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[9arg] What method should be followed in translating Greek expressions; and on those verses of Homer which Virgil is thought to have translated either well and happily or unsuccessfully.

WHENEVER striking expressions from the Greek poets are to be translated and imitated, they say that [p. 177] we should not always strive to render every single word with exact literalness. For many things lose their charm if they are transplanted too forcibly— unwillingly, as it were, and reluctantly. 1 Virgil therefore showed skill and good judgment in omitting some things and rendering others, when he was dealing with passages of Homer or Hesiod or Apollonius or Parthenius or Callimachus or Theocritus, or some other poet.

For example, when very recently the Bucolics of Theocritus and Virgil were being read together at table, we perceived that Virgil had omitted something that in the Greek is, to be sure, wonderfully pleasing, but neither could nor ought to have been translated. But what he has substituted for that omission is almost more charming and graceful. Theocritus writes: 2

But when her goatherd boy goes by you should see my Cleärist
Fling apples, and her pretty lips call pouting to be kissed.
Virgil has: 3
My Phyllis me with pelted apples plies,
Then tripping to the woods the wanton hies,
And wishes to be seen before she flies.
Also in another place I notice that what was very sweet in the Greek was prudently omitted. Theocritus writes: 4
O Tityrus, well-belovéd, feed my goats,
And lead them to the fount, good Tityrus;
But 'ware yon buck-goat yellow, lest he butt.
[p. 179] But how could Virgil reproduce τὸ καλὸν πεφιλημένε (“well-beloved”), words that, by Heaven! defy translation, but have a certain native charm? He therefore omitted that expression and translated the rest very cleverly, except in using caper for Theocritus' ἐνόρχας; for, according to Marcus Varro, 5 a goat is called caper in Latin only after he has been castrated. Virgil's version is: 6
Till I return—not long—feed thou my goats;
Then, Tityrus, give them drink, but as you go,
Avoid the buck-goat's horn—the fellow butts'

And since I am speaking on the subject of translation, I recall hearing from pupils of Valerius Probus, a learned man and well trained in reading and estimating the ancient writings, that he used to say that Virgil had never translated Homer less successfully than in these delightful lines which Homer wrote about Nausicaa: 7

As when o'er Erymanth Diana roves,
Or wide Taÿgetus' resounding groves,
A silver train the huntress queen surrounds,
Her rattling quiver from her shoulder sounds;
Fierce in the sport, along the mountain's brow
They bay the boar or chase the bounding roe;
High o'er the lawn, with more majestic pace,
Above the nymphs she treads with stately grace;
Distinguished excellence the goddess proves,
Exults Latona as the virgin moves:
With equal grace Nausicaa trod the plain,
And shone transcendent o'er the beauteous train.
This passage Virgil renders thus: 8 [p. 181]
As on Eurotas' banks or Cynthus' heights
Diana guides her dancing bands, whose train
A thousand Oreads follow, right and left;
A quiver bears she on her shoulder fair,
And as she treads, the goddesses o'ertops;
Joys thrill Latona's silent breast.
First of all, they said that Probus thought that in Homer the maiden Nausicaa, playing among her girl companions in solitary places, was consistently and properly compared with Diana hunting on the mountain heights among the rural goddesses; but that Virgil had made a comparison that was by no means suitable, since Dido, walking with dignified dress and gait in the midst of a city, and surrounded by the Tyrian chiefs, “pressing on the work of her rising kingdom,” as he himself says, 9 can have no points of similarity corresponding with the sports and hunts of Diana. Then secondly, that Homer mentions plainly and directly Diana's interest and pleasure in the chase, while Virgil, not having said a word about the goddess' hunting, merely pictures her as carrying a quiver on her shoulder, as if it were a burden or a pack. And they said that Probus was particularly surprised at this feature of Virgil's version, that while Homer's Leto rejoices with a joy that is unaffected, deep, and springing from the very depths of her heart and soul—for the words γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα λητώ, or “Leto rejoiced in heart,” mean nothing else—Virgil, on the other hand, in his attempt to imitate this, has depicted a joy that is passive, mild, slow, and as it were floating on the surface of the heart; for Probus said that he did not know what else the word pertemptant could mean. 10 [p. 183] Besides all this, Virgil seemed to have left out the flower of the whole passage, by giving only a faint shadow of this verse of Homer's:
And shone transcendent o'er the beauteous train. 11
For no greater or more complete praise of beauty can be expressed than that she alone excelled where all were beautiful, that she alone was easily distinguished from all the rest.

1 Cf. Hor. Ars Poet. 149–150.

2 Idyls v. 88 f; the translation is that of Edmonds, L.C.L.

3 Ed. iii. 64 ff., translation by Dryden.

4 Idyis iii. 3 ff.

5 Fr. 104, G. & S.

6 Ecl. ix. 23.

7 Odyss. vi. 102 ff., translation by Dryden.

8 Aen. i. 498. ff.

9 Aen. i. 504.

10 Pertempto means “try thoroughly,” hence “affect deeply.” Probus must have taken per in the sense of “over,” “on the surface,” thus giving pertempto a meaning of which no example exists.

11 Literally, "And is readily recognized, though all are fair.'

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  • Commentary references to this page (1):
    • W. Walter Merry, James Riddell, D. B. Monro, Commentary on the Odyssey (1886), 6.102
  • Cross-references in general dictionaries to this page (3):
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