Transcript: C. K. Williams and Robert Fagles
The following transcript is an excerpt from a December 6, 2007, interview.
C. K. Williams on Robert Fagles
I think it's hard to comprehend what a huge task Robert Fagles set himself in translating The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid. When Alexander Pope translated The Iliad and The Odyssey, he had a crew of clerks working for him, basically, translating and he was doing the finished versions. Bob Fagles did it all himself. When he came to do the The Aeneid., I knew him well and we met regularly, and at the very beginning he said he really had to get his Latin back first and I found that really astonishing, that first he would get his Latin back and then embark upon such a gigantic, daunting task. And the fact that he pulled it off with such eloquence and such elegance is really a wonderful statement not only about his spirit, but about the spirit of poetry.
Robert Fagles on American Translations of Homer
The English tend to like their Homer, as they take it, "straight," meaning in prose. We tend to like our Homer in verse, and I think that may tend to explain why American Homer—American translations, in fact—are with us. We don't want to subject an ancient poem to what might be called "the betrayal of prose." We want it to be in some kind of comparable verse, comparable to the great Greek original, and I think it's through that effort to turn Homer into poetry that we stand a chance of coming close to Matthew Arnold's great counters that Homer is "simple, direct, swift, and, above all, noble." I think that there's much in that, and it may very well be that Homer is becoming more of an American thing, even than an English thing, these days. I certainly hope so.
Robert Fagles on Homeric Greek vs. American English
Homeric Greek is paratactic; it sets things side by side by side. His favorite way of joining elements in a sentence is by "and" and "and" and "and. " Hemingway mastered this art, as you know. Homer is not only paratactic, he's wonderfully forthright, and direct. He has a wonderful energy and momentum, and more than that, Homer has a metric in him that is terrific, whether he's describing the building of a raft, or the hitching up of a wagon, or the look of a bow, or the flight of an arrow. Whatever Homer describes, however homely, however factual, it always comes out poetry. To describe in my English, at least, on the other hand—and I do mean the other hand—my English is not paratactic, it's hyper-tactic. It deals in causes, in subordinations and insubordinations. My English is not as forthright and direct, it is more understated. My English is not possessed of a kind of momentum, it's more phrase-bound, more clause-bound, more fragmentary. What I try to say is not ever naturally poetry, whether I'm describing the hitching up of a wagon, or a long hard sail in the Mediterranean, or the reunion of a king and queen. My English, and the English I inherit, by and large, is not poetry until a Melville or a Faulkner has made it so.
Robert Fagles on Homer's "Burly Courtesy"
We like variations in tone, from the high to the low. I think that has a lot to do with it. I think that Robert Frost might even be I think what you call a "tutelary spirit." There is much about Robert Frost which comes to the American Homerist's aid: one is his bluntness that does very well, I think, for the Iliad. Something else is his kind of earthy, ironic savvy, that has a lot to do with the pastoral parts of the Odyssey and the confabulations between Odysseus and the pig-keeper. Being an American is something of an advantage. I think especially of when we're writing well, talking well, there are parts of American speech that are rough-and-ready, high, wide, and handsome; they can be filled with a kind of "burly courtesy." When I think of the quality of burly courtesy, I think that might serve Homer very well.