A Doggish Translation

Warden and Scholars of New College, Oxford/Bridgeman Images/©2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris
Etching by Georges Braque for an edition of Hesiod’s Theogony, commissioned by Ambroise Vollard, early 1930s

There seems to be an insatiable thirst in the contemporary Anglophone world for new translations of archaic Greek hexameter poetry. It is easy to see why the Homer market is booming. The Odyssey—a gripping, deeply human poem about identity, community, loss, cleverness and lies, gender inequality, wealth and poverty, migration, travel, colonization, mass murder, and cultural difference—has never felt more resonant than it does in 2017. The Iliad—a starker poem about human vulnerability, rage, pain, isolation, honor, and the thrilling, horrific effects of male aggression—feels more chillingly important on each rereading.

The near-contemporary poems by Hesiod, also the products of a long oral tradition and also composed around the eighth or seventh century BCE (although Barry Powell gives an earlier date), are less prominent in our culture. Perhaps the relative paucity of good, reader-friendly translations is partly to blame. There is a nonmetrical and fairly old but still-vibrant translation by Richmond Lattimore (1959) and experimental poetic versions by Daryl Hine (in hexameters, 2005) and by Catherine M. Schlegel and Henry Weinfield (in rhyming couplets, 2006). There is a nice free-verse version by Apostolos N. Athanassakis (1983) and another, in a more folksy register, by Stanley Lombardo (1993). There is also a prose translation by Martin West (1978) and another prose translation for the Loeb library, with facing Greek text, by Glenn Most (2007).

This may seem a large array of choices, but by Homeric standards, it is pitiful. There have been dozens of new translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey into English in the past few decades. I am particularly eager to read the new translation of Works and Days by the talented poet Alicia Stallings, which will appear in March. Until then, we have a new translation by Barry Powell.

There is no recent English Hesiod that fully captures the strange poetic qualities of the original, which would be a tall order. These poems are composed, like Homer’s, in a regular and rhythmical, highly artificial but also fluent and natural-sounding verse. But the tone and subject matter are quite different from the Homeric poems. Hesiod’s themes range from the mythical divine origins of the universe to the importance of not pissing facing the sun. These poems capture a wonderfully confusing rag-bag of popular cultural wisdom, drawn from wide and incompatible sources. This may make Hesiod sound like the ancient equivalent of a random Google search, but his poems are more artful and self-conscious than that. They express a deep yearning for social, ethical, cosmological, and poetic order, and at the same time a fundamental awareness of the randomness and frustrations of life, and of poetry itself.

There are many excellent reasons why nonspecialists might be…

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