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Light through the Fog

I am grateful to Colin Burrow for his kind review of my translation of The Odyssey, along with those of Peter Green and Anthony Verity (LRB, 26 April). But I would like to point out a feature of the review that reflects some problematic contemporary Anglo-American attitudes to literary translation. Burrow notes that, like many other translators of Homer (from Chapman to my contemporaries), I do some creative things with the repeated epithets of the original, and also that various characters and relationships sound different in my version from the way they sound in other modern English translations (many of which, though he does not say so, are fairly similar to one another, even down to the boats on the covers). Burrow concludes that my reading of the poem is ‘a partial one’. This is quite true, but it is not true only of mine. Burrow notes Verity’s ‘non-poetic’ writing style and lack of interest in Homer’s music and rhythms; but he doesn’t seem to think this radical stylistic difference from the original makes Verity’s translation ‘partial’. Similarly, Burrow points out that Green risks making Homer’s richly characterised, fascinating and multi-layered Odysseus into ‘a bit of a bore’, and observes that Green discusses the final massacre only in terms of the mechanics of hanging multiple women with one rope, ignoring ‘the ethics of killing quite so many people’. But again, Burrow does not seem to think that ignoring Homer’s profound interest in human behaviour could make Green’s translation ‘partial’. It is strange to imply that a boring, unmetrical or ethically simplistic version of the complex, fast-paced, deeply moving Homeric poems might be ‘literal’ or ‘historical’ or ‘pure’, as if that were what Homer essentially is, before the poetic or emotional fluff gets added in.

Burrow also claims that my translation is more ‘modernising’ than other modern versions. I don’t think this is the right term. Like ancient readers, I am interested in this text as a musical, metrical poem and as a deeply enjoyable and vivid work of immersive poetic and narrative art. Like the ancients, I am interested in what the Homeric poems have to say about ethics, society, politics, human behaviour. I don’t find easy answers. I do believe that the questions are prominently present in the text, as its ancient reception shows. It seems to me a very modern, arguably anachronistic idea to imagine that one could read Homer either as a non-metrical non-poem, or in an entirely historicised and distanced way, with no emotional or ethical engagement. Burrow is within his rights to disagree with any detail of my interpretation. Along with Green and Verity, he implies that Telemachus is always presented as a hero-in-training (never a frightened adolescent); that Homeric verse offers a wholehearted endorsement of the heroic warrior code or of ‘patriarchy’; and that Homeric verse in general is humourless, unengaging and obscure, or, to use Burrow’s metaphor, full of ‘fog’. Like many Homerists, I would disagree; Homer, in my view, is both stylistically clearer and emotionally more complicated than many contemporary English translations convey. We can agree to differ. But it is misleading to pretend that these debatable views are not interpretations, but the objective historical truth. We need to remember that translations are always partial, always interpretative, always products of the manifold choices and long, hard labours of their creators, each of us trying, in our very different ways, to be as responsible and truthful as we can be, with respect both to the original poem and to the readers of our own place and time.

Emily Wilson
University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Colin Burrow writes: I’m not sure Emily Wilson has quite got me right. As a self-professed ‘Chapmaniac’ (LRB, 27 June 2002), I generally prefer translations of the Homeric poems that respond to their poetic spirit rather than to the letter. Chapman believed he was inspired by Homer, and produced a wonderful if wayward version of the poems. I’d also be one of the last people on earth to want poems to be read in an ‘entirely historicised and distanced way’, or to suggest that Homeric verse is ‘unengaging and obscure’. Given that I say Telemachus ‘doesn’t quite know if he is a man or not’ and describe him as a ‘shifting creation’ it’s surely a bit odd to claim I never see him as a frightened adolescent. Isn’t that the whole point of the sneeze? Nor do I imply that ‘Homeric verse offers a wholehearted endorsement of the heroic warrior code or of “patriarchy”’, which would be a ludicrously simple-minded view of these complex poems. What I actually said is that patriarchy is shown ‘cautiously reassembling itself’ at the end of the poem, and that Wilson’s otherwise vivid version stumbles at this point. I think that’s a fair criticism.

It is reasonable for reviewers to draw attention to what might get lost in avowedly poetic translations, because otherwise people who read only those versions may unwittingly miss things that might matter in the original. That’s why I called Wilson’s translation ‘partial’, and why I said it needs to be read alongside others. I’d say the same about Chapman. By citing some of Green’s moments of literal-mindedness I also drew attention to the contrary dangers of over-literalism. His version, though, isn’t ‘boring’ or ‘ethically simplistic’, nor do I think it corresponds to some ‘real’ Homer. It’s just a different kind of translation from Wilson’s.

Both kinds of translation are hard to do well. And both kinds of translation can be ‘boring’ or ‘ethically simplistic’. Chapman’s verse Odyssey often flattens the poem into moral allegory, and one doesn’t have to read beyond the first two lines of William Morris’s verse translation to realise it’s not going to offer much poetical joy (‘Tell me, O Muse, of the Shifty, the man who wandered afar, | After the Holy Burg, Troy-town, he had wasted with war’). No one would claim any one translation of a sophisticated and beautiful poem could be a perfect substitute for the original, which is why I concluded with the lame but true observation that reading several translations side by side is the best option for readers who don’t have Greek. That’s because, yes, they are indeed all partial.

