Polytropos.

Pretty much everybody I know has been sending me links to this Wyatt Mason profile for the NY Times Magazine of the classicist Emily Wilson and her new translation of the Odyssey, and I thank them all: it’s perfect LH material, and the only reason I haven’t posted it until today is that I’m an old-fashioned sort who likes to read the physical paper, so I’m reading the Sunday Times and its attendant magazine on Sunday. The rather silly title is “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English”; I don’t see how they can so confidently claim it’s “the first English rendering of the poem by a woman” (how could anyone possibly know?), but never mind, it sounds wonderful and she seems to be a very interesting person. Mason starts off with a crux in the very first line of the text, and so will I:

Late in August, as a shadow 70 miles wide was traveling across the United States, turning day briefly to night and millions of Americans into watchers of the skies, the British classicist Emily Wilson, a woman of 45 prone to energetic explanations and un-self-conscious laughter, was leading me through a line of Ancient Greek. “Polytropos,” Wilson said, in her deep, buoyant voice, pointing to the fifth word — πολuτροπον — of the 12,110-line epic poem that I had come to her office at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss. On the wall hung pictures of Wilson’s three young daughters; the windows behind her framed a gray sky that, as I arrived, was just beginning to dim. The poem lying open before us was Homer’s “Odyssey,” the second-oldest text, after his earlier poem, the “Iliad,” in a Western tradition impossible to imagine without them. […]

“One of the things I struggled with,” Wilson continued, sounding more exhilarated than frustrated as she began to unpack “polytropos,” the first description we get of Odysseus, “is of course this whole question of whether he is passive — the ‘much turning’ or ‘much turned’ — right? This was —”

“Treat me,” I interrupted, “as if I don’t know Greek,” as, in fact, I do not.

“The prefix poly,” Wilson said, laughing, “means ‘many’ or ‘multiple.’ Tropos means ‘turn.’ ‘Many’ or ‘multiple’ could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner.” […]

“So the question,” Wilson continued, “of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.” […]

You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. [Mason quotes a bunch more renditions.]

“I wanted there to be a sense,” Wilson told me, that “maybe there is something wrong with this guy. You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded. We don’t quite know what the layers are yet. So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text that’s not going to be interpretively straightforward.”

Here is how Wilson’s “Odyssey” begins. Her fifth word is also her solution to the Greek poem’s fifth word — to polytropos:

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. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

I like that a lot. For half a century I’ve been faithful to Robert Fitzgerald’s translation (“Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story/ of that man skilled in all ways of contending…”), but I may have to read this one. Oh, and the piece ends with this cheeky suggestion:

“If I was really going to be radical,” Wilson told me, returning to the very first line of the poem, “I would’ve said, polytropos means ‘straying,’ and andra” — “man,” the poem’s first word — “means ‘husband,’ because in fact andra does also mean ‘husband,’ and I could’ve said, ‘Tell me about a straying husband.’ And that’s a viable translation. That’s one of the things it says. But it would give an entirely different perspective and an entirely different setup for the poem. The fact that it’s possible to translate the same lines a hundred different times and all of them are defensible in entirely different ways? That tells you something.” But, Wilson added, with the firmness of someone making hard choices she believes in: “I want to be super responsible about my relationship to the Greek text. I want to be saying, after multiple different revisions: This is the best I can get toward the truth.”

Anyway, by all means read the whole article, and here‘s a charming Paris Review piece in which Wilson remembers performing in a child’s production of the Odyssey as a girl in Oxford.

Comments

  1. As Sayers said in her introduction to Hell: “The most one can do with passages like the one about Benaco, or the Last Voyage of Ulysses or the heart-breaking little vision of the brooks of the Casentino, and a fortiori with the first eight cantos of the Purgatorio or the ecstatic glories of the Paradiso, is to erect, as best one can, a kind of sign-post to indicate: ‘Here is beauty; make haste to learn Italian, so that you may read it for yourselves.'”

    I am also struck by “tell the old story for our modern times”, with its echo of the Igor Tale. But then, what is not a source may very well be a parallel or an analogue instead.

    Oh, and when the article says that the seventy translators of the Bible into Greek produced results identical “in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end,” surely that should or could be “in the very same verbs and the very same nouns”? Translations of stories about translation are as fraught as any others.

    And I think I need to read it too.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    Erewhon Butler famously held that the Odyssey was actually written by a woman, of course.

