Wednesday, September 29, 2010

How to Kill the Classics

I admit that I have a tender spot in my heart for the classics. I have a literature degree so I love everyone from Homer to Shakespeare to Elliot. (I hate James Joyce, but that’s another story.) I realize that sometimes it’s hard for modern readers to delight in the cadences of the Iliad. After all, we’re not used to listening to recited poems so hearing Helen referred to as “Helen of the white arms” over and over doesn’t make sense—it’s an aural literary device used to help listeners identify the characters.
But that’s what lit professors are for. They’re supposed to help us bridge the chasm of time and culture to appreciate works of literature that have transcended human constructs. So I was very disappointed to Ariel complaining loudly about her literature class and the books she has to read. What made it stranger was that Ariel had read all of the books when I taught her ancient literature, and she enjoyed them. What was up?

“What’s up?” Ariel said in an indignant voice. She read me a passage, “Princess Nausicaa says, ‘Daddy dearest, could you lend me the carriage so I can wash clothes.’”

My jaw dropped. “What is that rubbish?” I asked. Apparently it’s a modernized version of the Iliad. Modernized versions are the newest fad in literature. I investigated these versions. I’m sure that the translators meant well, making culture more assessable to the masses (sounds kind of condescending, actually). But the problem is that it destroys tone and voice. Every time a modernized phrase pops up in the text—they’re scattered here and there like poppy seeds—it takes the reader right out of the narrative. You have to blink, refocus, and force yourself back into the text. Maybe these translators and professors should have taken a few creative writing classes. Lesson 10 in creative writing is create a voice and tone and infuse it into every word of the text—it’s the only way to capture the reader. Everything else is painful and laborious. And it only makes the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Orestia, etc., even more difficult to read. What students need is an accurate translation so they can lose themselves in the story just like everyone has done for the last couple thousand years.


  1. I wouldn't have a problem with someone starting over and retranslating with an ear for more modern tone--in fact, some of the phrases in my translation of the Odyssey are just goofy ('What's this skullduggery' comes to mind as probably better translated as something else) but you can't just pepper the book with random modern phrasing and expect it to read well!

    I once read a modernization of Shakespeare that would have probably made the poor guy's head explode if he wasn't already dead.

  2. I also think it's very pretentious of people to take other people's works and change the way it was written.

    It was written in a specific way for a reason. Mess with that and nothing makes sense.

    I hate abridged classics for the same reason. Who gave the editors the right to remove something that the author didn't?

  3. Yeah, I have this same problem w/ new "modern" versions of the Bible. Now, I know that the Authorized (or King James Version) was once "modern" too, but it was purposely written in "antique" language (yes, even in 1611 people didn't talk that way) to give it the heft and weight the translation was due. I've read several different translations and just feel deflated. Why would you cheat yourself of such lovely, powerful language?
    If I read any of my favorite classics in modern language I would probably laugh out loud, then cry louder.

  4. You certainly have reason to be upset and I echo the comments already made.

  5. Lexie was complaining about a similar topic just the other day. What a coincidence.

  6. Daddy Dearest? Not the most authentic term of endearment in the ancient world. But whatever...

  7. Yup, it's uber-lame. In fact, before that Nausicaa is lectured by the godess Athena, who tells her to get her father to harness the mules and wagon for her because, "It's so much nicer for you to ride than go on foot. The washing-pools are just too far from town."

  8. Actually, Mom, that would be a modernized version of the Odyssey, not the Iliad. Princess Nausicca is from the Odyssey.

  9. I don't enjoy "new improved" versions. Part of the reason I read classics is to learn the nuanced language of another time. Just isn't the same without "skullduggery" to me. :)

    I've posted an award for you over on my site. Enjoy!