Light through the Fog

Colin Burrow

  • The Odyssey translated by Peter Green
    California, 538 pp, £24.00, April, ISBN 978 0 520 29363 2
  • The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson
    Norton, 592 pp, £30.00, December 2017, ISBN 978 0 393 08905 9
  • The Odyssey translated by Anthony Verity
    Oxford, 384 pp, £7.99, February, ISBN 978 0 19 873647 9

Sausages and sneezes both have small but significant parts to play in Homer’s Odyssey. Sausages (or blood-puddings, or ‘paunches full of blood and fat’ as more literal translators call them) figure occasionally as food. But they also pop and fizzle their way into a simile that describes Odysseus’ behaviour the night before he slaughters his wife Penelope’s suitors, which Peter Green translates like this:

As a man cooking a paunch chockful of fat and blood
on a fierce blazing fire will turn it to and fro,
determined to get it cooked through as fast as he can,
so Odysseus tossed this way and that, trying to work out
how he was going to lay hands on the shameless suitors,
one man against so many.

This simile was much reviled by neoclassical critics. In his translation of 1726 Alexander Pope couldn’t bring himself to mention the sausage, and produced instead one of his prissiest euphemisms: ‘As one who long with pale-ey’d famine pin’d,/The sav’ry cates on glowing embers cast.’ Odysseus has returned to Ithaca and is still disguised as a beggar, which is the reason he can be compared to a humble cooker of sausages. He is trying at this moment to do what The Odyssey as a whole attempts to do: to make deliberative inaction into something heroic. He has just overheard the slave girls of his household giggle as they head off to assignations with the suitors, who are eating all the prime cuts of his pigs and cattle. Should he kill the slave girls immediately or allow them one more gaudy night? He tells himself to swallow his anger. As Emily Wilson has it in her sprightly rendering:

      ‘Be strong, my heart. You were
hounded by worse the day the Cyclops ate
your strong companions. But you kept your nerve,
till cunning saved you from the cave; you thought
that you would die there.’

And so, having reached a decision not to kill the slave girls, Odysseus lies writhing like a man impatient for his sausage to be cooked. It’s an unusually extended example of the way the author of The Odyssey (whom we call Homer, but who probably dates from at least half a century after the person or persons who wrote The Iliad) does interior psychology. Two options are clearly stated (kill now, or kill later). The hero decides, and bides his time. But all the energy of the resisted option fizzles and spits within him.

The sneeze in The Odyssey is a bit different, but it also indicates how complicated the psychology of this poem can appear to be. Odysseus’ son, Telemachus, sneezes immediately after Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, has (in Peter Green’s literal translation) said this:

      ‘there is no man here
such as Odysseus once was, to keep ruin from our house.
But were Odysseus to come back home, then he and his son
would at once exact vengeance for these men’s violent acts.’
So she spoke. Tēlemachos now sneezed, loudly. The whole
house echoed ringingly round them. Penelopē laughed,
and at once addressed Eumaios with winged words, saying:
‘Please go now and bring the stranger [the disguised Odysseus] here before me!
Don’t you see how my son just sneezed at everything I said.’

A footnote in Green’s translation tells us that sneezes were regarded as omens in antiquity, and so, implicitly, Telemachus does not ‘sneeze at’ Penelope’s speech in the modern sense of regarding it as nothing, but rather as a sign that it will all come true. Odysseus will indeed return and wreak vengeance on the suitors. This historical explanation for the sneeze has been common at least since Eustathius’s commentary from the 12th century. But Telemachus’ sneeze also invites other kinds of explanation. His mother has just said in public and in front of him that there is no man around like his father, Odysseus. But she has also said that when Odysseus returns his son will join him in vengeance. Attention is turned on Telemachus in a way that both makes him big and belittles him. Then he sneezes. Does the sneeze express awkwardness or embarrassment as well as being a portent?

The sneeze is a kind of reprise of an earlier outburst from the youthful Telemachus, who doesn’t quite know if he is a man or not, or if he can take control of his father’s household or not. In Book 1 Penelope tells the bard Phemius to stop singing about the return of the heroes from Troy because it makes her weep. This prompts Telemachus to give his mother a dressing-down, which concludes (this time in Anthony Verity’s careful and unshowy translation):

‘Go back to your rooms and take charge of your own tasks,
the loom and the distaff, and order your women servants
to go about their work. Talk must be men’s concern, all of
them, and mine especially, for the power in the house is mine.’

