THE ODYSSEY

51INarXj18L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgTranslations are a bitch.

If readers—especially those with no great interest in other cultures or mythology—want a fast-moving understandable fantasy tale, this might be just the ticket.

I want history and truth and anthropology. This translation is modestly literate and probably relatively accurate. Despite imposition of semi-iambic pentameter and use of modern expressions, it does nothing fancy or self-promoting. It is easy to read. Is it an accurate translation of this ancient poem?

I used to explain the challenge of translating poetry to my students this way: You have the form (the structure of a poem in rhythm and rhyme), the meaning, and the music. In translation, there may not be a simple word meaning exactly in English what it means in the original. Wilson is concerned that prose versions become longer. She’s right about that, prose does tend to become wordier. However, making the lines shorter than the original defies my understanding. When is it ever possible to consistently and accurately translate in fewer words than the original language? Thus, reading back and forth between translations, I found information missing from Wilson. To maintain her line-by-line translation she was forced to leave things out.

Plus all words gather baggage through cultural connection and acquired connotation. (The young woman in the beautiful long white dress—is she a bride, an unmarried young woman, or in mourning for her father? Is the story American, Vietnamese, or Chinese?) If something must be sacrificed, do you choose form, meaning, or music?

I would give 2 stars for music (maybe only 1), 3 stars for meaning (maybe 4, maybe only 2), and 2 stars for form. Also mostly 4 stars for her introduction, though even there . . .

I wanted to love this translation—I expected to love it. It is the first translation by a woman. I prepared and took notes. I read the introductions to several translations in preparation, beginning last year. Once I had Wilson’s translation in hand, and began reading I felt I was missing details and worked back and forth between her translation and Penguin’s Rieu translation, which is wordier prose but includes line numbers on the side. Each has its flaws.

What I liked about the new one: Wilson provides a lengthy introduction that includes how the poem has been viewed in the past, when and how it might have been composed and first written down, and how other translators have approached the work. In this introduction she points out specific misunderstandings and provides critical cultural context. References to dogs, for example, especially in relation to the actions and appearance of women, do not have the same connotation they would in modern English. A dog-like face is not ugly, but suggests something else (perhaps devotion, or a need for attention). Wilson has her doubts that anyone named Homer existed. She provides some evidence that the epic is much older than usually assumed. She works hard to provide a poem-like translation. Wilson points out that prose translations inevitably become longer than the original. This attempt to provide a straight-forward translation in iambic pentameter cuts length and makes for fast reading.

What I did not like: The attempted iambic pentameter. Most of this translation is in 10-beat lines but some is not, and much of it is not in iams at all. The challenge of fully conveying meaning in fewer syllables than the original was beyond this translator. (Homer’s dactylic hexameter, which I do not claim to understand, has a longer beat line.) With the aid of an actual poet, she might have managed it, but I am convinced meaning would have been distorted in the effort. Wilson also claims, and so do other introductions (I read four) that no one person could have composed and memorized twelve thousand lines. That is a foolish assumption since many oral societies, even within historical times, have managed just that. And her effort to use terms familiar to modern audiences includes “scot-free” among other colloquialisms that seemed out of place in such a setting, not to mention I would guess many young readers would not understand them all, thus undermining the attempt to make the text more “relatable”. In her introduction, she also dismisses the possibility of the composer having been a woman.

While she is likely correct that the composer was a man, I found part of her argument against a female bard short-sighted. A woman, she asserts, would not have adequate knowledge of the battlefield to support the detail found in the poem. But I find nothing in her translation (or any other) of battle scenes that could not have been pieced together from post-battle remains, guesswork, and survivors’ accounts or tradition, by a woman or a blind man. She also fails to note the ordinary household details, meticulously described, which would have been equally inaccessible to a male poet and far less likely to have been preserved by men. In the end, I argued with her assumptions about gender. She inadvertently, reopened the question for me. Would any man go on and on about household textiles spun, dyed, woven, and cared for exclusively by women?

