Iliad. A Southern African translation. Una Ilíada sud-africana, de la mà de Richard Whitaker
Iliad Book 1
Muse, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Akhilleus,
deadly rage that brought the Akhaians endless pain,
that hurled down to Hades many strong souls
of heroes and made their bodies meat for dogs
and vultures, fulfilling the plan of Zeus,
ever since the day that those two quarreled –
inkosi Agamemnon and godlike Akhilleus.
………Which god made them clash in strife? The son
of Zeus and Leto. Angry with the chief,
he drove plague on the impis – people died
because Atreus’ son dishonoured the priest,
Khryses. He came to the Akhaian ships
to free his daughter, offering rich ransom,
holding in his hands Apollo’s ribbons
around a golden staff, and begged the Akhaians,
above all Atreus’ two sons, their leaders:
‘Sons of Atreus, all well-greaved Akhaians,
may the Olympian gods grant that you sack
the town of Priam and come safely home.
Take this ransom and release my daughter;
respect Apollo the Archer, Zeus’s son.’
………The other Akhaians shouted their assent:
he should respect the priest and take the splendid ransom.
This failed to please the heart of Agamemnon;
he harshly dismissed Khryses, saying roughly:
‘Kehla, don’t let me find you hanging
around the ships, now or in the future –
the god’s staff and ribbons won’t protect you.
I will not release her – before that, she’ll grow old
in my home, in Argos, far from her native land,
working the loom and servicing my bed.
Go! don’t annoy me and put yourself in danger.’
………He spoke. The old man trembled and obeyed;
he left in silence, beside the roaring sea.
Far away, the kehla prayed
to inkosi Apollo, son of fair-haired Leto:
‘Hear me, god of the silver bow, powerful lord
of Khryse, sacred Killa, Tenedos –
Mouse-god, if ever I built a lovely shrine
for you, if ever I burned fat thigh-bones
of goats or bulls, then grant my prayer: make your shafts
punish the Akhaians for my tears.’
……….He spoke in prayer; Phoibos Apollo heard.
He sped from Olympos’ peak, heart angry,
bow and covered quiver on his shoulders,
arrows clattering in his fury as he moved.
He came on like night. Sitting far from the ships,
he let a shaft fly – his silver bow
clanged terribly. First, he attacked the mules
and nimble dogs, then launched a barbed
arrow at the men, and struck. Corpse
after corpse burned on the funeral-pyre.
Iliad, I, 1-51
Translation by Richard Whitaker
inkosi: (Xhosa and Zulu) inkáwsi a chief, ruler; transf., God; respectful form of address to the foregoing
impi: (Zulu) impi army or regiment of warriors
kehla: (Zulu) kéh-khla elderly man; respectful form of adress to old man
South African English
The English language in South Africa (SAE) dates from the arrival of the British at the Cape of Good Hope in 1795. As was the case in most colonies, English was introduced first by soldiers and administrators, then by missionaries, settlers, and fortune-seekers. English took root during the 19th century as a southern African language, as a result of the British settlements of 1820 (in the Eastern Cape), 1848–51 (in Natal), and the subsequent rushes to the diamond mines of Kimberley and the gold mines of the Witwatersrand.
Modern SAE is part of a complex linguistic and cultural mix. The Constitution of 1994 recognizes 11 official languages, namely English, Afrikaans, and the nine major African languages (including isiZulu, isiXhosa, seTswana and seSotho), as well as additional ‘community and religious languages’ such as Khoi-San, Telegu, Hindi, Portuguese, Hebrew, and Arabic.
more at: Oxford English Dictionary on line
There is another aspect of contemporary South Africa that provides a point d’appui for the translator of Homer: the fact that an African-language tradition of orally composing and performing poetry still flourishes in this country. The type of oral composition especially practised is the praise poem addressed to significant or powerful individuals. Historically, the highest form of praising has been that directed to the tribal chief, proclaiming his physical and moral characteristics and, particularly, his prowess in battle and his conquests. A praise might consist of just a brief allusive description. But the more the chief accomplished, the more elaborate his praise poem; in the case of a famous individual like Shaka, the 19th-century leader of the Zulus, his praises eventually comprised hundreds of verses.
Over the past decade or so, as South Africans have begun to try to create a common culture that would bridge over the divisions of the past, a number of poets composing in English have used indigenous, oral, praise poetry as a model. Now I am not suggesting that a whole Homeric epic could be translated in this style. The dense, allusive and abrupt, essentially non-narrative manner of the Southern African praise poem (similar in these respects to Pindar), is just too different from the flowing, endlessly varied narrative style of Homer. However, certain passages of 19th-century Zulu praise poetry list the killings of enemy chiefs in a way that reminds one of the many catalogues of killings in the battle-scenes of the Iliad. Here, for example, are lines from the praises of the great Zulu chief Shaka, which detail his conquests (“devoured” here is a conventional metaphor for “killed”):
He [Shaka] destroyed Zwide amongst the Ndwandwes,
He destroyed Nomahlanjana son of Zwide,
He destroyed Sikhunyana son of Zwide.
He devoured Ndimindwane of the Mswelis of the Xulu clan,
He devoured Mdladlama of the Mbhedu clan,
He destroyed Mphezeni amongst the Nxumalos […]
(Cope [1968, p. 112])
It should possible to reproduce the feel of lines like these in translating passages such as the following, from Iliad 14:
First Aias, son of Telamon, stabbed Hyrtios
the son of Gyrtias, leader of the strong-hearted Mysians;
and Antilokhos killed Phalkes and Mermeros,
and Meriones cut down Morys and Hippotion,
and Teukros destroyed Prothoon and Periphetes,
and the son of Atreus then stabbed Hyperenor,
shepherd of the people, in the flank […] (Il. 14.511-7)
Translating Homer in an African context
Dins de: Omero tremila anni dopo. Roma, 2002 (pàgs. 529-530).
[…] in the sublime scene at the end of the poem, Achilles finally lets go of his anger, and shows the deepest human sympathy for a suppliant, the father of his enemy, Priam (Il. 24.477 ff).
All this, which is well known to readers of Homer, has a particular resonance for a South African in the year 2000. South Africa is only now beginning to emerge from centuries of conflict and division between the different groups and cultures that live within the country’s borders. The last twenty-five years, especially, have witnessed continual, low-level, civil war. And yet, amid the barbarity, the acts of torture and terror, and the massacres, there have been moments of the most astonishing humanity. Men imprisoned for decades, like Nelson Mandela, have shown no bitterness at all towards their gaolers; sworn enemies have come to respect each other’s humanity; torturers have been forgiven by their victims. I am sufficiently old-fashioned to believe, with the Greeks, that poetry can offer us more than just an aesthetic experience, that it can also teach us something. So I would hope, idealistically – perhaps naively – that a Southern African Iliad might strengthen the impulse towards reconciliation in my country, by showing how, against a background of implacable anger and brutality, enemies were reconciled – even if only momentarily – in a great imaginative work nearly three thousand years ago.
Translating Homer in an african context
Dins de: Omero tremila anni dopo. Roma, 2002 (pàgs. 529-530).
A Southern African translation
by Richard Whitaker
New Voices. Cape Town, Sud-àfrica, 2012
Book available at: http://www.southernafricaniliad.com
A cura di Franco Montanari
Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura. Roma, 2002