The University Bookman


Spring 2018

A Coat of Varnish

book cover imageThe Odyssey
by Homer,
translated by Emily Wilson.
W. W. Norton & Company, 2017.
Hardcover, 592 pages, $40.

John Byron Kuhner

Genius, said Goethe, reveals itself under conditions of constraint; great minds gather strength from limitation, be it the keys of a well-tempered clavier or the interlocking rhymes of terza rima. And genius is certainly one of the first words that comes to mind when reading Emily Wilson’s clean-lined, compulsively readable translation of the Odyssey, one of the most interesting versions of the epic ever produced in English.

Wilson’s work is notable for its poetic constraints. As long as there is a Google, her name will now be linked with the number 12,110: she has limited herself to 12,110 verses in her translation, because there are 12,110 verses in the original; and while Wilson blends lines here and there, in general this is a line-by-line translation. As if this were not constraint enough, Wilson’s version is in tight iambic pentameter, and while she allows herself some lines of eleven or even twelve syllables, and the occasional trochee (especially in the first foot, in keeping with the best English custom), it is the most rigorously iambic translation in a century. And more than that—it is one of the very best verse translations ever completed in English—of any book. It has surely been a long time since we have had a poet so entirely comfortable with iambic pentameter to produce meter so flawless an English speaker would hardly even notice he was speaking in verse:

No no, my lord! Please do not make me go!
Let me stay here! You cannot bring them back,
and you will not return here if you try.
Hurry, we must escape with these men here!
We have a chance to save our lives! (10.266–70)

Wilson goes on in verse like this for 12,110 lines, all of it elegant, all of it so readable you find yourself sailing from one book to another. Here Odysseus’s men arrive at the house of Circe:

They shouted out to her. She came at once,
opened the shining doors, and asked them in.
So thinking nothing of it, in they went.
Eurylochus alone remained outside,
suspecting trickery. She led them in,
sat them on chairs, and blended them a potion
of barley, cheese, and golden honey, mixed
with Pramnian wine. She added potent drugs
to make them totally forget their home.
They took and drank the mixture. Then she struck them,
using her magic wand, and penned them in
the pigsty. They were turned to pigs in body
and voice and hair; their minds remained the same. (10.229–241)

The above passage is indicative of Wilson’s style, which remains remarkably consistent throughout the whole: simple, direct narrative; strong metrical regularity, with occasional hypermetric lines which never mar the effect; rapid motion and a feeling of complete naturalness. For any lover of traditional English verse, Wilson is the most pleasant news we have had since Robert Frost. Gone is the amorphous “six-beat line,” gone is the verse which ends when the writer decides to hit return. Frost said that poetry without meter was playing tennis without a net: Wilson reads like a Wimbledon champion.

So delightful is Wilson’s verse, and so easy is it to read, that one gets through quite a number of pages before the vague sense that something is wrong begins to settle in. Can Homer really be this easy to read? What could have been wrong with all the other translators, that none of them could put together anything so readable as this? I had spent a summer in Greece while in college, travelling with a Greek text of the Odyssey, and I remembered in particular Odysseus’s final journey to Ithaca (the beginning of book 13; well worth revisiting as a specimen of Homeric narrative), the poetic effect of which overwhelmed me. Odysseus climbs aboard the ship and—forgive my literal translation—lies down, “in silence,”

and upon him sweet sleep fell upon his eyelids,
unawakening sleep, most pleasurable, most like unto death.

In Greek the internal rhymes are especially beautiful, and draw attention to the line: “negretos, hedistos, thanato anchista eoikos.” And as a concept it was striking to a young man: I was of the modern school who believed sleep a waste of time: I could be doing something during those hours. What was Homer talking about? Could sleep be good? And who of the moderns, who among all people of all time fear and obscure death the most, could possibly describe anything as “most pleasurable, most like unto death”? Later, reading the story of Cleobis and Biton in Herodotus I found the same kind of open love affair with death. This is the kind of thing that makes these messengers from other ages so wonderful: not all people have been trapped in the same thought-boxes modern people are. And yet in Wilson’s translation the passage seems reduced, deficient somehow, so trite as to be unnoticeable:

