Friday, December 31, 2021

Review: Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's The Odyssey

I do a little technical writing translation here and there for a website, after naively answering "yes" to "Hey, you speak French and know this one specific scientific domain, don't you?" I've since learned it's one sort of thing to carry a conversation or write a technical report in a language, and quite another sort of thing to faithfully translate both the tone and the content of words written by someone else within the limits of a restrictive character count.

Humbled by this experience, I was fascinated by Emily Wilson's translation of Homer's The Odyssey, a retelling in contemporary language arranged in iambic pentameter matching the line count of the original poem. These stylistic choices no doubt created quite the linguistic puzzle, but I loved the thought she put behind it, laid out in her translator's note:

The use of noncolloquial or archaizing linguistic register can blind readers to the real, inevitable and vast gap between the Greek original and any modern translation. My use of contemporary language—rather than the English of a generation or two ago—is meant to remind readers that this text can engage us in a direct way, and also that it is genuinely ancient.

She also took a thoughtful approach to how to portray moral values in this very ancient text in a modern, understandable way.

Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. (...)

Because The Odyssey has become such a foundational text in our educational system and in our imagination of Western history, I believe it is particularly important for the translator to think through and tease out its values, and to see the reader to see the cracks and fissures in its constructed fantasy.

This reconsideration of beliefs and mores made it fun to compare other translations, particularly when the poem dealt with feminist topics or relationships between the elite aristocrats and the slaves or the peasants. Here's an example of one of my favourite passages by Wilson, foiled against one by Alexander Pope (1725). The gods have staged an intervention, insisting Calypso allow Odysseus to leave her island, where he has been her captive for seven years.


You cruel, jealous gods! You bear a grudge 
whenever any goddess takes a man 
to sleep with as a lover in her bed. 
Just so the gods who live at ease were angry 
when rosy-fingered Dawn took up Orion, 
and from her golden throne, chaste Artemis
attacked and killed him with her gentle arrows.
Demeter with the cornrows in her hair
indulged her own desire, and she made love 
with Iasion in triple-furrowed fields
till Zeus found out, hurled flashing flame and killed him.
So now, you male gods are upset with me 
for living with a man. A man I saved! 
Zeus pinned his ship and with his flash of lightning
smashed it to pieces. All his friends were killed 
out on the wine-dark sea. This man alone,
clutching the keel, was swept by wind and wave, 
and came here, to my home. I cared for him
and loved him, and I vowed to set him free
from time and death forever.


“Ungracious gods! with spite and envy cursed!
Still to your own ethereal race the worst!
Ye envy mortal and immortal joy,
And love, the only sweet of life destroy,
Did ever goddess by her charms engage
A favour’d mortal, and not feel your rage?
So when Aurora sought Orion’s love,
Her joys disturbed your blissful hours above,
Till, in Ortygia Dian’s winged dart
Had pierced the hapless hunter to the heart,
So when the covert of the thrice-eared field
Saw stately Ceres to her passion yield,
Scarce could Iasion taste her heavenly charms,
But Jove’s swift lightning scorched him in her arms.
And is it now my turn, ye mighty powers!
Am I the envy of your blissful bowers?
A man, an outcast to the storm and wave,
It was my crime to pity, and to save;
When he who thunders rent his bark in twain,
And sunk his brave companions in the main,
Alone, abandon’d, in mid-ocean tossed,
The sport of winds, and driven from every coast,
Hither this man of miseries I led,
Received the friendless, and the hungry fed;
Nay promised (vainly promised) to bestow
Immortal life, exempt from age and woe.

Wilson's translation highlights the agency of the goddesses (compare "indulged her own desire" with "to her passion yield"), emphasizing the double standards the famously promiscuous gods hold towards the goddesses. Calypso's interest in Odysseus is portrayed more as born of love versus an interest born of charity and pity, tinging her enraged censure of the gods with a little more heartbreak.

Another comparison of translations, this time spoken from the perspective of Odysseus' (eye-rollingly) loyal slave upon their reunion, on the subject of the suitors:


We suffer / in bitter toil for these white-tusked pigs, / while others eat the food we labor for, / and give us nothing.

