Can Historical Novelists Learn From Translators of Ancient Texts?

Poet Steven Mitchell is creating some waves with his new translation of the Iliad.

According to a Sept. 30 review by Alexandra Alter in The Wall Street Journal, readers of Mitchell’s updated rendition of the classic will no longer be met by “swift-footed” Achilles, “bright-eyed” Athena, or “crafty” Odysseus.

Instead, Mitchell has relied upon, selectively and judiciously, modern descriptions of these characters to make the text more accessible.

In the WSJ review, Mitchell offered an explanation for his decision to update the traditional understanding of the Greek used by Homer with what Alter described as movie-style dialogue: “If you translate literally, the English may sound stilted or phony.”

Historical novelists and translators of classical texts thus confront a similar problem: How to make a story ring both authentic and understandable to the contemporary ear.

To this end, as Mitchell demonstrates, the translator must from time to time move from the archaic to the modern. In contrast, the historical novelist must often retreat from the modern toward the archaic.

Somewhere in the middle lies the elusive sweet spot.

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