A sound sweet sleep fell on his eyes, like death;
he did not stir. (13.80–81)

The idea is there, but all the lingering emphasis in the original has been smoothed away. This, too, unfortunately, is typical of the whole. I have said that Wilson’s translation reads easily, and it does, like a modern novel: at shockingly few points does one ever need to stop and think. There are no hard parts; no difficult lines or obscure notions; no aesthetic arrest either; very little that jumps out as unusual or different. Wilson has set out, as she openly confesses, to produce an Odyssey in a “contemporary Anglophone speech,” and this results in quite a bit of conceptual pruning. If you wait for the “Homeric tags,” the phrases that contained so much Greek culture they have been quoted over and over again by Greeks ever since—well, you are apt to miss them as they go by. A famous one occurs in book 24, when Odysseus and Telemachus are about to go into battle together: Odysseus tells Telemachus not to disgrace him, and Telemachus boasts that he need not fear. Laertes, Odysseus’s father, exclaims (Wilson’s translation), “Ah, gods! A happy day for me! My son and grandson are arguing about how tough they are!”

This is a famous line, but here it would hardly seem to merit its fame—who cares about people “arguing about how tough they are”? The word here translated as “tough” just happens to be one of the central words of Hellenic thought: arete, “virtue” or “excellence,” that subject of so many subsequent philosophy lectures—whose learnability or unlearnability Plato made the subject of inquiry, and which Aristotle defined as a mean between two vices. The word can be used to mean something like “bravery,” but it is wildly broader and richer than “how tough one is” (there is a queen named Arete in the poem, but Wilson refrains from translating her as “Queen Tough”). The line was quoted over and over again in later days because it was considered the height of happiness for a man to have a son and grandson competing with each other to possess virtue or true excellence. This Wilson suppresses, as a thing irrelevant to contemporary idiom—“toughness” will have to serve in its place.

When Autolycus, the grandfather of Odysseus, is praised as “who surpassed all men in stealing and swearing oaths”—a celebrated juxtaposition, which gets lengthy treatment in the Republic—Wilson apparently finds the phrase too striking, and reduces it to “telling lies and stealing.” Now of course by implication many of those oaths must have been false. But the Greek word orkos means “oath,” not lie. But stealing and lying pair easily, while stealing and swearing oaths jar a bit, and so Wilson opts for the easier, less literal version. And this too is typical of her method. She makes it easy on the reader by making all the judgements herself, eliminating ambiguity wherever she sees fit.

Many a reader has questioned how seriously we are to take the tales of Odysseus’s wanderings—of men turned to pigs and one-eyed giants—when in fact much of the rest of the poem (though hardly all) is fairly realistic. Wilson solves this problem for the reader by introducing the tale of his wanderings in the following way: “wily Odysseus, the lord of lies, answered.” “Lord of lies” is Wilson’s insertion, not reflected in the text, though presumably she is arguing that it is implied in the word polumetis, the most commonly used epithet for Odysseus, whose meaning “wily” or “of many devices” is already in her translation of the line. And while lying is well within the reach of a wily person, there still are some shades of nuance between “wiles” and “lies.”

But nuance is not what Wilson does, anywhere in this translation. In her translator’s note, she openly proclaims that she will not translate the Homeric epithets consistently, but rather has “chosen deliberately to interpret these epithets in several different ways, depending on the demands of the scene at hand.” This choice of hers is one of the real losses to the fabric of the poem: not only does she consciously sacrifice ambiguity, but she jettisons the Homeric epithet, Homer’s most conspicuous stylistic peculiarity, which she derides in her arrogant translator’s note as “a mark of writerly laziness or unwillingness to acknowledge one’s own interpretive position, and can send a reader to sleep.” In fact I have always found my students appreciated “swift-footed Achilles” and “rosy-fingered dawn” and “the wine-dark sea:” these were not only beautiful on the page, but different from modern writing techniques, and hence interesting. A reader can get through Wilson’s translation without ever learning by experience what a Homeric epithet is.

