Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who travelled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Thus begins the 1897 translation by Samuel Butler of Homer’s Odyssey. It’s just one of more than 60 translations of the book into English since the first in 1615, including one by T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) in 1932.
Odysseus — Ulysses in the Latin form — mythical king of Ithaca, is a complex protagonist; sometimes hero, sometimes villain, sometimes noble, other times cunning and wanton. He is sometimes a smart, wary leader, other times seems incompetent and foolish. Traditionally he’s been a macho hero/villain of dubious double-standard morals, redeemed by his desire to return home to his wife, Penelope. And, less appealingly, to regain his throne and cleanse his home of the infestation of suitors, a task he undertakes with violence and murder.
(I had written a rather lengthy cogitation on Homer’s poem, back in late 2021, but it was one of the posts that disappeared after my server, Godaddy, broke my blog (see here and here); a company with which I am unfortunately still stuck, but which lost all my respect for its technical inexpertise, indifferent customer support, and overpriced services. But I digress. Here is a new, somewhat briefer, post on the same Homeric topic, cobbled together after the first from the remnants of my memory and links to recent interviews and reviews.)
Homer, or perhaps more than one poet conflated into that single name, wrote two of the world’s oldest epic poems, generally agreed to have been crafted around 800 BCE as oral epics, written down by others much later (circa 600 BCE). The other is The Iliad (Stephen Mitchell argues for two different poets of these works), but for my taste, The Odyssey is the better and more readable of the two. It’s a series of wide-ranging adventures, entwined with a tale of homecoming, longing, loneliness, love, sex, vengeance, loss, deception, and escape, replete with gods, kings, monsters, witches, deaths, heroes, ghosts, and murderous foes. The Iliad is more localized; taking place almost entirely within the Greek camp outside, Troy, the city they were besieging, at the end of that decade-long war.
Butler, whose quote is above, translated the ancient Greek word polytropos (also polutropos) in the opening line of The Odyssey as ingenious. Although it literally means “many turned” or “much turning,” (poly = many, tropos = turned, but also translated as “many ways”) in context it’s a tough word to render into simple English, and various translators have worked their magic on it to make sense of it in our language. In 1900, Timothy Power and Gregory Nagy revised Butler to write, “the man of many devices.” An 1886 translation by Walter Merry, James Riddell, and D. B. Monro produced “that many-sided hero.”
Robert Fagles, a more recent translator (and one whose version I read and enjoyed a few years back) translated it as “the man of twists and turns.” I also like that he has the Muse sing, not merely tell the tale:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns … driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
A.S. Kline uses “that man of many resources.” In their collective translation, Andrew Lang (of the fairy tale book fame) and S.H. Butcher gave us “that man, so ready at need, who wandered far and wide.” The more poetic Alexander Pope gave us “The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d.” Ian Johnston, of BC’s Malaspina University-College, gives us “that resourceful man who wandered far and wide.” Another popular edition, translated in 1965 by Richard Lattimore, gives us “the man of many ways.” In 1961, in his otherwise straightforward translation, Robert Fitzgerald gave us the wordy “skilled in all ways of contending.” Stephen Mitchell, also translator of the Gilgamesh Epic and the Bhagavad Gita, in his 2013 translation gave us,
Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning man who was blown off course to the ends of the earth, in the years after he plundered Troy.
Other descriptions (translations of polytropos) include versatile, resourceful, cunning, man of many wiles, man skilled in all ways of contending, man, [a man] who was never at a loss, clever, man of many devices, man so wary and wise, and others.
In his somewhat meandering book, The Mighty Dead: Why Homer Matters, author Adam Nicolson wrote, “There are 201 words in the Iliad and the Odyssey that occur only once in Homer and never again in the whole of Greek literature.” As a logophile, that was enough to make me want to know more. I didn’t share Nicholson’s uncritical adoration of Homer, but had some previous experience reading him and that affection rubbed off somewhat; enough for me to want to return to Homer. That led me to get Professor Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation.
In an interview in the New York Times, Wilson explained why words matter in a way that spoke to me (as someone who has written about the varied translations of a single line in Machiavelli):
If you’re going to admit that stories matter, then it matters how we tell them, and that exists on the level of microscopic word choice, as well as on the level of which story are you going to pick to start off with, and then, what exactly is that story? The whole question of ‘What is that story?’ is going to depend on the language, the words that you use.