  3. Yes, I was surprised neither Mason nor Wilson mentioned that.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Hmm. Looks like I could calque the whole ambiguity as einen Vieldreh-Mann without anyone being any wiser afterwards. 🙂

    The rather silly title is “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English”; I don’t see how they can so confidently claim it’s “the first English rendering of the poem by a woman” (how could anyone possibly know?)

    If by “render” they mean “translate the whole thing”, I’ll be happy to assume it’s accurate by an argument from probability. After all, not many people have so much as tried – 12,110 lines aren’t what you accidentally translate in an afternoon if you get carried away.

  5. Argument from probability? How do you calculate odds on a thing like that? The odds against a given random person translating the Odyssey: immense. The odds against half the human population translating the Odyssey: not so immense. In fact, I’d say the odds are at least one woman (women study Greek too, you know) has translated it before; hence my remark.

  6. “… the second-oldest text, after his earlier poem, the “Iliad,” in a Western tradition impossible to imagine without them.”

    Do the Song of the Sea and the Song of Deborah not count for some reason? (Both were canonically written by women, too.)

  7. I would think translations is elliptical for ‘published translations’, and sixty translations of anything, nemmind anything so long, is an awful lot. I doubt if a published translation by a woman would have slipped through the cracks, unless she concealed her gender.

    (There are almost 80 available implementations of the Scheme programming language, and a few more seem to appear every year; at one time I had more than half of them running on my computer for comparison purposes. Most languages have either just one or a handful, not counting implementations for computers that aren’t made any more. None of them are principally by women.)

    By the way, I see that Wilson also translated six tragedies by Seneca.

  8. Oh, and when the article says that the seventy translators of the Bible into Greek produced results identical “in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end,” surely that should or could be “in the very same verbs and the very same nouns”? Translations of stories about translation are as fraught as any others.

    As the wags say, that story is clearly untrue: whoever heard of two Jews, let alone seventy, agreeing with one another?

  9. —What a wonderful translation! Modern without being needlessly colloquial. The meter adds to the readability, rather than trip it. I’ll have to get a copy.

    — Funny about the ambiguity in the fifth word. It’s like the ambiguity in the first two words of Genesis, something the translator needs to confront right from the beginning.

    — “and who he met”: Ha! Take that, peevers!

  10. unless she concealed her gender.

    Something that was, of course, commonly done for centuries.

  11. David Eddyshaw says:

    Reverting to “polytropos”, surely it’s overwhelmingly probable that Homer (Nausicaa, whoever…) intended both meanings; both are amply borne out by the poem, after all.

  12. Quite possible, even likely, yes, but I don’t think we can say “overwhelmingly probable” after lo these many centuries.

  13. David Marjanović says:

    The odds against half the human population translating the Odyssey: not so immense.

    Far less than half the human population can translate Epic Greek into English.

  14. True, but why would one assume that that portion of the population is exclusively male?

  15. “Many-sided.”

  16. I like “well-folded-up.”

  17. Given that “complicated” was my first idea to solving the conundrum after about 5 seconds of thinking, it must be a wrong choice. Maybe troubled or restless? Of course, they lack a reference to “many”…
    For fun, she might have chosen ambiguous.

  18. As a woman who studied Greek, ahem, all I can say is that I’m looking forward very much to reading Wilson’s translation.

  19. I’m probably being swayed by my knowledge of Modern Greek, but complicated seems a terrible translation for polytropos.

    At least to my Modern Greek ears, the translation should be something like cunning, ingenious, wily or trickster.

  20. How about “man with many issues”? A very modern take.

  21. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says:

    Access to tuition in ancient Greek was also distinctly gendered for a long time in much of the West. But I am bovinely content to read it as “the first published translation into English known to have been perpetrated by a woman of the female persuasion”. (What’s so special about Engleesh anyway, was my instinctivual reaction.)

  22. I shall seize this opportunity to recommend The Lost Books of The Odyssey by Zachary Mason, wherein are set out 44 tropes of the archetypal ’Ανήρ Πολύτροποσ.

  23. In Australia we just used “gone troppo.”

  24. But I am bovinely content to read it as “the first published translation into English known to have been perpetrated by a woman of the female persuasion”.

    Yeah, if they’d said “the first known translation by a woman” I wouldn’t have had a problem with it. As it is, it hits me the same way as “this word was invented by [the first person to be cited in the OED entry].”

  25. Yeah, if they’d said “the first known translation by a woman” I wouldn’t have had a problem with it.

    But that’s implied by any statement of the form “this is the first X”. Neil Armstrong was the first man known to have walked on the moon.