The best way to get a sense of how pervasive Wilson’s reductive approach is simply to calculate the kind of constraint she set herself. The Odyssey consists of 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter, with lines between thirteen and seventeen syllables and averaging about fifteen. Wilson also has 12,110 lines, but her line averages ten syllables. And this is the reason why her work reads so much more quickly than any other version: her poem is shorter than the original by a third. This is felt everywhere, first of all as an increase in the poem’s velocity—which I appreciate—and second as a kind of stripping away of everything but the book’s plot—which I felt with increasing distress as I proceeded. In almost every line some kind of nuance is shed. In many ways, her work should be counted as an abridgement of the Odyssey more than a translation per se.

Unfortunately, besides the constraints of space Wilson must have felt, she seems at times specifically bent on reductionistic simplification. Queen Arete is described literally as “honored, as no other woman on earth is honored, of the women who, subject to men, keep homes.” The “subject to men” (hup’andrasin) must be interesting for anyone curious about the place of women in Greek culture; but it vanishes. Wilson goes with “no woman is honored as he honors her.” One of the more egregious examples is Telemachus’s speech to the assembly of Ithaca. In most Greek editions, the forty verses of this speech are divided into six sentences, in the typical multiple-claused classical style so familiar to all who have ever knocked their heads against a speech of Cicero. The (very literal) Loeb translation renders a few of its sentences like this:

We ourselves in no way have the strength for it: in the event we would only prove how feeble we are and how ignorant of battle. Yet truly I would defend myself, if I had but the power; for now deeds past all enduring have been done, and my house has been destroyed beyond all show of fairness. Be ashamed yourselves, and feel shame before your neighbors who dwell round about, and fear the wrath of the gods, lest it happen that they turn against you in anger at evil deeds.

Wilson turns this speech into thirty-five disjointed sentences, apparently to make Telemachus seem whiny and immature:

I cannot fight against them;
I would be useless. I have had no training.
But if I had the power, I would do it!
It is unbearable, what they have done!
They ruined my whole house! It is not fair!
You suitors should all feel ashamed! Consider
what others in the neighborhood will think!
And also be afraid! The angry gods
will turn on you in rage; they will be shocked
at all this criminal behavior! (2.59–68)

One need not even be much inclined to philosophy (is there really no distinction between “evil deeds” and “criminal behavior”?) to find this kind of treatment of Telemachus shamefully simplistic. It is not justified by the Greek text.

There is a speech of Macbeth, in which he doubts that his hands could ever be clean again—if he washed them, they would “the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.” I have long taken this as a sampling of what makes English—and Shakespeare—so great: the presence of two distinct streams of diction, one polysyllabic, Mediterranean, and classical, the other brief, blunt, and Saxon. Not all writers draw from both streams. Tolkien’s The Hobbit is nearly a textbook of the use of a pure Saxon vocabulary. Wilson’s Odyssey follows The Hobbit; it is relentlessly mono- or disyllabic. There are no purple passages; she is never tempted to render polysyllable for polysyllable: the poluphloisboio thalasses is the “sounding sea.” The longest words in the book are the names of the characters. Homer’s set pieces of grand description vanish; all moves rapidly, like a mystery novel, toward the denouement of the plot.

I have been severe, but I wish readers to have a sense of what Wilson is actually offering: an abridgement and simplification of the Odyssey, to a degree unusual among translations. I think this is important work: I used to produce similar translations of key passages in Thucydides and Plutarch and Plato for my high school students. There are many worthy things in the Funeral Oration of Pericles that are otherwise obscured by the difficulties of Thucydidean prose. For young readers, and the casual “Book of the Month Club” type consumer of print, Wilson’s may be the finest Odyssey ever produced. I myself read Homer for the first time as a high school freshman, in the simple prose versions of Butler and Rieu, which I still commend to people. Neither of them were the writers that Wilson is. And to top it all off, Wilson can actually write verse. It may well be that a future generation of lovers of Shakespeare will cut their teeth on Wilson’s pentameters in their high school or even middle school classes.

