She Reeled Us In With The Odyssey. Now: The Hard Stuff.

From Slate:

Translators often go unsung, but Emily Wilson became a household name with the success of her Odyssey. Since then, readers have been waiting for her Iliad to appear—some with pure excitement, others with skepticism that she could work the same magic again. As Wilson herself acknowledges, translating the Other Epic was not simply a matter of repeating a proven recipe. The Iliad and the Odyssey have both come down to us under the name of Homer, but even ancient audiences recognized them to be very different poems.

Both belong to the ancient epic cycle about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Both also use nearly the same idiom and compositional techniques and feature many of the same characters. (Odysseus and Achilles play important roles in each other’s epics.) Yet while the Iliad is a poem that uses mass human death to explore the nature of immortality—of the gods, and of a hero’s name and deeds—the Odyssey’s tale of survival is a reflection on mortality and its consolations. There are other reasons, too, that the worlds of the two poems seem different. In the Greek epic tradition, Zeus engineered the Trojan War to rid the world of its excess of heroes. In the Odyssey we can feel their absence.

Partially for that reason, ancient critics regarded the Iliad as the finer work. Socrates refers, in the Platonic dialogue Hippias Minor, to a widespread notion that the Iliad is superior to the Odyssey because its star, Achilles, is a manlier man than Odysseus. An ancient critic known as Longinus saw the Odyssey as the composition of an aged Homer who had succumbed to the elderly’s habit of storytelling. “Writing the Iliad at the height of his powers,” Longinus observed, “Homer suffused the whole work with drama and action, whereas the Odyssey is full of stories—just like old age.”

. . . .


Translators often go unsung, but Emily Wilson became a household name with the success of her Odyssey. Since then, readers have been waiting for her Iliad to appear—some with pure excitement, others with skepticism that she could work the same magic again. As Wilson herself acknowledges, translating the Other Epic was not simply a matter of repeating a proven recipe. The Iliad and the Odyssey have both come down to us under the name of Homer, but even ancient audiences recognized them to be very different poems.

Both belong to the ancient epic cycle about the Trojan War and its aftermath. Both also use nearly the same idiom and compositional techniques and feature many of the same characters. (Odysseus and Achilles play important roles in each other’s epics.) Yet while the Iliad is a poem that uses mass human death to explore the nature of immortality—of the gods, and of a hero’s name and deeds—the Odyssey’s tale of survival is a reflection on mortality and its consolations. There are other reasons, too, that the worlds of the two poems seem different. In the Greek epic tradition, Zeus engineered the Trojan War to rid the world of its excess of heroes. In the Odyssey we can feel their absence.

Partially for that reason, ancient critics regarded the Iliad as the finer work. Socrates refers, in the Platonic dialogue Hippias Minor, to a widespread notion that the Iliad is superior to the Odyssey because its star, Achilles, is a manlier man than Odysseus. An ancient critic known as Longinus saw the Odyssey as the composition of an aged Homer who had succumbed to the elderly’s habit of storytelling. “Writing the Iliad at the height of his powers,” Longinus observed, “Homer suffused the whole work with drama and action, whereas the Odyssey is full of stories—just like old age.”

In antiquity the Iliad was not just the favorite of intellectuals, it was also the preferred text for study in schools. Ancient papyri preserving lines from the Iliad outnumber those with text of the Odyssey by a ratio of 3-to-1. At North American colleges in the 18th century, the Iliad was required reading (in Greek). For millennia, schoolteachers thought that Homer’s poem about glory in war offered a better model for young men than his tale of misbehavior and wandering.

Only in the 20th century did the Odyssey definitively surpass the Iliad as the better-known and better-liked epic. Longinus’ complaint that it is too full of stories is probably one of the reasons it is more attractive to modern audiences. The Odyssey can feel more dynamic than the relatively stationary Iliad, its settings and characters more varied. It is also more optimistic about the human condition, or at least its ending is happier (from the protagonist’s perspective).

This is why it was a canny move on Wilson’s part to arouse new general interest in Homer by translating the Odyssey first. The dramatic action of the Iliad precedes that of the Odyssey (and it is likely the Iliad was written down first), but the many ways in which the Iliad differs from the Odyssey are also what make it the more challenging, and now less popular, of the two poems.