  26. I strongly disagree.

  27. You’d think there would have been room for at least a passing mention of Anne Dacier.

  28. Madame Dacier, for those who (like me) were unaware of her.

  29. Madame Dacier’s translation of πολύτροπος (‘Muse contez-moy les avantures de cet homme prudent …’) recalls that of John Ogilby (‘prudent’), mentioned in Wyatt Mason’s piece.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    True, but why would one assume that that portion of the population is exclusively male?

    Exclusively? Of course not. But the bias was pretty bad for centuries, wasn’t it? How many men have translated the Odyssey into English? Fewer than 10, I guess?

  31. Sure, and I would expect that the translators would be overwhelmingly male. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were exclusively male. I just don’t like asserting that they were as if it were established fact. Women’s contributions to pretty much everything have been largely covered up over the centuries and are still being excavated.

  32. ‘I asked Wilson why translation isn’t valued in the academy.

    “Because there is no perception that it’s serious intellectually. It’s imagined as a subset of outreach. That you’re going to be communicating with the masses, which is less important than being innovative within your field.”‘

    A sad commentary on the intellectual status of translation. Is it justified? Is the sort of stuff that academics turn out — “on a subject that your discipline has yet to exhaust” — really a greater intellectual enterprise than the all-round range of skills that are need to be brought to bear as a translator?

  33. No, but it’s more easily measured and weighed in the balance of tenure decisions. I’m glad I got out of academia.

  34. David M: The article says there are sixty.

    Bathrobe: Translation may indeed be vulgarisation, but vulgarisation is to my mind one of the duties of an academic. If you can’t explain your subject to interested but uninformed laypeople, you don’t really understand it at all.

  35. I wonder how many women translated the Iliad.

    None I suspect – due to muscular masculinity of its style.

  36. … but vulgarisation is to my mind one of the duties of an academic

    Mr. Cowan, allow me to disagree. Popular science requires it’s own set of qualities, abilities, proclivities and such and is better done by professionals.

  37. I also disagree with Mr Cowan. Obfuscation is the duty of the academic.

  38. David Marjanović says:

    The article says there are sixty.

    Oh, in that case, I do expect a few women here and there statistically.

    None I suspect – due to muscular masculinity of its style.

    That should actually make it easier, because ways to express the cultural concepts around this muscular masculinity have always been available in English. It isn’t hard to talk about Klingons!

    If you can’t explain your subject to interested but uninformed laypeople, you don’t really understand it at all.

    I agree. It’s just that nobody pays our costs of living in the meantime, and nobody other than trial & error teaches us how to do it.

    Popular science requires it’s own set of qualities, abilities, proclivities and such and is better done by professionals.

    Up to a point. Most science journalism is unmitigated crap, full of actively misleading claims, because just about each media outlet that has a science journalist has one science journalist who is expected to report on all of science but has studied at most one field, if we’re lucky. Even some narrow specialized books by science journalists contain glaring howlers that are obvious misunderstandings of the topic – obvious if, probably only if, you happen to work on that topic.

    Obfuscation is the duty of the academic.

    That’s not a duty, it’s a side effect: people write like their peers, and nobody stops them.

  39. Squiffy-Marie van 't Blad, Dutchman-at-large says:

    I’ll see your “If you can’t explain your subject to interested but uninformed laypeople, you don’t really understand it at all” and raise you a “Young man, in mathematics you don’t understand things. You just get used to them.” (J von Neumann).

  40. I strongly disagree.

    Why? Doesn’t any statement of something purporting to be fact obviously include an implied “as far as I know” on the part of the speaker? Maybe you have to make it explicit when it’s something about which you aren’t very confident, but the situtation here is that there are sixty known published English translations of the Odyssey, all by men. There are published translations of the Odyssey by women into other languages, but none into English until now. There are published translations of other things into English by women, but none of the Odyssey. All that combines to make it reasonably likely that this is in fact the first translation by a woman into English, so you don’t have to include an explicit “as far as I know”.

  41. None I suspect – due to muscular masculinity of its style.

    That’s just silly; it’s like saying women can’t play sports or run marathons or shoot guns or play jazz or serve in the military or run countries or do any of a host of other things that have been thought to be somehow imbued with “masculinity.” The Iliad is a poem, and it can be translated by anyone who can translate poetry.

    Why? Doesn’t any statement of something purporting to be fact obviously include an implied “as far as I know” on the part of the speaker?

    That’s casuistry. People who state X confidently, without qualifiers, don’t expect the hearer or reader to automatically supply the qualifiers; they expect to be taken at their word. Especially when it comes to something so problematic as asserting that women don’t or can’t do something (see above), it is imperative to say exactly what one means.

