In evaluating a translation, one of the things I ask myself is this: If I were to quote this and attribute it to the original author, would I embarrass myself? That’s why I give Robert and Jean Hollander low marks for rendering Dante’s “Considerate la vostra semenza” as “Consider how your souls were sown.” In a way it’s an admirably elegant solution to a problematic line (Dante says “Consider your seed” to mean “Consider your origin,” whereas in English “seed” would have the opposite meaning) — but could I say, “Remember where you came from, or, as Dante puts it, ‘how your souls were sown'”? No. It includes too much — souls, sowing — that Dante didn’t actually say. Lombardo’s “Consider the seed from which you were born,” while inferior to the Hollanders’ version as poetry, is far better as translation. While it, too, of necessity, goes beyond the literal meaning of the Italian, it remains close enough in spirit that I would be comfortable quoting it as a line from Dante.
In this passage from A Parliament of Women (a translation of Aristophanes’s Ecclesiazusae), Paul Roche fails the quotability test. A young woman is addressing one of the old women which a new law would require her young lover to sleep with, and Roche has her say,
It doesn’t make sense, it sucks to sleep with you, he’s far too young: you’re more like his mother than his lover, and if you women enforce this law you’ll fill the land with Oedipus Wrecks.
“Oedipus Wrecks”! It’s so clever you want to quote it — but if you did you obviously wouldn’t be quoting Aristophanes, since the pun works only in English. What did Aristophanes actually say here? Is there some Greek word which sounds like tyrannos and means something like “wreck”? I don’t know. Elsewhere, when “christenings” and “coffee grinders” anachronistically turn up in Roche’s Aristophanes, he at least provides footnotes to explain what the original said; here he offers nothing. To find out what Aristophanes really said, we have to look elsewhere. So here, for comparison, are a few other translations.
This is a public domain version. (The translator’s name is not given.)
You do ill. A young fellow like him is not of the age to suit you. You ought to be his mother rather than his wife. With these laws in force, the earth will be filled with Oedipuses.
And here’s Jack Lindsay’s version:
I think you’re wrong; he’s far too young, just look! He couldn’t do a thing, no, not an inch; and you are old enough to be his mother, not his woman. If this law’s to work, there’ll be an Oedipus under every sheet.
And Jeffrey Henderson’s:
That’s not very prudent. He’s the wrong age to be sleeping with you — you’re more his mother than his wife. If you people start enforcing a law like this, you’ll fill the whole country with Oedipuses.
In these three translations, there’s no pun at all, suggesting that “Oedipus Wrecks” is Roche’s own idea, with no warrant in Aristophanes. Nor do any of the other translators have anything like “it sucks to sleep with you.” Someone’s straying from the text, and I think it’s Roche.