The Book Meme: Day 30

Day 30 - What book are you reading right now?

After a day of travel, I come to this, the final and most basic of questions about books. Best of all, it's not a question that requires a lot of thought to answer, though it is not at all uncommon for me to have several books going at the same time. Often I'll have one that I'm reading at home and another that I'm reading during work breaks, or one to read in the bathroom, or one to read at the table.

Right now, I've kind of got a bathroom book (The Tolkien Reader) and another I've re-skimmed in my study while gaming (Robert A. Heinlein's I Will Fear No Evil) and one I've read at the table (Pete Dunne's Birds of Prey), and one I've at least opened and skimmed in bed a time or two (Black Panther and the Crew by Ta-Nehisi Coates), but these are all quite secondary to what I've been powering through over the last week or so: Emily Wilson's new translation of The Odyssey

The thing I keep coming back to in amazement is that this is the first time Homer's epic has been translated into English by a woman. If you responded, "Really?!" to that statement, you did just what I did when I came across it. How we got to the year 2018 without the publication of a single such translation by a female scholar is beyond me, particularly considering the enormous success of Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which was published in way back in 1942, but here we are. I wish Wilson's work could be compared to the translations of dozens of women, but alas, that won't happen for a while.

In the meantime, however, I can say that Wilson's version is a page-turner. She has opted to do a translation that keeps the same number of lines Homer had, but she has set herself a challenge by cutting back on syllables. The original Greek used a six-beat line (dactylic hexameter, with eighteen total syllables in each line), but Wilson has opted for the most widespread meter in English, iambic pentameter (five beats and ten total syllables). This gives the epic an appealing similarity to other blank verse masterpieces like Paradise Lost or the soliloquies of Shakespeare, but it also necessitates the use of shorter words. Sometimes they are blunt, sometimes sharp, but they are often much more vivid than they might be if there was more room. Consider this passage from book 9, where Odysseus boasts of how he blinded the Cyclops and gave his name as "Nobody" or "Noman." Here is Robert Fagles' 1996 translation:

They lumbered off, but laughter filled my heart
to think how nobody's name--my great cunning stroke--
had duped them one and all. But the Cyclops there,
still groaning, racked with agony, groped around
for the huge slab, and heaving it from the doorway, 
down he sat in the cave's mouth, his arms spread wide,
hoping to catch a comrade stealing out with sheep--
such a blithering fool he took me for!

Fagles' language is lively, though there's not much in the way of strict meter. But here's how Wilson translates the same section:

Then off they went, and I laughed to myself,
at how my name, the "no man" maneuver, tricked him.
The Cyclops groaned and labored in his pain,
felt with blind hands and took the door-stone out,
and sat there at the entrance, arms outstretched,
to catch whoever went out with the sheep.
Maybe he thought I was a total fool.

Note that she has cut back Fagles' inflated line count from eight to seven, as well as removing some words and phrases that contribute little to the scene--blithering, hoping, there, comrade, one and all--and rendering the narrative in a pleasing, consistent-but-not-singsong iambic pentameter in the process. It's economical, but it's also strong and propulsive. It is perhaps a simpler dish, but it is better prepared with fresher ingredients.

I do have the occasional quibble. One is a minor mechanical note: when a singular name ends in s, it is typically considered permissible to make that name possessive in one of two ways: by adding an apostrophe and another s, or by simply adding an apostrophe: thus, you may see Fagles's translation or Fagles' translation. My Warriner's guide makes the eminently sensible suggestion that you use 's whenever you want the extra s to be voiced by the reader: Fagles' (say "FAY gulls") translation or Fagles's (say "FAY gulls ez") translation.

I suspect, however, that Wilson's style guide was a British one (as she is English, educated at Oxford and Yale), and that Warriner's advice was not included. She consistently uses only the apostrophe: Odysseus' journey, Alcinous' son, Pisistratus' eyes. That wouldn't bother me, except that in some lines, it is clear that she intends for the extra s to be voiced, while in other lines, she clearly does not. Consider how these lines read if the extra s is not voiced:

It is Laertes' son, the Ithacan (Book 4, line 554)
This is ten syllables, strict iambic pentameter. Clearly no final s is supposed to be voiced; Wilson wants it said "lay er tease" and not "lay er teases."

So let him go, if that is Zeus' order (5,139)
Without the extra s, this is only nine syllables, with two consecutive stresses (Zeus, or-). With the extra s, it's "so LET him GO if THAT is ZEUS ez OR der," perfect iambic pentameter.

Odysseus' heart and legs gave way (5,406)
A mess. If the name is said "o DISH us," it's iambic ("o DISH us HEART and LEGS gave WAY") but it's only eight syllables, four of them stressed; if you enunciate "o DIS see us" the iambic meter is thrown off and it's still only four beats over nine syllables. It needs the extra s: "o DIS see US ez HEART and LEGS gave WAY."

Basically, if you want to be sure the s is voiced in some places--and in metered poetry, you will probably need to do just that--it's important to write the possessive as Odysseus's or Zeus's when you do.

My other quibble is probably Homer's fault, not Wilson's. In Book 5, starting in line 270, Odysseus is watching the stars: 

...the Pleiades, late-setting Bootes,
and Bear, which people also call the Plow,
which circles in one place, and marks Orion--
the only star that has no share of Ocean.

What Odysseus is watching here is a series of constellations, which makes the reference to the singular "star" rather odd, particularly if you read "the only star" as a reference to the constellation Orion, which does have a share of ocean (see below). Fagles works around this, claiming the Great Bear (a/k/a the Big Dipper) is what's not getting wet:

..the Pleiades and the Plowman late to set
and the Great Bear that mankind also calls the Wagon:
she wheels on her axis always fixed, watching the Hunter,
and she alone is denied a plunge in the Ocean's baths.

Astronomically, it would be entirely appropriate to say that the Big Dipper "has no share of Ocean" or "is denied a plunge in the Ocean" because it spins around the North Pole and never comes near the horizon (not in the Northern Hemisphere, anyway). But the reference to Orion the Hunter is puzzling, because Orion does get wet. His belt is set almost along the Celestial Equator, far from either pole, and he rises and sets throughout the night and throughout the year. Moreover, he's not anywhere near the Big Dipper, so why Homer would mention the the former being "marked" or "watched" by the latter is unclear... but I do wonder if there is an explanation.

I would love to know Greek, or at least enough to know if Wilson's translation of "star" as singular is accurate. If so, the reference to Orion, a constellation including seven prominent and visible stars and numerous smaller ones (including a whole nebula), makes even less sense. But there is a star--singular--that the Big Dipper famously "marks," and it is a star that never touches the ocean: the North Star, Polaris, which can be found on the line described by the two "Pointer Stars" of the Big Dipper. Is that the heavenly body at which Odysseus is actually gazing? I'll just say this: I am fairly confident in Wilson's translation, but I am not so sure about the astronomical insights of a blind poet.

But as I said, these are quibbles. I am enjoying Wilson's translation immensely, and moving through it at a brisk clip; despite my respect for Fagles, I have never yet been able to make it all the way through his version of the poem. I look forward to completing Wilson's soon, and someday I look forward to comparing it to the translations of other female scholars. Whether hers will prove the best I obviously cannot know, but I'm taking some pleasure in knowing that I was able to read the first.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on August 6, 2018 11:29 AM.

The Book Meme: Day 29 was the previous entry in this blog.

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