“Each generation must translate for itself.”
That’s what TS Eliot wrote in his introduction to Ezra Pound’s Collected Poems – he was speaking of Cathay, Pound’s translation of classical Chinese poetry which, since its publication, has seen a series of criticisms of inaccuracies. But Pound is also lauded for his ability (and audacity) to act as a co-author rather than just a faithful translator and to make the poems appear true to his time and his world. Eliot went further to call Pound “the inventor of Chinese poetry for our time”, a biting double-edged compliment if any. Closer home, AK Ramanujan’s modernistic renderings of Tamil Sangam poetry are not without controversy, but Ramanujan himself seems to have been quite clear about what he intended with his work: “Translation is choice, interpretation, as assertion of taste, a betrayal of what answers to one’s needs, one’s envies”.
In a similar mould, where a translator has to be true not only to the original work but also to herself, comes a new translation in English of one of the most revered works of the Western canon – Homer’s Odyssey. The classicist Emily Wilson’s new book is the latest in a long line of translations of The Odyssey, but as the book’s blurbs and the gushing reviews call out constantly: this is the first by a woman.
Does it matter? Should it matter? Yes, but that’s one part of the story.
At the outset, Wilson provides a long and considered introduction and a translator’s note to explain the world of The Odyssey, the context of the original, as well as the rationale for some of her choices and interpretations. The Odyssey is a work which was handed orally down over time before it was written down, and hence is often redundant and repetitive (eg, the many bright-eyed Athenas, rosy fingered Dawns and wine-dark seas) and consists of multiple dialects, customs and traditions from different times. The language, according to Wilson, is neither ostentatious nor grandiloquent, and she sees no reason why the English version shouldn’t be the same. The Odyssey is a poem and like old poems, one that has a regular rhythm when read out aloud – Wilson uses iambic pentameter because it is, after all, the staple of English poetry, and she wants her version to have a beat that is distinctive and regular.
Before we get to her verse, for anyone who has been frozen in ice for 2700 years and has been just thawed back to life, here is what the poem is about:
Odysseus, wily and valorous King of Ithaca, on his way back from Troy, incurs the wrath of the gods, especially that of Poseidon after he blinds the god’s son Polyphemus, and is cursed to spend the rest of his life wandering and not being able to get back home. He is trapped by dreadful but exotic goddesses who force him to sleep with them. He braves the underworld, the song of the sirens, the monsters Scylla and Charybdis. He loses all his men after they eat the cattle of the sun god but finally, with a fair bit of help from Athena, reaches home.
This account forms the middle books of The Odyssey. The poem opens with Penelope, the long-suffering wife, and Telemachus, the infant son who is now a young man. Penelope is driven mad by suitors asking for her hand while Telemachus sets out to Pylos and Sparta to gather news of his father. The final third of The Odyssey, one usually glossed over, is of the long lost hero returning home disguised as a beggar and the bloodbath that follows once he assesses the lay of the land. The violence that Odysseus wreaks on the suitors and the hapless slave girls is second to none or, perhaps, second only to his own sacking of the city of Troy ten years before.
Right here right now
The first impression (and a lasting one) that one gets as you start reading is that there can be no question that is a contemporary work. In fact, I’d venture as far as to say that this is a work that can only be written in our time, in this century. Take the now oft-quoted first lines of Wilson’s translation:
“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 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.”
There is an immediacy to the verse as in it is happening right here, right now, as we speak. This is nothing like what one assumes an ancient epic would sound like and yet, it sounds exactly like what an ancient epic should sound like. And then that word – “complicated”.
A man of “many turns”, “of twists and turns” as prior popular translations go, but to use “complicated” to refer to a human being, to a man as crafty and, well, as complicated as Odysseus, is as modern as it gets. Many such words and phrases appear in the translation, but all of them well integrated with the essence of the poem and none out of place – Odysseus as a hobo, suitors cooking meat kebabs, Telemachus being served canapés and here is my favourite – speechifying – spoken by Antinous, one of the suitors (of Telemachus):
“Zeus would not let us
kill him – or else by now we could have stopped
his speechifying in our banquet hall.”