I am less convinced of Wilson’s usefulness in universities. Her work rarely invites or rewards close reading, and it suppresses countless telling details, the sort of details students must encounter to draw intelligent conclusions. It clips Homer so neatly into the shape of a modern writer that it nearly makes all those college lectures about “Homeric formulae” and “oral composition” seem unintelligible. Even Wilson’s own introduction—which is, admittedly, not much more than lecture-note boilerplate—hardly accounts for what is found in her translation. In her introduction, she describes Homer’s “traditional, formulaic language,” how it is “archaic,” “epic,” “elevated in style,” and “not that used by ordinary Greeks in everyday speech, in any time or place,” with some of it actually “incomprehensible.” She offers no sense of this at all in her translation, which may well be the only one I have ever encountered which specifically rejects all the stylistic markers its introduction singles out (it would be as if a translator wrote an introduction about Dumas’s rat-a-tat-tat dialogue, how it came from the theater, how daring it was considered, etc. and then excised it from the text entirely).

For defense she offers the platitude “my translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem.” As always, the devil is in the adverb: is it really an entirely different poem? The ancients, in a rather brilliant meditation on translation, made the words for “following,” “imitating,” “interpreting,” and “translating” deponent, a technical term indicating that they occupied a middle ground between passive and active. Translating, whether Wilson likes it or not, is in some important sense passive: that is to say, the source of the action is largely—though not entirely—outside the translator.

Wilson does not accept this; and indeed goes on to mock this idea of faithfulness in general, claiming that the whole concept of a “faithful” translation is “gendered.” Since this is an obvious lie, I’ll stop her right there: there are, indeed, words in English that are gendered. Muscular male bodies frequently sport multiple curves, but English speakers do not call men with such bodies curvaceous, because that word is gendered. But “faithful to his wife” is just as idiomatic, in English, as “faithful to her husband” is. Not everyone values fidelity equally, as is obvious enough from looking at the world, but the concept is not “gendered.”

And what does Wilson mean by the term? At first glance, not much more than “bad,” or “a kind of constraint I don’t care about,” but there is more to it, as Wilson objects to the notion of a “translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original.” Omitting the silly talk about gender—one could have the same discussion about translating a “female-authored original”—I will pass on to Ms. Wilson a bit of personal advice: that if she feels this way, translation may be the wrong line of work for her. There is not the slightest doubt that her Odyssey will be considered secondary to Homer’s. Translation is derivative work, and remains secondary always to the original. The number of people who know who translated Jane Austen into Italian is a fraction of the ones who know Jane Austen. If Wilson desires to be a primary cultural figure, she will need to write her own material, and leave Homer out of it. She is certainly talented enough.

That Wilson should for ideological reasons resist any notion of fidelity in a translation is a loss. The harm it does to her Odyssey will be obvious to anyone who knows the Greek text well. And more than that, this kind of fidelity is, in fact, one of the more interesting constraints a translator has to deal with—and it is a shame that Wilson does not engage with it more rigorously and honestly, the way she engages with poetic structure. It is her fidelity to poetic constraints that constitutes the real arete of this translation.

I do not wish to let the opportunity pass to discuss at least briefly some of the political dimensions of this translation, which have (unfortunately) received almost all of attention in the press. Wilson’s is the first translation of the Odyssey into English by a woman, though it is not precisely clear what difference (if any) this fact is supposed to make to a reader. The press has made some effort to “gender” the act of translation itself, writing about how all previous translations of the Odyssey were “male translations,” whatever that means. I for one am looking forward to the day when there are so many translations by every sort of person that every reviewer will have to resort to appraising their content, but we are not there yet. But it is certainly true that Wilson’s translation is political, and reflects unusually well the fashions of academia in 2017. In all Wilson’s political interventions amount to little more than a score of words throughout the book, but as an index of fashion they are worth at least mentioning.

