I’ve tried to read The Odyssey a few times before, but been distracted before getting to the finishing line. Lack of stamina? Poor translations? Who knows. I came to it via James Joyce’s Ulysses. Reading that great work I was intrigued to pursue how it related to the original poem. But, as I discovered, that’s a lifetime’s undertaking that I was not prepared for. But in pursuit of that objective I embarked on the Robert Fagles translation. This was very well received when it was published, being described by Time as One of the best books of 1996. It’s so long ago! I was enjoying it before I found myself plunging into the Fagles translation of The Iliad.
This was for various reasons but in part due to my admiration for the Christopher Logue poem War Music which I had read shortly after it was published in 1981. The Logue is a re-writing rather than a translation. It’s a vivid re-creation of all of the most powerful scenes from the original. I love the the photo of the Masai warrior on the cover of the first volume. And I love the fact that the title of the third, All Day Permanent Red is lifted directly from a lipstick advertisement! Suits the poetry; all very modern in language, idiom and sensibility. I saw the actor John Stanton reading it at Melbourne University; a truly wonderful theatrical experience. This extract, which I remember vividly, gives you an idea of the language:
The iron chaps of Ajax’ helmet slapped his cheeks
To soft red pulp, and his head reached back and forth
Like a clapper inside a bell made out of sword blades.
Maybe, even with no breath left,
Big Ajax might have stood it yet; yet
Big and all as he was , Prince Hector meant to burn that ship:
And God was pleased to let him.
So much war, so many battles, so many deaths. All a bit wearying really. And over time I’ve read lots of essays and book reviews about all sorts of books related, however tangentially, to both of these great classical poems.
So I was very interested anyhow in the first translation by a woman in English (there’ve been translations by women in other languages). I was also interested in checking out a new translation, especially a version that was so warmly reviewed as in this review in The New York Times.
It’s surprisingly easy reading bringing much greater clarity in the story telling than previous versions. This might be at the expense of rhetorical flourishes – there aren’t many references to the wine dark sea or rosy fingered dawn – but it worked for me. It’s the absence of repetition, everywhere in the original, which makes the difference and which is really revolutionary in Watson’s approach. This makes the story rattle along and to my mind brings out why this poem has reverberated down the centuries. Odysseus’ escapades all illustrate some aspect of the human condition and human experience. Homesickness, betrayal, joy, anger, suspicion, loyalty and so forth. This very modern translation is very accessible to the twenty first century reader. I loved everything about it.
A long introduction (nearly 80 pages) is worth the price of the book. It provides, very succinctly, all of the historical background you need to know in sections entitled Who Was Homer and Homer’s World. In a section called Friends, Strangers, Guests we learn about the customs of the period so that we understand their importance in the body of the poem. The roles of, and relationships between, the different Gods and how they interact with the human world are explained in a way that makes sense so that reading the poem these sections read seamlessly.
In a section entitled Goddesses, Wives, Princesses and Slave Girls Emily explores the different roles played by women and men in the Ancient world. She shows how in some respects the poem doesn’t reflect the probable reality. For example Penelope would probably have had no choice in the matter of her remarriage. Which makes it quite remarkable that this is a pivotal part of the story. She’s also critical of how previous translations have dealt with the women in the stories. This includes how Goddesses like Calypso are portrayed as well as queens like Helen and the women who are serving in the households. She takes particular issue with how the women who sleep with the suitors are called variously sluts and whores. As if they had any choice in the matter. They are slaves with no agency at all. Similarly she avoids calling women, Helen in particular, bitches. She explains how these and other descriptive terms would have very different meanings in ancient Greece compared to our contemporary interpretations. She provides a lengthy discussion about the different, often inconsistent, attributes and motives accorded to Odysseus during his long journey home.
In a ten page translator’s note, Emily explains the choices she has made that makes this translation so readable. First, she uses iambic pentameter which is the conventional poetic metier for a regular English narrative voice including Shakespeare and poets like Keats. So we are reading a very familiar verse rhythm, which makes it quite different to how it would have sounded in Homer’s time. Secondly her version of the poem is the same length as the original, which is very different to other translations. She achieves this by removing a lot of the repetition and working hard at being simple and direct in her language rather than using language that is grand, ornate and rhetorically elevated as she notes has been the norm. She has also dispensed with one of the main formulaic elements of Homer, which is the repeated epithet associated with different characters. In most translations these are repeated word for word each time that character is mentioned. These repetitions, important for an audience listening to the spoken word, can get in the way of a story being read. Emily believes she has been faithful to the idea of attributing the right characteristics and descriptions to people and events but she uses different words to do so. Thereby retaining our interest all the time.
She says that like all translations, hers is actually an entirely different text from the original poem but understanding the language of the original and working through what it meant her intention has been to create a new and coherent English text, which conveys something of that understanding. It’s certainly a wonderful translation and I thoroughly recommend you give it a go.
Here is a feel for how the Watson translation compares to the Fagles, looking at the opening lines:
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. [Watson]
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 destroed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of hteir return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will – sing for our time too. [Fagles]
I was delighted to discover that Emily has taken to twitter to explain her choices in producing her translation. This forum gives her lots of opportunities to delve into very specific issues and explain her approach and how it compares to others. Her enthusiasm for doing so has been the subject of this article in The New Yorker. Revolutionary they say! And here’s an example of the sort of explanation she gives on twitter; this one is about the Sirens. All very illuminating and if you are interested in a continuing lesson in the intricacies of Homer’s Odyssey, and the choices open to those brave enough to embark on the tricky business of translating it, you should follow her!
I was also delighted to discover this re-telling of the story by the British poet Simon Armitage. This was a dramatization commissioned by BBC Radio 4. It reads beautifully. It is reminiscent of the Christopher Logue but without the same dramatic punch. It’s very colloquial; here’s an extract about the lotus eaters:
The drugged men wailed,
shivered until their bones rattled.
They puked and went pale. Then sat and stared,
their eyes sinking into their heads
like jewels thrown overboard.
Compared to Emily:
They had forgotten home. I dragged them back
in tears, forced them on board the hollow ships,
pushed them below the decks and tied them up.
I told the other men, the loyal ones,
to get back in the ships, so no-one else
would taste the lotus and forget about
our destination. They embarked and sat
along the rowing benches, side by side,
and struck the grayish water with their oars.
But I brought them back, back
to the hollow ships, and streaming tears – I forced them,
hauled them under the rowing benches, lashed them fast
and shouted out commands to my other, steady comrades:
‘Quick, no time to lose, embark in the racing ships!” -
so none could eat the lotus, forget the voyage home.
They swung aboard at once, they sat to the oars in ranks
and in rhythm churned the water white with stroke on stroke.
Another demonstration of how the Watson translation by removing the repetition in the original and using simpler language is shorter and more direct.
In any event, the Armitage re-writing is fun and much shorter again It’s another way into the Odyssey if you don’t feel up to the whole thing. But I do recommend the Wilson translation above all.