Bad Translation, or how Heraclitus got misrendered.

HeraclitusA few months ago I found a translation of Heraclitus’ fragments from Penguin Classics.  This would not have excited me so much had this translation not included the Greek.  A chance to read Heraclitus’ famous aphorisms in Greek!

However, my alarm bells started ringing when I found this translation was done by Brooks Haxton, a contemporary poet.  For reasons I’ll explain better below, I am very leery of “poetic renderings” of classical texts by modern  wordsmiths who may or may not have any clue about the ancient language they translate from.  (Haxton may have formal training in classical Greek, but I could find no evidence of it.)  This is as much a problem for Sufi poets as it is for Greek and Latin.  Sadly, in trying to convey the spirit of Heraclitus, Haxton often remakes Heraclitus into his own image: a contemporary free verse poet.

Awful Translations

Here I’ll look at two of Haxton’s strangest translations — and the much better Greek originals.  First we start with Heraclitus’ most famous fragment:

Ποταμοῖσι δἰς τοῖσι αὐτοῖσι οὐκ ἄν ἐμβαἰης· ἕτερα γαρ <καἰ ἕτερα> ἐπιρρεῖ ὕδατα. (fragment 41)

Haxton translates this as

The river
where you set
your foot just now
is gone —
those waters
giving way to this,
now this.

First of all, where does Haxton get this incessant line breaking?  This is not in the aphoristic Greek text.  He is making some poetry, and his own style of poetry no less, when that is simply not in the original.

What’s more, this translation is not even accurate.  It should be rendered something like

You cannot step into the same rivers twice; for different (and different) waters flow.

Haxton is not even close.  Of course all translation involves interpretation, but Haxton isn’t even translating.

Another aphorism runs thus:

Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεί. (fragment 10)

This aphorism is harder to puzzle out.  It literally translates to something like:

Nature likes to hide itself.

Indeed, this is how scholar of Greek philosophy Jonathan Barnes translates it in his Early Greek Philosophy, also in Penguin Classics (page 112).  But Haxton renders it:

Things keep their secrets.

This sounds deep and profound, if obscure and enigmatic.  But it is not Heraclitus.  Φύσις, or “nature,” (cognate with “physics”) is not the same as “things.”

Haxton should know better.  He is a poet, so he should know that precision in language is important, and that one should remain humble before other authors rather than taking such creative license with their work.  Instead, Haxton defends his idiosyncratic method:

My translation uses free verse to suggest the poetic ring of the original prose, which deserves to be called poetry as much as the metrical writings of thinkers like Empedocles and Parmenides. (xxviii)

This just doesn’t cut it for me.  I’m keeping this edition, but only because it has the Greek on one side of the page, not because of Haxton’s creative paraphrases.  Many reviewers on Amazon agree.

Haxton is not a lone phenomenon.  There are many modern translations of ancient literature purporting to be “more poetic” than more “academic” translations.  Aiming to replace the standard Lattimore/Green translations of the 1940s and ’50s, Oxford University Press debuted their Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, which aims to “go beyond the literal meaning of the Greek in order to evoke the poetry of the originals.”  The translations are not bad, but nor are they particularly accurate, turning the metric verse of classical tragedy into free verse.  While this series pairs a classicist with a poet, others eschew the classicist altogether, relying on a contemporary poet to translate a two-millennia old text from a different culture, in an archaic language, and which references the long-forgotten present of the text’s author.

But as I argued when I analyzed several contemporary translations of Euripides’ Medea, much of this is more publishing hype than a real advance in the art of translation.  Many of the great translators of Greek literature of the last century were also poets themselves!  Richmond Lattimore, whose Iliad and Odyssey were the accepted standard before Robert Fagles’ translations (and are still more accurate), published poetry for decades.  Fagles too was a poet. So is Barry Powell, a recent major translator of Homer.  Clearly it is not impossible to find scholars who also make good translators.

So Haxton represents what is, to me, an example of a lamentable trend in translation.  The intention is good: make ancient texts more relevant and interesting so the average person will read them.  But if one has to do seriously distort the text to do so, that is going too far.  And the best way to ensure that a translation is accurate is by hiring a scholar to do the translation rather than a contemporary poet. Not that scholars always do everything correctly.  And of course, no translation can get everything right.  But I err on the side of the historian and the philologist, not the poet.

One thought on “Bad Translation, or how Heraclitus got misrendered.

  1. Chip Camden

    Hear, hear! I prefer translations that challenge the reader to embrace and understand the original idioms rather than those that try to dumb down the text to the idioms of the reader. They’re more challenging to read, but I think more rewarding. Let commentaries draw parallels between old and new idioms, but let the text speak for itself.


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