With the publication of Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, the English-speaking world has further confirmation that it is undergoing a renaissance of sobriety and high seriousness in Homeric translation. This era began in 2015 with Caroline Alexander’s translation of the Iliad, a magisterial transmission of Homer’s unselfconscious—plain and direct, but not grandiose—elegance employing a line of flexible meter with mainly five to seven beats and a scrupulous rendering of each word in a format matching the original Greek text line by line. (See “A classic restored,” The New Criterion, May 2016). Wilson’s Odyssey rests on three principles. First, like Alexander and others, she strives for line parity with the original text. Second, she succeeds at the Heraclean labor of rendering the poem in iambic pentameter, the meter that dominates our English prosodic traditions and is used by both Pope and Chapman in their translations of Homer. (The accentual syllabic iambic pentameter appeals naturally to the English ear. Shakespeare, Milton, Chaucer, and countless others provide ample evidence.) Finally, Wilson states in her introduction that she rejects “grand, ornate, and rhetorically elevated English.” Thankfully, at this she also succeeds, as Homer is anything but Ruskin.
The quantitative meter of Homer, Hesiod, Virgil, and Statius is the dactylic hexameter, the supreme verse form in antiquity, patterned upon vowel length, rather than stress accent. It is naturally suited to Greek and Latin verse, with their long nouns and adjectives of multiple elements and verbs of complex morphology piling vowels upon vowels. Yet the assertion that the dactylic hexameter is unsuitable for English poetry is not airtight. Coleridge proves as much with his two-line poem “The Homeric Hexameter: Described and Exemplified,” by deftly demonstrating an accentual syllabic dactylic hexameter.
Stróngly it | béars us a | lóng in | swélling and | límitless | bíllows,
Nóthing be| fóre and | nóthing be | hínd but the | ský and the | ócean.
Frederick Ahl demolishes this assertion as well with his virtuosic 2007 translation of Virgil’s Aeneid also into an accentual syllabic, rather than a quantitative, dactylic hexameter. He offers Aeneid 3.583–7 by way of example:
Dúring that | níght we en | dúred, under | fórestland | cóver, ap | pálling
Hórrors. And, | fúrther, we | júst couldn’t | sée what was | cáusing the | nóises.
Nó star’s | gléam, no | lúminous | váult with its | bríght constel | látions
Óffered us | líght. There were | óvercast | skíes, fog- | shróuded, en | tómbing
Móon in a | dúngeon of | clóud; it was | níght without | tíme, utter | dárkness.
Thus on the one hand, it appears that the dactylic hexameter, consisting of twelve to seventeen syllables, can be effective for English translation of classical epic verse. On the other hand, is the five-footed ten-syllable iambic pentameter line truly a suitable amphora for Homeric epic? My recent visit to the Acropolis Museum in Athens inspired my concern.
The economic English iambic pentameter line acts as a carborundum on the poetry of Homer.
Lord Duveen was a wealthy British art dealer and philanthropist of the early twentieth century who funded the construction of galleries at the British Museum to house the Parthenon sculptures, controversially removed from the Athenian acropolis by Lord Elgin in the early nineteenth century. Lord Byron was appalled by the transfer of the sculptures to England. He laments in Childe Harold,
Dull is the eye that will not weep to see
Thy walls defaced, thy mouldering shrines removed
By British hands, which it had best behoved
To guard those relics ne’er to be restored.
Curst be the hour when from their isle they roved,
And once again thy hapless bosom gored,
And snatch’d thy shrinking gods to northern climes abhorred!
Archaeologists and art historians have now established, with support from scientists, that the Pentelic marble of the Parthenon naturally acquired a tan color when exposed to air. It is now also understood that the structures and their sculptures were painted. Duveen incorrectly believed that the sculptures were originally white. With support from the eager recipients of his funding, he assembled a team of unskilled workmen to use scrapers, chisels, and carborundum stone to make them appear so. In the process, they removed features and details of the carvings such as veins within musculature, surface nuance upon armor, and delicate folds in garments. In some locations, as much as one-tenth of an inch had been removed. My corresponding concern with the Wilson Odyssey is that the economic English iambic pentameter line acts as a carborundum on the semantically layered Greek poetry of Homer, compressing diction and inviting retelling rather than translation.
Consider first the climactic scene of the poem, the slaughter of the suitors at the opening of Book 22, the Mnesterophonia. It begins as Odysseus strips himself of his beggar’s rags, jumps to the threshold of his great hall, and reveals himself to the hubristic suitors. Albert Cook meticulously translates his first words in lines 22.5–7:
This inviolable contest has been brought to an end.
And now I shall know another mark that no man has ever hit,
If I happen to hit it, and Apollo grants me glory.
Wilson renders true to her iambic pentameter,
Playtime is over, I will shoot again,
towards another mark no man has hit.
Apollo, may I manage it!