The anxious young man asserts himself here in a remarkable way. He virtually quotes an earlier hero, and that makes it particularly hard to assess the tone of his speech. In Book 6 of The Iliad Hector told his wife, Andromache, to go back to her weaving and leave war to men. Telemachus uses the same phrases as Hector, but substitutes the word ‘talk’ or ‘speech’ (muthos) for ‘war’ (polemos). Aristarchus, one of Homer’s earliest editors, regarded this as a sign that Telemachus’ rebuke to his mother was an interpolation by a later author. More recent editors have shared his suspicion because the same form of words is repeated much later in the poem in a context that seems more appropriate. But along with the sausage and the sneeze, Telemachus’ attempt here to sound like the hero Hector – a man uncompromisingly in control of his household, and who is talking to his wife, rather than to a mother who may be about to remarry – shows something significant about the psychological and poetic methods of The Odyssey, as well as demonstrating how difficult it is to be sure about what is going on in the poem. A sneeze or a quotation from The Iliad can convey power and awkwardness at once. Lines from The Iliad repeated in a new context may show a young man trying to replicate earlier heroism by quoting it, or the Odyssey-poet making a slightly clumsy use of the tradition inherited from the Iliad-poet, or they might have been added by an enthusiastic scribe or editor. Being a hero after or before the battlefield, in the close environment of a household or – worst of all – in front of your mum, isn’t easy. And describing behaviour in a household in an oral formulaic idiom fashioned principally to represent action on the battlefield can simultaneously generate enigmas, awkwardness of tone, and suggestions of psychological depth.

All of this makes The Odyssey much harder to translate than The Iliad. One person’s interpolation or historical curiosity will be another person’s moment of deep psychological insight. That problem is compounded by the subject matter and social world of the poem. It is full of travellers and strangers who might be gods, or con men, or, like much enduring godly Odysseus of the many wiles himself, a little bit of both. So no one ever quite knows what’s going on. A swineherd might turn out to be an abducted prince. A Cyclops might greet a stranger who addresses it politely by bashing the brains out of one of his companions as if he were a puppy. A good king might politely offer a wary welcome and food, listen to a stranger’s story, and then after a tactful delay ask who he is and where he is from. And then the guest might lie. People in their conversations in this poem often proceed cagily in order to allow for what they do not yet know. Telemachus doesn’t quite know whether his mother is planning to remarry. We don’t know either.

Throughout the magically poised final books of the poem it’s never clear whether or not Penelope suspects that the disguised travelling beggar who has come to her house is Odysseus. The delicacy with which Odysseus checks that his wife remains loyal, while she holds off acknowledging him in case he is even more of a trickster than he appears to be, makes Book 19 of The Odyssey one of the first and greatest pieces of psychological drama, in which no one – readers, characters, and perhaps even the author(s) – knows exactly where they stand. The key social virtue in this poem is wariness, holding a little back in case things are not what they seem. As the ghost of Agamemnon says to Odysseus during his descent to the underworld (in Wilson’s translation): ‘You must never treat your wife too well./Do not let her know everything you know./Tell her some things, hide others.’ Agamemnon, who was murdered by his wife’s lover on his return from Troy, provides a dark alternative to what Odysseus will experience when he gets home, and this doesn’t make the ghost an ideal marriage-guidance counsellor. But in this poem people do hide things: they seem to manoeuvre towards each other through a psychological version of the fog with which Athene repeatedly protects the wandering Odysseus.

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Should a translator try to shine a light through the fog or to replicate it? What makes that question so hard to answer is that fog isn’t all there is in the poem. Wary manoeuvrings through the mists of social uncertainty alternate with moments of extreme and revealing emotion. Inwardly people in The Odyssey are very clear about who they are and what they feel, even if socially they are wily and cautious. That makes it a poem both of uncertainties and of intense emotions, like Odysseus’ rage at the slave girls. Representations of poetry within the poem often suggest that one of the distinctive features of narrative verse is that it can focus and intensify emotion. This can encourage its audiences both to identify with what they hear and to identify themselves as a result of hearing a poem which elicits a strong emotional response. Penelope weeps when Phemius sings about the aftermath of Troy because it directly addresses the origin of her misery. When Odysseus hears the bard Demodocus in the palace of the Phaeacians sing the story of the Trojan horse he weeps (in Wilson’s version):

Odysseus was melting into tears;
his cheeks were wet with weeping, as a woman
weeps, as she falls to wrap her arms around
her husband, fallen fighting for his home and children.

