Tuesday, December 06, 2005

A note on translation

I have the utmost respect for the work of A.S.F. Gow and A.F. Scholfield, but I always find myself feeling that their translation does a grave disservice to Nicander, especially for those who don't have the Greek or the time (or the inclination) to work through the Greek.

Here's just one example, and not the most egregious, of a style of translation that aims at 'meaning' (which is subjective) while ignoring the manner of expression. It's the introduction to Nicander's extensive catalogue of snakes, following the recipes for various repellents including incense and balms for the skin (Theriaca 115-120):

Εἰ δέ που ἐν δακέεσσιν ἀφαρμάκτῳ χροῒ κύρσῃς
ἄκμηνος σίτων, ὅτε δὴ κακὸν ἄνδρας ἰάπτει,
αἶψά κεν ἡμετέρῃσιν ἐρωήσειας ἐφετμαῖς.
τῶν ἤτοι θήλεια παλίγκοτος ἀντομένοισι
δάχματι, πλειοτέρη δὲ καὶ ὁλκαίην ἐπὶ σειρήν·
τοὔνεκα καὶ θανάτοιο θοώτερος ἵξεται αἶσα.

But if you should chance to come upon biting creatures when your skin is unmedicated and you are fasting--that is the time when disaster strikes a man--you may readily save yourself by our precepts. It is the Female Snake that attacks with its bite those who encounter it; besides, it is thicker right down to the trailing tail, and for that reason the doom of death will come more swiftly.

But this is what it says:

But if by chance, with flesh unanointed, you meet with noxious beasts, having gone long without food (that's when evil harms men!), forthwith could you rush forth by our commands.

Now, of these the female is doubly wrathful to those who meet with her bite, and she is more full even in her trailing cord (i.e., tail). And for this reason destiny shall come as a rather swift sort of death.

One of the keys to Nicander's poetic imagery is readily evident: going without food. Most everyone takes this to mean 'fasting.' Jean-Marie Jacques in his Budé edition makes an effort to explain why it's worse to be bitten on an empty stomach, but even if this is a legitimate point it ignores the poetic function. Compare Iliad 19.163 with the same phrase in the same sedes (with gen. sg.; N. has pl.). Odysseus is beseeching Achilles to allow the Achaeans to eat before battle, and argues that no man, no matter how up to the fight, has the strength to go on at the end of the day without food.

The image is then one of battle, and Nicander wants us to read the lines in this way, with the addressee as the weary soldier at the behest of his commander. He's too weak on his own, but there's hope for a fighting chance in the special knowledge which Nicander has to impart. The imagery is maintained (e.g., ἄντομαι is common of meeting in battle).

The problem with the Gow-Scholfield translation is that it obscures what's poetic in Nicander in pursuit of clarifying what is supposed to be 'scientific' or 'substantive.'

Another problem, though, is that inattentiveness to the stylistic effects has also obscured some interesting stuff in the syntax. Among these is the masculine adjective θοώτερος seemingly agreeing with αἶσα. Jacques explains this as syllepsis because θανάτοιο αἶσα = θάνατος. But cf. also Smyth 1050 where a predicate adjective in the superlative often agrees with a dependent genitive. It's a small step to the comparative.

I don't pretend to have given an elegant translation. It was was written on the spot for the purpose of this post. But I think it's important to retain the imagery and spirit of verse, and to use the vocabulary of verse, which is a different thing from that of prose though the lines are often blurred today. I think in reading the two my version seems more lively and stylized, has the feeling of interested instruction and genuine threat. At the very least it seems more like the Greek to me than the other.

But now I must needs eat some pasta lest I fall upon a nest of vipers undernourished!

No comments: