Why and how is translation so hard? Here's a little non-comparative case study to help make the process more visible. 9 words from the very start of the Odyssey, lines 1-2: ὃς μάλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν. Syntactically easy.
Relative clause: the "man" is one who had/ did/ suffered a whole lot of going-astray/ bafflement/ wandering. Then temporal clause: when he'd sacked Troy. Why just him, singular? Scholiast claims, b/c he thought of the Wooden Horse. Maybe!
How much of Troy did he sack? ptoliethron is the lengthened form of polis, "city" (later, city-state). Sometimes =central part of city. But sacking just part of Troy isn't really enough... Shd. the translator make it non-dumb if possible, or not worry about that?
There's alliteration (polla/ plangthe ... ptolietron epersen, notice the "p" sounds). What, if anything, should or can a translator do, when the sound of every word in her language is different from the words of the original? And, what to do about meter? Genre? Tone?
What's the judgment, if any? Or narrative perspective? Do we feel OK about Odysseus being defined, instantly, as a city-sacker (ptoliporthos, one of his standard epithets)? Is the narrative voice invested in one side or another? It's very hard to say. A judgment call.
hieros suggests "holy", "sacred", divine, set apart. Is Troy holy bc gods built walls, or bc inhabitants respect gods, or other reason? Does the holiness make its sack impious? Plus: all English words for religion risk connoting the wrong religion. No way round this.
Dictionaries give English words like waste, ravage, sack, take, plunder for pertho. Some of these sound archaic and/or romanticizing. But there's no reason to think the Greek verb sounds that way. It's describing a definitely violent action; the verb can also mean kill.
We don't like to talk about war so modern Anglo war vocab is thin. Verbs like "ravage" or "plunder" create distance, b/c dated. Newspapers use the neutral, maybe euphemistic verb, "take". But the Gk verb has a far narrower range than "take" & is far more definitely violent.
The Greek verb plangthe has no exact English equivalent. It's passive in form. The active verb can connote "to turn aside/ balk/ baffle" (LSJ); in the passive, it's used for going astray, wandering. Is O. is passive, or actively roving, or both? Can he be both, in Eng?
Some of O's time, since Troy, is spent at sea; but 8 years is cohabiting with goddesses. "Wandered" suggests movement. Plus, English "wandering" happens on land. Or maybe the clause just refers to shipwrecks; but are there enough of those to count as mala polla?
Clause cd be a gloss on polytropon: it means he's on a complicated journey. Proposed in antiquity, but other ancient readers clearly thought it meant something more internal, to do with O's cleverness, sneakiness etc. Hard to keep both options live in English. Must we? Can we?
There's a v.g. book on "wandering" in ancient Greek thought by Silvia Montiglio, which teases out the complex and changing cultural attitudes to the range of activities evoked by this verb. A translator who has read this book is likely to be even more stuck than she was before.
The verb is intensified by an adverb (mala) and an adverbial accusative (polla). It's common in Greek and doesn't exist in English. You could render "with respect to very muches", except that's nonsense, and the Gk isn't.
It's vague. It could suggest that O. wanders/ is lost many times, or in many ways, or frequently, or intensely, or very much, on many occasions, or in respect to many different [obstacles/implied nouns]. Can/ should a translator can keep the full range of possibilities?
I know there's no right answer. This is what I did.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.
I alliterated, not with "p" but other sounds (M..m, w...w... w, t... T).
I couldn't manage plangthe with just one English verb, & hoped I could convey the vague intensity of mala polla with two almost redundant verbs. Hence, "wandered and was lost": both sea and land, both passive and active, rest and movement.
Is that a legitimate solution? I don't know. I don't think there's a rule. I wanted to use a strong clear non-archaic verb for eperse, for reasons as above. I didn't think it was appropriate to suggest that only part of Troy was damaged, as above.
I used indirect question instead of relative clause ("how"). Relatives are used in Gk often when Eng. uses other types of clause (Smyth s.v.). I couldn't make it feel punchy and alive the other way. I tried for days. I liked that the i. question suggests a shared quest.
I don't think of my choices as the only possible ones. Many valid others are possible. I tried many others myself. I tried rewriting the proem again for a good 2 weeks for the paperback, before un-rewriting it again.
You labor and labor and labor, and there's something that wasn't before, with a voice not your voice, and you didn't make it, it's half you, it's half someone else, it is all someone else, and you pray it will live, whatever, whoever it turns out to be.
Here are a couple of other versions, also by women. I'm bored of the pretence that I'm the only female classicist translator, or that every element of my choices is because I'm a woman. So:
Rosa Onesti: che molto errò, poi ch'ebbe a terra
gittate d'Ilïòn le sacre torri.
Errò connotes error as well as wandering; different judgment. Onesti introduces a concrete image: O. throws the towers of Troy "to the ground". There's no "ground" in the Greek, and no throwing, but it's a possible way to convey some of the energy and violence of the verb.
More recent Italian translator, Dora Marinari, free verse:
che molto dovetto andar vagando,
dopo aver distrutto la sacra città di Troia
Presents O. much more as a passive victim, who "had to" go wandering (dovetto), although she also makes O. destroy the whole holy city, not just towers of it. La sacra città is a v. interesting choice, since of course the phrase usually means a quite different city: Rome.