KR OnlineReview

Alice Oswald’s Memorial and the Reinvention of Translation

New York: W. W. Norton, 2012. 90 pages. $24.95
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The idea that a translation inevitably interprets and rewrites its source poem is today a mundane assertion. The cultural dialog of the 1970s and 1980s, with its emphasis on translation as a process of negotiation and reactivation of cultural meaning, seems to have finally liberated poets from that old-fashioned notion of fidelity. To take two recent examples, Mary Jo Bang’s translation of Dante’s Inferno is riddled with contemporary references such as Pink Floyd and Donald Rumsfeld, and Anne Carson’s hand-lettered and illustrated Antigonik, her wayward version of Sophocles’ Antigone, is more focused on crafting an art object in the spirit of the original than rendering the narrative. These women view translation as a mode of engagement with literature. Their projects foreground intense connection with the original: the process and polysemy of rewriting the canon in an attempt make sense of their subjective, present-day worlds. Sherry Simon would call them feminist translators (though they may not self-identify as such), or at the very least literary activists who flaunt the signs of their manipulation of the original. Their projects reinvent both the original and our idea of translation, what it is and what it can do.

While critics certainly still exist who decry such faithlessness, the question when approaching a work of literature in translation is no longer one of fidelity but rather of the parameters of the writing project and its success. There is no such thing as a faithful translation. Rather, there are many kinds of fidelity: fidelity to tone, to form, to emotional hue, considerations of historical moment, of reputation, of lineage and dialog. A translator makes choices about what elements to privilege, what to let fall by the wayside. It is more fruitful to ask, to what is the translation faithful? This is not to say that all comparison of the translation to the original be thrown out the window. Rather, the descriptive evaluation of a translation assumes that, no matter how seemingly “faithful,” it inevitably reads the source poem from the bias of specific ideologies—that is, from the viewpoint of the translator’s own social, cultural, and personal belief systems—biases that are often embedded in language itself. Understanding the implications of a translator’s writing project is also about assessing this (often unconscious) ideological transformation.

Alice Oswald lays out her writing project very clearly at the beginning of Memorial, which she has subtitled “A Version of Homer’s Iliad” (the UK edition calls it “An Excavation of the Iliad,” the archeological metaphor lending helpful nuance). “This is a translation of the Iliad’s atmosphere, not its story,” she begins, explaining her method of brushing away the overall narrative to reveal the poem’s enargeia or “bright unbearable reality.” What’s left are the bones of soldiers’ lives embedded within the dirt of pastoral simile, such as in this section on Isos and Antiphos:

They used to be shepherds they were hill people
Working out of reach of the world
Those were the two boys Achilles kidnapped
Among the wolves and buzzards of Mount Ida
They said it was wonderful to be tied in creepers
And taken to the other side by the gypsy
They said he could talk to horses
They said his mother was a seal or mermaid
And he introduced them to Agamemnon
The great king of Mycenae poor fools
Who came home as proud as astronauts
And didn’t want to farm any more
And went riding out to be killed by Agamemnon

Like a boat
Going into the foaming mouth of a wave
In the body of the wind
Everything vanishes
And the sailors stare at mid-air

Oswald constructs her poem by oscillating between such paraphrased accounts of those killed in the Trojan war and similes that are, for the most part, closely resonant in the way that “a boat going into the foaming mouth of a wave” echoes “riding out to be killed.” Most of the similes repeat a second time, lending the welcome pause of rereading to what otherwise is a very fast-paced poem.

Yet within this set-up, the poem proceeds with the energy and restlessness of constant reinvention. Oswald draws attention to her work of reinventing the Iliad by refusing to settle into her own design. The book opens with an eight-page list of names that marks it as what Oswald calls an “oral cemetery,” recalling monuments such as the Vietnam Memorial’s wall of names. Shorter lists of names return throughout the poem and interrupt the structure, only to be interrupted themselves with the sudden violence of war:

The flash of a spear
Woke them with a jolt

This kind of compression and contrast are key elements of the poem’s flow, which Oswald calls “bipolar” and “antiphonal.” At times she reduces whole biographies to the simple fact that someone died and often compresses vast narratives of the past into a few lines. The repeated similes begin to take over, until the final twelve pages are nothing but similes, now given white space with one to a page. The effect is breathtaking.

What gives the poem power is the thematic amplification that epic simile conveys. Oswald uses it in the spirit of Homer as a tool of contrast set apart from narrative structure. As comparison to the actions of war, the similes present a natural world filled with tumult and danger. The ocean is never peaceful but is always churned up by wind, the rain pummels the earth, the animal kingdom is forever ruled by the order of hunter and hunted, there is always a storm brewing nearby. Even a rainbow is seen as a portent “shining a warning to the world / A bright banner of disruption hung above the fields.” The force of wind quickly becomes the chief metaphor and combines with the fast pace of the poem to give it the feel of a “wind-dictionary” defining the chaos of “bloodfest” that goes on and on.

Oswald is very clear about her sense of authority and responsibility as a translator. “My approach to translation is fairly irreverent,” she writes, “I work closely with the Greek, but instead of carrying the words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at. I write through the Greek, not from it—aiming for translucence rather than translation.” While this approach serves her well in capturing the atmosphere of the world that Homer saw, it fails to some degree in conveying his worldview. Historically distant works of art present the biggest challenge when it comes to mediating between distinct worldviews. Oswald’s poem oddly transforms the polytheistic belief system so integral to the Iliad into a monotheistic sense of divine control, revealing a fundamental ideological shift. Zeus is only mentioned twice, Apollo once. It is god, not gods, who control the natural world. God’s actions in the poem almost always imbue the natural world with a sense of beauty that just might, in the end, save man, as in the final simile that closes the poem: “Like when god throws a star / And everyone looks up / To see that whip of sparks / And then it’s gone.”

The surgery Oswald performs on the Iliad only works because it is a historical poem with a long tradition of translation. A reader will not lack for other versions to consult and compare, which is the best-case scenario when approaching a work of literature in translation. In the end, Memorial successfully answers the question of why we need yet another translation of Homer by building thematic resonance with today’s political realities. As a comment on war, it is devastatingly elegiac, all the more so for the implicit understanding that war has been a reality for thousands of years. Oswald’s active participation in the creation of new meaning from an ancient poem draws attention to her agency in the process of translation and shows great respect for the original—after all, respect is different from fidelity and can include confrontation and revision. Those who want a more conservative translation have plenty of places to look elsewhere.

Photo of Mira Rosenthal
Mira Rosenthal, a past fellow of the National Endowment for the Arts and Stanford University’s Stegner Program, publishes poetry and translations regularly in such journals as Ploughshares, Threepenny Review, Poetry, Harvard Review, New England Review, A Public Space, and Oxford American. Her first book of poems, The Local World, received the Wick Poetry Prize. Her honors include the PEN/Heim Translation Fund Award, a Fulbright Fellowship, and a grant from the American Council of Learned Societies. She teaches in Cal Poly’s creative writing program.