Sentences — August 1, 2008, 2:35 pm

Weekend Read: “So the trail leads you here”

ajaxsophocles

In my previous post, I touched upon the habit of rereading, suggesting that it’s a central feature of all reading experience. To mint a crude means of measuring literary quality, “better books” might be called those that remain loved by us when we reread them decades—and many experiences (literary or not)—later. Anything loved at twenty (that terrific pair of yellow pants) may not suit the forty-year-old who thinks to slip into them again. Whereas those books loved by a culture and which we might call classics are those that fit a culture through the decades and well past the decline of the cultures that spawned them.

As such, rereading in translation is a special kind of rereading. Some translations of works we have read before—Anna Karenina; In Search of Lost Time—however numerous their differences from immediate predecessors, are more like their predecessors than they are unlike them. The Russian and French languages have evolved in the last century but slightly, and however differently their translators might approach the particulars of fidelity, the sprawling totality of the novels defeats wholesale renovation.

Rereading poetry in translation is another matter, particularly when the source language is thousands of years out of date. Fans of Christopher Logue’s renovations of Homer’s Illiad know that translation can offer not merely a subtle shift in our sense of a style but a seismic alteration in our appreciation of a lyric or epic work’s landscape. Logue is as famous for the quality of his English Homer as for the novelty of his approach: knowing no Greek, he rewrites the poem from literal trots of the original. This very ‘liberal’ approach to rereading Homer can only work well, which is to say beautifully, which is to say dramatically, when the translator’s resourcefulness in his own idiom is, if not the equal of that of its source, excedingly well-matched to it.

John Tipton is a poet I have yet to read, but his new translation of Sophocles Ajax (Flood, 2008), in its vigor and careful tuning, its terse idiomatic grace, argues that he is a poet worth exploring. I heard about Tipton’s Ajax here, in another of Emily Wilson’s dependably and welcomingly intelligent essay-reviews. As Wilson said of the original:

Ajax was composed by Sophocles probably sometime in the 440s BC–the decade before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. In this period, Athens was consolidating its military and economic power in the Greek world, forming new allegiances and breaking old ones. The city was also undergoing cultural and intellectual changes: the Sophists (“wisdom-teachers”) were introducing new ideas about science, society, religion and morality into the public and private spheres, which seemed to some citizens to threaten their traditional values and way of life.

Sophocles’ tragedy tells of Ajax–a great hero of the Trojan War, but never the greatest, a warrior associated with old-fashioned valor and physical courage. After the Greek victory over the Trojans, the Greek generals hold a contest to decide who should inherit the magical armor of Achilles, which his divine mother, Thetis, had given to him. Ajax’s archenemy, Odysseus, wins the competition. In Sophocles’ play, as in Homer’s Iliad, Odysseus seems–at least at first–like the exact opposite of Ajax: he represents brains over brawn; trickery over courage; the new sophistic values of flexibility, cleverness, and rhetoric over the old ideal of death before dishonor.

I loved reading Tipton’s account of Ajax’ agonistes, and propose, as your weekend read, the beginning of his translation, in which wise Athena talks to wily Odysseus outside war-ruined Ajax’ tent. With thanks to Flood editions and John Tipton for permission to reprint.

ATHENA

Often, Odysseus, I have seen you
on the hunt pressing an enemy.
Now you come to Ajax’ tent
at the end of the line.
So the trail leads you here
with fresh tracks and you see
they go in and come out.
You bloodhound—snout to the ground!
Yes, the man just went in,
his head sweating, his hands bloody.
But no need to look inside—
he is there.
he is there.Tell me, why
the hurry?
the hurry?Perhaps I can help.

ODYSSEUS

The voice of Athena—my goddess!
I know you—can’t see you
but that voice in my head
rings like a bright bronze horn.

You know me too well—yes,
I’ve been circling this soldier’s tent.
The trail leads here, no further.
Last night something very strange happened.
It looks like Ajax is responsible.
No one saw clearly—only guesses—
and I want to con?rm it.
We just discovered a bloody mess:
our captured cattle all dead, butchered
along with the herdsmen watching them.
Everyone suspects Ajax of it because
a picket said he saw him
running with a freshly bloodied weapon,
moving fast.
moving fast.I came right away
and picked up the trail along
with other tracks I don’t recognize.
As always you’re just in time;
you can steer me from here.

