Posted: July 31, 2018
he very name of Homer’s epic tale of a warrior’s ten-year journey home from the Trojan War has come to symbolize adventure, exploring the unknown, and discovering oneself. The Odyssey reaches back into the ancient Greek world of myth and legend, of nymphs and goddesses and monsters. Through its hero’s triumphs and mistakes, Homer invites us to reflect on the meaning of home and family, life and death, and what it means to be human.
Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey offers a vibrant, contemporary rendition of this ancient story. Her goal, as she writes in her “Translator’s Note,” is “to invite a more thoughtful consideration of what the narrative means, and the ways it matters.”
Several features set this translation apart from numerous others that have appeared over the years—deliberate choices that Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, made as she set out to do something that had not been done before, perhaps not since Homer. “The original,” she notes, “is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse.” Homer’s rhythmical verse is not an accidental feature of his poem, but a key element of his storytelling. As she describes it, Homer’s artful verse makes the reader or listener “constantly aware of the rhythms and the units that make up elements of every line, as well as the ongoing movement of the narrative.” Whereas Alexander Pope sought to convey the verse with rhyme, numerous translators since have eschewed both rhyme and meter, although “they often lay out their text as if it were verse.”
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Wilson, by contrast, strives to emulate—albeit not to copy—Homer’s employment of a “regular metrical beat.” She wants to present the story in an engaging way—even more compelling when read aloud—for an audience that is neither ancient nor Greek-speaking. “The Odyssey is a poem, and it needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud.” Homer’s story emerged out of an oral tradition, and, very likely, continued to be sung for centuries after it had been written down. Wilson, for her part, seems intent on reviving the poem’s roots, and does this by offering a version that is made to be spoken, or sung.
Music, however, is often specific to a culture and a time. Homer’s verse, intended for the Greeks of his day, was in dactylic hexameters, “the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse.” Wishing her verse to resonate with an English-speaking audience as much as Homer’s resonated with Greek audiences, Wilson chooses iambic pentameter for her verse, because it is “the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse.” Her choice of meter makes clear her purpose, which is not to pay homage to an ancient text but to reawaken and revivify The Odyssey for us today. She doesn’t wish to take us back to Homer, but to bring Homer forward to us.
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The care Wilson takes to renew Homer’s work as an audible narrative marks, I believe, the most singular accomplishment of her translation. From the opening lines,
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was
to Odysseus’ reaction near the finale when Penelope, his wife, declares her unceasing love for him,
This made him want to cry. He held his
his faithful wife, and wept. As welcome
the land to swimmers, when Poseidon
their ship at sea and breaks it with great
and driving winds; a few escape the sea
and reach the shore, their skin all caked
Grateful to be alive, they crawl to land. (XXIII.233-9)
Wilson is quite right to say that her translation “sings to its own regular and distinctive beat.”
Besides her decision to render Homer’s poem in verse, she has also sought to make it “fresh and contemporary,” to bring this ancient work into the present and make it a poem for us and for our time. She eschews “the notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English,” declaring that “[i]t is past time…to reject this assumption.” Once again, she strives to imitate, although not to copy, Homer. “[S]tylistic pomposity,” she states, “is entirely un-Homeric.” And, although Homer’s writing “is nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or non-poetic kinds of discourse,” his language is neither difficult nor ostentatious. Wilson strives at once to preserve and to present the highly stylized poetry of Homer’s writing, while at the same time aiming “for a certain level of simplicity, often using fairly ordinary, straightforward, and readable English,” to find the middle path “between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang.”
In the passages that are narrative or descriptive, however, Wilson often preserves much of Homer’s style and voice:
So every day she wove the mighty cloth,
and then at night by torchlight she
unwove it. (II.106-7)
He swam until he reached a river’s
with gentle waters; that place seemed
smooth and not stony, sheltered from
the wind. (V.441-4)
The result is a flowing, lyrical narrative that is at once Homeric and contemporary.