This moment of grief in response to poetry – and it is extraordinary that Odysseus feels like a woman in a city of the kind he has himself sacked – prompts the tactful King Alcinous to believe that this stranger is likely to be someone who fought at Troy, and to ask him: ‘What did your parents name you?’ Odysseus’ name is often played on in the poem, and is as many-faceted as the man who bears it. We are told his grandfather named him after the verb odussomai, which means ‘hate’ or ‘be angry with’. He renames himself ‘no one’ (ou tis) when he blinds the Cyclops. When he finally reveals himself to Telemachus, he says: ‘I am no god, but your father.’ His name emerges fragmentarily at first through the Greek phrase ou tis toi theos, as though he is a divine nobodaddy. After his wave of emotion at the songs of Demodocus he discloses his name to the Phaeacians: ‘I am Odysseus, Laertes’ son.’ But even that isn’t simply a matter of shining a light through the mists that surround personal identity in the poem, since Odysseus goes on to tell the Phaeacians all the stories – and they are tallish ones – that are traditionally thought of as making up The Odyssey: the Sirens, Odysseus blinding the Cyclops and saying nobody did it, the descent to the underworld. Odysseus is our only witness to the truth of these tales, and the question that reverberates through the poem – ‘Who are you and where do you come from?’ – is one its readers come to share. How much of the time is Odysseus of the many wiles revealing what he is, and how often is he keeping things back? Maybe the only authenticity lies in those unguarded moments when poets make people display who they are by weeping at histories like their own.

So how do you translate such a fusion of fog and brilliance? Verity offers an excellent, clear, traditionally literal but avowedly non-poetic version. Wilson and Green pursue rather different tacks. Green is an out-and-out Helleniser, who wants to avoid what he calls ‘factitious pseudo-similarity to familiar English landmarks’. He repeats Homer’s repeated epithets, so Odysseus is almost always ‘resourceful’; and he gives transliterations of Greek place names rather than anglicised equivalents. Wilson, on the other hand, is a moderniser. She urges the Muse in the poem to ‘tell the old story for our modern times,’ where Green just says ‘tell us this tale.’ Green brings to the poem the rhetorical directness and historical expertise which worked so well in his translation of The Iliad. Speeches in his version are vigorous and direct. When Telemachus sends some bread across the hall to his disguised father he says:

‘Take this, a gift for the stranger. Tell him he should himself
go round among all the suitors, begging.
      Embarrassed restraint
is not a useful emotion for a man who’s in need.’

Most translate the word aidōs, which Green renders as ‘embarrassed restraint’, as ‘shame’. So Verity has ‘shame is no good companion for a needy beggar,’ while the more garrulous Robert Fagles (whose 1996 version has stood up pretty well, though it is not a line for line rendering) has ‘bashfulness, for a man in need, is no great friend.’ ‘Embarrassed restraint’ is better than these alternatives because it makes it so clear that Telemachus is tactfully ascribing a non-beggarly delicacy of feeling to his father rather than just uttering an epigram.

But Green’s Hellenisation can make things harder than they need to be for his readers. Characters in this poem – Circe, Penelope, Calypso – have been so long known by their naturalised English names that Green’s Kirkē, Penelopē and Kalypsō risk seeming simply pedantic. He also sometimes uses words which themselves need translation. How many readers will know that ‘emmer’ is rough wheat, or that ‘galingale’ is galangal, the aromatic rhizome used in Thai cookery? And without a bit of prior knowledge about ancient ships it may not be instantly clear that ‘thole-straps’ are bits of leather that tied Greek oars to the early equivalent of rowlocks. Green’s footnotes are excellent on textual problems and his solutions to them, but they also display a penchant for historical fact that can seem a little out of keeping with a poem in which the hero sees some of his shipmates turned to pigs by an enchantress and others eaten alive by a Cyclops. So we’re told that Proteus’ seals must be Mediterranean monk seals because this is the only kind of seal found in that part of the world; but given that their owner is a god who is about to transform himself from a lion into a serpent, a leopard and then a gigantic boar, might it not be reasonable to suppose that they are seals of the imagination? And to worry, as Green does in his introduction, about the mechanics used to string up the unfortunate slave girls at the end of the poem (which ‘puts a minimum of 1200 lbs weight on a single rope that seems simply looped round a column’) rather than the ethics of killing quite so many people, not all of whom seem to have done much wrong, seems peculiar, especially given that this isn’t a poem that cares about realism, but one in which a hero holds the wind imprisoned in a bag and visits the house of the dead – the practical arrangements for this, as I understand them, can be a bit tricky.

