A lot of contemporary translation of poetry, to my taste, is bland and colorless, aiming for a kind of unobjectionable literalism—at best. In approaching Nonnus, I had three principles in mind: (1) Every text requires a unique approach from the translator, based on its unique qualities. I would not render Nonnus in the same style I would use for Lorca. (2) A translation of a poem is a poem: it must give pleasure in its own right, without spurious appeals to the virtues of the original. Although we tend to judge translations by comparing them to the original texts, their intended reader is normally someone who does not know the original and thus cannot perform this comparison. (3) A verse translation must have a distinctive prosody, a rhythmic shape. It should not be a prose crib divided into lines.
With these principles in mind, my version of Book 37 attempts to harness the dynamic exuberance of Nonnus’s verse through a variation on Williams Carlos Williams’s indented tri-partite line, which he developed in poems like “Of Asphodel, That Greeny Flower” in the later part of his career. I came upon this solution almost immediately as I began work, and I was pleased even with my first attempts. I did not try to imitate Williams’s prosody with any exactitude, but instead sought to exploit the elasticity implicit in his concept of the “variable foot.” This allows both for short and relatively long phrases rather than a more uniform movement that might become tedious. Later, I remembered that Williams had used this form for a translation of an idyll by Theocritus, and that my first published article was on Williams’s prosody.
Nonnus is especially skilled at describing physical movement, as in his quite lengthy, exuberant, and virtuosic accounts of the chariot race and other athletic contests in book 37. A literal line-by-line rendering, I thought, would make him sound too clunky, failing to do justice to his gift for conveying kinetic energy through the movement of his verse. The elasticity of the tri-partite line also afforded me a great deal of lee-way. I could fit a lot of words into some lines, or set apart a very short phrase for emphasis. I deliberately did not make my line divisions correspond to those of the original text.
It is quite evident that this Nonnus’s epic poetry does not conform to our contemporary aesthetic ideals of concision or narrative economy. In conversations with some other translators in this project, I often heard his work described as simply “bad.” (I’m sure I expressed this opinion myself as well.) Coincidentally, I have been interested in bad poetry for quite some time, writing two unpublished books of deliberately inept poems. This experience came in handy as I was translating Nonnus, because it allowed me a certain freedom from prejudgment. I could allow the poetry to be what it was without trying to improve it or apologize for it. What some might see as the excesses of the Greek original, such as its redundancy and its long-winded, hyperbolic, and seemingly gratuitous descriptions, provide an opportunity for a loose and playful approach to translation. If I have done my job well, Book 37 should be a lot of fun to read in English.