ATHENA

Yes, Odysseus, I watched the progress
of your hunt with some interest.

ODYSSEUS

How have I done, my goddess?

ATHENA

He is the man you want.

ODYSSEUS

What stupidity drove him to it?

ATHENA

An uncontrollable anger over Achilles’ arms.

ODYSSEUS

Then why kill animals and shepherds?

ATHENA

He thought you stained his hands.

ODYSSEUS

So he planned to attack Greeks?

ATHENA

And would have but for me.

ODYSSEUS

How could he be so bold?

ATHENA

He moved under cover of night.

ODYSSEUS

Then why didn’t he reach us?

ATHENA

He was just outside your tents.

ODYSSEUS

What stopped him from murdering us?

ATHENA

I stopped him, made him hallucinate,
diverted his eyes from his desire.
I turned him on the herd
and the guards posted on watch.
He jumped in striking at horns,
severing spines in circles around him.
He thought he killed the Atreids
and was attacking some other generals.
I made him sick with rage,
drew him tighter in the net,
and soon the work exhausted him.
He tied up anything still alive
and led them to his tent
thinking oxen and rams were men.
He has them trussed for torture.

Let me show you this sickness
so you can tell the Greeks.
Stay calm. He cannot harm you.
I will make his vision dim;
he will not see your face.
You there, with the prisoners inside,
put down those ropes a moment!
Ajax, come! Step outside the tent!

ODYSSEUS

What are you doing, Athena? Don’t!

ATHENA

Quiet—stop being such a coward.

ODYSSEUS

No, he’s ?ne where he is.

ATHENA

Why? He is just a man.

ODYSSEUS

Yes, but I can’t stand him.

ATHENA

Isn’t it sweet to mock him?

ODYSSEUS

I’m happy enough with him inside.

ATHENA

Are you afraid of his raving?

ODYSSEUS

Sure, I wouldn’t be afraid otherwise.

ATHENA

He cannot see you, even nearby.

ODYSSEUS

He still has eyes, doesn’t he?

ATHENA

I will wrap him in darkness.

ODYSSEUS

I guess gods can work tricks.

ATHENA

Now be silent and stand still.

ODYSSEUS

Fine, but I’d rather be gone…

ATHENA

Ajax! I have to call twice?
This is how you treat friends?

AJAX

Hail, Athena! Hail, daughter of Zeus!
My ally.
My ally.I’m just about to
crown your altar with these spoils.

ATHENA

Excellent news.
Excellent news.But tell me this:
was your weapon aimed at Greeks?

AJAX

Yes! Proudly. I won’t deny it.

ATHENA

And did you attack the Atreids?

AJAX

They won’t insult Ajax ever again.

ATHENA

So I gather you killed them?

AJAX

Dead.
Dead.Let them steal weapons now.

ATHENA

Well then, what about Laertes’ son?
Did he get away from you?

AJAX

Want to know about that bastard?

ATHENA

Yes—Odysseus, your nemesis—tell me.

AJAX

My favorite prisoner is inside, goddess.
I won’t kill him just yet.

ATHENA

Why not? What are you doing?

AJAX

First, he’s tied to a post…

ATHENA

And then? What will you do?

AJAX

…then whipped bloody… then he dies.

ATHENA

You go a little too far.

AJAX

Whatever else pleases you I’ll do
but he gets what he deserves.

ATHENA

Since you seem to enjoy yourself,
go—let your mind run wild.

AJAX

Back to work.
Back to work.Grant me this:
that you ?ght beside me… always.

ATHENA

See what gods can do, Odysseus?
Who was more sane than Ajax?
Did anyone act with better judgment?

ODYSSEUS

No.
No.I feel sorry for him
even though he’s still no friend.
He’s completely out of his mind
and that could easily be me.

If you stare hard at life
you see we’re nothing but shadows.

ATHENA

Take a good look and learn.
Do not brag to the gods.
Never be arrogant because you think
yourself stronger or richer than anyone.
One day can change it all.
This is human life.
This is human life.Gods love
the wise but hate a fool.

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