A male domain
The world of The Odyssey is a very masculine and patriarchal one, and it is important to look at how Wilson deals with the female characters. The obvious one is of the slave girls – she makes no bones about it – they are not “housemaids” who later become “whores” as in other translations. Here, they are referred to throughout as what they are – slave girls. Fully owned by their masters, they are required to do what is demanded by everyone else, including sleeping with the suitors. Odysseus himself says so and yet, he wants them hacked to death:
“Hack at them with long swords, eradicate
all life from them. They will forget the things
the suitors made them do with them in secret,
His son has other ideas.
“Showing initiative, Telemachus
‘I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.’
At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap –
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.”
Wilson is unflinchingly direct here (and elsewhere) and there is no looking away, you can’t unsee it or unthink it once you have read it.
The wife’s tale
Then there is Penelope, the most modest and chaste wife in all of history (predating Kannagi by about a thousand years for those of us used to Tamil country) who waits faithfully for her husband for a full twenty years. Wilson is clear that this is no match between intellectual equals: Penelope, intelligent as she is, has no real agency and is often told by her son to shut up, her thoughts and feelings are never really revealed. (For instance, did she recognise Odysseus and is that why she suggested the archery contest?)
Helen of Troy makes a cameo appearance in the poem, where she is shown not only as beautiful but also as an intelligent queen who does not hesitate to speak her mind – she is not a “bitch” with a “dog-like face” as we have read before. Instead, in Wilson’s translation, she just says:
“They made my face the cause that hounded them.”
It is interesting to contrast this view of Helen with the one in Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s version of The Odyssey seen from Penelope’s point of view. In an otherwise excellent retelling, Atwood casts Helen as a thoroughly mean-spirited maneater, an uncalled for position that jars with the overall theme of the book. I also remember being rather struck by the power of Penelopiad when I first read it, but re-reading it after Wilson’s Odyssey has made it lose some of the impact. I suspect this is because the position and plight of Penelope and the slave girls, which is the focus of Atwood’s book, is, for the first time, with Wilson’s translation, so evident from the original that a re-telling doesn’t seem strictly necessary.
Implicit in the above is the the complicity of Odysseus in all that has come to pass – from taking unnecessary risks and losing his men to rampant plundering and bloodletting, he is not just complicit, he is the instigator, the “complicated” man – Wilson doesn’t let Odysseus off the hook. Odysseus doesn’t come across as a crafty but well-intentioned hero – he is a cunning liar, a city-sacker, a blood-thirsty feudalist who doesn’t hesitate to maim and murder anyone who stands in his way, and, in some cases, many who don’t.
The final point about Wilson’s version is one of accessibility and I say that with a specific context in mind. This is a translation of an original poem that a child can read and, even better, read out aloud. Because of the directness of the verse and the straightforward language – not to mention the page-turner that is Wilson’s The Odyssey – a curious child could happily spend hours devouring this. Of course she’d miss many things, as my daughter did, but so did we all when reading children’s versions of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Just as kids quickly get through the first half of the Ramayana to get to the merry band of monkey people and chuckle in glee as Hanuman sets fire to the city with his tail, so did my daughter get fairly quickly to the blinding of the Cyclops and was kicked at Odysseus’s cunning use of the name “Noman”.
Children also know to pay attention to what is important. At one point, worried about the extent of misogyny in the poem, I tried to make an obvious point:
“You do realise that women weren’t very important in the olden days? They weren’t powerful.”
“Only the mortal women. Everything happens in the story because Athena wants it to,” my daughter made an equally obvious point without lifting her eyes off the page. It didn’t take her long to learn that you had to be a goddess to break the rules and be important and respected.
In her latest work Women and Power: A Manifesto, the eminent classicist and historian Mary Beard looks to the beginnings of history to consider how women were being silenced. In a related essay, she talks of the first time in recorded history where a woman is asked to shut up. This is, of course, in The Odyssey and it actually happens twice. On both occasions, Telemachus, not quite a fully grown man, asks his mother Penelope to shut up as he stakes his claim as the master of the house. Emily Wilson, in her translation of the poem two and a half millennia later, shows us the stories the same poem could tell you if women were to tell it. And it is well worth your time.
The Odyssey, Emily Wilson, WW Norton & Co.
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