Samuel Butler (1900):

We have had trouble enough this long time feeding pigs, while others reap the fruit of our labour.


For great and many are the griefs we bear, / While those who from our labours heap their board / Blaspheme their feeder and forget their lord.

The focus of Wilson's translation here is on the hardships of the slaves. Butler's is a substantially milder version of Wilson's. In Pope's, these lines serve as a sort of background chorus to emphasize how much the suitors shame Odysseus in his absence.

Reading the text, I felt very conscious that it was a translation. Although the story and the language were both familiar, it had an alien feel to it. There was a lot of unusual imagery ("Dawn's rosy fingers", "wine-dark sea"). There was an inordinate amount of time precisely detailing exactly how each sacrifice to the gods was made. It also felt very apparent that The Odyssey was first and foremost an orally performed epic. Key plot points were repeated several times over—presumably in case the poem wasn't performed in its entirety or someone missed something on a trip to the washroom. Unimportant characters were given a lot of inconsequential backstory—perhaps tying in the events and characters of the story to popular contemporary tales?

And what of the story itself? Classics are funny; you think you've absorbed a reasonably faithful understanding of the text based on triangulation of pop culture references. Sometimes it works out; the various works inspired by Pride & Prejudice provide a pretty good picture for what you'll find following the famous phrase "It is a truth universally acknowledged". On the other hand, pop culture is a terrible coordinate system for Frankenstein and it is similarly a poor mirror for The Odyssey.

I was surprised by how little of The Odyssey was sea monsters and sirens. Indeed of the 24 "books" that divide the poem, only books 5-13 relate to Odysseus' wanderings. This part of the poem starts in medias res, and follows Odysseus for an adventure or two in the third person, until he finds an eager audience to listen to his tale, allowing him to catch us up to his exploits since the Battle of Troy in the first person. This part of the poem felt a little like a musical; characters are given extensive monologue time to impress upon the audience just how impressive (or not impressive) they find Odysseus, while the plot moves from event to event with tenuous or circumstantial links between problems and resolutions. I was surprised at how much the Coen Brother's O Brother Where Art Thou really nailed the tone of this part of the book.

The remaining nearly two thirds of the book have a more forward momentum sort of plot, but it wasn't at all what I expected from The Odyssey. It was your basic vengeance story. The suitors courting Odysseus's wife Penelope are cartoonishly selfish and irredeemable. Odysseus' slaves and dog are obsequiously, irrationally, loyal to him. There are dozens of long scenes dedicated to everyone from Odysseus' son Telemachus to the slave swine-herders to the gods themselves wailing about how much the suitors disrespect Odysseus. There's an odd scene in which a disguised Odysseus is humiliated by the suitors, seemingly just to sweeten his revenge and his displays of superior bowman-ship. This all culminates in a bloody, gruesome, merciless slaughter of the suitors and the slave women who slept with them. The story was reined in from veering into vengeance porn only by virtue of Penelope being a fascinating character and her eventual reunion with Odysseus being really quite sweet. (For the nuanced portrayal of Penelope, I assume I have much to thank Wilson for.)

The main theme linking Odysseus' wanderings and his vengeance was the idea of how you treat guests. Penelope's suitors overstay their welcome and eat their way through Odysseus' wealth. Calypso violates hospitality expectations in the other direction, hosting Odysseus and lavishing him with gifts but refusing to let him leave. Odysseus himself violates the sanctity of one's home; invading Polyphemus' peaceful abode, blinding him and stealing his sheep. Odysseus is a gracious, entertaining guest at Alcinous' palace, and Alcinous inexplicably rewards him with mountains of treasure.

Odysseus is not particularly sympathetic; Wilson translates the opening lines of the epic to describe his as "a complicated man", and "complicated" really captures her portrayal of him.

I'll end my review here with one more quote from Wilson's Translator's Note that I think summarizes what makes this such an interesting read.

The gendered metaphor of the "faithful" translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.

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