Skip to content

Mitchell’s Helen, Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, My Iliad

December 7, 2011

Was I too hard on Stephen Mitchell when saying (in scare quotes) that he has “translated” the Iliad?  You know, he’s lopped out from the Greek epic what he felt is unnecessary, and he’s made his own Helen call herself by the word, bitch.  (What Homer said Helen said was κυνῶπα, or κυν ῶπα /kun opɑ/, or something like, “dog eyed.”)  Was Theophrastus too harsh when “dismissing” Mitchell’s sample version of Iliad as “horrible”?  Was Craig wrong to judge it to be “clunky and decidedly unpoetic”?   (Their statements are in comments here.)  Was translator Herbert Jordan justified in asking the following of Mitchell’s method of translating:  “Isn’t this … at minimum a sham claim of ‘translation’”?  (Jordan asks here.)

I confess I feel a little bad making and perhaps fostering so much criticism.  Let me show you my own translation, then, and open myself to judgment, your judgment please, and even judgment from Mitchell himself if he cares.  (I’ll give my translation of Homer’s Iliad, just the bit, below.)

But first, let me grapple with judgment a bit more.  In an email, translation practitioner and theoretician and professor, David Bellos, wrote to me, and rather pointedly:

I’m delighted that you and other contributors to the BLT blog have read my book—and read it very attentively!

But I have to insist: I am a translator and a teacher, not a guru or high priest. I don’t issue fatwas either.

In fact, one of my strongest wishes in writing Is That a Fish in Your Ear?  was to move “translation studies” away from always dubious judgments about “which translation is better” or which translator should be put in the stocks or have nails stuck into his effigy. I’ve tried to show that there is another way of doing translation studies that is much more interesting than the sniping that is such a large part of the  tradition of translation commentary. See my chapter 30!

Well, I did go back to read Bellos’ chapter 30, and saw his wonderful statement again:  “A translation is more like a portrait in oils.”  I’ve thought about that a long time.  This notion of Bellos reminded me of Adele Berlin’s wonderful statement:  “Above all we must keep in mind that narrative is a form of representation. Abraham in Genesis is not a real person any more than the painting of an apple is real fruit.”  (And I really do think of Bible translation as a painting, as re-presentation, as something that needs to be judged very, very carefully, if it can be appreciated for its creativity as well as for its messages.)  Now, I am glad David Bellos doesn’t issue fatwas.  But I’m also glad, reading his book, to see that he can be critical nonetheless.  I think evaluation is important, and I think the judgment that Bellos makes is right.

In my email reply, I had to ask Bellos about his judgement of one certain translation as “not better.”  In his chapter 12, for example, he writes how Vladimir Nabokov had attempted to translate a few “stanzas of Onegin into English verse in the 1950s” but how he nevertheless just gave up.  Bellos certainly didn’t wish for Nabokov to translate Alexandr Pushkin’s verse into English verse in any which awful way.  And Bellos actually does not evaluate Nabokov’s verse translation of bits of Eugene Onegin.  What Bellos is rightly critical of is Nabokov’s eventual method by which he tries to show (unsuccessfully) that translation, especially verse translation, is full of “mathematical impossibilities.”  Nabokov then produces what Bellos also rightly calls a “pseudo-literal translation” of Puskin’s novel.  Here are two other phrases Bellos uses to judge Nabokov’s would be “portrait in oils”:   first, “Nabokov’s own nonrhyming translation of Pushkin’s novel” (benignly descriptive enough); but second, “Nabakov’s appropriation of it through his inflated peritext.”  Clearly, in Bellos’ view, Nabokov’s translation is hardly a good re-presentation of Pushkin’s original.

So, using Bellos’ analogy of translation being like a portrait, I want now to consider Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa.  (And then I’ll let you take a more critical look at my translation of Homer’s Iliad.)  I saw the portrait when I visited the Louvre and must say there are many dimensions to consider before one would attempt to re-paint, or even to photograph (if that were allowed), what da Vinci painted.  What is he “saying” to us onlookers?  What is the “message” she tells us?  How might we re-mediate that so that viewers could understand?  Maybe we want to emphasize the very clear fact that she is smiling.  Mad Magazine has done this in several ways:

And here’s a 3-D painting in legos.  Look at that smile:

Clearly, what we can see is that not all of the Mona Lisa background and even not all from the painted face is necessary!  Like Stephen Mitchell’s truncation of Homer’s Iliad (not all brushstokes are necessary), we can truncate Mona just to capture and to convey that most important message of her smile:

Who says Leonardo intended those eyes of hers to be important?  What does one Professor Florein Hustler care?

And what should we care about Helen?  Why not make her a bitch rather than Homer’s dog-eyed woman?  Is what Homer wrote, and how he painted her, really all that important to our message?

I think Homer’s Greek really is important, that he wrote in verse.  So I tried to translate in English verse.  Now, obviously his Greek particles (the ones that stand out to me as I have them below, in red font) seem to me to be important brush strokes.   And I’ve imposed, using them, a bit of paragraphing, some formatting of the written Greek to emphasize, perhaps, the sung and spoken pauses.   But I’m stuck with a different language (English) and will try to follow what I can in a variant verse.  You’ll see how I use double-rhymed fourteeners to form stanzas.  And obviously, there’s lexical and phonological wordplay (some of which Craig noticed when reading Homer for the first time, all of which I mark below in blue font, not much of which I match with English).  What I’m really hoping to match as much as I can is how Homer’s verse builds the tension until, rising out of Helen, she exposes Aphrodite and her ploys.  Please, you be the judge.  Without further ado, this bit of Homer’s Iliad and my translation:

……………………………..τὸν δ᾽ ἐξήρπαξ᾽ Ἀφροδίτη
ῥεῖα μάλ᾽ ὥς τε θεός, ἐκάλυψε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἠέρι πολλῇ,
κὰδ δ᾽ εἷσ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ εὐώδεϊ κηώεντι.

