Thursday, October 13, 2011

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Translator Mitchell reads from ‘Iliad’ version with contemporary slang

By Jonathan Dec
Senior Writer
Published: Thursday, October 13th, 2011
On Wednesday night in the James M. Stewart ’32 Theater in the Lewis Center for the Arts, author and translator Stephen Mitchell read excerpts from his new translation of Homer’s “Iliad,” released on Oct. 11.Mitchell read three passages from his text — Hector’s final conversation with his wife Andromache, the shield of Achilles and the ransom of Hector’s body. “ ‘And when they had had enough of eating and drinking, Priam gazed at Achilles in wonder, how tall he was and how handsome, like one of the blessed gods. And Achilles gazed at Priam in wonder, admiring his noble face and the brave words that he had spoken,’ ” Mitchell read.
Mitchell is the first author to base his translation on a new Greek text of Homer’s epic, prepared by scholar Martin L. West, who went through the original source material and identified a number of passages — including chapter 10 in its entirety — added to Homer’s work after it was first written down. In addition to cutting these interpolations (about 1,100 in total), Mitchell also updated Homer’s language, leaving out many of the epithets and using contemporary slang such as “sissy” and “son of a bitch.”
For example, when confronting Agamemnon in Book One, Achilles says in Mitchell’s translation, “We followed you here for your sake, not for our own; we all came to win back Menelaus’s honor and yours too, dog-face.”
In the question-and-answer period following the reading, Mitchell spoke about his motivation, his stylistic choices and his translation process.
“I think everybody who deeply cares about Homer and who is enchanted with these great masterpieces has his or her own music — internal music — and basically that’s what you want to do. You want to listen to the Greek so deeply that your listening creates what you want to hear,” he said.
Creating what he wanted to hear, though, was an involved process. “The process of finding the right balance between faithfulness to the actual Greek words and faithfulness to the music of the original is a process of finding what freedom means,” he said.
Mitchell said he was pleased with the way the text read without the later interpolations added after Homer completed his work. “The amount of increased tension and drama and just pure beauty in leaving those verses out is just stunning. So that’s what I did.”
He added, though, that his work will not be without detractors.
“It probably will be controversial among some of the stuffier circles of Greek scholarship, but that’s OK,” he said.
Mitchell graduated from Amherst College, the University of Paris and Yale University. He has written, edited, translated and adapted over 30 books, for both children and adults, in a wide variety of fields, ranging from the Book of Job to the Tao Te Ching.
Mitchell is currently working on a translation of Homer’s “Odyssey.”

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