Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey

I read Robert Fagle’s Illiad and Odyssey when I was twelve; reading them was a big part of my life-long love with mythology. I didn’t find them dull or stodgy, I found them lyrical and beckoning. I will take “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns”, over “Tell me of a complicated man”, which frankly sounds like the Simple English Wikipedia version of the text.

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I have a nodding familiarity with Ancient Greek—just enough to advance a tentative position that everyone has to dress-up the original in one way or another. The conventions of Homeric poetry apply pretty much only to the language used: translating it directly would be… mm… sort of like Young’s literal translation of the Bible. Just… off.

That said, I happen to know[1] that Odysseus is described in the very first line as “πολύτροπον,” i.e. ‘polytropic’ if I may mangle it a bit. That means, literally ‘many-turned’ but, as a check in Middle-Liddell shows, it is used to mean ‘well-traveled’ as well as ‘shifty, wily, cunning,’ and ‘changing, complicated.’

I cannot think of a better way to translate all of it better than ‘a man of twists and turns.’

A ‘complicated man’ is a different translation which is, on the face of it, worse. It fails to encompass the cunning of Odysseus, for instance. On the other hand, it is much more direct and it’s not like the reader will read the poem and neglect to notice that Odysseus is cunning incarnate.

It’s a a knotty problem. Generally, when dealing with translations, having more is always better. None are perfect, but a multiplicity of them may just provide the perspectives needed to glimpse something of the original properly.

[1] My teacher of the classics, bless her, would be overjoyed. Thank you Dr. P, you efforts weren’t entirely in vain.

Absolutely! Sometimes I worry we mangle these things by reading them. They weren’t meant to be, historically. They were meant to be heard. And Ian McKellen is as fine a voice to put to it as ever.

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respectfully disagree!

i’ve always thought of the fagles verse as stuffy and antiquating, over-relying on the meter which alienates it from modern English… closely read: “man of twists and turns” is such a muddy rendering and the meaning is too obscured—while “complicated man” is so much more stark in turn.

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Translation is always a balancing act, and translating poetry is balancing atop a bowling ball while spinning plates on a stick. The translator needs to supply whatever plain meaning the text might deliver, along with some indications of the effects built on verse and intensified language–the “poetry” of poetry. To my ear, the sample of Wilson’s verse is a bit flat–the lines run to ten syllables but lack the punch and swing of, say, the blank verse of Shakespeare or Milton. Of course, contemporary notions of poetry run to the prosey, so there are readers for whom the ragged-right-margin layout is a stronger signal than the music of the lines. (Maybe an eye-versus-ear bias?)

There’s nothing wrong with prose or even prosey translations of narrative verse, particularly if what’s wanted is a clear picture of story–and getting out of the constraints of verse allows some wiggle-room when trying to get across something like a trickily-packed term such as the Greek “polytropos,” which the NYTimes interview with Wilson discusses in some detail. But Wilson chose to stay within a verse format, with its constraints, and “complicated” in contemporary English carries a set of associations that don’t quite match the sets of possibilities and ambiguities the Greek word does. (Assuming, that is, that the poem’s original audience heard in “polytropos” the same range of associations and implications that modern scholars have excavated from it.)

Because poetry is, um, complicated. As Wilson acknowledges in the interview.

It’s an ambitious project–I’ll be interested to see what my wife (who teaches classics in translation) thinks of it.

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I’ve just read War Music by Christopher Logue,an account of the Illiad.Quite a viceral rendering.Loaded with anachronisms but took me into the brutality of the battles like none of the others did.

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In addition to the problems of translating between languages the history of the text itself gives me serious pause when reading any Homer: the Fagles translation Preface I know discusses some of this history (every translation these days probably sketches this out in some way).

Btw, last time I read the Odyssey (the Fagles), two things emerged for me: First, I enjoyed Odysseus as a man of constant invention, where even Athena, his patron, seems kind of boggled by his nonstop lying/spinning. That seems to me to be a hub of the narrative, keeping an audience hanging on to find out what he tries next.

But then the poem on this reading also seemed so particular to its time and place and culture that I wondered why Western culture once claimed universality for it (though I know Homer was also a huge deal in the ancient world)? The place and the people, and the way in which they lived seemed just shrunken to me into something so particular to that time and place (also, the fantastic elements did nothing for me this time around) that I wondered how anyone got started blowing it up beyond its confines. I love both poems for many reasons, and will probably reread them again, but this reading surprised me.

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It’s awesome she did it. She’s in a position to do anything she wants with her time and this certainly is better than polo, but my problem with that excerpt is that it’s so stark it loses the essence of Odysseus. He’s not complicated – which to my ear suggests “It’s complicated” or post-modern angst – he is LITERALLY the man of twists and turns. A hero who both solves his problems and creates problems for himself by being clever.

Invoking the muse is also a quasi-religious thing. Not sure if it should be implied. But it’s an impossibly difficult task to begin with. Next time I’m feeling all Age of Bronze, I’ll give it look.

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Just read Wyatt Mason’s interview with Wilson over at the NYT and this new Odyssey translation sounds incredible. Looking forward to reading it.

