Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Happy Birthday, Sir John!

Sir John Frederick William Herschel, 1st Baronet KH, FRS was born today in 1792. Son of astronomer Sir William Herschel, who discovered the planet Uranus, he made his own mark in several sciences. His philosophy of natural science, in fact, was one of Darwin's inspirations: "the origination of fresh species, could it ever come under our cognizance, would be found to be a natural in contradistinction to a miraculous process" he wrote, and
"Words are to the Anthropologist what rolled pebbles are to the Geologist — battered relics of past ages often containing within them indelible records capable of intelligent interpretation — and when we see what amount of change 2000 years has been able to produce in the languages of Greece & Italy or 1000 in those of Germany France & Spain we naturally begin to ask how long a period must have lapsed since the Chinese, the Hebrew, the Delaware & the Malesass [Malagasy] had a point in common with the German & Italian & each other — Time! Time! Time! — we must not impugn the Scripture Chronology, but we must interpret it in accordance with whatever shall appear on fair enquiry to be the truth for there cannot be two truths."
He made significant contributions to photography and (with his wife) botany. And he named all the then-known moons of Saturn and Uranus.

And in his copious spare time, he translated The Iliad (link to the free Google book). About this, he says in his preface (after a fascinating discussion of verse and meter) (note: he's referring to the famous Eton Latin grammar)
It may, indeed, be possible to render, in something like verse, line for line, word for word, construction for construction; to give all the Gods and Heroes their Greek names, and to affix in every instance where it occurs the exact Homeric conventional epithet duly rendered according to its literal meaning. This - it is conceivable - might be accomplished: and, when done, the result would probably read almost as much like a metrical production as the Propia quæ maribus or As in præsenti, and would have about the same chance as finding a single reader out of school; where, no doubt, it would be exceedingly popular. ... A translation line for line (with some small reasonable margin for mutual encroachment and recess) - which shall render the full sense of the original in every material particular and introduce as little in the nature of amplification as the difference between our monosyllabic English and Homer's polyphloisboian Greek occasionally necessitates (under the paramount obligation of producing unforced, fluent, and readable verse, in grammatical English) - this does not appear a task too hard for mortal man. If however to these conditions be superadded that of retaining throughout the conventional Homeric epithets, rendered by anything like their equivalents, I believe it to be impracticable in our language without a grievous sacrifice of those essential qualities which render the perusal of a poem a pleasure, not a task; and its production something more inviting than a pepertual tour de force or a school exercise.
Here's how he opens.
SING, celestial Muse! the destroying wrath of Achilles,
Peleus’ son: which myriad mischiefs heaped on the Grecians,
Many a valiant hero’s soul dismissing to Hades;
Flinging their corses abroad for a prey to dogs and to vultures,
And to each bird of the air. Thus Jove’s high will was accomplished.
Ev’n from that fateful hour when opposed in contention
Stood forth Atreides, King of men, and godlike Achilles.

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