Stories, of course, do matter, not least because reading literary fiction enhances one’s empathy and ability to see the world from another perspective, as this article in Scientific American noted*:
… literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling… this genre prompts the reader to imagine the characters’ introspective dialogues. This psychological awareness carries over into the real world… eading fiction is a valuable socializing influence.
As frequent readers here might expect, I have several translations of Homer’s works on my bookshelves, including Fagles, Lattimore, Mitchell, and, most recently, Wilson (who has also just published her translation of The Iliad, a book I’ve never managed to finish despite several versions and attempts). I recently got Peter Green’s 2018 Odyssey, but have not yet read it.
I readily admit that, while I read avidly a wide range of styles and genres, epic poetry often eludes the grasp of my attention. But the prose versions of Homer I’ve attempted felt stilted and fusty (both epics translated by E.V. Rieu, who initiated the Penguin Classics series in ’46 with his prose translation of The Odyssey and was their editor for 20 years).
Regular readers will also know from previous posts that I am fascinated by the craft of translation and often collect several different versions of the same work so I can compare how different translators turn another language into English (including Middle English, some of which I can also read with modest ability). This collecting obsession reached its apogee with more than 20 different translations of Machiavelli’s The Prince… but again I digress… You can read several different versions of a single verse in The Odyssey and compare them here on Reddit.
During the pandemic, I read Emily Wilson’s superb version of The Odyssey and found myself looking forward to it eagerly each day. It is the first published translation in English by a woman (although women translated it into other languages; like Anne Lefébvre Dacier who translated The Odyssey from Greek to French in 1716). Why is being a woman translator important, you ask? Wilson herself supplied the answer before a talk about translation at Harvard University:
“It’s very visible to me how misogynistic some of these translations are, and not because they were consciously imposing misogyny, but they had some unconsidered biases,” Wilson said before her talk. “Men are never asked about their gender, and this omission is seriously distorting. It’s very clear gender has an impact on men’s work.”
A lot of media attention focused on the “first woman” part, ignoring the “into English” suffix. That bothered Wilson enough to change her short tagline on Xitter (@EmilyRCWilson) to read “NOT the first woman to publish a translation of the Odyssey.” She said:
…she worries that the emphasis on her role as a “first” eclipses the fact that there are already multiple translations of The Odyssey by women in modern languages, such as Turkish and Italian. As the media focuses on Wilson as the “first female translator,” there is also the issue of tokenism, where one female translator may somehow represent all of them.
Wilson, who took five years to complete her work, offers a different take on the tale that feels more human, more inclusive, and less macho (a tough feat given the source) while being fast-paced and fun to read. She opens with:
Tell me about a complicated man, Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy.
I like that choice of “complicated.” Wilson noted in an interview that she could have called him a “straying husband” and still have been true to the original Greek. As The Week pointed out, those adventures with monsters and gods could have been made up to mask his infidelities:
Traditionally, The Odyssey is read as the story of Odysseus struggling against the gods and the elements, who prevent him from returning home to Ithaca. They force him to encounter monsters, such as the Cyclops, the Sirens, and Scylla and Charybdis. They hold him captive on Calypso’s island for seven of the 10 years that it takes him to return from the Trojan War. With the translation of Odysseus as the straying husband, these supernatural adventures become excuses…
Wilson herself has written, despite the almost overpowering masculinity in the poem (which has no doubt contributed to the continuation of the patriarchy since), women are not entirely cast as helpless, fragile, or dependent:
There is a vision of empowered femininity in the Odyssey, but it is conveyed not in in the mortal world but in that of the gods. The poem’s plot is, of course, engineered by the wonderfully gender-fluid goddess Athena, who protects and saves her favorite human from the Sirens, goddesses and female monsters who try to entrap him or transform him or hide him or devour him or swallow him up, with their dangerous feminine wiles.
In a piece in Time magazine, Wilson added,
…the poem itself is so deeply engaged with questions of loyalty, fidelity and truth – which turn out to mean entirely different things for male and female characters. Odysseus tells elaborate lies to achieve his goals, whereas Penelope deceives her suitors silently, by undoing her own work. In terms of sexual loyalty, Penelope is praiseworthy because she waits and weeps for 20 years, while her husband’s affairs and flirtations are presented as perfectly acceptable. Female characters are obstacles to the male protagonist’s mission…
In a review, The Atlantic magazine said Wilson had chosen “immediacy and naturalism over majestic formality. She preserves the musicality of Homer’s poetry, opting for an iambic pentameter whose approachable storytelling tone invites us in, only to startle us with eruptions of beauty.” Somewhat more lyrical a description than I could conjure. In another review in The Atlantic, Graeme Wood noted,
Wilson calls Odysseus a “complicated” man. I doubt the irony is lost on her: The word complicated is a simple solution to a complicated, even insoluble, problem of translation. The word isn’t perfect (Odysseus’s epithet should not sound like his relationship status on Facebook), but its clarity and concision make her predecessors seem dithering and stuck.
