the meter of the whole line.
How many readers of Homer in contemporary translation are aware that the Odyssey is a poem at all, let alone notice that Lattimore’s rhythm in this line goes wobbly at the end, and so travesties the Tennyson it haplessly echoes? But the Odyssey is a poem, and its translators should have a poet’s sure touch. Carne-Ross, almost uniquely among critics, took stock of the rhythm and meters of twentieth-century translations from the Classics, with a degree of scrutiny that few of them deserved.
The way that those close readings of Fitzgerald and Lattimore involve filiations to Milton and Pope and Tennyson demonstrates another principle which, though Carne-Ross never theorizes it, is strongly implied over the course of several essays: to study literary translations of the Classics is to cast light also on English poetry. When, for instance, Carne-Ross looks into Robert Lowell’s translation (a disappointing one, as it turns out) of Aeschylus’s Oresteia, he is led to consider stylistic and syntactic parallels between the Agamemnon and “The Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.” He might put it like this: if you have no Greek, but want to know something of what it is like to venture on the violent syntactic dislocations and shocking images of Aeschylus, you might do better to read Lord Weary’s Castle than an “accurate” but linguistically inert modern translation of the Oresteia. Lowell clarifies Aeschylus, and Aeschylus casts light on Lowell. Readers of Classics and Translation will understandably learn a great deal about translations and the Classics, but they may be surprised how much they also learn about English literature, past and contemporary, including Browning, Swinburne, Hopkins, Pound, H. D., Auden, Larkin, and many others whose original poetry influences, or is influenced by, literary translation from the Classics. The branches of English poetry literary translation are elaborately intertwined, far more than is ordinarily acknowledged: “A translation must stand in a responsible relation not only to its original but also to the literary situation of the translator’s own day.”
The strangeness of Hopkins’s poetry—“the way Hopkins wrenches words out of their usual relationships, fusing them into new torrential units of speech, locking them into almost asyntactic confrontations where they explode into meaning”—reminds Carne-Ross of similar qualities in the great, but in our culture mostly neglected, Greek poet Pindar. A quarter of a century ago, Carne-Ross published a fine book on Pindar, patiently laying out the case through a series of sensitive readings of selected odes why “an incurious world” ought to take more interest in so superb a poet. English poets such as Hopkins and Pound, he argued then, can prepare our sensibilities to receive such gifts. This sort of attitude toward the relationship of English and ancient literature finds its boldest expression in the present volume in an essay on the challenges of translating Pindar. He wishes that Pindar were “a force in English poetry,” in the same way that (say) Sappho and Catullus and Virgil and Ovid have shaped our own literature. But (and here comes one of Carne-Ross’s most penetrating and provocative thoughts) until Pindar “becomes a force in English poetry, we cannot really read him in Greek.”
This is a big claim, since it comes nothing short of saying that no good critical apprehension of an ancient writer is possible until a modern writer has captured something of his style in English. So (for instance) the fact that we have great English receptions of Virgil—not only a great translation, such as Dryden’s, but great poetry inspired by Virgil, such as Paradise Lost—means that we can bring to the original Latin critical sensibilities which have been trained and made receptive by immersion in the Virgilian energies of Dryden and Milton. A further implication is that it is unreasonable to expect satisfactory criticism of ancient poetry from any one, however learned, who has not entered into a rich and imaginative apprehension of the poetry of his own native language.
A great translation of Pindar in English—there are adequate cribs aplenty, but no translations of original force—would enrich the sensibilities of those who read Pindar’s Greek, and increase their receptivity to his powers. Hopkins showed that “Greek and English could be brought into close critical relation.” A sensitive, genuinely original translation of Pindar, capable of nourishing Pindaric scholarship and Pindar’s position in modern literary culture, could in turn nourish the creation of English poetry. Hopkins himself, Carne-Ross argues, could provide a perceptive poet-translator with a way into Pindar, and “the English-speaking reader, more than any other, with his immediate access to the only body of poetry in the West that can compare with Greek, should not hesitate to use his native literary experience to help him get at Greek poetry.” No critic has revealed how close and how mutually reinforcing is the nexus of the Classics, English poetry, and translation. But note that the gap between us and the Classics cannot be leapt by just any kind of translation—it must involve the force of poetry: “For different in so many ways as the Greek and English poetic traditions are, there is a lingua franca of poetry which unites them.” And Carne-Ross, almost alone among critics, has taught us to read contemporary translations with the attention we would give to great poetry.
There is one last way in which Carne-Ross stands apart from other critics of literary translation. He nurtured not only the study of English translation from the Classics, but also the practice of it. It was Carne-Ross who first persuaded Christopher Logue to try his hand at translating the Iliad, and supplied him with trots, transliterations, and advice about how to understand Homer’s Greek. Forty years on, Logue’s Homer is now widely regarded as the most important version of the Iliad since Pope’s, and has taken on the status of an English classic in its own right. (One of the finest essays in the collection is Carne-Ross’s study of Logue’s art.) It was Carne-Ross, too, who set David Ferry to work at translating Latin poetry. Ferry’s verse translations from Virgil are notable, and his versions of Horace’s Odes are a major achievement and have played a large role in a recent revival of interest in Horace among English-speaking poets. (“There is always something missing from the poetry of an age when Horace is missing,” Carne-Ross wrote.) Beyond those two examples, Carne-Ross has instigated or abetted many other important translations of our time. Many of the essays in Classics and Translation reveal this aspect of his work: his interest not only in what has already been written, but in what may yet be written. At the end of the volume’s magnificent opening essay, in which Carne-Ross points out a variety of Greek and Latin syntactical and metrical effects of which an innovative English poet might make use, he advances the hope that some adventurous poet or poet-translator will take up the challenge. And on the final page of the volume, after an enormously engaging survey of the ways in which translations from Horace have interacted with the development of poetry in English, Carne-Ross holds out the hope, if not the confidence, that future poets and translators will be led by Horace’s example to write a more syntactically adventurous kind of English than poets and translators have typically dared.
The essays in Classics and Translation, taken together, are the best critical account of the ways that English poetry, literary translation, and the ancient languages function in a mutually enriching interdependency. Readers of the book will come away with rich new perspectives not only on Greek and Latin, and not only on translation, but also, and perhaps especially, on English literature. If nobody studies Greek and Latin anymore, that is precisely why Carne-Ross’s criticism is more important now than ever. The Classics still speak to us urgently, and if we are to hear them—if they are to continue to inspire new literature in English—then they must speak to us through translators who are also poets, with clear strong English voices of their own. The critic who best leads us to hear such voices is D. S. Carne-Ross.