Wilson on Homeric Wordplay.

Emily Wilson, whose translation of the Odyssey I posted about here, has a Twitter thread beginning:

Here’s another major issues for all translators, not just of ancient Greek: what to do about wordplay, including puns. Take these lines from the Odyssey: ἀλλ᾽ ἑλέτω σε καὶ ὕπνος: ἀνίη καὶ τὸ φυλάσσειν πάννυχον ἐγρήσσοντα, κακῶν δ᾽ ὑποδύσεαι ἤδη. (20. 52-53)

The penultimate word in the two lines I quoted echoes the sound of our hero’s name: hypODYSSEAI. Athena is identifying O. as the guy who will “slip out from under” things — he “Odysseus-es” out. So I went to see what different translators do with the pun.

She quotes the Fagles, Fitzgerald, and Lattimore versions, following each with the laconic “No pun,” and provides her own attempt:

Now go to sleep. To stay on guard awake
all night is tiring. Quite soon you will
distance yourself, Odysseus, from trouble.

I made an effort to do something about the word-play. Wish I could have done more/ better, but I did try very hard.

She adds:

There are several puns on O’s name (even beyond metis/outis). At 5.340, I use small-o “odyssey”:
[why does Poseidon]
“create an odyssey of pain for you”.
But I couldn’t do that more than once. For that line, too, Lattimore & Fagles & Fitzgerald have no pun.

Interesting stuff (and of course there are responses from other Twitter users); thanks, Steven!

Comments

  1. If I had read “Now go to sleep …” out of context I would have said “No pun” also, and as it is it took me quite a while to decipher it. A pun on a single syllable just doesn’t count as “a pretty epanorthosis […] and withal a paronomasia”.

  2. Somewhere along the line I started pronouncing the name “Odysseus” with a ridiculous chimeric mixture of vowels, something like [o’dysiəs], so I wouldn’t have noticed the wordplay either.

  3. Yeah, it’s not actually a pun, but she clearly wanted to do something to acknowledge what was going on in the Greek. I agree that it doesn’t particularly work.

  4. Noah Kurland says:

    If you like an odd sea you oughta see the Odyssey. Maybe slip in an original pun when convenient, to hold with the spirit of the original, but I wouldn’t try to force a pun wherever the Greek has a pun.

  5. Perhaps in “travail” she might have found both the “trouble” and the “travel” of “odyssey”, which might preserve the take-it-or-miss-it-ness of the pun, if there is one. Englishing doesn’t always cut down one’s punning potential.

  6. For plays on the name, there is also 19.405.

    Wilson has, “I am disliked by many, all across the world, and I dislike them back. So name the child ‘Odysseus.'” And an endnote and a bit in the introduction explain the wordplay.

    Fitzgerald made something of an attempt, “odium and distrust I’ve won. Odysseus should be his given name.”

  7. George E. Dimock did it the other way, “I have odysseused many in my time, up and down the wide world, men and women both; therefore let his name be Odysseus.”

  8. It’s a long /uː/ (which occurs in no variant of the name) and a short /s/, so not -oduss-eai but -odūs-eai. I somehow doubt if it’s a delibarate pun or a sound effect worth saving in translation. The same stem occurs several times in the epic, e.g.

    (4.435-436)

    τόφρα δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἥ γ᾽ ὑποδῦσα θαλάσσης εὐρέα κόλπον
    τέσσαρα φωκάων ἐκ πόντου δέρματ᾽ ἔνεικε

    Meanwhile, having dived under the broad lap of the sea,
    she brought up from the ocean four seal skins

    There are double meanings here: ὑποδύομαι can mean ‘plunge into/under’ but also ‘slip into’ or ‘put upon one’s shoulders’, ‘put on (an actor’s mask)’; and κόλπος (exactly like Lat. sinus) may mean ‘bosom, lap’, ‘bay, gulf’, ‘hollow’, but also ‘fold of a garment’. So there are good reasons to believe that the poet is deliberately activating clothing imagery in connection with the seal skins. But the occurrence of the segmental string -οδῦσ- here does not seem to have any significance: the skins were for Menelaus and his three companions so they could dress up as seals; Menelaus is telling his story to Telemachus; and Odysseus is not involved in any way.

  9. David Marjanović says:
  10. It’s a long /uː/ (which occurs in no variant of the name) and a short /s/, so not -oduss-eai but -odūs-eai. I somehow doubt if it’s a delibarate pun or a sound effect worth saving in translation.

