Friday, August 28, 2009

RFK and Aeschylus

It was recently brought to my attention that Bobby Kennedy made a public announcement (which can be seen here) about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., in which he quotes Aeschylus, whom he calls his favorite poet, and that allegedly the translation from the Greek was his own. The Aeschylus quote comes from lines 179-182 of the Agamemnon, but it is not Kennedy’s own translation. Here is the Greek:

στάζει δ᾽ ἔν θ᾽ ὕπνῳ πρὸ καρδίας
μνησιπήμων πόνος: καὶ παρ᾽
ἄκοντας ἦλθε σωφρονεῖν.
δαιμόνων δέ που χάρις βίαιος

And in sleep the painful memory of suffering trickles before the heart, and it comes unwillingly to understand; but indeed it is a violent grace of the spirits.

Edith Hamilton translated it this way in 1930: And even in our sleep pain that cannot forget falls drop by drop upon the heart, and in our own despite, against our will, comes wisdom to us by the awful grace of God.

If you listened to the audio clip this will sound familiar. Here is what Kennedy said in my own transcript: Even in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until in our own de-despair, against our will, comes wisdom, through the awful grace of God.

Clearly his few misquotations of Hamilton’s version (noted in bold, except for his omission of “to us”) do not make this his own translation. The only significant change is despair from Hamilton’s despite, on which Kennedy understandably trips. The Greek word ἄκοντας simply means unwilling. Surely—considering the similarity of the two words and his stutter—Kennedy did not change this deliberately, but the result is actually quite lovely and beautiful in its own right.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I much prefer the
first translation given in your notice, but
the easy involvement of Hamilton, RFK, and MLK
with good quotation is a reminder of much
that may have become lost in those years.

12:45 AM  
Blogger Ross said...

Actually, Kennedy's version is much better prose, I think. However, politicians being masks, the real author was almost certainly a speech writer - a speech writer with good skills.

10:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

RFK gave those remarks off the cuff that day in Indianapolis, shortly after Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.

3:05 AM  

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