  42. David Marjanović, ninety percent of everything is crap. The correct question is who does a good job.

  43. Especially when it comes to something so problematic as asserting that women don’t or can’t do something (see above), it is imperative to say exactly what one means.

    Right.

    Except that the article didn’t actually assert that women don’t or can’t do the thing in question, it simply states that, up till last year or so, none had, and now one has. Stating that a woman has done a thing is literally the exact opposite of asserting that women don’t or can’t do that thing.

  44. If you’ve got any reason for supposing that there is a published English translation of the Odyssey by a woman out there, well, let’s see it. At the moment all you’ve got, as far as I can see, is 1) “one of the ones by a man might actually have been by a woman writing under a pen name” and 2) “oh, come on, surely it must have happened at some point, there must have been loads and loads of women who were scholars of Ancient Greek”.

  45. Again, I’m not saying “it must have happened”; that would be absurd. As I said above, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the translators were exclusively male. I just don’t like asserting that they were as if it were established fact.

  46. January First-of-May says:

    Maybe you have to make it explicit when it’s something about which you aren’t very confident, but the situtation here is that there are sixty known published English translations of the Odyssey, all by men. There are published translations of the Odyssey by women into other languages, but none into English until now. There are published translations of other things into English by women, but none of the Odyssey. All that combines to make it reasonably likely that this is in fact the first translation by a woman into English, so you don’t have to include an explicit “as far as I know”.

    To me, all that combines to make it reasonably likely that it isn’t the first, unless you assume that their list of “sixty known translations” is complete.

    (Realistically, it could probably go either way.)

  47. I agree.

  48. David Marjanović says:

    David Marjanović, ninety percent of everything is crap. The correct question is who does a good job.

    Scientists who blog about research tend to do a very good job, often a better one than professional science journalists.

  49. I love that a thread on translations of the Odyssey also has discussion of dialects of Scheme (and of course ‘Lisp’ as the top-level label has even more dialects and subdialects).

  50. Scientists who blog about research tend to do a very good job, often a better one than professional science journalists.

    Not for the lay audience though. You have to be very much into the thing to understand most of it. At least for the blogs I occasionally read. Comparing with average science journalism is not a very good idea, though. The average journalism sucks.

  51. None I suspect

    Rosa Calzecchi Onesti.

  52. Michael Gierhake says:
  53. Stephen C. Carlson says:

    I’m rather surprised by the claim of her being the first woman to translated the Odyssey into English (presumably completely and published–my Greek teacher could translate parts on sight). My expectation is that there should have already been one (as there in French and Italian). But if they did their due diligence and found 60 previous translations, all by those with male names, I’m inclined to credit the claim without the disclaimer (until proven wrong of course).

  54. David Marjanović says:

    Not for the lay audience though. You have to be very much into the thing to understand most of it.

    Not in my experience, which is however limited to just a few blogs.

  55. But how much of a lay audience are you?

  56. J.W. Brewer says:

    Somewhat surprised that this thread seems not to have mentioned that what is widely alleged (and I don’t personally know of a counterexample to contradict the claim with) to be the first published English version of the Illiad by a female translator (Caroline Alexander) came off the presses just last year. I wonder how many people in recent centuries have (as Ms. Wilson has) done a translation of the Odyssey w/o having previously done one of the Illiad? Although there is the excellent example of W.S. Merwin who decided to get into the Dante-translation biz by just doing the oft-overlooked Purgatorio. And for all I know Wilson might have been working on the Illiad but switched paths on the advice of her publisher or agent after it became clear that she was going to be beaten to press by Ms. Alexander and thereby lose the PR/marketing advantage of being the first-female there.

  57. J.W. Brewer says:

    I was idly curious about other oft-translated texts, so I inquired of Google whether there had been a female translator into English of the Tao Te Ching. And learned that there is indeed such a translation by a Famous Female Author, viz. Ursula le Guin. Whom I suspect has about as much reading ability in Classical Chinese as Ezra Pound had when he favored us with his interesting-if-idiosyncratic English versions of Confucius. (Although Ms. Le Guin did collaborate with an actual Sinological scholar, Jerome Seaton of UNC, who presumably was in charge of making sure that her English was not indefensible as a free translation of the original.)

    There is also a version by a scholarly lady named Jane English (whose Ph.D. is apparently in particle physics rather than Sinology), done in collaboration with her ethnic-Chinesely-named husband.

    By contrast I expect that Mmes Wilson & Alexander have sufficiently strong chops themselves in Homeric Greek as to have not needed that sort of collaborative assistance.

