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Jedediah Purdy @JedediahSPurdy
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Was reminded recently of the famous scene in Book 11 of the Odyssey, where Achilles' shade tells Odysseus he'd rather be a laborer alive than king of the dead. I was curious what emphases translators have given it.
Hobbes (yes, that Hobbes) emphasizes not so much death as the difference between embodiment and incorporeality: his Achilles sees no value in ruling "all things incorporeal"--v. true to his thought generally, which tried to drive imaginative figments from politics.
Pope Alexander (so to speak) emphasizes the contrast between a suffering life ("laboriously to ... breathe the vital air") and the empty glory of "the sceptred monarch of the dead"). It's grandeur (lifeless) versus life (even painful) that forms his contrast.
Hobbes, fitting his philosophy, has Odysseus note simply that Achilles is "obeyed"--is sovereign of the incorporeal--while Pope is more interested in the pomp of Hell. Pope also sounds the theme that Osysseus is flattering Achilles with "vain words" and that Achilles is insulted.
(After all, the flattery is an insult to the primacy of life.)
George Chapman, the first translator into English, is underappreciated, and terrific here. Odysseus claims that by ruling in Hades, "great Achilles triumphs over death," but Achilles rejects the confusion, answering, "Urge not my death to me, nor rub that wound."
Odysseus is--probably deliberately--confusing matters entirely by suggesting that power over the dead somehow defeats death, and Achilles emphasizes that there is more victory over death in scraping by another day of labor and bread than on "the imperial throne" of Hades.
Here’s Robert Fitzgerald, emphasizing Odysseus’ “smooth talk” & Achilles’ sharp response—though the rhetor Osysseus is “light of councils,” he can’t elide the emptiness of vitality’s end, of lording it over “the exhausted dead”—emphasis on exhaustion, life’s absence.
And Emily Wilson, plain & elegant in her pared-down meter: Odysseus is less flatterer than an ineffectual friend giving empty comfort, & Achilles is all, “Don’t bother, O. It doesn’t help. Let’s be real. How are the kids?”
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