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.