In 1877, renowned poet Robert Browning published a translation of the play Agamemnon by Aeschylus. Or perhaps “translation” is not quite the right word for it –on the title page, Browning claimed credit not for translating, but transcribing. Since the transcription crossed the language barrier from Greek to English, though, we have to call it a translation –but what kind? What Browning produced was one of the most literal translations I’ve ever seen. It seems paradoxical, but this translation is so literal that it somehow crashes through the wall and becomes a creative work in its own right, opening up unforeseen possibilities that more paraphrastic translations could never approach.
In his preface, Browning admits that his work on the play has been a “somewhat toilsome and perhaps fruitless adventure,” in which he has been “literal at every cost save that of absolute violence to our language.” Personally, I’m not so sure he managed to avoid absolute violence to our language, as he generated “a mere strict bald version of thing by thing” by his rough Englishing of Agamemnon.
Here is how he renders one of the first chorus sections:
Empowered am I to sing
The omens, what their force which, journeying,
Rejoiced the potentates:
(For still, from God, inflates
My breast song-suasion: age,
Born to the business, still such war can wage)
That’s hardly good sense or good English, even with a poetic license. At first, it strikes you as the kind of thing you could get by feeding the original Greek into robotic translation software. Perhaps you could make something this choppy without even knowing any Greek: Just go to the right passage on the Perseus website’s version of Agamemnon and click on each word to get a lexical definition of it. As the word meanings pop up, just plug them in:
“Lord me cry song strength omen man accomplished…” But Browning had one of the greatest poetic sensibilities in the history of our language, and you soon notice that he’s up to a lot more than he claims. For one thing, although he apparently disregards meter, he makes the lines rhyme (sing journeying, potentates inflates, age wage). Second, he likes to invent compounds like “song-suasion” where the Greek has two words. Song-suasion is not a half-bad coinage for “persuasive singing.”
And this is where Browning’s work repays study. Line after line, his transcription has oddities, crudities, provocations, and guesswork that make for a profitable reading experience. I can’t say it succeeds in getting any closer to the Greek than the more readable translations –Aeschylus’ Greek repels my meager abilities. But it does confront you with a text that gives you a mental workout, and one that produces fascination. Much of the fascination of Browning’s Agamemnon is that it’s by Browning, though. It reflects the judgments and poetic struggle of a great English poet, and those are an overlay between the reader and Aeschylus. Even the extremely literal approach doesn’t remove that barrier.
For Bible readers, a helpful comparison might be: the Fagles translation is the NIV: readable, often memorable, but some of your favorite verses turn out to be not really there. The Weir Smith translation is the NAS: accurate word by word and won’t mislead you, but nothing you can dance to and sometimes hard to preach from. Lattimore is the ESV, the translation readable and reliable enough to use in our seminars in Torrey.
That leaves the Browning Version as a parallel to Eugene Peterson’s The Message: full of interesting stuff, much of it interesting stuff from Eugene Peterson’s outlook, ministry, and tone of voice. Except that it’s also a little bit KJV, with bursts of NAS and Young’s Literal. I just don’t know any translations quite like this thing.
Browning’s Agamemnon is available online, in handy text at Perseus.
Two recent scholarly articles on it are Will Turtle, “The Truth of Mere Transcript: Browning’s Agamemnon” (Translation and Literature 15, 2005, 196-211), and Eugenio Benitez, “On Literal Translation: Robert Browning and the Agamemnon” (Philosophy and Literature 28/2, October 2004, pp. 259-268).
And a play called The Browning Version uses the book as one of its motifs –I would have called this play obscure, but it’s been made into two films and two made-for-TV movies!