A critical detail that has been erased, however, is the word “contest,” or “trial,” ἄεθλος. Odysseus means literally that the contest of the bow in Book 21 is over. This is lost. More important, the word, among a number of others such as ἄλγεα (pains, hardships, woes), represents the theme of effort, striving, or contest throughout the poem. It appears at 1.18–19, foreshadowing the slaughter of Book 22, and resonates very clearly in the original Greek at this dangerous moment.
Wilson cleverly transfers the irony of Odysseus’s words in lines 22.6–7 to line 5 with her rendering, “Playtime is over.” She captures the spirit of the moment yet loses a critical thematic detail.
The translator of Homeric epic has a stark choice: translation or retelling. As a start, a translation’s purpose is to render each word accurately and with as much nuance as possible, omitting or adding nothing while preserving the tempo of the line, possibly emulating alliterative or assonant qualities while preserving the steady counterpoint of refrains and repetitions. Legal documents and cultural artifacts, such as the Old Testament, are typically the objects of translation. A retelling relates the main narrative events of a story along with details of setting. The ancient Greek translation of Harry Potter and your description of the last episode of Game of Thrones to your office colleagues is a retelling.
Wilson’s translations are often brilliant. The passage 6.228–61 describes Odysseus as he constructs his boat to leave Calypso’s island. It is filled with highly specialized language and is a masterpiece. Her Mnesterophonia, however, slips into retelling.
Cook translates closely,
The man was about to pick up the lovely libation cup
A gold double-eared one, and he held it up in his hands
So that he might drink wine. There was no thought of slaughter
In his heart. Who would think a single man among so many . . .
while Wilson renders,
The young man sat there, just about to lift
his golden goblet, swirling wine around,
ready to drink. He had no thought of death.
How could he? Who would think a single man . . .
These are four well-formed iambic pentameters. She sketches an image of a young man, about to sip from a wine cup, oblivious to his impending death. This is inarguably what is happening in these lines. Yet the phrases, “the young man sat there” and “How could he?” are not in the text. The Homeric narrator asks questions rarely and only to make a particular point. The detail of the adjective “two-handled” is missing. The luxury of a two-handled cup calls attention to the undeserved leisure of the lead suitor, Antinous. Museums are filled with two-handled Greek drinking vessels. They remind us of this scene and have the power to thrill. The image of Antinous swirling wine in a cup like a gourmand at an Upper East Side restaurant is modern. He is simply handling, moving, or controlling the cup. The verb is νωμάω, to handle or wield—used of weapons or tools, as well.
The Homeric narrator asks questions rarely and only to make a particular point.
A glaring example of the hazards of retelling is found when Odysseus emerges from hiding in complete nakedness before the Phaeacian princess Nausikaa and her handmaidens. This is a moment of implied eroticism that progresses to a discussion of the high value of marriage. Lattimore translates closely:
So speaking, great Odysseus came from under his thicket,
and from the dense foliage with his heavy hand he broke off
a leafy branch to cover his body and hide his male parts.
Wilson offers the following:
Odysseus jumped up from out the bushes
Grasping a leafy branch he broke it off
to cover up his manly private parts.
The important detail missing is Odysseus’s “heavy hand,” his χειρὶ παχείῃ. I call attention to this line since Wilson takes pains in her Translator’s Note to describe her internal deliberations over the translation of the same phrase where it applies to Penelope: “I wanted to ensure that my translation, like the original, underlines Penelope’s physical competence, which marks her as a character who plays a crucial part in the action . . . .” In her eagerness to highlight the physical competence of Odysseus’s wife, she completely effaces Odysseus’s own χειρὶ παχείῃ and their relationship. This phrase is used in both passages to equate the physical condition of Odysseus and Penelope. The condition of one’s hands is recognized as a marker of age. Even after twenty years, their hands are still strong and youthful, and the two remain an erotic match, which is indicated by their sharing of the formula. By the same token, Wilson’s translation of “male” as “manly” is gratuitous and crass. Homer may hint at eroticism but signals the relationship of Odysseus and Penelope as man and wife. Here Wilson’s mix of translation and retelling mars the formulaic precision of Homer’s text.
The iambic pentameter line often forces Wilson’s pen to compress diction and sacrifice delicate nuances. As the scene continues, the suitors spring from their seats after their leader Antinous, struck in the soft part of the neck by Odysseus’s first arrow shot, falls in a pool of his own blood. Lattimore translates nearly word for word—the suitors
sprang up from their seats and ranged about the room, throwing
their glances every way along the well-built walls
but there was never a shield there nor any strong spear for them.
In Wilson’s rendition, the suitors
jumped up and rushed
around to search by all the thick stone walls for
shields or swords to grab—but there were none.
