A Tangled Web: Tate Standage reviews The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

Ahead of the Southbank Centre’s live reading of The Odyssey on 21 October, we’re delighted to have Foyle Young Poet Tate Standage review the first known complete translation of The Odyssey by a woman published in English. Read on to win free tickets and to explore the translation of this epic text with poet and classicist Tate Standage.

I feel any review of Emily Wilson’s Odyssey that didn’t mention the introduction would be as incomplete as the translation itself would be without it. The introduction is around 90 pages long and is a detailed contextualisation of Homer (whoever ‘he’ was), the traditions behind and around The Odyssey, and Wilson’s own choices in translating them. The topics discussed get quite academic. However, the main impression I got from it was one of accessibility. Not just in that it explains complicated ideas simply while not patronisingly, but also in that it made the process of translation itself more accessible. It’s the only introduction to an ancient text I’ve ever read that went into so much detail about translations and their contexts, and the choices they are made of.

For example, Wilson discusses her choice in translating Helen of Troy’s description of her face as ‘doglike’ as ‘hounding the Greeks to war’—avoiding the decision to translate ‘doglike’ as ‘bitch’ that, while perhaps seeming obvious, in the context of our language has quite different connotations from what the Greek actually says.

The introduction and the translation itself both seem very aware of contexts. Translation exists in more contexts than the source poem. It is a web connecting the source text and the culture it came from to the culture and language it is translated into. But the web is more tangled than just that: translations also exist in the contexts of other translations, and of our culture’s perceptions of the original text—regardless of the accuracy of those perceptions. Wilson’s translation is aware of all of these threads.

The translation itself is also accessible. There is a general sense sometimes that Homer is difficult or dry to read, but Wilson’s Odyssey is both readable and understandable with minimal effort. It also flows beautifully (in part due to Wilson’s choice to adapt Greek dactylic hexameter to English iambic pentameter) to the extent that you can get caught up in its flow and not put the book down for several hours.

Wilson’s translation also eschews the idea that Homer should be in ‘epic’ language. The narrative as translated by Wilson contains moments of what are not colloquialism, but ‘ordinary’ images one might not expect to find in epic poetry. For example, in Book 7, the goddess Athena, appearing to Odysseus in disguise, is described as ‘pigtailed Athena’. Not something you would perhaps expect from epic poetry. The dialogue can also be shockingly realistic, notably that of the goatherd Melanthius (‘Pig-man, where are you taking this old swine?’) and later:

Melanthius the goatherd sneered at him,
‘Oh, very nice! This dog knows how to talk,
and it has learned some tricks.’

When I read this it felt so fluid that I actually went to read the lines in the Ancient Greek, convinced that they must have been significantly adapted—they had not been. To read these shockingly non-epic phrases, yet find that they do still appear in the original text, could almost make you think that Wilson’s translation is cleaner than previous ones; a clearer window through which to look at the original text. But she corrects this idea in her introduction, saying:

‘My Homer does not speak in your grandparents’ English, since that language is no closer to the wine-dark sea than your own. I have tried to keep a register that is recognisably speakable and readable, while skirting between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang.’

Since the gulf between the Greek text of The Odyssey and the text of any modern translation is so large, the register makes little difference to how close that translation is to the original. All modern translations of The Odyssey are the same distance away from the original, although that distance may be in different directions.

Wilson’s Odyssey is aware that it exists among these other directions of translation. There are significant places where Wilson’s choices in translation seem closer to the Greek, but further from the translations that an Anglophone audience is used to. One example is Wilson’s translations of words like ‘slave’. The world of The Odyssey is populated by characters who the Greek refers to as slaves, house-slaves etc.—yet Wilson’s translation is the first to refuse to refer to them as servants or maids. In this way it is a more ‘accurate’ translation of the Greek—but there is also a definite sense that Wilson has drawn attention to this choice because other translators failed to do so.

Cyclopean Isles

Another example is Wilson’s descriptions of Polyphemus the Cyclops. The story of Polyphemus is probably the most well-known part of The Odyssey: Polyphemus is a one-eyed monster who traps Odysseus and his men in a cave and eats them, until Odysseus gets him drunk, tricks him with a fake name, stabs his eye out, and escapes. It is not unreasonable to say most people have a preconceived notion of Polyphemus as a big scary monster. Here’s how Robert Fagles translated the first description of him in his translation of The Odyssey in 1996:

Here was a giant’s lair, in fact, who always pastured
his sheepflocks far afield and never mixed with others.
A grim loner, dead set in his own lawless ways.
Here was a piece of work, by god, a monster
built like no mortal who ever supped on bread,
no, like a shaggy peak, I’d say — a man-mountain
rearing head and shoulders over the world.

