Sunday, January 05, 2014

2011 New Yorker letter: Iliad, Islam, globalization

Here we are in the winterval doldrums, that time between the cheery holidays and the digging-into of the work of the New Year; a good quiet fireplacey time to set aside the hubbub of new translations and translation news, and get discursive. Chatty, even! In the spirit of such times, here's a pair of interesting letters from The New Yorker which the Pusteblume editors noted a few years ago as being worth mention, but which we failed to get onto the blog at that time:


The following letters, intersecting issues of cultural appropriation, as well as translation, appeared this week in The New Yorker: one from a reader responding to two articles (Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of a Stephen Mitchell's translation of the Iliad and a review of the Metropolitan Museum’s reopened galleries of Islamic art), and the other from Stephen Mitchell, responding to Mendelsohn's review.

Here's the reader letter:
The contrast between Daniel Mendelsohn’s review of a new translation of the Iliad and, a few pages later, Peter Schjeldahl’s review of the Metropolitan Museum’s reopened galleries of Islamic art was striking. Mendelsohn reminds us that, whoever Homer was or whatever the genesis of the Iliad, this glimpse at a polytheistic world of near-nihilistic savagery belongs to the Western canon; to him, it raises modern, even existentialist, questions. On the other hand, Schjeldahl, who describes himself as “a latter-day scion of the Renaissance wedding of Greek and Roman with Judeo-Christian traditions,” takes us on a tour of otherness; he argues that the Islamic and Western civilizations “cannot see each other.” But my reading of history is that Muhammad the monotheist is altogether more modern than the wrathful Achilles. It is the extraordinary power of serial appropriation and willful back-projection, both driven by medieval and early-modern politics, that takes the Koran (like the Iliad, an orally propagated text) out of the antiquity of Aristotle and Aristarchus. Amid the grand convergence that is called globalization, we might consider breaking free of hoary genealogiesChase Robinson, Hartsdale NY
And here's Mitchell:
Mendelsohn, in his review of my translation of the Iliad, correctly says that the received text of the Iliad is a kind of wiki-composition. No one disputes that many passages were spliced in after the text was first written down. For some scholars, as Mendelsohn says, it’s the composite text that matters; yet there are other scholars who conclude that the Iliad is primarily the work of one great genius. To me, the additions are like the accumulation of grime, touch-up attempts, and yellowing varnish on a Renaissance masterpiece. With a painting, it is sometimes not possible to strip away the accretions and see the original brilliance. But with the Iliad we often have the manuscript evidence to help us do just that. (Book 10, the Doloneia, for example, has been recognized as an interpolation since ancient times, and contemporary scholars are in almost unanimous agreement.) All English translations up to now are of the wiki-Iliad. We will always have them to enjoy. But, as I discovered in reading M. L. West’s superb edition of the Greek text, when you remove the accretions an even greater poem is revealed—an Iliad that is leaner, more dramatic, more awe-inspiring. Stephen Mitchell, Ojai CA
(Emphasis added.)

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