No introduction I read focussed adequately on how several “inconsistencies” support the elite quality of the actors in this story. The men eat only meat and drink mostly wine except under severe hardship. Though there is frequent mention of gardens and orchards, the characters do not eat fruits and vegetables. The faces of significant characters, men and women and even including some suiters, are described as “god-like.” Men are bathed and their skin oiled, their clothing is wool, fine-spun, and frequently purple. In fact, though many dyes would have been available, purple is the only color mentioned. Men may wear mantels of purple, sleep under blankets of purple, and women spin purple-dyed fleece. If that last is accurate, that the fleece was dyed before spinning, then it was first washed before dying. It would have been oiled before it could be spun and there is a passage that references oil dripping from a weaving, a detail translated differently in each version I checked. Some translations specify olive oil, others do not. Use of precious olive oil to spin the wool is unlikely, but intended, perhaps, to convey the elite status of the characters. Failure to appreciate how people lived and spent their time results in shallow understanding and translation. The purple dye comes from a Mediterranean shellfish, tyrex, the “royal purple” first discovered during the Bronze Age when this story is set. The displays of wealth in use of meat and oil and purple dye and descriptors using the term god-like all promote the stature of the cast. These are not ordinary people, but people of rank.

A swineherd is addressed directly by the narrator, “You, Eumaeus” and he becomes one of Odysseus’ three supporters in the slaying of the suitors, a rare character who is named, but not an aristocrat or of immortal family. More important, I suspect, he first greets Odysseus on his return, treating him with the proper care and respect, though he does not recognize his master. He does what is right and proper and due to a stranger. The Penguin translation claims the composer so loved his creation, he honored him in this way. I would argue that here is a commoner, a slave and swineherd, who is important to the story. The rare use of direct address acknowledges this.

Every introduction I have read has emphasized the oral roots of the poem. Wilson writes that The Odyssey may have been composed from an oral tradition, how and when it came to be written, and how the text version might have altered any previous spoken version. Yet, not enough is said about the nature of the oral tradition. Every high school English teacher will tell you that iambic pentameter aids the actor in memorization. I have heard actors in Ashland, Oregon, describe how memorization was much more challenging when they worked on a modern play after Shakespeare.

But poetic rhythm is also an aid to the listener. Just as the form aids the performer, so form and repetition aid the listener who can predict and appreciate sound when it is held in a poetic form. While the reader might reread, turn back a page, as I frequently did while studying these translations, the listener must grasp the story in the moment it is told. Homer (whoever that person or persons might be) tells and then reviews the telling, caps each character with a descriptor of his or her heroic trait. Penelope is prudent, Odysseus is cunning, for example. These words preface their names over and over again regardless of how the characters behave in the scene. Most translators vary these words but also frequently leave them out entirely. On the page, they seem redundant. To the ear, they are a formal reminder of the characters we are hearing about: ultimately, even if he is foolish in leaving his starving men with the cattle, Odysseus is a cunning hero.

Avi Steinberg’s recent review of Robert Alter’s translation of the Hebrew Bible discusses how women’s stories reflect the misogyny of of their times, and that translations often neglect to show this. Alter also translates with respect for the poetry on the original:

The Penguin edition also speaks of how the story was composed, assuming it is fiction. Even Wilson likes to comment on characters as creations. From a modern perspective, this is sensible, but tradition is always based in fact. Everyone assumes these are very ancient stories, likely already old before The Odyssey was first spoken or written. Yet many details remain in question, despite what seems to me to be obvious. Penelope, for example, is the subject of a great deal of speculation. When does she recognize her husband returned after 20 years? Does she recognize him early on and keep this to herself? Even Wilson describes her actions as confusing. Telemachus is frequently described as immature.

Here is my teasing out of the story from a broader (Penelope’s) perspective: Odysseus was about to go to war. Before he leaves, he tells his wife he hopes to see her again, but if he dies, she must raise their infant son to manhood and then remarry. This backstory is a part of what we find in The Odyssey. After 17 years, suitors for perhaps-widowed Penelope begin to arrive, her son is not yet a man, and she concocts the deception involving weaving a shroud for her husband’s aging father. She weaves by day, unweaves by torchlight in the night. After three years, she is caught out, betrayed by a slave. Over a hundred suitors arrive and would like to have her and the kingdom she has managed through this long absence. Telemachus as an unprotected minor is at risk. The disguised goddess Athene sends the boy off to visit other survivors of Troy, and this accomplishes two things: it introduces the young man to his peers who are then in a position to support his claims, and it keeps him out of the clutches of men who would kill him and take his inheritance. Their avaricious intentions are clear because, we are told repeatedly, taking his wealth is what they are already doing by eating and drinking the wealth of the household. They plan to murder Telemachus. Though she is described as beautiful, marrying Penelope is primarily a political tactic.

