Revisiting The Odyssey

What a pleasant surprise, to have something wonderful that you hadn't heard of just drop out of the sky one day, like Beyonce's Lemonade. That's how I felt about Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey, which arrived on my Kindle yesterday (a physical copy isn't due on my doorstep until next week; this is the rare book for which I wanted one of each format).

So far, I've read more about Wilson's thought process behind her translation than the actual translation itself, but even that is delightful:

In planning to translate the poem into English, my first thoughts were of style. The original is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse. Many modern poets in the Anglo-American tradition write free verse, and modern British and American readers are not usually accustomed to reading long narratives with a regular metrical beat, except for earlier literature like Shakespeare. Most contemporary translators of Homer have not attempted to create anything like a regular line beat, though they often lay out their text as if it were verse. But The Odyssey is a poem, and it needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud. The original is in six-footed lines (dactylic hexameters), the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse. I used iambic pentameter, because it is the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse—the rhythm of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Keats, and plenty of more recent anglophone poets. I have spent many hours reading aloud, both the Greek original and my own work in progress. Homer's music is quite different from mine, but my translation sings to its own regular and distinctive beat. 
 
My version is the same length as the original, with exactly the same number of lines. I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer's nimble gallop. Moreover, in reading the original, one is constantly aware of the rhythms and the units that make up elements of every line, as well as of the ongoing movement of the narrative—like a large, elaborate piece of embroidery made of tiny, still visible stitches. I wanted my translation to mark its own nature as a web of poetic language, with a sentence structure that is, like that of Homer, audibly built up out of smaller units of sense. There is often a notion, especially in the Anglo-American world, that a translation is good insofar as it disguises its own existence as a translation; translations are praised for being "natural." I hope that my translation is readable and fluent, but that its literary artifice is clearly apparent. 
 
Matthew Arnold famously claimed that translators of Homer must convey four supposedly essential qualities of Homeric style: plainness, simplicity, directness of thought, and nobility. But Homeric style is actually quite often redundant and very often repetitious—not particularly simple or direct. Homer is also very often not "noble": the language is not colloquial, and it avoids obscenity, but it is not bombastic or grandiloquent. The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe, to reject this assumption. Homer's language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious, The Odyssey relies on coordinated, not subordinated syntax ("and then this, and then this, and then this," rather than "although this, because of that, when this, which was this, on account of that"). I have frequently aimed for a certain level of simplicity, often using fairly ordinary, straightforward, and readable English. In using language that is largely simple, my goal is not to make Homer sound "primitive," but to mark the fact that stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric. I also hope to invite readers to respond more actively with the text. Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement. A consistently elevated style can make it harder for readers to keep track of what is at stake in the story. My translation is, I hope, recognizable as an epic poem, but it is one that avoids trumpeting its own status with bright, noisy linguistic fireworks, in order to invite a more thoughtful consideration of what the narrative means, and the ways it matters.
 

I'm with her on all of that. Iambic pentameter! Be still my bleeding heart.

Nodding along when she makes choices like this:

The formulaic elements in Homer, especially the repeated epithets, pose a particular challenge. The epithets applied to Dawn, Athena, Hermes, Zeus, Penelope, Telemachus, Odysseus, and the suitors repeat over and over in the original. But in my version, I have chosen deliberately to interpret these epithets in several different ways, depending on the demands of the scene at hand. I do not want to deceive the unsuspecting reader about the nature of the original poem; rather, I hope to be truthful about my own text—its relationships with its readers and with the original. In an oral or semiliterate culture, repeated epithets give a listener an anchor in a quick-moving story. In a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip. They can be a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one's own interpretative position, and can send a reader to sleep. I have used the opportunity offered by the repetitions to explore the multiple different connotations of each epithet.
 

I try not to spend too much time fetishizing craft, but when it comes to translation, it is inseparable from the thing.

This past Sunday's NYTimes Magazine included a feature on Wilson's accomplishment. In this age where we celebrate women breaking through in fields previously occupied by only white men, being the first woman to translate one of the great works of Western literature resounds at many levels.

