Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review

Epinician Odes
Dithyrambs of Bacchylides
translated by
David Slavitt
University of Pennsylvania Press: 1998
Citations are from Epinician Odes...
translated by David Slavitt
and may not be copied or distributed
without the express permission of the author
review by Arthur Mortensen

As the reviewer has no Greek, it might be fairly asked just what he's doing reviewing a translation of a Greek poet.  How could he possibly know if the translator has succeeded?   The question is not without precedent, though rarely asked anymore.   And I'll answer fairly; I can't tell you if Slavitt has succeeded in emulating in English a poet who wrote in Greek nearly 25 centuries ago.   A review of this kind of work, even if the critic knows the original language, must first ask:  does the poet/translator give us a version in our language that we can both read and enjoy?   If they're available, translations by other authors of the same work would make useful comparisons.   I will allow that latter task to another critic as I find virtually all Greek translations done before the 20th century to be thicker with antiquity than the mysterious originals I cannot read.  I'll venture instead to judge Slavitt's book by his own intentions for it, stated succinctly in the introduction:
  He goes on to describe the relative richness of the source materials.  Unlike Sappho, whose "translations" for centuries were largely imaginative exercises built from no more than a hundred or so actual lines of Greek, Bacchylides can be adapted from over 1300 lines of Greek, hardly two books of Paradise Lost, but more readable stuff than most poets publish in their lifetimes.

He also gives as good a description of the function of this kind of ode for both Pindar and Bacchylides as I have  read:

As Velazquez's treatment of patron, landscape and classical motif do the same for the eye -- well and good, but what about the translations?   Are they new blood through which disembodied spirits can speak to us 2500 years later?

The comparison of the story of Croesus to that of Hieron, the owner of the horses and the poet's patron, goes on in considerable detail to show the connection between the known, earthly behavior of Hieron and his mythical  roots.   Even if none of this were true of Hieron, the poet is saying what that it should be. Even if he's making it all up, the ironic distance between fact and poet's praise have a real cultural purpose beyond the art, just as Velazquez's sometimes odd focus on a royal subject could indicate an otherwise forbidden opinion.  All well and good, and not entirely foreign to such writing today, if not in sports, then in the arts themselves -- but what else?

What struck me while reading this and the other odes is the clarity of Slavitt's translation.  There's no dodge behind affected diction, no pretense at imitating a particularly Greek sound, which only rarely works in translation.  This shouldn't be a surprise.  Slavitt is a poet himself, with twelve books to his credit that I know of; the truth of the saw that "poets make the best translators" seems apt enough here.   While I don't particularly understand Slavitt's line breaks in this ode (but do in others), they don't detract from the movement through the piece.  In fact, aloud, it sounds lively and dramatic, which is appropriate (it is likely these odes were sung in the original).

What a difference from those quaint Victorian translations I was presented with too many years ago in school!  There's not a trace of the precious; the language is as straightforward as the claims made for classical Greek by professors whose faces I've forgotten more quickly than their thoughts.   Does this mean I've going back on my pledge not to judge these in terms of the original language?  No.  But they strike me as right, as contemporary pieces for living patrons about recent stories.

The poet and translator makes no effort to fill in the blanks in the original material.  Where the work is incomplete, Slavitt simply puts in rows of dots to indicate missing lines.   The gaps are distressing at first, but guessing at what might have been there, or trying to glean something from what is can be entertaining.

A number of dithyrambs, very different poems that tell straightforward narratives of gods and the royal, conclude the book.  The story of Minos's efforts to seduce Eriboea and their resistance by Theseus by his claim that both were children of gods (Dithyramb III) has the same brightness and clarity as Slavitt's versions of the 14 odes -- as if the poem were written this year, not in the 5th century BC.

Fortunately, they both resort to other proofs than bloodletting.   As is true in other translations and adaptations by Slavitt, as his Metamorphoses,  the effort is strongest on the side of conveying to contemporary readers stories and their characters that might otherwise be lost in rigid correctness or affected "similarity to the original."    Some complain that he goes too far into the colloquial in diction and too far from the original.  But this critic will say that Slavitt has brought to life a poet that otherwise would be invisible to me, so much so that I have read the book more than once.   Slavitt has promised and delivered; find a politician who can do that!

Epinician Odes and Dithyrambs of Bacchylides is highly recommended.

                                Arthur Mortensen

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