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Wilson, on the other hand, seeks to make a translation for the millennium. Her version is the first complete English translation of The Odyssey by a woman – though Anne Dacier translated the poem into French in 1708. Wilson sets herself the challenging task of translating the poem into the same number of iambic pentameter lines as there are hexameters in the original. Since there are often 15 syllables or more in a Homeric line this commits her to reducing its syllable count by around a third. In order to achieve that level of compression she has to rely heavily on monosyllables, and to make sharp and sometimes simplifying decisions about which of Homer’s implications to make explicit. The results can be lovely, as in the description of Calypso’s island:

Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
a luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
and scented cypress. It was full of wings.
Birds nested there but hunted out at sea:
the owls, the hawks, the gulls with gaping beaks.

‘It was full of wings’ translates ‘roosts of long-winged birds’ (as Verity has it). Wilson may blur Homer’s moment of nerdy birdery, but blurry can be good to look at.

The main strengths and weaknesses of her version are evident in its treatment of interpersonal exchanges. Like Fagles she makes Homer’s wine-dark, goodly, well-polished epithets do a lot of work in explaining what’s going on behind the dialogue. ‘Much enduring’ Odysseus, ‘circumspect’ Penelope, and the girls with the well-plaited hair are all features of Homer in translation which can make you feel as though you’re gazing at the past through a veil of sepia-hued antiquity. Wilson transforms these epithets into a range of phrases which provide a running commentary on emotional and social relationships. One of the standard epithets for the hero, polumētis (‘Odysseus of the many wiles’), for instance, can be rendered by ‘cunningly’ or ‘warily’ or by ‘Odysseus the trickster’, or ‘well known for his intelligence’, ‘scheming’ or ‘the mastermind’. His other main epithet, polutlas, ‘much enduring’, can be expanded into ‘Odysseus knew how to bide his time.’ This technique can provide helpful nudges about what Odysseus is up to. But the translation as a whole is just a bit too keen to draw attention to its own art. It’s clever to call Hermes ‘mercurial Hermes’ after the adjective deriving from his Latin name, but it’s more clever than it is an aid to understanding what he is or does.

Wilson’s introduction declares that ‘the Homeric text grows inside my translation, like Athena’s olive tree inside the bed made by Odysseus.’ That isn’t an entirely fortunate comparison, since Odysseus had to strip the bark off and therefore kill the tree in order to fashion a bed from its stump. Wilson’s refashioning of the poem is not that brutal, but sometimes she puts a heavy finger on the delicate balance with which Homer represents exchanges between the sexes. When Odysseus meets Nausicaa after his shipwreck he is covered in salt but not much else. He tells her maids not to watch him bathe, addressing them with a standard epithet for young women, euplokamos, which means something like ‘fair-haired’. The formulaic nature of the compliment partly inoculates his flattery. Wilson, though, makes him sound like a bit of a creep by turning his statement into a direct address to the girls: ‘I am shy/of being naked with you – pretty girls/with lovely hair.’ Verity’s greater formality (which can occasionally be a little stiff) avoids this unnecessary turbulence: ‘I am ashamed/to go naked in the company of lovely-haired young women.’

Wilson also overworks the standard epithet for Athene – glaukōpis, ‘gleaming’ or ‘grey-eyed’, or in older versions ‘owl-eyed’. This can sometimes be used, like all of Homer’s epithets, just to fill a line. At other times it may convey the impenetrable sheen of a god, owlishly seeing, rarely feeling for mortals. But for Wilson the epithet makes the goddess twinkly, sometimes to the point of being arch – as when she (disguised as a young girl) greets Odysseus when he asks for directions to the house of King Alcinous of the Phaeacians:

      With twinkling eyes
the goddess answered, ‘Mr Foreigner,
I will take you to where you want to go.’

When Athene leaves him at the palace that same epithet becomes she ‘winked at him’. Wilson’s introduction tells us that ‘I have tried to make sure that a reader can feel inside the characters in the poem,’ and there are few translations that have made me think more about (and often rethink) the emotional relationships and implicit interchanges between its characters. But the emoting and winking can become wearing.

Where Wilson loses out to the Hellenising translators is in her treatment of men. She reminds her readers in the introduction that ‘young men often behave oafishly, but they may mature in time – unless they get an arrow in the neck first.’ The ‘may’ in that sentence hints that the males in this translation are in some danger of being matronised. The Odyssey is in part about boys maturing in time. Readers who think they know the poem from children’s books about the adventures of Odysseus with the Sirens and the Cyclops are often perplexed to discover that the first four books are about Telemachus travelling around to discover news of his father. The main reason for this surprising start is that it is more a tale of succession and masculine identity than of adventure. It begins with a young man who dangerously overstates his claims to his father’s house and over his mother, and who gradually acquires something of his father’s instinctive wariness and warriorness. It’s hard to be pitch-perfect with Telemachus because he is such a shifting creation, but Wilson makes him a touch too huffy in her version of the moment when he quotes Hector and tells Penelope to get back to the weaving:

‘Go in and do your work.
Stick to the loom and distaff. Tell your slaves
to do their chores as well. It is for men
to talk, especially me. I am the master.’