But here’s how Wilson translates the same passage:

There lived a massive man
who shepherded his flocks all by himself.
He did not go to visit other people,
but kept apart, and did not know the ways
of custom. In his build he was a wonder,
a giant, not like men who live on bread,
but like a wooded peak in airy mountains
rising alone above the rest.

Fagles assumes Polyphemus is a ‘monster’ and adjusts his translation to highlight this. Wilson refuses to make assumptions, and so it is not immediately clear that Polyphemus is ‘monstrous’. In fact, a few pages later, where Fagles has his ‘rumbling voice and monstrous hulk’, Wilson writes ‘His voice, / so deep and booming, and his giant size’, again not assuming monstrousness on Polyphemus’ part, and definitely not exaggerating any hints of it in the text. (The word that appears throughout this book is ‘πέλωρος’, which can mean ‘monstrous’—or simply ‘big’).

On one hand, this refusal to assume things challenges conventional translations of the text. It comes as a shock to anyone familiar with the story, and so makes them reconsider both if the unfamiliar is necessarily monstrous, as well as which other, less obvious, accepted elements in translations are built more on the translator’s assumptions than the original text. But Wilson’s more sympathetic description of Polyphemus isn’t exactly that either—the humanness, or even civility of a Polyphemus who ‘carefully performed his chores’ means that when he eventually does kill and eat Odysseus’ men, it comes out of nowhere and is much more shocking. The reader gets to experience Odysseus’ surprise much better than if we had known Polyphemus was a ‘monster’ from the beginning.

The blinding of the drunken Cyclops Polyphemus by Odysseus and three of his companions, Sperlonga museum. Photo credit: Andy Hay via flickr.

Wilson’s choices in translating also preserve the poetry of The Odyssey in translation. One example is in Book 4: Athena says ‘it is not good / to speak of things intangible as wind.’ In Greek this is ‘κακὸν δ᾽ ἀνεμώλια βάζειν’ (‘It is bad to say windy-things’), with ‘ἀνεμώλια’ standing both for ‘in vain’ and the metaphor of wind.

And her translation successfully navigates the various puns and wordplays in the text. A simple one is Penelope’s refusal to say the name of Troy: she instead calls it ‘Κακοΐλιον’, combining the words ‘κακός’ (bad) and ‘Ἴλιον’ (Ilium; another name for Troy). Wilson replicates this in having Penelope call Troy ‘Evilium’.

Wilson also comes up with ingenious ways of translating the idiosyncrasies of The Odyssey and the oral culture in which it developed into English, and specifically written English. As she mentions in her translator’s note, the recurring epithets which acted as ‘anchors’ for a listener to The Odyssey, to a reader become merely things that have been read before, and so are easily skippable. Wilson therefore adapts these epithets for a literate audience by translating them differently each time. So what is at one point ‘when newborn Dawn appeared with rosy fingers’ is at another ‘when rosy fingered Dawn came bright and early’.

A common habit of translators is to begin a work by apologising for ‘flaws’ or ‘unfaithfulness’ in their translation, ways in which the window they have made to the original text might not be perfectly clear. Wilson does not do this. Her changes are not flaws, nor are they (the gendered metaphor of) ‘unfaithful’. Instead, she challenges the very idea that translation is a window we can look through. Wilson’s conceptualisation of translation is more like feeling a sculpture in the dark, and then weaving a tapestry of what you thought was there. Translation is a web made out of choices and each choice is necessarily a ‘change’. But the places Wilson chooses to ‘change’ the original text are the places where she adapts The Odyssey for our culture and time, where she weaves together choices to create what translation is—a new but representative work.

Have you read The Odyssey? Would you like to? Email [email protected] with the subject line ‘Odyssey’ by 12 midday (BST) Wednesday 17 October 2018 to be in with a chance of winning a copy of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey and a pair of free tickets a live reading of The Odyssey on 21 October at Southbank Centre, London.

Tate studies Classics at Durham University. They were a Foyle Young Poet in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and won the Tower poetry competition in 2017. They enjoy reading, sleeping, and ancient conspiracies.

Published October, 2018


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