αὐτὴ δ᾽ αὖ Ἑλένην καλέουσ᾽ ἴε: τὴν δὲ κίχανε
πύργῳ ἐφ᾽ ὑψηλῷ, περὶ δὲ Τρῳαὶ ἅλις ἦσαν:
χειρὶ δὲ νεκταρέου ἑανοῦ ἐτίναξε λαβοῦσα,

γρηῒ δέ μιν ἐϊκυῖα παλαιγενέϊ προσέειπεν
εἰροκόμῳ, ἥ οἱ Λακεδαίμονι ναιετοώσῃ
ἤσκειν εἴρια καλά, μάλιστα δέ μιν φιλέεσκε:
τῇ μινεισαμένη προσεφώνεε δῖ᾽ Ἀφροδίτη:

‘δεῦρ᾽ ἴθ᾽: Ἀλέξανδρός σε καλεῖ οἶκον δὲ νέεσθαι.
κεῖνος ὅ γ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ καὶ δινωτοῖσι λέχεσσι
κάλλεΐ τε στίλβων καὶ εἵμασιν: οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἀνδρὶ μαχεσσάμενον τόν γ᾽ ἐλθεῖν, ἀλλὰ χορὸν δὲ
ἔρχεσθ᾽, ἠὲ χοροῖο νέον λήγοντα καθίζειν.

ὣς φάτο, τῇ δ᾽ ἄρα θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ὄρινε:
καί ῥ᾽ ὡς οὖν ἐνόησε θεᾶς περικαλλέα δειρὴν
στήθεά θ ἱμερόεντα καὶμματα μαρμαίροντα,
θάμβησέν τ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔπειτα ἔπος τ ἔφατ᾽ κ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζε:

δαιμονίη, τί με ταῦτα λιλαίεαι ἠπεροπεύειν;


…………………….She snatched him Aphrodite did
So easy for a god; up in the stratosphere she hid
Him past the esplanade, where in the deep, the smells are sweet.

Then Helen she did call. She leaves and finds her, stays discrete,
There, at the tower ball, surrounded there by Trojanettes.
She grabs with hand her gown, and shakes ’til she her notice gets.

A hag, she seems, worn down, quite old, and aged when she talks.
A weaver of the wool, she seems, from Deity-Towne-Squawkes.
Renowned for spinning wool, she is, that one beloved dear,
Or so she seemed to her, until, spoke Aprodite clear:

Come: Alexandros stirs; you’ll see, to home he’s calling you.
He’s in the deep he is, in bed, round, beautiful, in view,
Those shiny covers his. You should not call him “man of war”
But “dancer boy” instead. He seems no member of the corps;
Since to the dance he’s fled, or quit, just sitting on the stage.

So she to her thus spoke. Then rises, in her bosom, rage,
This rising her awoke: a god is She, in beauty’s skin,
With bosom’s sure allure, with eye appeal, shines from within,
A startling couture. Then rising from her comes The Name:

O Deity, O Demoness, Why me for Thy charm’d game?!

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 7, 2011 7:42 pm

    It is true that Nabokov’s Pushkin leaves much to be desired (although I have met Russian specialists who are fans of it).

    But Nabokov’s detailed commentary is extremely useful!

  2. December 7, 2011 8:38 pm

    A Google Books search of Mitchell’s Iliad reveals at least 8 times he uses the word “bitch.” None of them seem to refer to the literal meaning of a female canine —

    * Helen says “bitch that I am”, (3:168), (6:349), (6:364)

    * Zeus calls Hera an “insolent bitch” (8:436) and a “treacherous bitch” (15:15)

    * Ares calls Athena “you nasty bitch” (21:372)

    * Achilles calls Hector “you son of a bitch” (22:253) and refers to Agamemnon as “the insolent son of a bitch” (9:373). (recall that Hector’s mother was Queen Hecuba and Agamemnon’s mother was Queen Aerope).

    I would suggest that “bitch” has lost all meaning in Mitchell’s work, and has become nothing more than a cliche. These examples do not show any type of concordance.

  3. John Radcliffe permalink
    December 8, 2011 1:53 pm

    So, Kurk, why “’til” instead of good old-fashioned “till”?
    After all (if the Oxford Dictionary of English can be believed), “till” was around before “until”.

  4. December 8, 2011 10:56 pm


    Bellos is right to complain about Nabokov’s assertions on translation. (Willis Barnstone similarly objects to Nabokov’s rantings.) It’s the false claims, not so much the brilliant analyses, that are the issue.

    We might say similar things of Mitchell, and maybe we already have. Thanks for showing his lack of concordance to Homer more particularly.

    By Ron Piccirillo’s claims, I am amused. He might have mentioned that the English notes of Leonardo that he quotes are from Ms. R. C. Bell. I’m disappointed that he didn’t quote da Vinci directly in the Italian. And he completely neglects the last bit of the fragment, which mentions virtue against envy in the shadows: “e prima fia il corpo seza l’obra che la viru sanza la invidia” / “and sooner will there be a body without a shadow than Virtue without Envy”. (What might that signify about Mona Lisa?)


    Right. I too trust the OED, but Homer got me needing “until” for my rhyme scheme (see the third stanza final line), so how could I for my one-syllable version (in the earlier second stanza final line) resort to “till”? And do you see how many apostrophe’d contractions are also in the Greek?

  5. John Radcliffe permalink
    December 9, 2011 9:44 am

    Fairy snuff

    I wasn’t complaining about contractions as such, I just wondered about one that seemed to be masquerading as another word with the same meaning. Now I see where you were coming from (or going to).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: