I picked up Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey. It’s quickly become my favorite translation, alongside Mandelbaum’s. For years, Mandelbaum’s translation was my favorite given his mastery of blank verse and his gift for language and imagery. There are many translators who can translate the original’s content, but rarely the original’s poetry. I can’t be bothered with free verse translations. To translate a poem without translating its formal structure is to do half the work. Homer’s dactylic hexameters are part of the original poem’s language.
Not only does Wilson translate the story but, like Mandelbaum, she translates Homer’s dactylic hexameter into the iambic pentameter of blank verse. Her poetic gifts are of a different order than Mandelbaum’s. Her imagery is limpid and her ductile blank verse makes the Odyssey read as though it happened yesterday. In doing so she manages what relatively few modern metrists seem able to manage: She brings to blank verse a modern pace and vernacular that doesn’t dilute the integrity of its line. Too many modern poets, ears dulled by free verse, can’t seem to write blank verse without watering it down to a kind of accentual-syllabic prose. There’s more to blank verse than counting syllables. The best practitioners strike a balance between syntax, rhetoric and line ending.
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 on 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.
So begins Wilson’s translation. By comparison, Mandelbaum’s:
Muse, tell me of the man of many wiles,
the man who wandered many paths of exile
after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
He saw the cities—mapped the minds—of many;
and on the sea, his spirit suffered every
adversity—to keep his life intact,
to bring his comrades back. In that last task,
his will was firm and fast, and yet he failed:
he could not save his comrades: Fools, they foiled
themselves; they ate the oxen of the Sun,
the herd of Hélios Hypérion;
the lord of light required their transgression—
he took away the day of their return.
Muse, tell us of these matters. Daughter of Zeus,
my starting point is any point you choose.
First to notice is that Wilson’s opening is 11 lines whereas Mandelbaum’s is 15. Wilson’s translation, the entirety of her book, has the same number of lines as Homer’s. Wilson writes that she “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.” Getting back Mandelbaum: While there may be a more classical beauty to Mandelbaum’s blank verse—poetic phrases like “man of many wiles” and “mapped their minds” lend poetic density to his translation—Wilson’s verse has a more pellucid pace possessed of its own poetic advantages. Next is Fitzgerald’s much looser blank verse:
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all the ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
······························He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will or valor could he save them
for their own recklessness destroyed them all—
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Hêlios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.
Seventeen lines for Fitzgerald. The line “took from their eyes the dawn of their return” is a truly beautiful line—real poetry. Fitzgerald’s tone, to me, is that of an epic recitation, mainly due to the heightening of syntactic inversions—something which Wilson avoids. Next is Chapman’s Homer, the inspiration for Keats’s famous sonnet On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare:
The man, O Muse, informe, that many a way
Wound with his wisedome to his wished stay;
That wanderd wondrous farre when He the towne
Of scared Troy had sackt and shiverd downe.
The cities of a world of nations
With all their manners, mindes and fashions,
He saw and knew; at Sea felt many woes,
Much care sustained, to save from overthrowes
Himselfe and friends in their retreate from home.
But so their fates he could not overcome
Though much he thirsted it. O men unwise,
They perished by their own impieties,
That in their hunger’s rapine would not shunne
The Oxen of the loftie-going Sunne,
Who therefore from their eyes the day bereft
Of safe returne. These acts, in some part left,
Tell us, as others, deified seed of Jove.
Chapman translated Homer’s verse into open heroic couplets (or riding couplets). Pope would later translate Homer’s Odyssey (or, scandalously, parts of it) into the preferred, and highly formal, closed heroic couplet of the Restoration.
I’ve never studied classical Greek or Latin, so I can’t speak to the literal fidelity of the translations, but reading other sources, one gathers that Homer’s text is, to quote another reviewer, “a hodgepodge of dialects and vocabulary”. Wilson comments on this, writing that Homer’s style is 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.”
It’s not Wilson alone who makes this claim, and so one is tempted to think that Wilson’s translation is closer, in spirit, to the original than any translation like Pope’s, or a free verse translation like Fagels’s which, though said to be the most faithful, abrogates that claim by its failure to translate the original’s meter.
Perhaps the most notable fact of Wilson’s translation is that hers is the first by a woman into English. You might, and as I did, question how that matters, but I’d recommend you read Wilson’s article in The New Yorker, A Translator’s Reckoning With the Women of the Odyssey, to grasp the subtle, and not so subtle, ways in which a translation can radically affect a reader’s perception. From the article:
After Odysseus slaughters her suitors, he tells Telemachus to kill the female slaves who have slept with them. Contemporary translators and commentators often present the massacre of these women as if it were quite ordinary, and entirely justified. The murdered slaves are routinely described in contemporary American English translations as “disobedient maids,” and are labeled as “sluts” or “whores”—a level of verbal abuse that finds absolutely no analogue in the Greek. The killing of these abused slaves (who are usually referred to, euphemistically, as “servants” or “maids”) is often described as if it were unquestionably ethical. The study guide SparkNotes describes these women as “disloyal women servants” who must be “executed,” while CliffsNotes calls them “maidservants” who were “disloyal,” and claims that their murder has a “macabre beauty.” In the poem’s original language, Telemachus refers to them only with hai, the feminine article—“those female people who . . . slept beside the suitors.” In my translation, I call them “these girls,” and hope to convey the scene in both its gruesome inhumanity and its pathos: “their heads all in a row, / were strung up with the noose around their necks / to make their death an agony. They gasped, / feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”
I’ve extensively quoted this paragraph for a reason. I was so moved by Wilson’s translation, and her reasons for it, that I took to writing some poetry of my own—a kind of response. I’ll append the poem in a post immediately following this one, but the affect of Wilson’s translation is worth reiterating. Odysseus is no longer elevated by the nobility of a language that makes him a sort of mythical being beyond the reach of sympathy or condemnation. And the girls with whom Odysseus interacts are not defined as “maids” or “servants”, somehow removed from sympathy by their appellation. They are girls, no different in fears, hopes or desires than the girls reading about them thousands of years later. In a sense, Wilson removes the Odyssey from antiquities. Odysseus is less a hero than a man who could be heroic, loyal, and cruelly vengeful.