They told me, Heraclitus...
Grief in translation
They told me, Heraclitus, they told me you were dead; They brought me bitter news to hear and bitter tears to shed; I wept as I remembered how often you and I Had tired the sun with talking, and sent him down the sky. And now that thou art lying, my dear old Carian guest, A handful of grey ashes, long, long ago at rest, Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake; For Death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.
There is something haunting and sublime about this translation by William Cory Johnson, a Victorian schoolmaster, of a Greek epigram by Callimachus (3rd cent BC). The original is far less sentimental:
Εἶπέ τις, Ἡράκλειτε, τεὸν μόρον, ἐς δέ με δάκρυ ἤγαγεν. ἐμνήσθην δ᾿ ὁσσάκις ἀμφότεροι ἠέλιον λέσχῃ κατεδύσαμεν, ἀλλὰ σὺ μέν που, ξεῖν᾿ Ἁλικαρνησεῦ, τετράπαλαι σποδιή. αἱ δὲ τεαὶ ζώουσιν ἀηδόνες, ᾗσιν ὁ πάντων ἁρπακτὴς Ἀίδης οὐκ ἐπὶ χεῖρα βαλεῖ.
This might be more directly translated:
Someone mentioned, Herakleitos, you were dead, and tears
came to my eyes. It brought to mind the times we two
had seen the sun set on our conversations; ah, but you,
my friend from Halikarnassos, have been ashes all these years.
Your songs, your nightingales, live on; though greedy Death commands
that all come to his realm, on these he will not lay his hands.
I thought of these different models of translation when I read the simple Greek funerary dedication on stone (photo at top of page) composed in Greek elegiac verse, dating from the fifth century BC. It might simply be translated:
This memorial, Xenophantos, Sophilos your father made
To remember you who've perished: him your death in grief has laid.
--Inscribed by Aristocles--
σε͂μα τόδε, Χσενόφαντε, πατέρ σοι θε͂κε θανόντι
Σόφιλος, ο͂ι πένθος θε͂κας ἀποφθίμενος.
If we were to apply the Cory Johnson treatment it could be made yet more sentimental - perhaps more appropriately in this case, and preserving the repetition (θε͂κε/θε͂κας in Greek) of 'laid':
For you, my Xenophantos, your father laid this here, A stone of dedication to honour you, my dear: Since you have passed, and laid on me a bitter grief thereby, For you are gone away from us, and now in death you lie.