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Artist, Heather Oliver             

Procrustean Beds

Today fine drizzle is falling like mist (the Scots have a wonderful onomatopoetic term for this: smirr). And once again, as I contemplate one of my novels-in-progress – Shard Songs, part of which unfolds in the Bronze Age Mediterranean – I find myself thinking about specificities of culture and how languages convey nuances of their societies.

Much has been made of the first translation of the Odyssey in English by a woman. Yet what I’ve seen of Emily Wilson’s translation has left me ambivalent. I greatly appreciate the intent and am fully aware of this particular translation’s significance. Ditto for Caroline Alexander’s Iliad. But I’m not sure about the execution, which to me feels flabby and flat despite the reviewers’ enthusiasm about “uncovering hidden inequalities” (which are actually never glossed over in the original: the Odyssey is an uncomfortable read, especially for a woman).

All recent English translations of the Homeric epics I’ve seen (as far as I could tolerate reading them) diverge significantly from the original. That’s not unusual in poetry, especially between such disaparate eras and languages. Recasting an archaic poem in plain language so that it becomes as accessible to today’s audience as it was in its own era is a sound strategy; stripping it entirely of its patina (and flattening its terms and rhythms) is decidedly less optimal.

To give one example, translations of the Iliad that cast the first word as an exclamation lose me there and then. The word is a noun in accusative form, and casting it as an exclamation completely derails that crucial stanza. For poetry like this it’s important to be a scholar, but equally so to have a feel for language. Better yet to be a poet in one’s own right. I recall the gorgeous Elytis translation of Brecht’s The Good Woman of Szechuan – and how abysmally disappointed I was when I later read it in the original German (maybe Shakespeare does sound better in Klingon…). Elytis, of course, was a bard whereas Brecht deliberately used flat language as a distancing effect. So here’s my rendering of the opening of the Odyssey, with the Watson and Fagles equivalents for comparison.

Of the wily man tell me, goddess, who suffered
sore trials after he sacked the holy fortress of Troy:
he saw cities of many people and learned their minds,
and his spirit got wracked on the seas, as he struggled
to save his life and bring his companions home.

Emily Wilson’s version (2018):

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home.

And Robert Fagles’ (1996):

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.

Speaking of flattening, I recently saw someone rejoicing online that “Greek culture” (which one?) “completely normalized” gay relationships. Before we hasten to celebrate this, people must realize that most of these relationships were based on steep power differentials: a) a rigid dominance binary of active/penetrator versus passive/penetrated (as is the case in several contemporary cultures, in which only the latter is considered “homosexual”); b) a significant age/experience gap (an early-middle-aged erastes & a barely pubescent eromenos – the relationship was considered a rite of passage into manhood) and c) the firm assumption that women were not full humans, and existed primarily for labor and/or procreation.

Ironically the exceptions to the last were courtesans, heavily disempowered in other ways: inter alia they were not citizens, which meant they could be deported at whim. In this connection it’s pertinent that hetairos and hetaira had such different connotations in pre-Byzantine Hellenic: the masculine form meant an equal male companion; the feminine one, a geisha-like female professional entertainer who might get to wield significant – but always covert – power (Aspasia, Pericles’ celebrated companion, is the best-known example). James Davidson makes an additional point in his lucid, enlightening Courtesans and Fishcakes: the dominant partner was not interested in his companion’s pleasure. Sex was considered akin to eating; whether the food or the sexual vessel enjoyed the process was irrelevant.

Of course, there were (quasi-)equal gay relationships in classic-era Hellas: the Theban Hierós Lóchos, whose fierce warriors were pair-bonded lovers (though the pairs still adhered to the erastes/eromenos binary); Alexander and Hephaestion, though the descriptions (including the quips about Hephaestion’s triumphant thighs) make clear who held the upper hand – and, very oddly for one of his upbringing and milieu, Alexander’s marriage to Roxana was widely held to be the “lightning strike” kind of love-falling, especially as it conferred absolutely no political advantage; several of Sappho’s named flames – though her (male) peers granted her the dubious privilege that, as a woman, she could allow passion to overwhelm her.

This brings us to another cultural difference: it’s fairly well-known that, unlike English, classical Hellenic had several terms for “love” each with a significantly different connotation that persists, with some drift, in today’s spoken Greek. “Agape” was the dutiful feeling between parents and children, or the love reserved for abstractions; “philia” was devoted friendship between equals; and then there was “eros” – consuming passion. This the Greeks considered an all-powerful madness that could unhinge a orderly, well-regulated life. It’s oddly fitting that a powerful paean to eros (or is it an apotropaic exorcism?) occurs in Sophocles’ Antigone, a work that parses clashing perceptions of duty and love. Some argue that romantic love as we now think of it was forged by the troubadours of Eleanor’s Aquitanian court.

In fewer words: I think there was love of all kinds in all eras and cultures, but specificities do exist. Don’t squeeze behaviors of other times and places in Procrustean beds to force-fit them into today’s culture wars. Ok, back to watching my foxglove bathing contentedly in the smirr.

