Translated by Emily Wilson
582 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $39.95.
Dismal as it has been in other respects, the fall of 2017 has been good to readers of Homer. September brought us Daniel Mendelsohn’s “An Odyssey,” his memoir of teaching this poem about fathers and sons to a class at Bard College that included his own father. Now we have an excellent new translation of the epic by the British classicist Emily Wilson. Norton trumpets it as “the first English translation of the ‘Odyssey’ by a woman.” (Anne Dacier’s French prose version appeared in 1708.) But Wilson’s rendering is remarkable in other ways as well.
All English translators of Homer face a basic problem. The “Iliad” and “Odyssey” are composed in a long dactylic line (tumpety-tumpety-tum) that’s poorly suited to the natural rhythms of English. A few translators have tried to fashion an English equivalent; Richmond Lattimore was perhaps the most successful. But most have preferred iambic pentameter, the default meter for English poets. Chapman and Pope did the poems into rhyming couplets. Their successors favored blank verse. Recent translators have tried to split the difference between Greek and English; Stanley Lombardo, Robert Fagles and Stephen Mitchell all use a looser, longer but still five-beat line.
Wilson returns to strict iambic pentameter. Among modern renderings hers is perhaps closest to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version. But there’s a further wrinkle. Homer’s hexameters run from 13 to 18 syllables. To fit them into his shorter 10-syllable line, Fitzgerald simply used more lines. But Wilson aims for a direct equation: one line of English for one of Greek. The result is an idiom of great spareness and simplicity:
… But I am sure that he
is not yet dead. The wide sea keeps him trapped
upon some island, captured by fierce men
who will not let him go. …
The words are short, mostly monosyllables. Almost none have French or Latin roots. None is independently striking; their force comes from their juxtaposition with one another — pat pat pat, like raindrops on a metal roof.
At first glance one is reminded of the translation from “Odyssey” 11 that opens Ezra Pound’s “Cantos.” Pound wanted to evoke Anglo-Saxon alliterative verse (“We set up mast and sail on that swart ship / Bore sheep aboard her …”). His “Odyssey” was archaic and fragmentary, an artifact forged by firelight and rusted by time. If Wilson’s version has an English model, it is rather the moving plainness of Matthew Arnold’s “Sohrab and Rustum”:
… Soon a hum arose,
As of a great assembly loosed, and fires
Began to twinkle through the fog; for now
Both armies moved to camp and took their meal …
Arnold wrote a famous essay, “On Translating Homer.” Though he never produced a translation himself, I think he would have recognized his Homer — a poet “eminently rapid…, eminently plain and direct” — in Wilson’s.
Some trade-offs are inevitable. One characteristic of Homeric verse is the formulaic epithet: “much-suffering Odysseus,” “lovely-ankled Ino.” These arose as byproducts of oral composition — “pitons,” Mendelsohn calls them, “stuck into the vast face of the epic” to provide a momentary respite for both bard and hearers. Often they are long, rolling words: polyphloisboio thalasses, “the much-thundering sea,” or rhododaktylos eos, “rosy-fingered dawn.” Wilson’s short line preserves some, but others vanish or survive only as adverbs (“pensively Penelope sat down”).
In compensation we get moments of surprising lyricism: the Ethiopians, “who live between the sunset and the dawn”; a sea gull “wetting its whirring wings”; seals whose “breath smells sour / from gray seawater.” Wilson has a fine ear, as when her Penelope waves away a compliment: “The deathless gods destroyed my looks that day / the Greeks embarked for Troy.” Notice the interplay of d, l and g, interwoven like the threads on the queen’s loom.