Expansive Poetry & Music Online Poetry Review
Dithyrambs of Bacchylides
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:
I like underdogs. I am also an admirer of modest excellence.
Milton is not a poet I read for pleasure, or, indeed, much at all these
days, while I do look at Marvell from time to time. And this is not
because I am so determined an eccentric. On the contrary, I'd claim
that my judgement is the normative one, the reaction of an amateur (!)
who is not a part of the academic establishment and whose views, therefore,
are not much influenced by which poets lend themselves to pedagogical exercises.
Nobody runs courses in Herrick, but that doesn't mean Herrick isn't a great
poet. Indeed, he is so good that there is almost nothing to say about
his work...Bacchylides deserves attention not because he is beetling, like
Pindar, but because he is not. He relies on craftsmanshbip and reliably
displays an attractive grace and elegance. The English poet Bacchylides
most resembles, I think, is neither Herrick nor Marvell but Dryden...reasons
enough for me to take a look....
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:
It is true that, to the modern reader, an epinician ode is at best
a stretch. These are victory poems about sporting events! And
there are stories with gods and heroes woven into them, as compliments
to a rich patron whose horses had won and from whom the poet was looking
to be paid. They seem to us, at least at first blush, just a little
extravagant, as mannered displays of strenuous and elaborate toadying.
Well, yes, in a way they are. But if the poet can relate the
patron and subject...to gods and heroes, it is a connection that works
both ways; and it follows that, through poetry, those grand and shadowy
figures are...revivified and refreshed. These poems, then and the
occasions they celebrate, are the blood without which the disembodied spirits
cannot speak. It is this doubtless that legitimates these pieces
and makes them interesting.
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
Hail Deinomenes' son,
the winner of garlands.
To him the people shout,
Zeus has appointed him
to rule over many Greeks,
and he does not hide his
staggering wealth away
under night's mattress,
but temples are busy with traffic
of spotless cattle
for sacrifice; the streets
are crowded with strangers
secure in the laws of hospitality.
Gold is everywhere, a glitter
of finely wrought
tripods that flank the Delphic
temple's entrance where Phoebus
presides. The ability thus
to honor the god is the true
wealth, the spirit's mettle.
Consider Croesus, the ruler
of Lydia's horsemen....
from Ode III, Bacchylides
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.
You, the Graces with your golden
distaffs, your gift of fame inspires
the minds of men.
Mouthpiece of the sloe-eyed Muses,
I am about to sing the praises of Phlius
and the rich plain of Nemean Zeus,
where pale-armed Hera reared
the sheep-slaughtering, roaring lion,
ast the first of Herakles' far-renowned labors.
from Ode IX, Bacchylides
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!
"We are both sons of gods, then war lord of Knossos,
and I bid you cease and desist. Restrain yourself
from what you intend.
If you assault one of these youngsters
or force yourself on one of them, the dawn
and its lovely light is something you'll hate to see,
for that will be the day that you and I
will try the force of our ours and let the gods
decide between us...."
from Dithyramb III
Epinician Odes and Dithyrambs of Bacchylides is highly recommended.
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