Translating the Odyssey.

Anthony Verity, who has recently translated Homer’s Odyssey, has some things to say about it at OUPBlog:

The toughest challenge for the 21st century translator is undoubtedly that of register. As we all know, no one ever spoke Homeric Greek. It is an amalgam of different dialects, predominantly Ionic, whose effect is to set the story apart from the everyday, and to lend it a dignity appropriate to a tale of long ago heroic deeds. That said, Homer does often go remarkably well into current English. ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many turns, who was driven/far and wide after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy’ is a near-literal rendering of the Odyssey’s first two lines. Compare the task of producing an acceptable version of ‘His sweet spirit surpasses the perforated labour of bees’ (Pindar, Pythian 6.52-4).

Still, there are times when one yearns for a modern epic poetic, to capture something of Homer’s heroic loftiness, at the same time as satisfying the two classes of notional classics readers: staying close to the Greek and offering a good read to the casual bookshop/internet buyer. It can’t be done consistently, of course. We can no longer draw on the poetic diction available to English writers in the 300-odd years from Shakespeare to the Georgians. T.S. Eliot saw to that, and in any case no one these days – with the possible exception of Derek Walcott – writes epic.

Nothing earth-shattering, but I always enjoy reading translators on their craft.

Comments

  1. The translation I grew up with (and which we also read, in abridged form, in ninth grade) had, “Sing in me, muse….” I thought that was quite evocative.

  2. no one these days – with the possible exception of Derek Walcott – writes epic

    Is he referring to Omeros? I have read that– it is a fascinating book-length poem, but it has almost no resemblance to classic epic. It doesn’t have a strong narrative through-line for one thing. The poet‘s reflections on his home island of St. Lucia are structured very discursively, some chapters being quasi-autobiographical, others following other characters, and even making room for an entire chapter where the poet reads the diary of a 19th-century woman on the Great Plains… Structure it does have, but not a narraive one.

  3. Isn’t writing hexameter in English enough to indicate epic register?

  4. No, not at all. Why should it? How could it? Not even possibly.

    The meter that functions like dactylic hexameter in English is iambic pentameter unrhymed, or blank verse, the only meter that anglophone ears can take being pounded with for hundreds of lines at a stretch. But what’s being talked of here is special poetic diction, which was pretty much abandoned by the main line of tradition in the early 20C, though preserved in other traditions — T.S. Eliot and E.R. Eddison were almost contemporaries.

  5. Do not hexameters in English amount to epic register?
    No, not at all. Why should it? How could it? Not possibly even.

  6. Is he referring to Omeros? I have read that– it is a fascinating book-length poem, but it has almost no resemblance to classic epic.

    I think he must be. I agree with your characterization of the Walcott (which I enjoyed so much I bought a detailed map of St. Lucia so I could follow along), but he did after all say “possible exception” (emphasis added). Wikipedia lists several other recent “epics,” but I know nothing about them.

  7. Yes, he might’ve said that no one but Walcott is doing epic-length poetry that he considers successful.

    You may be amused by my notes (the 1st two journal entries there) on a much less elegant epic.

  8. One of my pet irritations is the contemporary use of “epic” as a blanket synonym for any long poem. This doesn’t even mean “book-length” any more as I’ve seen it applied to poems that were a hundred lines or so. Equally, the label “lyric” gets applied to any short poem regardless of its tone or content.

  9. Do not hexameters in English amount to epic register?
    No, not at all. Why should it? How could it? Not possibly even.

    Ha ha. Actually I’m of an age that I’m still fond of Richmond Lattimore’s attempts to write in a kind of hexametroid. I find his Homer a lot more successful than (I want to say) Charles Doughty’s and Robert Bridges’ attempts to write real quantitative verse based on the (assumed universal) vowel lengths of R.P. And also a lot better than those mid-twentieth-century prose translations that were supposed to be in “colloquial English” (as if original epics had ever been written in colloquial anything!) but that made Achilles and Hector sound like a bunch of tittering Oxford toffs.

  10. How could that comprehensive Wikipedia list have missed this Cold War self-published gem?

  11. You may be amused by my notes (the 1st two journal entries there) on a much less elegant epic.

    I was!

    I’m of an age that I’m still fond of Richmond Lattimore’s attempts to write in a kind of hexametroid.

    I find him worthy but utterly unpoetic. Fitzgerald, now that’s real poetry, if not epic style.

    How could that comprehensive Wikipedia list have missed this Cold War self-published gem?

    Oh man. Let Lenin: A Modern Epic Poem rest in embalmed peace! (Happily, Google Books has not digitized it.)

  12. I see that Mayakovsky, too, wrote an epic poem about Lenin. It’s likely better than Paulden’s, but I’m not going to read either one.

  13. Wikipedia has a nice long list of epic poems (broadly speaking), up to the present day.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    My recollection from my days as a student of Homeric Greek 30 years ago is that Lattimore was by far the best in-print English rendering for use as what I believe English schoolboys used to call a “trot,” i.e. as close to the Greek as possible w/o being the sort of interlinear gloss that doesn’t even attempt to be grammatical English. Whether other renderings were better as “English poetry” (whatever that might mean) is a different question.

