In Praise of Timodemus: translating classical Greek

Today is release day for Sacred Games!  Which means I will studiously avoid reading the early reviews -- for that way lies obsessive compulsive behaviour -- and instead will write about an ultra-nerdy subject related to the book.

Do you need to know classical Greek to write murder mysteries set in classical Greece?  No.  But sometimes it helps.  Sacred Games is unique in that it's the only book to date in which I've used a quote that I translated myself.

I discovered early on in the series that the translations by classics professors are so vastly better than my own slow and feeble efforts that there was no point in trying.  I was much better off reading the translations from Penguin Classics, Loeb Library, and the online Perseus Digital Library.  The Penguin versions are the most literary, Loeb the most accurate, and Perseus the most literal.

This works brilliantly, since usually I only need information.  The experts translate the history and I get on with turning it into stories.

I ran into trouble with Sacred Games because one of the main characters is a lad named Timodemus, a for-real Olympic athlete of classical Athens who as it happens had a poem written about him by the famous praise singer Pindar.  The first stanza of that poem was so directly relevant to my murder that I wanted to include it up front.

Here's the original (from the Perseus edition):


 ὅθεν περ καὶ Ὁμηρίδαι
ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων τὰ πόλλ᾽ ἀοιδοὶ
ἄρχονται, Διὸς ἐκ προοιμίου: καὶ ὅδ᾽ ἀνὴρ 
 καταβολὰν ἱερῶν ἀγώνων νικαφορίας δέδεκται πρῶτον Νεμεαίου
ἐν πολυυμνήτῳ Διὸς ἄλσει.

Don't panic.  Here is the translation from Perseus:

For Timodemus of Acharnae Pancratium

Just as the Homeridae, the singers of woven verses,
most often begin with Zeus as their prelude, 
so this man has received a first down-payment of victory in the Sacred Games
by winning in the grove of Nemean Zeus, which is celebrated in many hymns. 

Praise songs were written to be sung, but this doesn't exactly trip from the tongue.  The Loeb and Penguin versions were much better, but I felt bad about using their work.  Besides, in a moment of hubris (a fine Greek word) I decided I could do a better job.

Herewith is my own version, as it appears at the front of Sacred Games:

In Praise of Timodemus

So as the bards begin their verse
With hymns to the Olympian Zeus,
So has this hero laid the claim
To conquest in the Sacred Games.

Homeridae is classical code for someone who follows Homer (a poet).  I replaced it with bard.  Pindar never used six words where sixty-six could be squeezed in.  He wasn't paid by the word, but you'd never guess it.  I removed the "singers of woven voices" and "Nemean Zeus, celebrated in many hymns".  (In passing, Pindar's Greek reminds me a lot of the flowery English of late 1700s and early 1800s.)   The bit about "received a first down-payment" is very literal (καταβολὰν really means payment!) but lacks a certain poetry.  "Laid the claim" works a trifle better.  The literal title is "Timodemus of Acharnae, Pankratist"  but in English we'd say "In Praise of..."   My version rhymes, which as everyone knows poetry should.

So if you don't count changing almost all the words and completely altering the meter, I pretty much left it alone.  I hope Pindar's psyche will forgive me.


Nancy Kelley said...

This is what we'd call a dynamic translation, rather than literal. It still retains the original meaning, but it sounds better to the English speaker's ear.

Gary Corby said...

Are you a professional translator, Nancy, by any chance?

RWMG said...

I think we need a sound file, Gary. Possibly it only rhymes in Australian.

Nancy Kelley said...

I have a degree in Bible, Gary. Understanding the different kinds of translations is one of the first things we learned.

Gary Corby said...

Hi Robert, we may be about to prove that I have no future as poet laureate, but since lines 1, 2 and 4 end on an s sound I thought it'd be singable. Okay, I'll do an audio version! I've been meaning to try audio and video blog posts anyway.

Gary Corby said...

Aha, all is clear! Nancy, there's another Biblical koine scholar who drops in here from time to time: Nevets. (For all I know, there're more than that too...I suspect Colin.)

I must say that when I look at all the skills and backgrounds of the people who post here, even only the ones I know about, together you all make for a very impressive audience.

Jane Lebak said...

Your translation works well for the novel, but would you kill me if I said I liked the longer and more literal translation better? It feels more formal and I like the way Pindar worked it. (It also reminds me of Milton, who was consciously imitating this format in works like Lycidas.)

BTW, Roman Catholics also got a lesson in dynamic translation versus literal translation last year, when the Mass was changed to a more literal translation rather than a dynamic translation. "And also with you" got changed to "And with your spirit," and so on.

Gary Corby said...

Not at all. My version's clearly the most fanciful of the lot. I wouldn't usually hire myself as a translator!

I had no idea about Milton imitating the style. Thanks for that interesting bit!

I'm going to annoy people (maybe) and suggest the best translation of the Bible ever remains the King James version. You just can't beat it for poetry.

Clare Wilson said...

I've done a bit of Pindar translation in college - hard (but fun) stuff! I'm impressed by your translation which gets to the heart of his meaning in a way that's approachable for English-speakers.

Gary Corby said...

That's a generous evaluation, SolariC. Thanks!

Now I'm curious to know what course you did that translated Pindar? Let me guess, you too are a linguist?

The next time I need something translated, I am totally putting it on this blog to let you guys do all the work.

Amalia Dillin said...

I love your translation! It's definitely kinder to the English ear.

I never said congratulations this release, so Congratulations!!