Naturally, Wilson’s admirers hoped that her second Homeric translation would be as great an achievement as the first. What they might not have expected is that it would be better.

Link to the rest at Slate

13 thoughts on “She Reeled Us In With The Odyssey. Now: The Hard Stuff.”

  1. The first three paragraphs are repeated, which if unintentional should probably be edited.

    Of course, if one was trying to have repetition as some metaphor about epic poetry, then please do ignore and delete this comment.

    • It’s not in the OP, Ashley. You’ll see it frequently in other posts here. But I don’t think it’s anything that PG is doing, but something with WordPress. I’ve seen it on many another WordPress blog.

      It may not even be their fault, exactly, but some strange interaction with other blogging software when you copy a block of text from a site using it. PG does source from a multitude of places, after all.

      I’m not their tester, just a user, so I’ve never investigated it deeply; I’m not sure it even shows up in their editor, it may only happen when the post is published.

    • It was user error, A, but as WO points out, WordPress quirks may have played a role as well.

      I am almost certain I noticed the duplication when I was reviewing the post and fixed it before posting.

  2. The thing is, there’s a fundamental misunderstanding about how Indo-European oral-formulaic poetry works on the part of academics. And (Homer or not) both works clearly descend from the requirements of skalds (or their equivalent) to supply appropriate metrical line-fragments under the real-time pressure of performance. The texts we have are merely the best surviving versions that were written down — the fundamental form is oral, not written. (Homer, Beowulf, Edda, etc.)

    This is the same process that survives in the English ballads that utilize formulae to give you “And then she lifted up her little lily-white hoof” in the the ballad “Creeping Jane” (about a racehorse) where the metrical formula “lily-white hand” fits the meter and the sense (well-enough).

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oral-formulaic_composition

    Not to detract from “Homer” but the text is more the result of a master craftsman (or team thereof) than the modern conception of a master poet-who-invents-all. The given story is shaped by the performer, but much more of the language is traditional stagecraft than moderns like to admit.

    Moderns love a “hero” concept for creatives, a very romantic view.

    • Yes, my translation for the Iliad (by Caroline Alexander) notes that “Homerisms” were meant to help the rhyming schemes: the rosy fingers of Dawn, the many benched ships, godlike Achilles, Nestor the breaker of horses, etc.

      As for Wilson, I’m not interested in her translation. I had looked at translation reviews for the Odyssey, and a Greek-speaker noted that Wilson mistranslated a scene where Laertes, Telemachus, and Odysseus are preparing to deal with the fathers of the unwanted suitors Odysseus slaughtered (the ones besieging Penelope). In the scene, the correct translation — all of the other translators got it right — Laertes is proud that Odysseus and Telemachus are competing to show how valorous they are.

      The Greco-American blogger explained that the Greek term used here, “arete,” is a wedding of two concepts I always thought were related: virtue and valor. All other translators (in her link she compares them) say “valor” or “courage” or “bravery,” but Wilson reduces the characters to macho meatheads by having Laertes say they’re competing to show how tough they are:

      Once I knew that “tough” was meant to translate “arete,” it seemed a reductive choice. Odysseus and Telemachus are not arguing over who is tougher. They’re both intent on proving they can bring their best when confronted with obstacles, thus bringing honor to the family name, thus being worthy of carrying that name. Whatever I may think of this, it’s a very Greek concept that persists even today. In this scene, Odysseus expects to do his best at and confer honor through bravery in battle because his immediate obstacle is an armed, angry mob that intends to murder him. But being tough is not the only way he has brought honor to his family name. He has also done so by being clever and strategic. He’s Athena’s favorite precisely because he is not recklessly brave but crafty and measured. This is reflected in the poem’s opening description of him as πολύτροπον (polytropon): a “man of many devices,” as the Loeb edition puts it. The Trojan Horse was his idea.

      From other reviews I gather Wilson’s mistranslations are ideological, although she trips over herself in some places: one reviewer pointed out that where Homer said “women” Wilson writes “girls” in spite of claiming her word choices are meant to correct a “misogynistic” point of view. She confused the heck out of a French reviewer by saying “canapes” among other oddities. At any rate, I don’t trust ideological translations; I prefer ones that prioritize what the author actually said or meant. Otherwise you’re just doing fan fiction.

