Tuesday, January 23, 2018

The Odyssey in the 21st Century

Tuesday, January 23, 2018
Loretta reports:

Well into the 19th century (and later, in many places), a gentleman’s education—to the extent he had one—consisted mainly of studying Greek and Latin.* This is why, when we read 18th and 19th C books written by men, we come upon untranslated chunks of Greek and Latin. An educated gentleman, it was assumed, would easily understand material he’d learned by rote in school. In a number of my books, I mention this emphasis on Latin and Greek.

All the same, very few people, even in the 19th century, read Homer’s Odyssey in the original Greek. For centuries, scholars and poets have tackled the work, making that tricky ancient Greek accessible, not only to those without a classical education, but also educated persons who found Homer very hard going.

My epigraph for the Prologue of Dukes Prefer Blondes is the beginning of The Odyssey as translated by William Cowper in 1791:

Muse, make the man thy theme, for shrewdness famed
And genius versatile

These are the first lines of the Invocation of the Muse, which we later learn the hero is trying to construe from the Greek. As young Oliver Radford realizes, there’s more than one way to read the poem. Here’s how T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) began:

Odysseus and the Sirens 1829
Goddess-Daughter of Zeus
              Sustain for Me

This Song of the Various-Minded Man…

Wikipedia offers a very long list of English translations, beginning with  George Chapman’s of 1615:

The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way
Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay;

We go on to find Odysseus described as “that prudent Hero,” “The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,”  “the crafty man,” “the man full of resources,” and on and on. If you want a sense of how not easy it is to translate Homer’s epic, please do scroll down the Wikipedia page to the section on The Odyssey.

A short time ago, Susan sent me the opening of a a new translation of The Odyssey, by Emily Wilson, the first English translation by a woman.

Robbing the cattle of Helios
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.

After reading these lines, I ordered the book. Though I’m saving a full read for my late winter sojourn in the South, it’s been hard for this Nerdy History Girl to resist dipping into it. The introduction is an eye-opener, the perfect prelude to the new translation, which IMO is a knockout. As to the story itself, as translation after translation demonstrates, it never gets old.
Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa 1892

*This isn’t to say that boys and men learnt nothing else. Indeed, a gentleman, not having a job to go to every day to support his family, had the leisure to investigate a wide variety of subjects. Many gentlemen were true polymaths. They were adept in multiple languages, performed agricultural and scientific experiments, attempted to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs, developed early forms of photography, and so on.

Images: Book cover for The Odyssey by Emily Wilson; Pellegrino Tebaldi, The companions of Odysseus rob the cattle of Helios 1554-1556; Bruckmann, Alexander, Odysseus and the Sirens 1829;
J.M. Waterhouse, Circe Invidiosa 1892 from the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia (this image via Wikimedia Commons).

Clicking on the image will enlarge it.  Clicking on the caption will take you to the source, where you can learn more and enlarge images as needed.


Gregg said...

I look forward to reading Wilson's translation, thanks! If you have a chance, I highly recommend Christopher Logue’s “War Music” (1981), “Kings” (1991), “The Husbands” (1995), “All Day Permanent Red” (2003), and “Cold Calls,” his attempt at a modernist translation of Homer’s Iliad. All five volumes have been compiled in “War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad” (2016).

KateM said...

I've read The Odyssey every year for years, most often the Fitzgerald translation, and The Iliad, half as often, the Fagles translation. Wilson's intro and her work have already knocked my socks off. Loving it!

Liz said...

Both my children read The Odyssey as part of their education at Washington, DC private schools (they grew up in DC while my husband was working at the IMF and World Bank, before our return to Canada). Both studied Latin, beginning in Grade 5 (for my daughter) or Form B (for my son). And my son even was required to memorize passages of Homer in Greek. So classical education isn't quite dead!

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