There is a wonderful section from Louis Macneice's Autumn Journal that I often think about.
I think of the slaves.
And how one can imagine oneself among them
I do not know;
It was all so unimaginably different
And all so long ago."
Translation can be a way of enabling the reader to imagine herself among them: the unimaginably different cultures that exist both now and long ago. But we can never really know. Translation can and should also be a way to reinforce distance.
Sometimes, in my various translations from ancient texts, I've wanted the reader to have the surprise of realizing for a second: I can imagine myself among them. I've had various readers comment on my [marked, borderline-funny] translation of Od. 8.231-232.
"I could not do my exercise routine". It's a regular iambic pentameter line, so in that sense, obviously poetry. But many of us can imagine saying it without thinking about poetics. "The real language of [women and] men". Either good ornament or no ornament.
I personally am very much attached to my exercise routine. I had a great deal of back pain after my first daughter was born, and I have lifelong tendencies to depression and anxiety. Regular exercise and yoga have been essential to me, for pain and for mood.
The original uses a word that is often used for food, "komide", but is cognate with the verb "komeo", to care for. So what is care or self-care, on a raft? What exactly was lacking on the boat? What is Odysseus' self-fashioning? What might he plausibly have suffered?
I spent a long time deliberating about this one: I wanted Odysseus' narrative to make sense, & for him to seem rational. He was provided with lots of great goddess food by Circe, and also, lack of food doesn't normally make one's legs weak while not affecting the upper body.
So it seemed to me important to make clear that this is a line about lack of physical care, specifically the kind of physical care that any elite warrior, in either the archaic or classical period or now, would do to stay in condition. Not about food.
Lattimore translation: "there could be no orderly training / on shipboard". He takes the same interpretation of "komide" as physical routine. The addition of "orderly" adds a level of social judgment that is hard to see in the Greek.
Fitzgerald, 1962, takes it that there just isn't enough grub in the tuck shop: "the victuals in my ship/ ran low; my legs are flabby". There are creams for that, sweetie.
The Fagles translation makes it sound very much as if Odysseus is used to a life at West Point: "No conditioning there on shipboard day by day. / My legs have lost their spring".
Maybe mine is too funny or too relatable. Maybe I should change it. I could flatten it out. I am well aware that an "exercise routine" might carry connotations of Jane Fonda. But I don't think she's any further from Homer than British public schools or the US military.
I hope a few marked surprises can bring you both closer and further away. The [elite male] ancients had exercise routines; those aren't exclusively a product of the leotard-clad elite-white-women of the 1970s. But exercise meant something different in the archaic Gk world.
I hope you can see the differences more clearly when you know what might be at stake. Not just "victuals" (which I've never had and never missed), or "conditioning" or "orderly training" (which are alien to my life), but exercise, which matters to me.
At the same time, the world of Odysseus, immediately after this line, is clearly not yours or mine. It's a world of feasts, sacrifices, men-only athletics and magical boats. It's unimaginably same and unimaginably different. This is historical consciousness, in the round.
Every translation of an ancient text makes different compromises with the gulf between now and then. We imagine ourselves only momentarily in their world.
Macneice, same poem:
"Sleep serene, avoid the backward /
Glance; go forward, dreams, and do not halt."