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The Gift of Homer - Impressions and Expressions of Ijon
December 17th, 2002
09:55 pm


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The Gift of Homer
I've done my good deed of the week: L., who takes Prof. Ben-Porat's introduction to the western canon course with me, and who immigrated to Israel from Siberia several years ago, called me up to ask whether I know where she might find a Russian translation of Homer's Odyssey. She tried to read the (fantastic, spectacular, stupendous, wondrous) Hebrew translation, created by master poet and translator Shaul Tschernichowski circa 1920. That translation is readily available in the TAU library and elsewhere. However, its Hebrew is rich, very rich, and its syntax difficult (greatly due to T.'s heroic preservation of Homer's dactylic hexameter!), so she sort of gave up, quite understandably. I've known quite a few native speakers of Hebrew who couldn't cope with T.'s kung fu.

So anyhow, I extend my sympathy to L., and suggest one of the many Russian second-hand bookshops that exist in Tel Aviv, to serve the Russian-reading populace. They're bound to have a copy, I figure. At the same time, I tell her I'll ask some of my Russian-reading friends to see if perhaps she could borrow their copy for a couple of weeks. Then I ask her if she's still sick, as she hasn't shown up in class last week. She is. I wish her a speedy recovery, and say goodbye.

Then I realize that nobody should have to buy Homer for himself. There is something Basically Right about receiving Homer's works as a gift. I was given the Iliad (T.'s translation, of course) by ygurvitz, some years ago, and I could not return the favor, since he already had his own copy. All the more reason, say I, to bestow the gift of Homer on an unsuspecting but deserving victim.

Off I go to a bookshop sagely recommended by batilda, and, sure enough, I find "GOMER"'s works (in verse. I checked!), in two nice hardcover volumes. I call L. up and say "So, I found a copy of the Odyssey for you." She's happy, she thanks me. I say that I could drop it by her place, if she lives around Tel Aviv, while I'm around, and since time is of the essence (she has to read it for class).

Twenty minutes later, I give L. the books, and she's surprised to find the Iliad there as well (hey, there's no point in buying half of Homer's Complete Works while you're making a gesture), and then surprised again to realize that the books are hers, to grace her shelves henceforth. I explain my notion of the gift of Homer. She resists, I insist. I suggest that she can give the gift of Homer to someone else, some day. That persuades her. I stay for tea and conversation, and leave.

Current Music: David Bowie -- Lady Grinning Soul

(11 comments | Leave a comment)

Date:December 17th, 2002 12:14 pm (UTC)

You're right on with the gift of Homer. I'm going to spread the meme and the poetry.
[User Picture]
Date:December 17th, 2002 03:39 pm (UTC)

spreading the text

[12:13] nanowyatt: a great post - (Link: http://www.livejournal.com/talkpost.bml?journal=ijon&itemid=40707)http://www.livejournal.com/talkpost.bml?journal=ijon&itemid=40707
[12:16] perspectivism: AHA! i get it. he has a fetish for tea. it was all about the tea.
[12:16] perspectivism: i wish he'd described it in more detail.
[12:17] perspectivism: what kind of tea, how long it steeped, milk, lemon?
[12:17] perspectivism: i feel terribly teased.
[12:17] perspectivism: perhaps i should send him a note.
[12:18] nanowyatt: Fred: Maybe you can clarify something for me. Since I've been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I've read a lot, and -
Ted: Really?
Fred: And one of the things that keeps popping up is this about "subtext." Plays, novels, songs - they all have a "subtext," which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind. So subtext we know. But what do you call the message or meaning that's right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. What do you call what's above the subtext?
Ted: The text.
Fred: OK, that's right, but they never talk about that.
[User Picture]
Date:December 17th, 2002 03:28 pm (UTC)
Wow, almost makes me wish I didn't already own both books :). (Although, come to think of it, only in their entirety in English, and then books 9 and 11-24 of the Iliad in Greek...)

But to back up a moment...Hebrew meter. You know, I know nothing about that. How does meter work in Hebrew? Accent? Length? Syllable count? Some other wackiness?
[User Picture]
Date:October 24th, 2003 04:52 pm (UTC)
Have I never responded to this? Silly me.

Hebrew poetry, as of the 19th century, is Syllabo-tonic, i.e. uses stress to mark feet.

If you can stomach transliterated meter examples in a language you don't understand, let me know. :)
Date:December 17th, 2002 10:33 pm (UTC)
Bless you for giving the gift of Homer!

I've got to admit I've been more partial to the gift of Vergil, but that's mostly because most of the people I know already have Homer and probably would not welcome (as I would) a different translation.
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Date:October 24th, 2003 04:49 pm (UTC)
Thanks! (belated ones, so what)

Vergilius is a good idea! Perhaps I could start another round of gifts with Vergilius... :)
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Date:December 18th, 2002 01:00 am (UTC)

Princely charms never fade away, it seems.

Eternal love,

- Countess
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Date:December 18th, 2002 02:29 am (UTC)

My brother...
You are a good man!
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Date:December 20th, 2002 03:45 am (UTC)


It always seemed to me as if T.'s translation somewhat missed the mark. While my ancient Greek could use brushing up, it is a prevalent scholarly opinion that the epics of Homer were circulated by oral means quite a while before they were put to writing, and even then, their language was strikingly colloquial - language that every Greek, regardless of his education, could understand and identify with. Hence Homer's immense and undying popularity.

T.'s translation, of course, takes the text to exactly the opposite direction, translating it to Hebrew that no one, in his time or ours, could understand without at least some effort, even inconvenience. Perhaps that is why the Iliad and the Odyssey never really became well-liked in Israel - because their only translation to Hebrew is arduous and cumbersome.

Take the conversations among the Gods, for example. Homer intended them (so it seems to me) to be, at times, almost a comic relief from the intense action taking place among humans. Zeus' rant about the mortals at the beginning of the Odyssey, for instance, communicates the grumpiness of an old, exasperated grandfather, and doesn't look like it's intended to be taken seriously. T.'s translation, on the other hand, tries to impress upon that scene all the grandeur that it lacks. The result is simply artificial.

It is worth noting that modern English translations have done much better that Tcharnihovsky. E.V. Rieu's translation is good, though my personal favourite is W.H.D. Rouse's adaptation. It's simple, it's beautiful, and above all else, it's fun.
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Date:December 21st, 2002 10:25 am (UTC)

Re: Hmm.

Tchernikovsky's translation of The Odyssey is not the only one. In 1996 a new translation by Ahuvia Kahane was published. I do not know anything about it, besides the fact of its existence.

This might be the place to recommend T's translation of The Epic of Gilgamesh. Even though I'm currently taking a course about Akkadian and Sumerian Myths with the poet Sh. Shifra, who superbly translated this text (and many others) from the original Sumerian and Akkadian, while Tchernikovsky translated it from German, his translation should not be left un-noticed. It carries with it a certain old fashioned biblical charm and offers a tough, yet rewarding, read, of one of the most beautiful myths.

(and to think it was written in 2,700 BC...)
[User Picture]
Date:December 24th, 2002 08:51 am (UTC)

Re: Hmm.

Hi, Tamar! I've never heard of that second translation, so thanks for letting me know.

You know, I wonder who would be capable of learning Sumerian and Akkadian, when their uses are so few, even compared to other dead languages. Well, I guess there is something attractive about knowing something that almost no one else.
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