Each day I would read a single chapter (or book as the 24 divisions are better known) of Wilson’s translation, and with a few days interruption, finished it in about a month. Each book is a story within itself, connected to the others through the acts of and stories told by Odysseus, but a surprising amount of it is about his wife, Penelope, and their son, Telemachus, and what they endured before Odysseus returned home. Some years back, I read Margaret Atwood’s book, The Penelopiad, a retelling of the tale from the wife’s perspective. Until I read Wilson, I didn’t fully appreciate Atwood’s version, but now I think it might deserve a re-reading.
I can’t recommend Wilson’s edition enough… I believe it’s important for everyone to read Homer as part of their education and to help improve their appreciation of Western literature. Homer wrote about the people and events of the Bronze Age, a time vastly, even incomprehensibly different from today in almost every aspect. Yet despite the temporal distance, human nature and emotions are instantly recognizable and resonate today. As Graeme Wood wrote, each new translation will “help a new generation understand why for thousands of years, readers have discovered that time spent reading Homer is never wasted or regretted.” I’d argue this is true of the classics from Gilgamesh on through the much-later Romans.
The main event around which the two Homeric poems orbit — the Trojan War — took place even earlier than Homer: in the 12th or even 13th century BCE. While The Iliad takes place during that war, The Odyssey is some years after, after Odysseus’ ship and crew have been driven off course on their way home and sailed to foreign lands. The trials faced by Odysseus during his decade-long return home, a journey often thwarted by the gods at the expense of his crew, are the core of the tale. A course about The Odyssey taught in a Floridian university** notes:
…when students approach the text carefully and inquisitively, they learn that it is in fact a rich, complex literary work that raises enduring human questions:
What is a hero? What is the nature of identity and self-discovery? What are the consequences of hubris and the pursuit of power? What is the role of fate and free will in human life? What is the nature of temptation, and the consequences of indulgence? What do the bonds of loyalty, love and family demand?
What prompted me to rewrite this post was the recent publication of Wilson’s translation of The Iliad (still in hardcover, so I will have to wait for the paperback to be released…) which reminded me to return to my comment on The Odyssey. I am eagerly looking forward to her latest work and expect that, despite previous failed attempts, I will be able to finish it at last, and cross The Iliad off my list of “books I must read before I die.”
I gave five stars to Wilson’s version on Goodreads, by the way. If you want to know more about what I’m reading (or have read), look there.
* No doubt this is one of the reasons why CONservatives so eagerly ban books: literature might make the reader feel empathy, and thus be less bigoted, less racist, and less intolerant of others. And, it turns out, less intolerant, less bigoted people are also less likely to vote CONservative. As Solomon Stevens wrote:
The ability to feel empathy is to find yourself able to see the world from someone else’s perspective, to get inside the thoughts and feelings of another… Another important but often overlooked contributing factor to our loss of empathy is the decline of deep reading in America. We are reading snippets of things — a headline and first couple of sentences of a news story, a Facebook post or a quick word or two blurted on Twitter (sorry … “X”). But more and more of us aren’t reading deeply, or with understanding. And fewer and fewer of us are reading entire books. And, as Maryanne Wolf has pointed out, books are often the key to developing empathy, because they invite us into the inner world of other people. They show us how others think and feel. And that increased understanding makes us more understanding — not just tolerant of others, but aware of why we often misunderstand them.
** Not a place I’d recommend attending since it was taken over by CONservatives earlier this year, and 40% of faculty members resigned. As CNN reported:
Once heralded as a progressive liberal arts school, New College of Florida has found itself at the center of the state’s culture war over education.
In January, Gov. Ron DeSantis replaced six of the 13 members on the college’s Board of Trustees. New members include Christopher Rufo, who who has been at the forefront of the conservative movement against critical race theory.
I expect they’ll join DeSantis in banning and then burning books very soon. That’s what CONservatives do.