I’ve been reading a lot of Aeschylus lately, doing research, or something like that. Well, it started out as research, then, I got caught up in reading, as often happens. Then, I got caught up in how different translations can be.
Check this out. Here, I offer five translations of the same passage, each one equally lovely, each one equally amiss:
1. Trans. Ted Hughes
Chorus: A woman did all this. One woman.
They called her Helen–that was a prophecy.
Helen the Destroyer.
Not a name but a title.
The bride of the spear’s broad blade.
Helen the homicidal
That would possess nations.
Not a face or name but a poison
To send whole fleets to perdition
As if their captain were madmen–
Chewing and spitting her name–
Helen. The name Helen
Not so much a name as an earthquake
To bounce a city to burning rubble.
Not a name but a plague
Spreading scream by scream from city to city,
As houses become tombs.
2. Trans. David Slavitt
Chorus: The name of Helen fouls the mouth,
a curse. How did the fates arrange
that so uncanny cognomen
First Chorister: Helen, destroyer: Helenaus, destroyer of ships;
Heleptolis, destroyer of cities; Helandros,
destroyer of brave men.
Chorus: By such slight gestures does destiny
approach. We think there is nothing strange
or alarming, but it saunters up and then…
3. Trans. David Grene & Wendy Doniger O’Flaherty
Chorus: Who can have named her so,
with such truth, utterly?
Could it be someone we cannot see,
with foreknowledge of destiny,
that used his tongue in harmony with fortune?
She was called Helen,
the bride won by the spear, sought in strife.
Helen means death, and death indeed she was,
death to ships and men and city…
4. Trans. Anne Carson (note: I wanted to love this because it’s Anne Carson, but this ended up being my least favorite translation. This one section is ok and not necessarily indicative of how liberal Carson is with the original!)
Chorus: Who can have named her so perfectly?
What prophetic mind?
Who was it gave to that bride of blood, that
wife of strife, the name Helen? For the
woman is hell to ships, hell to men, hell to
5. trans. Wolfgang Peterson
You can see the commonalities between these translations. Ok, maybe not with the Troy clip, which is just funny. But seriously, certain words appear in the top four, sure, but these are completely different narratives. They tell different stories.
What do you think?