Do we have a policy?

Quite often the London Review publishes articles containing quotations in foreign languages with no translation, as for example in T.J. Clark’s piece on Cézanne’s portraits (LRB, 25 January). My last year at comprehensive school was 2010 and, like more than 90 per cent of my classmates, I do not speak any foreign language fluently. I doubt that the majority of your readers are fluent in French. What’s more, I would be surprised if, in an article about a Vietnamese artist, you would publish an untranslated quotation in Vietnamese. Or in Polish or Arabic (which must be more commonly spoken in London than French).

Does the LRB have a well-defined policy on this? In the 8 March issue Marina Warner’s article appears with French quotations usefully translated, and there is a poem by Galen Strawson entirely in French, which I found evocative in the same way I find, say, Nadsat in A Clockwork Orange to be evocative, though one of the feelings evoked is alienation since none of these languages is intelligible to me.

I concede that there is something alluring about the old attitude of expecting everyone to know French, and I do wish it was still reasonable. When I first started to read the LRB, the occasional untranslated quotation contributed to the impression of intellectualism (along with the austere layout, which should last for ever). It is part of the tradition of literariness in Britain. But it seems more and more to me a pointless tradition. The LRB should be progressive and inclusive, not disdainful of its readers. It should be challenging because it deals with complex concepts and is written to the limits of the language. In Amia Srinivasan’s piece on the ‘right to sex’, the word ‘unfuckability’ is used without scare quotes (LRB, 22 March). It is ‘unfuckability’ that is dangerous, highbrow and literary; untranslated French is just atavism.

Conrad Teixeira

A number of people have expressed puzzlement about the title of my poem ‘After Flaubert’ (LRB, 8 March). I shouldn’t have omitted the epigraph, a deeply characteristic comment from Flaubert’s letters (which are, arguably, his greatest achievement): ‘De quelque côté qu’on pose les pieds on marche sur la merde’ (to Louise Colet, Saturday, midnight, Croisset, 29-30 January 1853).

Galen Strawson
University of Texas at Austin

Which, translated, means: ‘However carefully you tread, you end up with shit on your shoes.’

The Editors

My great-uncle gave me a rifle

Eli Silberman and Jack Rosenthal both describe walking the streets of New York in the 1950s carrying newly bought rifles – in Rosenthal’s case when he was just 12 (LRB, 22 March and Letters, 5 April). Neither occasioned the slightest notice. In December 1962, since I was to be in London for the day, a friend in Oxford’s modern pentathlon team asked me whether I would drop by Thomas Bland’s shop in William IV Street and pick up the team’s Colt Woodsman, a semi-automatic .22 match pistol which was having a new trigger sear fitted. This I did without, as far as I can remember, offering any particular proof of identity. I also left the shop with a hundred rounds of ammunition. With all this weighing down the pockets of my duffle coat I went on to Westminster Abbey for the London premiere of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. I was conscious of the irony of being almost certainly the only armed member of the audience. As I later made my way back to Paddington I remembered the parting words of the assistant in the gun shop: ‘Don’t get mugged by the IRA, sir!’ There was no mention – or indeed thought – of the police.

James Hamilton-Paterson
Timelkam, Austria

At Kettle’s Yard

Eleanor Birne, in her excellent piece about the reopening of Kettle’s Yard, states that the Edes gave the house to Cambridge University in 1966 (LRB, 22 March). That’s true, but Birne doesn’t mention that at first the university refused Jim Ede’s offer. I was an undergraduate at Clare College at the time. My friend Mark Haworth-Booth and I were regular visitors to Kettle’s Yard and we shared Jim’s dismay at the refusal. Mark and I wrote an open letter urging the university to reconsider, and went out on the streets to garner signatures. Shortly after the publication of the letter in the Cambridge Recorder the university contacted Jim and told him the donation would be accepted after all.

One of the joys of visiting Kettle’s Yard in those days was that one was allowed, indeed positively encouraged, to handle the sculptures, which might be by Brancusi, Henry Moore or Gaudier-Brzeska. Jim would also lend out works, recording the loan in pencil in a small pocket notebook. My room was enhanced by a Gaudier-Brzeska drawing and an Alfred Wallis painting. Jim was always dapper. He told me that he would buy French working men’s clothes, then take them to his tailor to be altered. But perhaps the most important thing I learned from him, having spent many an afternoon taking tea and toast at Kettle’s Yard, was that cold marmalade on hot toast tasted wonderful. I have kept my marmalade in the fridge ever since.