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Her more colloquial formulations tend to be especially evident in the passages where there is dialogue between two characters. For example, she presents Antinous, the haughtiest and worst of Penelope’s suitors, as saying to Odysseus’ son, “Telemachus, you stuck-up willful little boy!” (II.86-87). Compare that with Richard Lattimore’s more literal: “High-spoken intemperate Telemachos.” In even more colloquial style, when Odysseus is on the island of the Phaekians and encounters Athena, disguised, as he is going toward town, we read, “Divine Athena winked at him and said, ‘Here, Mr. Foreigner, this is the house’” (VII.47-48). Again, contrast Lattimore’s literal: “Pallas Athena, the grey-eyed goddess, began speaking: ‘Here, my friend and father, you see the house which you asked me to tell you of.’”
Although the person encountering Homer for the first time might find nothing amiss in Athena winking or in “Here, Mr. Foreigner,” this level of colloquialism, so far removed from Homer’s style, seems more to occlude both Homer’s story and Homer’s world, rather than to make them more available to us. In the end, Wilson, who strives unabashedly to make the poetry her own, succeeds beautifully in the narrative passages. But the level of colloquialism she adopts in rendering the dialogue can be, at times, a bit jarring.
The biggest question I have, however, concerns Wilson’s decision not to preserve the repeated epithets that pervade Homer’s work, and which are, for many of us, an essential part of the poem. For those of us who were raised reading about “thoughtful Telemachus,” for example, it is disconcerting to read “Sullen Telemachus said” (I.345) or “His mind alert and focused, Telemachus replied” (I.388), both rendering the same Greek phrase that literally says, “Then thoughtful Telemachus said….” There are also the numerous and different ways that glaukopis (grey- or silvery-eyed, hence, by extension, shining) Athena is presented, from “She looked straight into his eyes” (III.25) to “bright-eyed Athena” (VII.19) and “With twinkling eyes” (VII.27).
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Wilson protests that the stylized epithets had a role and a place in “an oral or semiliterate culture,” but that “[i]n a highly literate society such as our own, repetitions are likely to feel like moments to skip.” Instead, she writes, “I have used the opportunity offered by the repetitions to explore the multiple different connotations of each epithet.” To give one more example, there are the numerous epithets applied to Odysseus that begin with poly, which means “much” or “many.” “Polymetis” (resourceful, clever, many-minded), for example, is rendered at times “scheming,” at times “lying,” at times, “he said coolly,” and at times it is dropped altogether. It would never occur to someone who is encountering the poem for the first time that Homer uses formulaic epithets, and Wilson’s multiple interpretive translations would simply be heard as a variety of adjectives. Might this first-time reader (or listener) be missing out on an important part of Homer’s poem? Is it “writerly laziness,” as Wilson claims, not to interpret every epithet and render it in a distinct way each time, or are these epithets more than just placeholders for a singer reciting a very long poem?
I’m reminded of Byzantine chant, and its use of the ison. The ison is the harmony that is intoned “under” the melody. Unlike many Western harmonies that follow the melodic line, but at an interval, the ison is a baseline key intoned in a straight line. It thus provides the solid, straight foundation, above which the melody can float and sing. Thinking of Homer’s formulaic epithets in this light, I wonder if they are more than just a mnemonic device from an oral tradition, but instead offer something along the lines of the ison. In that case, far from being boring or lulling one to sleep, they would provide a kind of baseline structure to support and guide the song that dances atop it. For example, preserving the epithets allows the reader to notice that, for Homer, Telemachus is “thoughtful,” and Eumaeus, “pious.” And, noticing, the reader might wonder and ponder what “thoughtful” or “pious” might mean as they arise in a variety of contexts and situations but also how they might serve as an indication of what we should be noticing in each context and situation. What’s more, it is certainly possible that very slight variations in Homer’s epithets are intended to be significant, and are thus integral to communicating his story.
Perhaps, however, these concerns are beside the point, and only a classicist would care about the structure the formulaic epithets provide and their significance for Homer’s poem. But for that scholar, there is always the Greek text itself, as well as the several more or less literal translations in English (of which the best are probably Lattimore’s and Robert Fitzgerald’s). Wilson’s text has a different objective and audience in mind. It is Odysseus’ story she is offering to us, not, per se, Homer’s text. Her fidelity to Homer consists in transmitting and rejuvenating this story, giving it to everyone to read, listen to, engage with, appreciate, and carry forward into the next eon.