The description of women is one of these going concerns. I have mentioned Wilson’s suppression of the phrase describing women as “subject to men.” In interviews Wilson has noted that some other translators have introduced words like “sluts” and “whores” to describe some women in the text—words which are absent from the original. But her translation is not unusual for omitting these words—the Loeb translation (among others) doesn’t either, because they’re not in the text. Elsewhere Wilson soft-pedals the use of the Greek word “dogface” (kunopis) to describe women, despite its obvious resonance with contemporary Anglophone idiom. This creates some risible circumlocutions: when Hephaestus catches his wife Aphrodite cheating on him, he rages at Zeus, demanding back all the gifts he gave for Zeus’s “dogfaced girl.” Wilson renders “dogfaced girl” as “she looks at me like a dog.” Helen laments that the Greeks came to Troy “for dogfaced me.” Wilson renders it “they made my face the cause that hounded them.” Other translators have been perfectly content to translate the word as “bitch.” In another place Penelope complains about her female slaves, whom she calls “female dogs” (kunas). Wilson says they are “doglike,” which is fine, but contemporary English speakers—Wilson’s own stated standard—don’t call each other “doglike” when they are angry.

Wilson also lapses into bizarre circumlocutions around the story of the Cyclops. Homer describes Polyphemus, who eats six of Odysseus’s men raw, as “athemistos”—literally something like “without a sense of divine right or wrong,” but “lawless” usually does the job in English. Lack of respect for themis, true right and wrong, is posited by Homer’s contemporary Hesiod as the cause of all human evil. Wilson, however, decides in her introduction that the story of the Cyclops is really a story about colonialism (“the Polyphemus episode seems to meditate uneasily on the processes of colonization”), and hence it is her duty to resist any tendency to dehumanize the sixty-foot-tall, one-eyed, flesh-eating son of the sea-god. She translates athemistos as “maverick,” an offense not only against sensibility, but also against the aesthetics of her poem—the word leaps off the page, wildly inappropriate to Wilson’s typical register. Needless to say I just about fell over laughing. And huperphialos, which she is happy to render “insolent” and “arrogant” when it comes to the suitors, she changes to “highminded” for Polyphemus. The sight of drunk Polyphemus vomiting up wine and chunks of human flesh in his cave was not enough to get Wilson to shy away from calling him “highminded.” I suppose ideology is not dead. She also uses the odd circumlocution “the Cyclopic people” for the Greek plural Cyclopes, which also jars. The shame of all this is that it subverts her own thesis: she claims the passage has some relevance to colonization. It’s much easier for a student to see the resonance between this episode and Kipling’s “lesser breeds without the Law” if athemistos is translated “lawless.” But as I have said, it is very hard to do any kind of close reading of Homer using Wilson’s translation alone. It simply is not faithful enough.

But in one way her translation is remarkably faithful, and the result is very striking. She insists on calling all the slaves mentioned in the poem “slaves”—gone are terms like “servants” or “handmaids.” Instantly you see just how many there are in the poem: even minor Greek principalities before the dawn of history were based on slave labor. Even our English word family, considered by some the fundamental unit of civilization, means firstly a collection of slaves (famuli in Latin). A translator’s eschewal of euphemism gives the reader new eyes. And Laertes’s decision to forswear his cushy life as a master, leave Ithaca, and live like a slave in the country also stands out as remarkable, though Homer does no more than mention the fact of it. Here Wilson shows the virtue of faithful translation: the closer one draws to Homer’s poem, the more remarkable and interesting it seems.

All in all, Wilson’s work reminds me of a friend who painted a houseful of antique furniture a thick, beachy white. The result was airy and beautiful and utterly modern and fashionable: the interior could have been in a magazine for interior design. It was all lovely, unless you knew the beautiful, distinctive old grains of the oak, the mahogany, the cherry, and the walnut that were buried under the obscuring antiseptic modernism. Perhaps the next owner will take pleasure in stripping it all back down to the wood; but having known how much work that is, I cannot help but feel that a good coat of varnish, that would reveal the grain rather than blot it out, would have been a better choice for all involved.  

John Byron Kuhner is the president of the North American Institute of Living Latin Studies (SALVI), and editor of the Paideia Institute’s journal In Medias Res.

Posted: April 1, 2018

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