How to read epic prose?
April 24, 2005 8:13 PM   Subscribe

I would like to read Homer, Virgil and Ovid - but have trouble getting through prose - what should I do?
posted by stbalbach to Society & Culture (21 answers total)
Trouble getting through verse, you mean? Or are you having a hard time with a prose translation? If so, why not pick up a verse translation? I found Robert Fagles's translation of Homer very enjoyable.
posted by ori at 8:26 PM on April 24, 2005

It depends on the reasons you're having trouble, I guess. Quiet time? Schedule reading time for yourself. Set up a comfortable reading environment -- a decently bright light, a medium-soft chair, no distractions, handy refreshments. Music helps some people, annoys others; it shouldn't call attention to itself regardless. Understanding the context? Do some prior research -- know who Homer is, know who Troy and the Greeks are. Trouble with the archaic language? Try reading aloud. Seriously. Poetry is made to be read aloud; Homer (to the extent he was a single, real individual) was a "singer" as much as a poet. Don't worry if it takes longer; savor each individual line, let it sink in. This isn't something to skim. Also, feel free to try a different translation; there are plenty for these works.
posted by dhartung at 8:46 PM on April 24, 2005

Stanley Lombardo's translation of the Iliad is very energetic and modern (sometimes jarringly so), but if you're having trouble with some of the more old-fashioned sounding versions it might be just what you need. But dhartung is right to emphasize that this is poetry--maybe audiobooks would be a good alternative?
posted by amber_dale at 9:14 PM on April 24, 2005

oops verse meant I..

I suspect it has to do with not reading verse on a regular basis, it is a very different approach to reading, otherwise I read quantities of books. The audio route is a good idea, and modern prose translations. I was just wondering how others have approached the verse epics.
posted by stbalbach at 10:04 PM on April 24, 2005

thanks amber_dale looks interesting.
posted by stbalbach at 10:15 PM on April 24, 2005

I would say that the best advice is to find a good transaltion and just dive in. Although it may be slow going at first and you may feel as though you are reading much slower than usual, you will eventually grow more comfortable with the material and gain speed. Hopefully you'll come to enjoy it.
I still find that I read verse much slower than prose, but I suppose that is because I tend to enjoy the ride more than the destination while reading verse.
(IIRC ther was a AM thread about Homer translations a while ago)
posted by ttrendel at 10:21 PM on April 24, 2005

Prose translations of these works suck. Don't bother.

The Fagles translations are very good; that's what I read. So is the Lombardo translation—I got to hear him read a chapter with harp accompaniment which was a very cool experience.
posted by grouse at 12:09 AM on April 25, 2005

Allen Mandelbaum's translation of Ovid rolls right off the page and into your mind. Not difficult at all.
posted by painquale at 12:09 AM on April 25, 2005

Reading prose translations of poems is, to me anyway, a little like reading instructions for the tango or reading a synopsis of a rock song -- you get the general idea and maybe even understand the action a bit better than someone participating in the dance or singing along, but you aren't enjoying it the way it was meant to be enjoyed, in verse and aloud.

But verse or prose, try comparing some translations for yourself before you buy anything. Do you like
Rage: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades' dark...
Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus' anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom...
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades string souls
of heroes...
or some other translation? You can try the first few lines online or in the store or library. Go with what you like.
posted by pracowity at 3:32 AM on April 25, 2005

The Fagles translations are great, but I think the most readable translations that are also true to the text are Robert Fitzgerald's. If you're finding that the Fagles is a little too archaic for you, try out Fitzgerald's translations.
posted by josh at 4:09 AM on April 25, 2005

pracowity - that's really illuminating as to how different the translations really are. I had always thought they were vastly more similar. Can you ID them for us?
posted by CunningLinguist at 5:12 AM on April 25, 2005

Do read the Fagles version of Homer. After you have that under your belt, try the Mitchell translation of Ovid's Metamorphoses. Both are lovely translations that remain faithful but don't sacrifice sound or sense in the service of strict translation.

Also, if you feel more adventurous after the Fagles version of the Iliad, I highly recommend Christopher Logue's War Music. Utterly amazing. More on Logue and his project here.
posted by Verdant at 5:45 AM on April 25, 2005

painquale writes "Allen Mandelbaum's translation of Ovid rolls right off the page and into your mind. Not difficult at all."

I have to second this. I have rarely enjoyed a book as much as I enjoyed Mandelbaum's Ovid, and I was very surprised at that. I read it with a group of people, and everyone loved the translation.

Every generation has their Homer, and I personally think Fagles is it for us. I would not go back to the Fitzgerald.
posted by OmieWise at 5:59 AM on April 25, 2005

Can you ID them for us?

Uh-oh. I think they were Lombardo, Fitzgerald, and Lattimore, in that order.
posted by pracowity at 6:43 AM on April 25, 2005

I second Fitzgerald and Logue; I find Lattimore accurate but boring.

The last two were definitely Fitz and Latt; I don't know the first one.
Yep, it's Lombardo. For further comparison, here's Fagles:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls...

Personally, I can't imagine anyone bettering Fitzgerald: "doomed and ruinous" sends shivers down my spine every time.
posted by languagehat at 6:52 AM on April 25, 2005

I'm gonna second Lombardo for both the Iliad and the Odyssey, it's very readable (the Classics department at my old college selected his translations for that reason). It's simple while still poetic. Also, I remember watching a video where he performed part of one of his translations to a bongo drum, that was awesome.

Never read any translation by Lattimore, he tends to take... interesting liberties at times. I read the Fitzgerald translation of Virgil and it was decent, though not as easy to get through as Lombardo's Homer. I would guess Mandelbaum's Ovid is good, since my boyfriend favored his translation of the Inferno.
posted by dagnyscott at 7:44 AM on April 25, 2005

I would also like to recommend highly a brief and immensely readable book by Robert Pinsky, called "The Sounds of Poetry", a very pleasurable invitation to develop a subtler ear for verse. His prose is unpretentious and warm and his examples delightful. Apart from being an eminent poet (former Poet Laureate in the States) he has also published a translation of Dante's Comedy.
posted by ori at 11:37 AM on April 25, 2005

I listened to The Odyssey on tape. It was great. No need to worry about how to pronounce the names, and much easier to understand and take in.

Ditto for Ulysses. That was a tremendous experience. I don't think I ever would have made it through the printed version.
posted by alms at 12:26 PM on April 25, 2005

Several suggestions:

1) Read a synopsis first -- it's easier to relax and watch the story unfold when you already know the basic structure and plot.

2) I second the reading aloud suggestion.

3) If possible, find someone else interested in reading the same work at the same time along some sort of schedule, then get together and discuss. (Nothing formal -- think of it like gabbing about what happened on the Sopranos last week, or whatever.) A lot of the details, themes, and fantastically brilliant stuff will really come out easily in discussion -- stuff that would be much more elusive if it's just you, sitting in a room, pondering the brilliance of Homer, Virgil, and Ovid.
posted by desuetude at 12:38 PM on April 25, 2005

I took a class with Robert Fitzgerald on his Homeric translations way back when and must endorse his versions... He was very much into accuracy, but most of all it was the beauty of the music of the Greek that he savored. It might not always be the easiest to read relative to the others, but he was a poet first and that comes through. Do read aloud, whichever version you choose!
posted by rleamon at 4:02 PM on April 25, 2005

I would second alms. Your solution is an audio version, particularly for Homer. His stuff was meant to be listened to, not read. Have a pro narrator read it to you -- it's easy, and so right. I find it hard to read now, but have audited several versions. Virgul and Ovid are not bad audited either.
posted by kk at 9:17 PM on April 26, 2005

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