In Praise of Timodemus: translating classical Greek

Today is release day for Sacred Games!  Which means I will studiously avoid reading the early reviews -- for that way lies obsessive compulsive behaviour -- and instead will write about an ultra-nerdy subject related to the book.

Do you need to know classical Greek to write murder mysteries set in classical Greece?  No.  But sometimes it helps.  Sacred Games is unique in that it's the only book to date in which I've used a quote that I translated myself.

I discovered early on in the series that the translations by classics professors are so vastly better than my own slow and feeble efforts that there was no point in trying.  I was much better off reading the translations from Penguin Classics, Loeb Library, and the online Perseus Digital Library.  The Penguin versions are the most literary, Loeb the most accurate, and Perseus the most literal.

This works brilliantly, since usually I only need information.  The experts translate the history and I get on with turning it into stories.

I ran into trouble with Sacred Games because one of the main characters is a lad named Timodemus, a for-real Olympic athlete of classical Athens who as it happens had a poem written about him by the famous praise singer Pindar.  The first stanza of that poem was so directly relevant to my murder that I wanted to include it up front.

Here's the original (from the Perseus edition):


 ὅθεν περ καὶ Ὁμηρίδαι
ῥαπτῶν ἐπέων τὰ πόλλ᾽ ἀοιδοὶ
ἄρχονται, Διὸς ἐκ προοιμίου: καὶ ὅδ᾽ ἀνὴρ 
 καταβολὰν ἱερῶν ἀγώνων νικαφορίας δέδεκται πρῶτον Νεμεαίου
ἐν πολυυμνήτῳ Διὸς ἄλσει.

Don't panic.  Here is the translation from Perseus:

For Timodemus of Acharnae Pancratium

Just as the Homeridae, the singers of woven verses,
most often begin with Zeus as their prelude, 
so this man has received a first down-payment of victory in the Sacred Games
by winning in the grove of Nemean Zeus, which is celebrated in many hymns. 

Praise songs were written to be sung, but this doesn't exactly trip from the tongue.  The Loeb and Penguin versions were much better, but I felt bad about using their work.  Besides, in a moment of hubris (a fine Greek word) I decided I could do a better job.

Herewith is my own version, as it appears at the front of Sacred Games:

In Praise of Timodemus

So as the bards begin their verse
With hymns to the Olympian Zeus,
So has this hero laid the claim
To conquest in the Sacred Games.

Homeridae is classical code for someone who follows Homer (a poet).  I replaced it with bard.  Pindar never used six words where sixty-six could be squeezed in.  He wasn't paid by the word, but you'd never guess it.  I removed the "singers of woven voices" and "Nemean Zeus, celebrated in many hymns".  (In passing, Pindar's Greek reminds me a lot of the flowery English of late 1700s and early 1800s.)   The bit about "received a first down-payment" is very literal (καταβολὰν really means payment!) but lacks a certain poetry.  "Laid the claim" works a trifle better.  The literal title is "Timodemus of Acharnae, Pankratist"  but in English we'd say "In Praise of..."   My version rhymes, which as everyone knows poetry should.

So if you don't count changing almost all the words and completely altering the meter, I pretty much left it alone.  I hope Pindar's psyche will forgive me.

Erasure Poem, by Kitty

This idea is too cool.  Over at a certain sharkly agent's web site, a reader named Kitty posted in comments a poem based on The Pericles Commission.

I was astounded (and flattered).  Here, with her permission, is The Pericles Commission, the Erasure Poem version, by Kitty:

A dead man at my feet 
lay facedown in the dirt 
shot through the heart. 
The body was warm to my touch 
his wound, slippery and wet 
I heard the footsteps of someone coming 
perhaps the killer 
I stepped backward to take cover

How did she create this?  Here's the first page of The Pericles Commission, with a few erasures: