THE LAST CLASSICIST
March 26, while what celebutant was going in or out of rehab was being reported in the media, perhaps the greatest translator of ancient classics passed away.
Translating is an art unto itself, the best translators being a sort of unsung heroes of literature. When done right, the translator's ego is completely suppressed and the work made readable without the original authors voice being obscured. Robert Fagles (1933-2008) had this most tricky art down pat.
The casual reader is turned off to reading the ancient classics by having been force fed some during the course of their scholastic career. Usually the initial turn off occurs, when not the teacher's fault then that of a bad translation; overly dry or ornate prose being the typical culprit.
James Joyce (1882-1941) said Homer's Ulysses was literature's first "real man." In this he was referring not in any he-man sense but in a complexity of motives and behavior. Ulysses, although the "hero" of Homer's two epics The Odyssey and The Iliad did not always act heroic, he could have ego, manipulate.
In reading Robert Fagles translations the appeal is immediate, the man comes through warts and all and is all the more compelling in this dualistic complexity.
There were and are other good translators of the ancient classics out there, but none could quite do it like him. All of Robert Fagles' translations posses a certain degree of immediacy, the here and now. Yet there is never any, overly, vernacular slip of the tongue. I am all for making the classics a living thing free of museum dust but I do not believe translating is the place to put one's politics or to change the intent of the original author. Ancient wars for current ones, Shakespeare set in the Jazz Age, Mozart's Marriage of Figaro occurring on a cruise ship are completely superfluous. I think part of the work's power is derived from catching a brief glimpse of the artist's age. Briefly let me see the destruction witnessed at the gates of Troy, the beauty of Calypso as she seduces, the scent of leather and flint as men clash in battle. With his translations they were highly readable without gimmick of temporal displacement and perhaps most important of all with out causing any emotional detachment.
Robert Fagles' use of rhythm was also an important aspect of what so distinguished him. He did not always go for the obvious rhyme schemes one expects after a few bad experiences with the ancient classics. His Aeneid, which took him ten years to complete and was his final work, is all told in the present tense as opposed to the typical past tense.
It has been put forth that Homer's two epics were lyrical poems professional story tellers would sing as an entertainment. Each character is always introduced with the same epitaphs. Some characters depending upon what part of the narrative they are in have several epitaphs. During some points when Ulysses is at his least heroic he is introduced with "the man of many schemes..." Aside from making it easier for the reciter to remember, it serves as a sort of short hand prologue to what they are doing or desire. As done by Robert Fagles this device serves to lend an air of motion to the overall feel of the stories and also serves to give the casual reader a better understanding of the characters and their world.
As much as the classics may seem irrelevant to some, within these stories are to be found sex, death, appetite. All that which we fear and pursue even still.
* first line of Robert Fagles translation of Aeneid. Traditionally it had been - "Of Arms and a man I sing..."
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