The suitors are in a terrible panic, “throwing their glances” in quick succession around the walls for weapons, much in the way a parent throws glances around a playground for a momentarily lost child. This three-word phrase translates the Greek verb παπταίνω. Bruno Snell writes of the verb in The Discovery of the Mind in Greek Philosophy and Literature, “it denotes a visual attitude, and does not hinge upon the function of sight as such.” Wilson compresses meaning by choosing to use the elemental and undistinguishing verb “search” to carve the scene but in doing so smoothes away a millimeter of marble. Strikingly she omits the verb entirely when Odysseus and his men row nervously by the rocky shoals of Skylla. A. T. Murray offers:
and my eyes grew weary
as I gazed everywhere toward the misty rock.
So we rowed through the narrow strait in tears.
Wilson captures the subtlety of the verb in some passages, as in 22.381, “Odysseus scanned his property,” and 17.330, “glancing around,” but stumbles in others, as in 11.608, “glowered terribly.” An honest effort for variety results in inconsistency, inaccuracy, and loss. In her Iliad, Alexander handles παπταίνω consistently and accurately, as in 4.497, “looking close about,” 12.333, “peered,” 17.115, “glancing around,” and so on. These lengthier renderings are possible with a line of a flexible number of beats.
Wilson’s mix of translation and retelling mars the formulaic precision of Homer’s text.
Wilson’s rendering of the proem provides ample evidence for the unwitting scrapings that retelling, constrained by meter, has on numinous themes. Michael Nagler’s essay “The Proem and the Problem” reminds us that the early Greek epic proem shapes audience expectations with regular syntactic patterns and words of thematic emphasis. Let us turn once more to Cook’s attention to detail at the start of the proem:
Tell me, Muse, about the man of many turns, who many
Ways wandered when he had sacked Troy’s holy citadel;
He saw the cities of many men, and he knew their thought;
On the ocean he suffered many pains within his heart,
Striving for his life and his companions’ return.
and now Wilson:
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
Wilson uses the word “complicated” to translate πολύτροπον and glosses over a major theme. The Greek word consists of two elements, “many” and “turns,” making him a man of many turns, or, to invoke the Latin, that he is versatile. As noted by Pietro Pucci, the word is applied only to Odysseus and occurs only one other time in Homer, at 10.330. The structure of the word evokes what is characteristic of Odysseus’s other distinctive epithets: of many stories, of many crafts, of many cares, of many devices, of many plans, much suffering, much enduring. These lines repeat the adjective “many” four times. Though Wilson renders this single word in 10.330 using the whole line as, “the man who can adapt to anything,” she does not capture the word in the opening line and thus does not prepare her readers for the sonorous repetitions later in the poem. So, too, was my Uncle Louie “complicated,” but he was no Odysseus.
Wilson recognizes the thematic word ἄλγεα, pain, in 1.4 and again in 13.90–1, lines that summarize Odysseus’s whole life before his return to Ithaca. Yet oddly she chooses a retelling of the word in 5.362, “I will hang on however hard,” and in 9.53, “Zeus gave us bad luck.” The mercurial retelling is discouraging.
The proem concludes with line 10. W. B. Stanford translates very closely in his commentary,
Of these events, from some point at least, tell us also.
Wilson translates and retells,
. . . tell the old story for modern times.
Find the beginning.
This is not only aggressive, but also misleading. The phrase “find the beginning” runs against a familiar tradition. Epics do not begin at the beginning. They begin “from some point,” in the middle of the action, in medias res. Witness the Iliad. Next, the bard asks the Muse to “tell us also.” This specificity is absent in Wilson. Homer’s audience had a thirst for knowledge, and the bard asks the Muses, who are omniscient and omnipresent, either to share their knowledge or to tell them as they have told others before. We know of their omniscience from the opening of the Catalogue of the Ships in the Iliad and from lines 27–28 of Hesiod’s Theogony. Odysseus also demonstrates a thirst for knowledge in 12.184–200 as he sails past the Sirens, who, like the Muses, are omniscient and sing beautifully. In fact, Dante the pilgrim encounters Odysseus in Inferno xxvi, condemned for his desire for knowledge. Cicero (in Charles Singleton’s translation) wrote in De Finibus V, “For my part I believe Homer had something of this sort in view in his imaginary account of the songs of the Sirens. Apparently it was . . . their professions of knowledge that used to attract the passing voyagers; it was the passion for learning that kept men rooted to the Sirens’ rocky shores.” The bard is not asking that the story be told for “modern times”; he is asking to share in knowledge of a story for all time.
Samuel Johnson reports that Richard Bentley, England’s first great classical scholar, reacted to the iambic pentameters of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer with, “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope; but you must not call it Homer.” It may be too harsh to dismiss Wilson’s contemporary pentameters and dynamic mix of translation and retelling so summarily. But if given a choice, I would much rather see the Parthenon sculptures still remaining in Athens than the pale, skinned, and scraped hostages that are displayed at the British Museum not as they were, but for the convenience of today’s museum visitors.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 3, on page 67
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