Carl Kruse

I really like the feel of that prose - direct, unadorned, fresh. I always felt like the odyssey would be a rather tiring read, in a format that just makes reading a pain - I’m not one for poetry, much less things written in meter, but this feels like something else entirely. Which might be a lot closer to the original, who knows?

Well, I’m just gonna steal the plots for my fantasy RPG stuff, anyway…

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Well I have to endorse john dolan’s very recent translation of the Iliad. It is excellent:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1627310509/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1509839593&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords=john+dolan+iliad&dpPl=1&dpID=51xxdvQNv1L&ref=plSrch

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Haha, that sounds like it could be delightful… or facepalm-inducing. What kind of style does he go for? Does he sound like an over-energetic bro? Or some kinda macho gun-toting maniac? Or just … what? I guess “war nerd” doesn’t conjure up anything particularly nice or nifty in my head.

It is extraordinary that you chose that word as your example because it is precisely that word which the article’s author frames the article against, and which Wilson chose very deliberately, both as the work’s first description of the protagonist, and also a key to her whole style as a translator.

As the article listed all the thirty-odd previous ways which that word had been translated into English, I, too, felt that “twists and turns” seemed best. However, Wilson’s explanation of her choice was eye-opening and chosen quite carefully, as it turns out. I think you would really enjoy the article.

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It is delightful and serious and funny. John is a scholar, poet and wonderful writer.

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I also really like Lombardo’s. Highly recommend. I’ve only read his Iliad though - which is a much better poem anyway.

Like a few others, I have problems with that “complicated” in the first line. In contemporary usage it has a whiff of… what? Love letters written in felt pen? California psychobabble? Lover’s conversation in a fern bar across a bottle of chianti in a raffia basket? It’s wrong here anyway.

I do look forward to reading the NYT article though - there’s no problem quite like translation problems. And I can probably forgive the translator for one clanger. Probably.

Also a good word for Christopher Logue’s partial translations, which are absolute corkers. If only there were more. If you can handle rambling nonsensical SF shaggy dog stories R.A. Lafferty’s Space Chantey is worth a look.

And if you just plain like comparing stuff, I really enjoyed Homer in English, which is snippets from many many different translations.

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Peter Green’s superb Iliad came out in 2015, and his Odyssey will be out in March 2018. I’d recommend Green if Fagles is too bombastic-flowery and Wilson is too dull. Fagles adds a lot to Homer and is a bit tinny after 20 years. Am looking forward to Wilson!

On the other hand, I was rather disappointed by David Ferry’s recent Aeneid, sad!

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I’ve always been partial to Fitzgerald. He must be one of those

Though

As a translation into English, though, Anglophone bias is not only alright it’s to be preferred.

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It is an interesting article (I’ve since read it, having just paused to dash off a comment) but my choice isn’t that extraordinary. That use of ‘polytropos’ is moderately famous (it is if you are academically into the classics or if you were a part of an education system that decided that, by gum, you would be into the classics, by hook or by crook) and her translation translates it radically differently.

And I am puzzled by the article. It is written as if translating ‘polytropos’ as ‘complicated’ is a new thing but it isn’t. Middle-Liddell isn’t new and it isn’t a particularly exhaustive dictionary and yet there complicated lies as meaning three of ‘polytropos.’ And it is beyond imagining that I should know this and she an Oxford classicist, for heaven’s sake wouldn’t.

Yes, focusing on just the positive qualities (wise, &c) or negative (wily, shifty, &c) is a mistake: a reading-in that’s not permitted by the text. Her translation[1] improves on those, but I think ‘a man of twists and turns’ is better as it, using English idiom, conveys the manifold meanings of the Greek original: both turned and turning, both exalted wisdom and base cunning. A complicated man[3].

[1] I actually think her final lightly grandstanding ‘straying husband’ is half-better. ‘Husband’ is reaching too far, surely[2], but ‘straying’ is an interesting choice.
[2] ‘Andros’ is husband, fair enough, but it means husband only in context, cf. ‘man and wife.’ If the author meant husband right off the bat they’d have used ‘posis’ or ‘gametes’ surely. That’s why I think she’s grandstanding a bit, because I’ve no doubt she has a LSJ to hand and knows all of this way, way, way, &c better than I do.
[3] Shaft joke mercifully removed.

I’m similarly puzzled by the section on ‘maidservants.’ Yes, in modern usage it doesn’t convey that these are nearly certainly young female slaves, but the word ‘maidservant’ was used extensively in this very meaning in the KJV Bible which earlier translators doubtless expected the readers to be quite familiar with. I will grant that the original contains no slurs, of course, and her translation of this section is as precise and well-rendered as any could hope for.

Still, I am glad this sort of thing is still worked on and talked about. And the ultimate test of the translation isn’t really what you or I or anyone here thinks about it: if it resonates with people and if it connects them with an ancient tradition, then it will doubtless thrive. Omnis traductor traditor, naturally, but like in history it isn’t treason if you win. :wink:

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Thanks for that - I used to read a lot of War Nerd, as somewhere between a guilty pleasure and a legit one. I’ve just bought this and am a few chapters in. It reads like you’d expect from the War Nerd - crass and a bit snarky, but fluent, and underneath it the knowledge that buttressed the old old War Nerd columns - that all this talk of glory is just shorthand for vicious arrogant stupidity, and that things are sure to end badly.

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