  58. David Marjanović says:

    But how much of a lay audience are you?

    There are very good science blogs outside my immediate field, and one of them already had a lot of readers when it featured science much more often than it does now.

  59. Whom I suspect has about as much reading ability in Classical Chinese as Ezra Pound had when he favored us with his interesting-if-idiosyncratic English versions of Confucius.

    Indeed. She says forthrightly in the introduction: “This is not a translation. I do not know any Chinese.” She based her version on Paul Carus’s zi-by-zi glosses.

    (Although Ms. Le Guin did collaborate with an actual Sinological scholar, Jerome Seaton of UNC, who presumably was in charge of making sure that her English was not indefensible as a free translation of the original.)

    Again from the introduction:

    When you try to follow the Way, even if you wander off it all the time, good things happen even if you do not deserve them. My work on the Tao Te Ching was very wandering indeed. I started in my twenties with a few chapters. Every decade or so I’d do another bit, and tell myself I’d sit down and really get to it, some day.

    The undeserved good thing that happened was that a true and genuine scholar of ancient Chinese and Lao Tzu, Dr. J. P. Seaton of the University of North Carolina, saw some of my versions of bits of the Tao Te Ching (scurvily quoted without attribution by myself ). He reprinted them with honor, and asked me for more. I do not think he knew what he was getting into. Of his invaluable teaching, his encouragement, his generosity, I can say only what Lao Tzu says at the end of the book:

    Wise souls don’t hoard;
    the more they do for others the more they have,
    the more they give the richer they are.

    Here are the other references to Seaton in the book:

    J. P. Seaton comments [on 13]: “When Lao Tzu mentions ‘the Empire’ or ‘all under heaven’, he does so with the assumption that all of his readers know that it is a commonwealth where only the ruler who rules by virtue of virtue alone is legitimate.”

    Explaining why she drops parts of 31, the stuff about the left and the right: “I consider these passages to be commentaries or marginal glosses that got copied into the text. J. P. Seaton says: ‘What were once supports by analogy to common ceremonial practice are now relevant only to the historian.’ Here they confuse the clear, powerful statement that culminates in the last four lines. The confusion already existed when the Ma wang tui version was written, and there seems to be no way of sorting it out now except by radical surgery.”

    “Under J. P. Seaton’s guidance I finally came to feel that I had a handle on the [last line of 33], and that Lau’s rendition [“He who lives out his days has had a long life”] was the most useful.”

    “The last stanza [of 42] is uncharacteristic in its didactic tone and in assimilating the teaching to a tradition. Lao Tzu usually cites “what others teach” only to dissociate himself from it. I was inclined to dismiss it as a marginal note by someone who was teaching and annotating the text. But J. P. Seaton, who does teach the text, persuaded me to keep it in the body of the poem, saying ‘It’s a message that for all its flat moralism does connect Taoism to Confucianism and even Buddhism with a single solid thread — averting a hundred holy wars, if nothing else.”

    In Chapter 47: “J. P. Seaton reminded me that ‘doing without doing is doing, not not doing.'”

    As far as I can make out, Gia-Fu Feng, who was indeed Chinese and a Taoist scholar (see Wikipedia), did the translation, and Jane English took the photographs, but then she revised the translation for the second posthumous edition, along with Lippe, the original editor. And as for Stephen Mitchell, the infamous pseudo-translator of not only the DDJ but Homer, Gilgamesh, Job, Genesis, Neruda, Psalms, and Rilke as well, Le Guin skewered his translation in two words: “not useful”.

    The Unix Power Classic: A book about the Unix Way and its Power, woefully incomplete and scurvily advertised here by myself. I have based it on Jonathan Star’s zi-by-zi glosses, more accessible than Carus’s.

  60. I guess it’s a good time to remind everyone that John Emerson is doing extensive work on the Daodejing at Haquelebac.

  61. Whatever the merits of “complicated” as a rendering of polytropos, the unsettling jolt it delivers is a wonderful way to open a poem for “our modern times” (a phrase that Wilson slyly introduces into her translation, invoking the Muse not only in Homer’s name but also in her own).

    In the discussion of versions of Homer by women, Alice Oswald’s Memorial perhaps deserves a mention, although this presents itself as an “excavation,” not a “translation” of the Iliad. (“My approach to translation is fairly irreverent. I work closely with the Greek, but instead of carrying the words over into English, I use them as openings through which to see what Homer was looking at.”)

  62. “The man with many angles.”

  63. She translated “The man with many angles” into “language of the Angles”….

    Sorry, couldn’t resist

Speak Your Mind

*