Wednesday, May 30, 2018
Book review: The first English translation of ‘The Odyssey’ by a woman
Reviewed by By Madeline Miller
Attempting a new translation of “The Odyssey” is like directing “Hamlet.” Much of your audience knows the work well, and they take their seats with entrenched expectations and the intonations of favorite performances reverberating in their heads. At the same time, though, you will have audience members who have never seen the play, for whom you provide the introduction to a giant of Western literature. And let us not forget those who are there under duress, dreading the upcoming hours of boredom. You must find a way to speak to these disparate groups, sneaking past the defenses of the devotees while drawing in those less familiar. It’s an ambitious task, one that calls for skill, cleverness and strong nerves, qualities that define “The Odyssey’s” wily protagonist himself.
The poem of Odysseus’s epic journey was composed in about the 8th century B.C., and its tale of a brilliant, exhausted veteran beset by dangers and yearning for home has been collecting admirers ever since. It is tradition, when reviewing a translation, to set a passage alongside its predecessors in translations by Fagles, Lattimore, Pope, etc. The reviewer then lays out the ways that the new translation either falls short or excels, quibbling over word choice and linguistic effects. This is a fun exercise and not without merit, but in the end, such a piecemeal approach is like judging productions of “Hamlet” on their “To Be or Not To Be.” It does not answer essential questions about the work as a whole: Does the translator have a thoughtful, comprehensive vision? Does she have the skill to sustain it? Does she chart a coherent course between often mutually exclusive virtues such as literalism, musicality, clarity, beauty and readability? And, most importantly, does she tell the story well?In the case of Emily Wilson’s smart and exciting new “Odyssey,” the answer to all those questions is a resounding yes. Wilson is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to publish an English translation of “The Odyssey,” a glass ceiling that is shockingly overdue for shattering. Her approach is vivid and bold, aiming to, as she declares in the opening, “tell the old story for our modern times.” She prioritizes Homer’s speed and narrative drive, seeking to capture what she calls the “nimble gallop” of his verse. She writes in iambic pentameter, impressively limiting herself to the same number of lines as Homer’s original (as any classics student can tell you, five lines of ancient Greek easily bloats to 10 in English).
Wilson’s language is fresh, unpretentious and lean. Though there are plenty of finely wrought moments, she isn’t looking to gild the poetic lily but rather to emphasize the emotional arc of the story, engaging readers first and foremost with the plight and character of Odysseus. Relying on this forward motion, she is able to create real suspense where other translations make the reader glaze over. Even knowing the text well, I found myself rapt, particularly in the lead-up to Odysseus’s climactic vengeance on the suitors. Wilson deftly evokes the dramatic stakes, showing us the precariousness of Odysseus’s improvised plot, as well as the thrumming violence beneath. Here, as throughout, the text is excellent aloud, using space breaks and pacing to ratchet the tension. At last Odysseus grasps his great bow “and plucked the string, which sang like swallow-song,/ a clear sweet note. The suitors, horrified,/ grew pale.”
Along with Homer’s fleetness, Wilson is attentive to his rhythm and musicality, often replicating the sound effects of the original. In her depiction of the home of Calypso, a goddess who has fallen in love with Odysseus, she draws inspiration from the consonance and alliteration woven through the Greek:
A ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes,
was stretched to coil around her cave. Four springs
spurted with sparkling water as they laced
with crisscross currents intertwined together
Wilson brings real affection to her work, particularly her characterizations. I enjoyed her portrait of the princess Nausicaa as a teenager surrounded by piles of dirty laundry, as well as her approach to Odysseus’s brilliant, careful wife, Penelope, whose grief she balances with her strength. At the same time, she is clear-eyed about the realities of the ancient world. Slavery was ubiquitous in Greco-Roman times, but its presence is often obscured in translation by words such as “housekeeper” and “maid.” Wilson rips off the veil, rendering those starkly as “slave.” She also dispenses with the usual handling of Homeric epithets (“rosy-fingered Dawn,” “enduring Odysseus”) that repeat throughout the text, noting that such repetitions, which served as guideposts to audience and performer alike in preliterate recitation, are tedious to a modern readership. Instead, she riffs on the epithets when they appear: “Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses”; “The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.”
Some of her choices will likely raise eyebrows. Readers may be startled to find Menelaus serving “canapés” in his Mycenaean palace or, on the other end of the spectrum, to encounter the word “byblos” (papyrus flax). Perhaps more controversial will be her translation of the famous first line, which Wilson gives as “Tell me about a complicated man.” That word, “complicated,” is her translation of “polytropos,” which in Greek is more, well, complicated, implying at once versatility, ingeniousness and a twisting life’s path. Wilson’s version has an inviting punch and appeals to our modern sensibility by focusing on Odysseus’s internal state, but to achieve that effect, she has to bend away from the word’s other layers. It is the sort of trade-off translators make at every turn, but some will surely disagree with her calculation.
Let them. As her potent translator’s note makes clear, Wilson relishes debate and, indeed, hopes to provoke it with her choices. Her worthy goal is always to engage readers, inviting them more deeply into the story. In this she succeeds with the skill of an ancient bard. It is rare to find a translation that is at once so effortlessly easy to read and so rigorously considered. Her “Odyssey” is a performance well-deserving of applause.