    Excellent point! Oh, dis’s not a pun…

  11. I’d imagine that’s one of the worst parts of working with a language like Ancient Greek, because any translator who takes part in online discussions with colleagues is familiar with the phenomenon of people in the opposite language pair asking about suspected wordplay that simply isn’t there, and would never have crossed the mind of a native speaker. You can have an excellent, excellent knowledge of your source language and still make these mistakes. And if there are no native speakers, there’s really no one to ask.

    But, supposing the pun *is* there, I firmly believe in preserving wordplay—especially in dialogue, because a punning Athena sounds very different from a non-punning Athena. And if I were in the translator’s shoes, I might try to shift the play on words to something other than the name: some other term associated with Odysseus, like “wile/s/y,” which would be easy enough to combine with “while.” Or look for some alternate element of humor, like an internal rhyme: “you’ll soon enough slip through this sea of fuss, Odysseus,” or “your troubles soon you’ll slip, for slip you must, Odysseus” or something like that (these aren‘t stellar examples, I know, but I don’t have time to mess around with rhyming dictionaries right now, especially for a pun that may not even exist). My point is, the hard part isn’t coming up with some little language-based joke—and when one’s mind is a complete blank, that’s what one’s fellow translators are for; someone’s bound to be on a roll that day. The hard part is figuring out whether the joke is there in the first place.

  12. I am in awe of a discussion on translating Homer, in 2018.

    I somehow doubt if it’s a delibarate pun or a sound effect worth saving in translation.

    I’m confused: were there pre-existing words in Greek from which ‘Odysseus’ was coined?

    To say in English “create an odyssey of pain for you” just seems daft: “odyssey” (even lower case) is not a word of English with any meaning except in referencing the Homeric epic; the word hasn’t gained a life of its own, even as much as quixotic or shandean.

  13. Not even as in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

    There are thousands of Google hits for “an odyssey of pain”, by the way.

  14. were there pre-existing words in Greek from which ‘Odysseus’ was coined?

    It must have come from somewhere, but has no generally accepted derivation. The epic poets themselves connected the name with ὀδύ(σ)σασθαι (aor.mid. to unattested ὀδύ(σ)σομαι) ‘be angry with, hate’, which however seems to be a folk etymology.

  15. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    The same root, according to the OED, as Latin odium, which gives ‘odious’ for wordplay…

    I am surprised by the suggestion that ‘odyssey’ in the sense of (again borrowed from the OED) ‘a long series of wanderings; a long adventurous journey’ is less familiar than ‘quixotic’, although that may be partly that I know how to pronounce the one and not the other!

  16. Not even as in 2001: A Space Odyssey?

    As it happens, the year the movie was released (in Britain) was the year I was studying ‘Greek Literature in Translation’, with one of the set books being … The Odyssey.

    There are thousands of Google hits for “an odyssey of pain”, by the way.

    Curious. I’ve never heard the phrase. I guessed its meaning as a hyper-superlative from “world of pain”. Presumably everybody’s tired of the “it’s a journey” cliché.

  17. Whatever about odyssey vs quixotic, my instincts about odyssey vs shandean are certainly the reverse of AntC’s. As a quick sanity check, ‘Shandean / shandyan’ has appeared in the Irish Times – in articles about Tristram Shandy – twice in twenty-one years. ‘Odyssey’ has been used, without explicit reference to Homer, eight times in the last month.

  18. Odyssey is an utterly unremarkable common noun in English.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    I’ve encountered figurative odysseys (in English and elsewhere), can’t remember having seen shandean/shandyan and barely know the name Tristram Shandy, and wonder if optimists prefer to talk about an anabasis of pain.

  20. Is it possible that people find word play in Homer slightly too frivolous for the most solemn and august of ancient authors?

  21. Hardly, given the “no man / Noman” pun. There is also Achilles’ home city Phthia, which suggests phthisis ‘withering death, tuberculosis’ with reference to his prophesized early demise.

  22. …soon, Odysseus, you will be disseised of your troubles.
    … soon, Odysseus, your odious troubles will be past.

    I feel there should be one involving “Odysseus/disuse” but I can’t think of it.

  23. because a punning Athena sounds very different from a non-punning Athena. And if I were in the translator’s shoes

    …which are presumably Nikes…

  24. Ha!

  25. Aargh! Nike actually made a shoe a while back called the Talaria, so yeah, I guess so.

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