That moment has long been one in which translators let the battle of the sexes spill over into the poem: Pope took it as a pretext for berating Madame Dacier (to whom he was much indebted) for having omitted Eustathius’ note – ‘O woman, silence is the ornament of thy sex’ – despite the fact that according to Pope ‘she plunders almost every thing’ from that source. Wilson here seems tied down by her decision to use iambic pentameters, which force her to pare away Telemachus’ speech into short, clear clauses. This makes him sound more of a brat and much less of a would-be hero than he does in the Greek.

This weakness in the treatment of Telemachus persists to the end. After Odysseus and his son have massacred Penelope’s suitors and strung up the unfortunate slave girls, they go to meet Odysseus’ father, Laertes. Laertes’ wife has died and he believes his son has died, and he is reduced to pottering in his gardens dressed, as his disguised son rather cruelly reminds him, like a slave. Suddenly his son is back and his grandson has emerged from the shadows and looks like a warrior. The younger generation visit Laertes because they need his allies and what’s left of his strength in order to fight off revenge attacks from the kinsmen of the murdered suitors. This group of men, steeped to varying degrees in years of deviousness and disguise, have in effect to transform themselves in a flash into characters who could survive in The Iliad. In Wilson’s version they sound too much like they’re playing at being US marines:

      Telemachus inhaled,
then said, ‘Just watch me, Father, if you want
to see my spirit. I will bring no shame
onto your family. You should not speak
of shame.’

      Laertes, thrilled, cried out, ‘Ah, gods!
A happy day for me! My son and grandson
are arguing about how tough they are!’

‘Just watch me, Father’ sounds like an adolescent aspiring to manliness, and that’s probably OK here. But it’s the last line that loses it. ‘Arguing about how tough they are’ allows a hint of irony into a moment of deadly seriousness. Verity again catches the gravity of the moment when his Laertes says, ‘How happy I am to see/my son and grandson competing with each other in valour.’ Homer’s aretē is not simply a matter of being tough. It means martial and moral excellence. Wilson describes her translation as ‘shining a clear light on the particular forms of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text’, but patriarchy is often represented here as cautiously reassembling itself, and in order to capture the costs and benefits of that process it has to be granted some moral weight. At the end of the poem the male members of a fragmented household are back together, and ready to fight. The remaking of that patriarchy is emphasised by the insistent repetition of the word philos in this final episode. That word can mean ‘dear’, but it also connotes a family connection. In the original of the passage I’ve just quoted Laertes calls the gods philoi. Telemachus calls his father philos. Immediately before that Odysseus calls Telemachus philos. Wilson, despite being keen to squeeze life out of neutral Homeric epithets elsewhere, omits the word on all of these occasions. There is no shame in doing that, but it weakens the ending of the poem. During this scene Athene is present disguised as the surrogate father Mentor, so the gods, the father, the son, the grandfather, the surrogate father are all presented as philoi, and they’re all ready to be more than just tough. They’re ready to remake a household and a kinship group by killing. And it’s in response to that threat that Zeus finally (in an ending many readers find strangely off-beat) hurls a thunderbolt and tells them through Athene to stop fighting.

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It is commonplace now to say, as Wilson does in her introduction, that ‘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.’ But there are different degrees and kinds of interpretation as there are of transparency. Green doesn’t avoid the ‘factitious’ parallels between Greek and English simply in order to provide a transparent window onto Homer: he thickens the glass to show that this is a stranger poem than it might appear. The risk with that approach – which Green mostly avoids – is that Odysseus of the many wiles with the well-curled hair can sometimes sound like a bit of a bore. Wilson’s translation runs the opposite risk, which is in significant respects a greater one. The claim that all translation is necessarily interpretative is on the face of it a description of the way things are rather than a precept that should determine practice. But it is easy to slip from the belief that translation necessarily transforms the implied ideological foundations of a text to a belief that therefore a translator ought to work those transformations consciously, and deliberately pull out of a text the features that seem to matter most for the present, while downplaying others. This is what Wilson does. The result is a perceptive reading of The Odyssey, but it is also a partial one. Readers who want to get a feeling for the poem will find Wilson’s translation full of insights, but it needs to be read alongside a version such as Green’s or Verity’s, which does not so overtly seek to embed Homer in the present.