The NYTimes feature spends some time laying bare the translator's hand. Take, for example, the thought that went into the opening line of the epic itself, and how varied its forms in all the translations that had been come before Wilson's. Just one line and already so many forks.

The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. There’s Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; Henry Alford’s “much-versed”; Philip Worsley’s “that hero”; the Rev. John Giles’s “of many fortunes”; T.S. Norgate’s “of many a turn”; George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; George Edgington’s “deep”; William Cullen Bryant’s “sagacious”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s “so ready at need”; Arthur Way’s “of craft-renown”; George Palmer’s “adventurous”; William Morris’s “shifty”; Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”; Henry Cotterill’s “so wary and wise”; Augustus Murray’s “of many devices”; Francis Caulfeild’s “restless”; Robert Hiller’s “clever”; Herbert Bates’s “of many changes”; T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded”; William Henry Denham Rouse’s “never at a loss”; Richmond Lattimore’s “of many ways”; Robert Fitzgerald’s “skilled in all ways of contending”; Albert Cook’s “of many turns”; Walter Shewring’s “of wide-ranging spirit”; Allen Mandelbaum’s “of many wiles”; Robert Fagles’s “of twists and turns”; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s “cunning.”
 
Of the 60 or so answers to the polytropos question to date, the 36 given above couldn’t be less uniform (the two dozen I omit repeat, with minor variations, earlier solutions); what unites them is that their translators largely ignore the ambiguity built into the word they’re translating. Most opt for straightforward assertions of Odysseus’s nature, descriptions running from the positive (crafty, sagacious, versatile) to the negative (shifty, restless, cunning). Only Norgate (“of many a turn”) and Cook (“of many turns”) preserve the Greek roots as Wilson describes them — poly (“many”), tropos (“turn”) — answers that, if you produced them as a student of classics, much of whose education is spent translating Greek and Latin and being marked correct or incorrect based on your knowledge of the dictionary definitions, would earn you an A. But to the modern English reader who does not know Greek, does “a man of many turns” suggest the doubleness of the original word — a man who is either supremely in control of his life or who has lost control of it? Of the existing translations, it seems to me that none get across to a reader without Greek the open question that, in fact, is the opening question of the “Odyssey,” one embedded in the fifth word in its first line: What sort of man is Odysseus?
 

All that variation in just one word. Let's telescope out to the entire opening paragraph or stanza (the Paris Review published an excerpt from the opening of Wilson's translation), the invocation of the Muse:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
 

Here is how another popular translation, by Robert Fagles, handles the same passage:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns ...
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove—
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.
 

Here is Richmond Lattimore's opening. I can't remember if I had to read this or Fagles' in high school or college, it was one or the other.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming.
From some point here, goddess, daughter of Zeus,
speak, and begin our story.
 

While they all have their virtues, it's impossible to ignore the startling directness of Wilson's version. It is direct, more concise, and has a lyrical momentum from the iambic pentameter that adds to its muscularity. "He failed to keep them safe" is stronger in tone than "he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove" or "he could not save his companions, hard though he strove to." Wilson may choose to leave out the striving because, in the previous sentence, as all the translations include, it is already noted that Odysseus suffered many pains to save his life and bring his men home. How hard he strove is somewhat repetitive, so Wilson just nixes it.

"Complicated man" is about as tidy a way to characterize a character who contains multitudes. Fagles' "the man of twists and turns" doesn't register much to me except the image of a pretzel. Lattimore's "the man of many ways" is intriguing, less precise than Wilson's "complicated man" but hinting at both Odysseus' resourcefulness and complexity.

Direct does not mean Wilson dispenses with fun. Later in the opening we have this:

So why do you dismiss Odysseus?”
 

Let your tongue tap over that like a rock skip-skipping o'er a pond.

I could not help flipping ahead to what I consider one of the most iconic scenes in Western literature, in which Odysseus and his men, having blinded the one-eyed monster Polyphemus, are in a boat, escaping the island where the creature had held them hostage. Polyphemus does not know where they are, he is beside himself with pain and fury. Just as Odysseus and his men are about to escape unharmed, he turns back to face his vanquished foe. He cannot help himself.

