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A review of The Poets’ Translation Series I-VI

London: The Egoist Ltd., 1915, 1916.

Poetry: A Magazine of Verse, 9 (Nov 1916) 101-04

The translators of this series have an opportunity which most of them have neglected. H. D. is the exception. 1

Gilbert Murray has struck at Greek scholarship and done no good to English verse. Euripides for the working-man, at a shilling the play, in the style of fifty years ago–an ideal of socialism and popular education–Greek without tears. 2 The only result can be still greater neglect of Greek in our schools. Why study Greek when an adequatetranslation can always be had, cheap and easy scholarship for the busy man? There are translations for the scholar–the splendid Oxford Aristotle–but these do not pretend to be literature. 3 And what is scholarship is an introduction and commentary for the original, what is literature is enrichment of English by contact with Greek, a criticism of one language by another, a fertilisation. But there is no substitute, no adequatetranslation.

Some of these translators have fallen into the abyss of Murray. Mr. Aldington’s Anyteis good, but hardly ever steps aside from the path of Mackail. 4 There is no use in merely multiplying translations of Greek epigrams which after all belong rather to the art of epigraphy than to literature. The Greeks, like the Italians, put intelligence upon monuments. If our tombstone artists could study Greek–but this is a divagation.

H. D. is a poet. She has at least avoided the traditional jargon prescribed for translators: she has turned Euripides into English verse which can be taken seriously, verse of our own time, as modern as was Swinburne’s when it appeared. 5 Her verse is a perversion of the opposite extreme. Swinburne is too fluid, H. D. too abrupt. The participle becomes an indicative; most of the “I saw” and “I heard” drop out; the chorus becomes an independent poem. Her type of verse makes her task the more difficult. It relies upon a succession of images; and the images of the Greek tragedian were made up of stock phrases rearranged. Thus she is compelled sometimes to lose contact with the original in avoiding clichés:

A flash– Achilles passed along the beach . . . Achilles had strapped the wind About his ankles. [4]

Euripides says only that the women saw Achilles swift-running, swift as the wind. It would be impossible to find equivalents for swift as the windand swift-runningand escape redundancy. This sort of improvement is permissible, but only marks time: it does not enrichEnglish from Greek. And in a few cases, where Euripides’ style is merely bald, the alteration is not an improvement. “I keep the memory of the assembled army” becomes “My mind is graven with ships” [8] with obvious loss of dignity. And in the translation–

There is no power but in base men, Nor any man whom the gods do not hate– [14]

the meaning is completely perverted; Euripides has made the characteristic remark, that men should not strive to be illustrious (in “virtue” in the Greek sense) lest they bring down on themselves the invidiaof the gods. Again,

And each man is marked for toil, Much labour is his fate, Nor is there any new hurt That may be added to the race. [16]

is not only a similar mistranslation, but fails to rise quite to what is the emotional crisis of the play.

Still, it is a great deal to have translations that one can read, translations into the language of contemporary verse, even if H. D.’s monotonously short lines with excess of stops and defect of connectives are sometimes tiring to eye and ear. And often she does succeed in bringing something out of the Greek language to the English, in an immediate contact which gives life to both, the contact which makes it possible for the modern language perpetually to draw sustenance from the dead:

May no child...

Published By:   Faber & Faber logo    Johns Hopkins University Press