Falling behind in my work. A couple weeks ago I knuckled down and finished The Odyssey which I’d begun last September. I last read it in college (mumble, mumble) years ago and it was chosen for a homecoming event, but then quickly unchosen as hardly anyone has time to read a book that long. But I’d already bought it and started it when I found out the change of plan and so, at intervals, I kept reading it. In college I read the Fitzgerald translation which was good, but I thought I’d like to try a different one. I had the Lattimore, but a page of that was enough to make me look further. It’s technically correct I believe, but it’s not really English. I realize translation is difficult and, naturally, different people prefer different styles. The Lattimore seems to me more like a guide to the Greek rather than a translation into English.
Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
You see what I mean? Driven far journeys? Okay, I know what it means, but we don’t say that in English. So, I went for the newest (I think) by Emily Wilson. I can’t judge the Greek, but the flow of English is excellent. Very readable.
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. . . .
Personally I’m not crazy about the first line, but it’s a difficult line. πολύτροπον – politropos means many ways and includes both the physical sense of much traveled and the mental sense of wily, Then again, this definition probably comes from our knowledge of Odysseus’ character. They thought he was wily, clever, which he could be, but they also thought he was smart, which he frequently isn’t. I am not terribly keen on Odysseus as a hero. It’s not his fault, of course, the gods are constantly fighting through their favorites, making people do things they might not do on their own. But my advice to you is never to go into a cave if you don’t know who or what is living there.
Wilson’s translation flows very nicely, as I said. I think it’s easier to read than the Fitzgerald, although that might also be because I’m older and had way more time to finish it. It does not have as many of those constantly repeated phrases which I believe are part of Homer’s style, but a part that can get on your nerves. Rosy-fingered dawn, the wine-dark sea, epithets are better to a modern eye when used less often, but perhaps this might be viewed as taking us too far from the original style. Saying cow-eyed Hera fifty times in a work was how it was done and I probably wouldn’t be aware of that if I’d only read Wilson’s Odyssey. On the other hand, if fewer repetitious epithets make it more likely you’ll read the Odyssey, then it’s probably a good thing and I recommend Wilson’s translation for the smoothness and readability. I can’t compare them too well as decades have passed and I did not reread Fitzgerald, but I think I can honestly recommend either if you’re looking for a good translation of the Odyssey. Not that you need my help. There’s a whole lot of webpages dedicated to helping you choose. Google away.
It’s quite interesting to see how people apparently lived back then, or perhaps how Homer thought they did. I’d forgotten a lot of the book. I was always struck by how powerless Telemachus and Penelope are against the suitors. They want to stay in the house and eat all their goats, then there’s nothing you can do about it. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re royal – you still have to do laundry. What I was struck with though that I don’t remember from before was how much crying there is. If you went through what Odysseus and his men went through you might cry that much as well, but I don’t think anyone writing it today would have that many tears. Everyone cries. A lot.
One odd thing about last year was that the four classics I started, including the Odyssey, were all more or less related to it. I also didn’t finish Ulysses, the Aeneid nor the Count of Monte Cristo. I wouldn’t have even connected the last with the Odyssey except I read that somewhere and it makes sense as he apparently roamed around for a long time before… well, I haven’t read it and don’t want to spoil it for anyone else. But there was a lot of roaming, I’ve heard.
Still hoping to get through the Aeneid and Ulysses, but time will tell.