When I had gone as far as shouts can carry,
I jeered back,

‘Hey, you, Cyclops! Idiot!
The crew trapped in your cave did not belong
to some poor weakling. Well, you had it coming!
You had no shame at eating your own guests!
So Zeus and other gods have paid you back.’

My taunting made him angrier. He ripped
a rock out of the hill and hurled it at us.
It landed right in front of our dark prow,
and almost crushed the tip of the steering oar.
The stone sank in the water; waves surged up.
The backflow all at once propelled the ship
landwards; the swollen water pushed us with it.
I grabbed a big long pole, and shoved us off.
I told my men, ‘Row fast, to save your lives!’
and gestured with my head to make them hurry.
They bent down to their oars and started rowing.
We got out twice as far across the sea,
and then I called to him again. My crew
begged me to stop, and pleaded with me.

‘Please!
Calm down! Why are you being so insistent
and taunting this wild man? He hurled that stone
and drove our ship right back to land. We thought
that we were going to die. If he had heard us,
he would have hurled a jagged rock and crushed
our heads and wooden ship. He throws so hard!

But my tough heart was not convinced; I was
still furious, and shouted back again,

‘Cyclops! If any mortal asks you how
your eye was mutilated and made blind,
say that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
Laertes’ son, who lives in Ithaca,
destroyed your sight.’ 
 

This is, for my money, one of the seminal moments in Western literature. It's the birth of ritualized trash talk and boasting, the defining instance of taunting in the Western canon. Every time you see a basketball player get all up in the mug of some opponent after dunking on them, every time Cam Newton pantomines opening his jersey to reveal the Superman cape, every time a rapper refers to himself in the third person after performing lyrical violence on a nemesis, every time Roy Jones Jr. gave a shout out to Pensacola after one of his boxing victories, it all traces back to this moment when Odysseus can't help claiming personal credit for having outwitted the beast, giving himself a title (city-sacker) and naming himself in relation to his family (Laertes' son) and his home (Ithaca).

When Danaerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones introduces herself as "Daenerys Stormborn of the House Targaryen, First of Her Name, the Unburnt, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, Breaker of Chains, and Mother of Dragons," she should credit Odysseus,, the city-sacker, Laertes' son, who lives in Ithaca. When we use the term "making our name," we call back to Odysseus, who in that moment established the now familiar tradition of referring to oneself in the third person.

It comes with a cost. His pride and arrogance not only endanger his men by revealing their location and allowing Polyphemus to better target his next rock throw, but in making his name, Odysseus gives Polyphemus a specific target. As anyone who has read mythology or fairy tales knows, a specific name is needed to target curses from afar. Polyphemus' father just happens to be Poseidon, a god, and it's to poppa that he turns for help.

But he prayed
holding his arms towards the starry sky,
‘Listen, Earth-Shaker, Blue-Haired Lord Poseidon:
acknowledge me your son, and be my father.
Grant that Odysseus, the city-sacker,
will never go back home. Or if it is
fated that he will see his family,
then let him get there late and with no honor,
in pain and lacking ships, and having caused
the death of all his men, and let him find
more trouble in his own house.’

Blue Poseidon
granted his son’s prayer.
 

And so Odysseus brings a curse upon himself, his family, and his men. All of the above comes true, as prophecies are wont to do in stories like this.

I'd be inclined to chide him for his hubris, but wouldn't the internet be better today if trolls didn't hide like cowards behind the veil of anonymity? Face your critics, and name yourself, anonymous neo-Nazis. Rereading this passage, I couldn't help but think of Peter Cvjetanovic, the student who marched in the Charlottesville protests and was identified in a photo.

I am Peter Cvjetanovic,
Charlottesville city sacker,
neo-Nazi sympathizer
University Nevada Reno student
and campus escort service driver,
or used to be.

Let's not end there. Let's leave with a more pleasant example, when Russell Crowe removes his mask in perhaps the most iconic arena of battle in Western myth, the Colosseum, and names himself, as his ancestor Odysseus once did. If you're looking for inspiration for the next draft of your Twitter bio, now you have it, all you tweeter of tweets.