Penelope hides herself from the men when she can, but also keeps each one dangling with messages when she cannot hide. Her position is precarious. Eventually she must either choose a new husband or abandon her son to the ambitions of these men. Either way, stalling remains her best option. When Telemachus returns from his travels, she announces she will marry the man who can do what her husband once did, string his massive bow and thread an arrow through the handles of a dozen axes. None is able to string Odysseus’ bow, much less use it, though his own son comes closest to accomplishing the feat. Does she hope all will fail and thus she will buy more time for the son who is stronger than her suiters, nearly as strong as he will ever be? Or does she recognize Odysseus? It is worth noting that when men lie in this story, this deception is immediately called out in the poem. If Penelope were lying, the poet would have told us. Instead, Penelope has been stalling from the beginning as she protects her son in his childhood, but now she must fulfill the second part of her obligation to her presumed-dead husband. There is no mystery here. Penelope is a dutiful wife. As a widow, she must remarry. Does she love her absent husband and mourn for him? Absolutely. Everyone, everyone cries in this story. Men cry from fear and loneliness and loss. Penelope cries for her absent husband. Her sincerity in grief is never in question. She has done her best to fulfill her husband’s directions.

I have not found any gloss or introduction that deals with these issues.

A recent The New York Times review of Robert Alter’s 3-volume translation of the Hebrew Bible by Avi Steinberg, describes how Alter manages to both respect the poetry of the original and honor the meaning of the original as none has done before. In part, he does this by breaking convention:

Alter told me about his decision to reject one of the oldest traditions in English translation and remove the word “soul” from the text. That word, which translates the Hebrew word nefesh, has been a favorite in English-language Bibles since the 1611 King James Version. But consider the Book of Jonah 2:6 in which Jonah, caught in the depths of a giant fish’s gut, sings about the terror of near-death by water. According to the King James Version, Jonah says that the Mediterranean waters “compassed me about, even to the soul” — or nefesh. The problem with this “soul,” for Alter, is its Christian connotations of an incorporeal and immortal being, the dualism of the soul apart from the body. Nefesh, to the contrary, suggests the material, mortal parts, the things that make us alive on this earth. The body.

“Well,” Alter said, speaking in the unrushed, amused tone of a veteran footnoter. “That Hebrew word, nefesh, can mean many things. It can be ‘breath’ or ‘life-breath.’ It can mean ‘throat’ or ‘neck’ or ‘gullet.’ Sometimes it can suggest ‘blood.’ It can mean ‘person’ or even a ‘dead person,’ ‘corpse.’ Or it can be ‘appetite’ or something more general: ‘life’ or even ‘the essential self.’ But it’s not quite ‘soul.’ ”

But, I asked Alter, doesn’t “soul” help dramatize the scene’s intense emotion? I mentioned another instance of the word nefesh, the terrifyingly evocative line from the King James’ translation of Psalm 69: “For the waters are come in unto my soul.”

“Oh, yes,” Alter said, with a smile. “That one does have a certain emotional resonance to it. But it’s not what the poet had in mind. And, I would add that the line ‘for the waters have come up to my neck’ … is also rather dramatic.”

. . .

Alter regularly composes phrases that sound strange in English, in part because they carry hints of ancient Hebrew within them. The translation theorist Lawrence Venuti, whom Alter has cited, describes translations that “foreignize,” or openly signal that a translated text was originally written in another language, and those that “domesticate,” or render invisible the original language. According to Venuti, a “foreignized” translation “seeks to register linguistic and cultural differences.” Alter maintains that his translation of the Bible borrows from the idea of “foreignizing,” and this approach generates unexpected and even radical urgency, particularly in passages that might seem familiar.

It is this sense of an ancient text that I miss in Wilson’s translation. She has so thoroughly domesticated Homer that he is entirely lost.

What did I want? What do I want? Perhaps a three-part text: the original Greek, a translation, and footnotes on the side, on the same page. This modern nonsense of endnotes where I must flip to the back to find comments and then not find an explanation of a term of history when I do look is exasperating. I want literal translation as well as poetic translation. I want consistency. If names have literal meaning, either choose to translate or footnote (Wilson endnotes one time, translates another—give me both but in parallel). If “his face drained of color” makes more sense to readers because it is the conventional phrase used today, I still want a side note explaining that the literal translation of the Greek means his skin turns “yellowish green” because I have seen that. I have seen death.

Or perhaps I want something more straight forward and difficult: I want art. I want poetry.

Someone, please, do for Homer what has been done for Shakespeare or, more precisely, what Robert Alter has done for his Bible. It is a lot to ask. I know.

The cover art is gorgeous—one of my favorite Minoan mural paintings, but from a period and culture completely unrelated to the story. Like this translation itself, it is an attractive choice and it is wrong.

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