 

Related articles:

Iskander, Khan Tengri

Ashes from Burning Libraries

Close Your Eyes and Think of Apóllon

Caesars and Caesar Salads

Hidden Histories (the Akritiká folksongs)

The Blackbird Singing: Sapfó of Lésvos

If I Forget Thee, O My Grandmother’s Lost Home

Images: top, part of Alan Lee’s cover for The Wanderings of Odysseus by Rosemary Sutcliff; bottom, Iríni Pappá (Antigone) and Máro Kontoú (Ismene) in Antigone (1961 film version of the Sophocles play)

8 Responses to “Procrustean Beds”

  1. Jim Fehlinger says:

    > Speaking of flattening, I recently saw someone rejoicing online
    > that “Greek culture” (which one?) “completely normalized”
    > gay relationships. . . [but] most of these relationships were
    > based on steep power differentials. . . [A]s is the case in
    > several contemporary cultures, . . . only the [passive partner]
    > is considered “homosexual”. . .
    >
    > Don’t squeeze behaviors of other times/places in Procrustean
    > beds to force-fit them into today’s culture wars. . .

    Yes, the “berdache” of some native American cultures is sometimes
    also exhibited in a suspiciously ideologically force-fit manner
    to argue that homosexuality has been “completely normalized” in
    other times and places. But this social role was hardly what a modern
    cis-identifying homosexual would consider to be “normal” — being
    forced to take on the dress and activities of the opposite sex.

    It may also be pointed out that in ancient Rome (and likely enough
    in the warlike Greek cultures in which pair-bonded warriors were
    tolerated or even encouraged), while unequal relationships between
    mature men and young boys were tolerated (or even exalted as
    a kind of “mentorship”), “effeminacy” — the fear of, distaste for,
    or lack of ability in the martial pursuits (equivalent, maybe,
    to a modern gay man’s antipathy for sports or “sensitivity”) — was
    always held in contempt. This implicit contempt for the “effeminate”
    carries over into modern Western gay male culture — “masc for masc”
    and “no fats or femmes”, etc.

  2. Athena says:

    Very much so. It’s important to point out that “orthodox” models are always parochial. But that does not make for automatic kinships either.

  3. Calvin says:

    We recently read aloud to each other Watson’s translation. Of course, we can’t fluently read the original so it’s hard for us to compare. The language did on occasion seem flat or strained or weirdly vacillating between strained poeticism and the colloquial.

    But by and large it read well aloud, as one would hope for work with oral origins, we were kept engaged by the text, and so overall I would gauge Watson’s translation a success.

    (We also read–individually–Madeleine Miller’s Circe, which is another whole kettle of monsters…)

  4. Athena says:

    The uneven texture you describe is the primary reason that pushes Watson’s translation into mediocrity (well, less-than-brilliance..such translations are Herculean tasks). As for Miller: after reading her Achilles, I’ll be passing on her Circe.

  5. calvin says:

    I agree that brilliant translations are Herculean, which is why simply keeping us engaged made Watson a success for us.

    Miller’s Circe was readable for me (though Donna confessed to skipping over whole sections in the middle ), though it was clearly of a project, to “reclaim” Circe as a feminist hero.

    On another topic, as you wrote: “Sex was considered akin to eating; whether the food or the sexual vessel enjoyed the process was irrelevant.”

    Interestingly, two of the most prominent SFnal series out there today, Westworld and The Handmaid’s Tale, while wildly uneven and deeply flawed, sometimes to the point of near-unwatchability, they nonetheless both grapple with the issue of autonomy and consent.

  6. Athena says:

    I must confess I haven’t watched either Westworld or Handmaid. The latter because reading the book was hard enough — watching it would be unbearable, especially given the arc of today’s US. Westworld didn’t quite ding my interest meter when I first heard of it (my mental sense of it was “original Westworld meets Whedon’s Dollhouse”) but I’ll probably eventually see it, or parts thereof, if only to remain culturally au courant!

  7. Calvin says:

    In general I don’t believe in “trigger warnings,” but if anything earns a trigger warning, it would be The Handmaid’s Tale. Sometimes it feels as if they are deliberately trying to up the discomfort with each episode. Unlike HBO, they don’t do this with excess explicitness; indeed, sometimes it is just suggested, but it remains very powerful–and exceedingly disconcerting.

    Westworld, on the other hand, follows the HBO (=Homicide, Boobs, Obscenities) of modus operandi of visually leaving little to the imagination, but having overly and unnecessarily convoluted plots, including deliberately withholding key information in order to get that “shock” value. I never watched Dollhouse so I can’t compare. What I can compare to is the movie Ex Machina, which some of my friends thought was great SF and I thought was just warmed over, well, the original Westworld: Sexbot turns killbot. For all its many flaws, Westworld allows the viewer time to become invested in the robot hosts so that when they eventually rebel, you understand why. (The motives of the humans, by contrast, are much more murky and less compelling, frankly.) Westworld is by turns frustratingly, needlessly opaque, and then suddenly powerful, compelling television by turning narrative on its head. For example, throughout the series, the Native Americans were just a menace, a literal Ghost Tribe. But in one of the next to last episodes retells the entire series from the viewpoint of one of the Ghost Tribe warriors–in Lakota, with subtitles, but better than Dances with Wolves–and you really felt his sense of loss, and you realize everything you thought about them was false: rather than hunting the little girl, he was trying to protect her. A fantastic episode. But then others are just head scratching…

  8. Athena says:

    Withholding information for “shock” value annoys me incredibly as both reader and editor. Like you, I consider trigger warnings infantilizing and found Ex Machina the same-old (and a waste of three stellar acting talents). Your description of that particular Westworld episode has piqued my interest. If I end up watching it, I’ll certainly share my impressions!

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