In 1980, at the PEN Club down on lower Fifth Avenue in New York, I introduced the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges. After a long chatfor blind Borges, a favorite literary forma woman in the audience asked, “Mr. Borges, do you have a special criterion for determining the worth of a book?” “Indeed, madam,” he said. “I open the book and read the first two pages. If they give me pleasure I go on reading. If not, I shut the book.”
The honored historian Garry Wills did not find pleasure in Sherod Santos’s Greek Lyric Poetry but kept reading and documented his discontent by comparing Santos to translators essential to society, from Chapman, Pope, and Dryden to the “fading” talents of Shelley and Swinburne. Wills is in his domain, with a Yale PhD in classics, as he reveals his command of Greek and demolishes Santos’s volume. However, his diatribe is profoundly unfair and ill-informed.
Sherod Santos tells us in his introduction what he is doing. He is closer to the Greek than the imitations of Robert Lowell, who followed the grand tradition of Elizabethan and Renaissance authors and of medieval Chaucer, known as the “grand traducteur” in transforming earlier European texts and making them into superb poetry. Santos, in closer versions, adds texture, a shrewd and compelling craft, and always comes up with a good poem. Literary translation is a friendship between poets, one of respect. Ultimate fidelity in conversion is there when in the new tongue the poem sings. Santos is faithful to the song of English. He has transformed the Greek poets, promoting many obscure poets whom none of us earlier had touched. His volume is a major, autonomous book in English literature. It will live.
Wills’s examples from epic are fascinating, but why all these pages on epic? Santos translates lyric and epigram. And Pope’s immaculately polished Homer as a model? With scant Greek and a Latin trot, Pope turned Homer into a heroic coupleted eighteenth-century gentleman. If Wills does not like divergence from the original, then Pope, my God, like all the old grand translators, was an unredeemable sinner. Wills also attacks Santos about Sappho and Archilochus, never showing what in Santos he is aiming at. Some of his assertions are hopelessly outdated and bigoted, such as the notion that the key to Sappho’s poems is the thiasos, a band of pupils that the Lesbian aristocrat disciplined for marriage and good behavior. From the nineteenth century on, critics like William Mure and John Addington Symonds have pooh-poohed standard notions of Sappho’s higher “purity,” which, until Denys Page’s impatient denunciation of the cover-up of Sappho’s homoeroticism, was prevalent even halfway through the twentieth century. Wills does not deny Sappho’s homosexuality but brings in the usual and, in this review, expanded nonsense about Sappho’s training school for “girls.” But what does a thiasos have to do with Santos’s versions of Sappho?
Similarly, Wills cites dubious scholarship about Archilochus’s birth in Thasos (not Paros?) to prove that, because of Archilochus’s noble parentage, his proletarian utterances are false and silly. Because Baudelaire was stepson of a top French general, are the poems that the Parisian poet writes of the blind, the drunk, the poor, and the hopeless merely a pose by a dandy? Again, what has this observation got to do with Santos? Wills should return to these English poems he dislikes that have provoked distemper. If the cause is Santos’s flawed method, then Wills’s examples from the major tradition of great imitators withers his “condemnation by category.”
I see once again how a translation becomes the easiest target for an ungenerous and angry mind. There are many ways to good translation; all are valid if the way is acknowledged and the result euphonious. To prescribe one and then condemn deviation is not to understand the profound history of translation as literature, how even the distinctions between translation and originality are dubious. Octavio Paz writes that “all originals are translations, and all translations original.” Santos’s conversions work as fresh originals. But Wills will have none of this. He is blind and deaf to Santos’s unparalleled versions. His arguments focus largely on questions alien to Greek Lyric Poetry, and he misses all the rhetorical cunning. His message is that there was once a great way, but our age, with its unheroic deviations, has determined the poverty of modern translation and especially that of Sherod Santos.
Bless the reviewer for his lifelong achievements and national awards. But this time Garry Wills damns his own irrelevant revelations of classical scholarship through banal error, and above all he damns his perception of poetry in a ferocious adventure against Santos’s amazing book of evenly beautiful poems.