James Fraser
Montmorillon, France

Extreme Stilettos

Steven Rose mentions Hallucigenia, the extraordinary animal which wobbled along on spiky legs as if on some Paleozoic version of extreme stilettos (LRB, 22 March). He omits to mention that Stephen Jay Gould’s account in Wonderful Life was based on a fundamental mistake: Hallucigenia had been reconstructed upside down. In reality the ‘legs’ were spikes, presumably defensive, mounted on its back, and the ‘matching tubes’ were its legs. Visualised in this way, it turned out to be not ‘something with no modern equivalent’ but just another arthropod, though an unusual one. Gould based much of his contingency argument in Wonderful Life on the existence of creatures like Hallucigenia. Subsequent work has shown that this evidence does not in itself support his conclusions – though that doesn’t mean the conclusions themselves were wrong.

Rory Allen


Tom Crewe writes about the colourising of historical photographs (LRB, 22 March). It should be noted that before the mid-1960s most books, even on art-historical subjects, appeared without a speck of colour. It was not as if colour printing technology was unavailable, but we had been conditioned by the circulation of millions of black and white photographic images, starting in the middle of the 19th century, to what the French historian Michel Pastoureau calls a ‘black and white reality’. Cinema extended this domination into the mid-20th century.

Pastoureau, who has so far published four volumes on colour (Blue, Black, Green and Red), traces the hegemony of black and white to the 19th-century Protestant capitalists in whose hands belonged the great industrial and financial enterprises. Even though the chemical industry could produce any colour desired, the first objects of mass production – household appliances, telephones, fountain pens, cars – were in black, grey or brown.

Elizabeth Powers
New York

The Bomb in the Head

The note accompanying Thomas Jones’s reflections on generational attitudes to Armageddon says that he ‘edits the LRB blog from a secure bunker, in an undisclosed location’ (LRB, 5 April). I believe previous leaks have disclosed that his bunker is in Orvieto, and he will therefore almost certainly know about – and if not, would certainly relish a trip to – the former nuclear bunkers at Monte Soratte, if not a stone’s throw then certainly a short missile arc away. The bunker was built on Mussolini’s orders after 1937, ultimately comprising some four kilometres of tunnels, and then occupied by Kesselring’s German troops in 1943 and 1944 (it is one of various sites where people go to prospect for ‘hidden Nazi gold’). Between 1967 and 1972 it was converted into the Italian government’s nuclear shelter, complete with decontamination chambers and beds for the few of Rome’s political and military elites who – mostly ordered not to bring their children – would have been ushered inside as the sirens sounded. Inside they would have found vast screens on which Nato operatives were to monitor the immolation of Western Europe. It’s straight out of what the locals call Il dottor Stranamore. The bunker was abandoned in 1989, but reopened in 2014 largely on the initiative of volunteers from the nearby village of Sant’Oreste, who now run guided tours. Rumours that Mussolini had the upper slopes of Monte Soratte sculpted to resemble the profile of a recumbent Duce are always denied, but as you look at it, for example from the Rome-Florence train line, it bears an eerie resemblance.

Simon Skinner

Such a Solecism

I thank Polly Devlin for her correction to my sloppy American breach of Debrett’s protocol in referring to Lady Cunard as Lady Emerald (Letters, 5 April). Frankly, I’d bet Cunard’s American crowd used just that sobriquet in behind-the-back chatter at her garden parties. But I should have done my homework, and in the spirit of modern apology, I am sorry if anything I wrote offended anyone. I now know not to refer to a Lady (unless born to the title) by her first name. In fact, it appears that when wives of gentry are addressed by title they merit no first name at all. Maybe just as well. To add to the confusion, Emerald was born Maud.

David Ollier Weber
Placerville, California


Eric Foner writes that Anne Bailey ‘seems to believe’ that traumatic experiences of slavery can be transmitted ‘genetically’ (LRB, 22 March). In fact Bailey appropriately uses the term ‘epigenetic’ – not ‘genetic’ – in her discussion of the cross-generational transmission of trauma. The term ‘genetic’ refers to the sequence of base pairs that constitute a gene. Social trauma is not known to change this sequence. ‘Epigenetic’ refers to the biochemical processes – for example, methylation – that regulate the expression of a gene: that is, whether a gene is active, say in the production of RNA, or inactive. The first evidence that social experience can alter the epigenome and thereby the expression of the genome was described just 14 years ago in a landmark study of the influence of parenting on the epigenome of offspring. Transgenerational epigenetic inheritance has been demonstrated and its precise mechanisms are being described. Bailey’s assertion is based not on belief but on a growing body of scientific evidence.

Mark Erickson
Anchorage, Alaska

Eric Foner writes that ‘to this day there is no monument anywhere in the United States to the millions of victims of American slavery or to the ways their labour helped to produce the world we live in.’ Yet at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, there is an impressive monument to just that: the Unsung Founders Memorial, by the Korean artist Do-Ho Suh. A disk of polished granite supported by three hundred figurines represents those whose labour contributed to the handsome buildings nearby. Its inscription reads: ‘The class of 2002 honours the university’s unsung founders, the people of colour, bond and free, who helped build the Carolina that we cherish today.’

Jocelyn Harris
Dunedin, New Zealand