15 Nov 2017

New Translation of the Odyssey

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Emily Wilson has recently become the first female, after 60 male predecessors, to have a go at translating The Odyssey into English.

Wyatt Mason demonstrates that her new version has its points.

Throughout her translation of the “Odyssey,” Wilson has made small but, it turns out, radical changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are presented — “radical” in that, in 400 years of versions of the poem, no translator has made the kinds of alterations Wilson has, changes that go to truing a text that, as she says, has through translation accumulated distortions that affect the way even scholars who read Greek discuss the original. These changes seem, at each turn, to ask us to appreciate the gravity of the events that are unfolding, the human cost of differences of mind.

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?

‘I do think that gender matters. I’m not going to not say it’s something I’m grappling with.’
“I wanted there to be a sense,” Wilson told me, that “maybe there is something wrong with this guy. You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded. We don’t quite know what the layers are yet. So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text that’s not going to be interpretively straightforward.”

Here is how Wilson’s “Odyssey” begins. Her fifth word is also her solution to the Greek poem’s fifth word — to polytropos:

    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.

RTWT

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2 Feedbacks on "New Translation of the Odyssey"

Burke

Well, perhaps American gender matters: after all, in Italy, they have a translation by a woman that dates from the XIX century…



Dick the Barbarian

My familiarity is with Odysseus in the entirety of the Odyssey. How he in his “never at a loss” way of approaching every crisis alone survived to return to Ithaca. He, unlike the (comparative) fools with him, always acted on reason/wisdom. He kept his eyes on the prize, so to speak. Homer’s metaphor seemed constant prayer to and intercession of Athena/wisdom.

In my former work I often dealt with “liberal” financial reporters and their CPA enablers, I would muse on FASB statements and the philosophical difference between complex (ok) and complicated (not so ok, subject to finagling). That’s just me.

Ergo, in my untutored opinion (Opinion is no truth) I prefer “complex.” I place a negative connotation on “complicated.”

Odysseus’ heroism was different from brilliant Achilles, Ajax, and the rest. He was a renowned archer: less heroic. His advantages were less physical force more strategy and wile. Again, less heroic.



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