  3. The whole how-to-handle “polytropos Odysseus” bit as a metrical epithet for Odysseus is a famous diagnostic “how straightforward/self-effacing/insightful is this translator?” test.

    The Greek etymology is “many-turning” and it refers to character. The closest direct translation might be “wily”. But there is also a standard English translation solution that uses a similar etymological metaphor: “complicated”, which means literally “with-folds”, that is, with “turns of direction” and just happens to fit modern diction in meaning. (Latin origin, but naturalized in English).

    So, someone who takes a different approach to “polytropos” is usually automatically suspect as someone who wants to wave a “see me!” flag instead of providing a translation for the ages.

    This translator is full of anachronistic (and some woke) word choices which pull the reader right out of the story. When translating something ancient, you have to choose whether to try and convey an older human point of view (without modern anachronistic word choices to throw you out) or a universally-human still-true civilizational point of view (without modern wokeisms to throw you out), and what I’ve seen and read about this translator seems to show an egocentric failure on both counts.

    • Ooh, I did not know that about that opening. Good insight! Somewhere I read that Wilson dislikes that the translator is not given equal or greater precedence to the original author (Homer, and anyone else she might translate). Tough cookies. And another reason I don’t trust her.

      When translating something ancient, you have to choose whether to try and convey an older human point of view (without modern anachronistic word choices to throw you out) or a universally-human still-true civilizational point of view (without modern wokeisms to throw you out)

      Exactly. The past is a foreign country, and books are our passports. I want to know how the ancients viewed an issue or a situation, not necessarily how someone from our age views it. The tension you speak of here can be challenging enough, without having the addition of a translator who wants to impose her own agenda on top of the work.

      • One of the delights in reading good translations of the Icelandic sagas is how effortlessly modern they sound, much as if they were written by an early cowboy western hack. (It’s not a matter of translation — they’re not that hard to read in the original and I’ve done that.)

        Part of it is the wisecracks while facing death that were passed down through the families that preserved the stories, like any good quip passed along by your grandfather as the outlaw gets his just deserts or the hero faces insurmountable odds with a gleam in his eye and an insult on his lips.

        And part of it is the matter-of-fact perspective of the tale teller, with his asides about how the local gang and ruler politics worked, and why the characters did what they did. There are supernatural elements, but those are on the level of spookiness around the campfire, not the active gods of Homer.

        When you read the good translations, you assume the translator has taken liberties to make them less obscure to modern readers but, no, that’s really how they are.

          • This is a good compilation of translations from a definitive publisher. It’s missing a few of the bigger stand-alone works (e.g., Njals Saga) but has a lot of good stuff. You can always fill it in later with the larger single works.

            “Saga” just means “Story” (literally, something “said”, like “Tale” means something “told”).

            https://www.amazon.com/Sagas-Icelanders-Penguin-Classics-Deluxe/dp/0141000031

            Contents include:

            Egil’s Saga
            The Saga of the People of Vatnsdal
            The Saga of the People of Laxardal
            Bolli Bollason’s Tale
            The Saga of Hrafnkel Frey’s Godi
            The Saga of the Confederates
            Gisli Sursson’s Saga
            The Saga of Gunnlaug Serpent-Tongue
            The Saga of Ref the Sly
            The Saga of the Greenlanders
            Eirik the Red’s Saga
            The Tale of Thorstein Staff-Struck
            The Tale of Halldor Snorrason II
            The Tale of Sarcastic Halli
            The Tale of Thorstein Shiver
            The Tale of Audun from the West Fjords
            The Tale of the Story-Wise Icelander

            • Thanks! And I note Erik the Red is mentioned here, which gives me a temporal anchor. And I like spooky elements, so this should be good.

                • Karen, Jamie,

                  Thank you for an enlightening discussion. I have to admit that I don’t much like the Iliad – I’m rather old fashioned in my attitudes (definitely not woke) but this does not leave me at all sympathetic to Homeric heroes (though I would have enjoyed it more if Hector had gutted that prick Achilles).

                  Also, thanks for the book recommendation. I have two or three of these sagas in old Penguin paperbacks but the Kindle omnibus looks a really good find (especially as Penguin’s UK arm charged me a reasonable price for the e-book, though in the USA they still appear to be aiming to suppress digital sales).

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