  15. January First-of-May says:

    The first “modern epic” that comes to my mind (aside from a few texts clearly way too short to count) is the Tale of Fedot the Shooter*. (The second is The Hunting of the Snark, which isn’t actually modern enough, and might not count as an epic.)

    Sadly, the (rather humorous, and rather abridged) retelling of the Iliad in the meter (and, to an extent, style) of said “epic”, as posted here by LJ user the_mockturtle, was (to the best of my knowledge) not yet actually continued fully, or to the Odyssey.

    *) or Hunter, or Archer, or Musketeer, or, in the title of the English translation, Good Fellow – opinions vary.

  16. What would be the narrow technical term for Onegin, if not an epic poem?

  17. January First-of-May says:

    What would be the narrow technical term for Onegin, if not an epic poem?

    A novel in verse?
    That’s what the traditional Russian term for it translates to, anyway.

    I also thought of Onegin as an example of an epic poem, and its meter certainly feels epic (even more so than that of The Hunting of the Snark). But it’s from the early 19th century, well before the tradition had supposedly gone away.

  18. A novel in verse?

    Yes, that’s what it’s generally considered, and rightly in my opinion. It has nothing to do with epic, being simply the private romantic adventures of a few people. War and Peace is far more like an epic, but of course it’s not poetry.

  19. Trond Engen says:

    January First-of-May: Sadly, the (rather humorous, and rather abridged) retelling of the Iliad in the meter (and, to an extent, style) of said “epic”, as posted here by LJ user the_mockturtle, was (to the best of my knowledge) not yet actually continued fully, or to the Odyssey.

    If you have a month to spare, you may first invest in this epic thread.

  20. That Gavin Douglas never got around to Homer is one of the great injustices of this timeline. “The batalis and the man I wil discrive/ Fra Troys boundis first that fugitive/ By fait to Ytail come and cost Lavyne…”

  21. Trond Engen says:

    The Norwegian Bokmål Wikipedia entry on Odysseen features a neat comparison of the most famous translations into Norwegian, Peder Østbye’s Riksmål translation from 1922 (in a modestly updated orthography) and Arne Garborg’s Landsmaal translation from 1918.

  22. It had never occurred to me to think about it before, but I imagine that much of the libretto for Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin could be taken more or less verbatim from the novel, since the novel was already in verse. (Wikipedia confirms this in the second sentence of the article about the opera.) I’ve seen the opera, and I knew that the book was written in verse, but since I don’t know Russian, I guess I never made the obvious connection.

  23. Brett, I could never stand Eugene Onegin: the opera because Pushkin’s verses sung in usual operatic manner sound ridiculous. But obviously, plenty of Russians either don’t share my impression or simply got over it. The most popular fragment of the opera is Lensky’s “Where have you gone, golden days of my spring?” sounds alright, but for the reason that Pushkin wrote a parody on Romantic poetry of his day.

  24. January First-of-May says:

    If you have a month to spare, you may first invest in this epic thread.

    By the time I made it to the first Russian translation in there, I was mentally screaming that this needs its own Le Ton beau du Marot, or, failing that, its own Parnassus on End (a work I had referred to on LH previously).

    What it definitely needs, either way, is a more structured version, with a table of contents including every individual poem (yes, even the Mongolian – at least that’s what I assume it is, it hadn’t been explicitly identified yet).

    That said, while my reading speed is probably a good deal better than you might have thought it was, I have better things to do both today and tomorrow, so you’re right – I’m unlikely to finish that before November.

  25. Quote: in any case no one these days – with the possible exception of Derek Walcott – writes epic.

    In the Balkans, the oral epic poetry is still alive, composed in the traditional “deseterac” (ten syllable verse). The epic-style “Rušenje kula svjetskoga pazara” (Destruction of the World Trade Towers) appeared on Serbian sites back in September 2001, celebrating – yes celebrating (!) the NYC attacks: https://www.mail-archive.com/sim@antic.org/msg01385.html

    The epic opens with the Slavic antithesis (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slavic_antithesis):
    Šta se puši iznad Vašingtona
    Šta se puši nad Njujorkom gradom
    Je l’ to puši Monika đevojka
    Il’ to puši Džimi hašišaru

    translated:
    What’s that smoke above Washington
    What’s that smoke above NYC
    Is it the young girl Monica [Lewinsky]
    Is it Jimmy [Hendrix] the hashish-smoker

    Awful stuff

  26. David Marjanović says:

    Wikipedia lists several other recent “epics,” but I know nothing about them.

    Do take a look at this. Best misunderstanding of quantum physics ever.

    the (rather humorous, and rather abridged) retelling of the Iliad in the meter (and, to an extent, style) of said “epic”, as posted here by LJ user the_mockturtle

    That is wonderful. I really should learn Russian better, just to appreciate this.

  27. It is indeed wonderful.

  28. Matthew Roth says:

    I like Lattimore, and I dislike Fagles and Fitzgerald’s versions. Also, what Heaney did in Beowulf is worth considering.

  29. Matthew, my tastes are much like yours.

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