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Wilson's New Odyssey Translation in the New York Times

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Wilson's New Odyssey Translation in the New York Times

Postby Altair » Sun Nov 05, 2017 8:57 pm

The New York Times recently published the following article:

"The First Woman to Translate the 'Odyssey' into English"

Aside from those aspects that might draw censure or approval from classicists or culture warriors, I liked that the language was examined closely even for a non-expert audience.

Aside from what tradition may or may not say, I found interesting the discussion of the "grammatical" ambiguity hidden in πολύτροπος. Does this accord with ancient commentaries on The Odyssey?

Also interesting were the multiple levels of social views displayed or implied in the discussion of Telemachus' slaying of the δμωαι. You have Wilson's views, the views of the writer of the article (Wyatt Mason), the views of previous translators (Fagles and Lattimore), Homer's view, Telemachus' view, and the audience's view.
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Re: Wilson's New Odyssey Translation in the New York Times

Postby Paul Derouda » Mon Nov 06, 2017 5:38 pm

I understand that when you already have dozens and dozens of earlier translations of the Odyssey into English, it's quite difficult to come up with something really new. Wilson doesn't really convince me.

First of, her handling of the epithet πολύτροπος. Here's how she translates the first lines:

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.


I don't think this is bad, quite the contrary. I especially like "tell the old story for our modern times". "Find the beginning" though is a just a little bit off the mark, in my opinion, but not bad either. (τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν).

English isn't my native language, so I don't necessarily catch all the nuances the words has. Maybe I can accept translating πολύτροπος "complicated", but I can't accept her rationale for that choice:

“I wanted there to be a sense,” Wilson told me, that “maybe there is something wrong with this guy. You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded. We don’t quite know what the layers are yet. So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text that’s not going to be interpretively straightforward.”

Homer (or whatever you want to call the poet) certainly didn't wan't to start his poem by suggesting that there might be "something wrong with this guy". It's epic poetry, after all! Heroes are tall, handsome and brave, heroines tall, beautiful and smart - not to mention the gods! This is epic, not comedy, and Odysseus isn't some sort of anxious Woody Allen character; the genre requires the hero to presented in the first line in most positive terms. If there's a negative hint at all in πολύτροπος, that must be that the word just might suggest some degree of unscrupulousness. But that again just shows how dangerous the man is to his enemies, that he can and will do anything to get where he's going; it certainly doesn't mean that he's tormented by internal anxieties.

I'd like to comment about her views on the slaying of the maidens as well. No time now, so I'll come back to that later.
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Re: Wilson's New Odyssey Translation in the New York Times

Postby jeidsath » Wed Nov 08, 2017 4:34 pm

I'm surprised that you didn't pick out this quote at the end, which would be somewhat wacky if she really meant it.

“If I was really going to be radical,” Wilson told me, returning to the very first line of the poem, “I would’ve said, polytropos means ‘straying,’ and andra” — “man,” the poem’s first word — “means ‘husband,’ because in fact andra does also mean ‘husband,’ and I could’ve said, ‘Tell me about a straying husband.’ And that’s a viable translation. That’s one of the things it says.


However, it's probably not fair to judge her product based on the interview, where the point is to say controversial things to generate interest.

It's a bit difficult for me to read either of the sample passages aloud, I notice. Maybe I would do better at a longer section, but the mid-line periods and commas trip up the rhythm of the speech.

The discussion of the δμῳαί and maidservants is interesting and accurate in light of

π108 ξείνους τε στυφελιζομένους δμῳάς τε γυναῖκας
π109 ῥυστάζοντας ἀεικελίως κατὰ δώματα καλά,

There are also casual accusations of misogyny against Fagles and Lattimore for how they translate αἵ.

Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined.


μὴ μὲν δὴ καθαρῷ θανάτῳ ἀπὸ θυμὸν ἑλοίμην
τάων, αἳ δὴ ἐμῇ κεφαλῇ κατ’ ὀνείδεα χεῦαν
μητέρι θ’ ἡμετέρῃ παρά τε μνηστῆρσιν ἴαυον.

Wilson:

“I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”


Of course Samuel Butler was even more neutral, with women rather than girls:

"I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."


Apart from anything else though, notice how much more smoothly Butler slips off the tongue. I seem to recall reading/hearing Evelyn Waugh in an interview say that the real point of higher education in his day was to create excellent prose stylists. But I suppose Wilson is writing poetry, not prose, since it has line breaks, and of course line breaks are how you can tell poetry from prose.
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Re: Wilson's New Odyssey Translation in the New York Times

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Nov 08, 2017 9:27 pm

jeidsath wrote:I'm surprised that you didn't pick out this quote at the end, which would be somewhat wacky if she really meant it.

“If I was really going to be radical,” Wilson told me, returning to the very first line of the poem, “I would’ve said, polytropos means ‘straying,’ and andra” — “man,” the poem’s first word — “means ‘husband,’ because in fact andra does also mean ‘husband,’ and I could’ve said, ‘Tell me about a straying husband.’ And that’s a viable translation. That’s one of the things it says.


However, it's probably not fair to judge her product based on the interview, where the point is to say controversial things to generate interest.

I don't think it's that wacky after all. She's of course wrong with "andra polytropon" meaning "straying husband", the point is just to generate interest as you say. But I think it's more or less an established fact that the Odyssey is basically a variation of a common story pattern known as the Husband's Return. The bulk of the Odyssey takes place in Ithaca and tells how he wins back his kingdom and his wife. It's really about how the hero reestablishes himself as king and husband after a long absence and losing everything except his abilities. The Wanderings are just a digression.

The discussion of the δμῳαί and maidservants is interesting and accurate in light of

π108 ξείνους τε στυφελιζομένους δμῳάς τε γυναῖκας
π109 ῥυστάζοντας ἀεικελίως κατὰ δώματα καλά,

There are also casual accusations of misogyny against Fagles and Lattimore for how they translate αἵ.

Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined.


μὴ μὲν δὴ καθαρῷ θανάτῳ ἀπὸ θυμὸν ἑλοίμην
τάων, αἳ δὴ ἐμῇ κεφαλῇ κατ’ ὀνείδεα χεῦαν
μητέρι θ’ ἡμετέρῃ παρά τε μνηστῆρσιν ἴαυον.

Wilson:

“I refuse to grant these girls
a clean death, since they poured down shame on me
and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”


Of course Samuel Butler was even more neutral, with women rather than girls:

"I shall not let these women die a clean death, for they were insolent to me and my mother, and used to sleep with the suitors."

The hanging of the maidservants must be by far the most ethically unacceptable passage to us in all Greek epic. Still, to really appreciate what's going on we should try to look at it from the perspective of Homer's contemporaries.

It's true that "whores" isn't in the Greek but it is in the spirit of what Telemachus says and what he does. I agree with you that these accusations of misogyny are unwarranted, and since anyway it's not Homer talking but Telemachus, I'd almost call these accusations of misogyny cheap. Whatever Telemachus might say doesn't make what he does more acceptable to us.

μὴ μὲν δὴ καθαρῷ θανάτῳ ἀπὸ θυμὸν ἑλοίμην
τάων, αἳ δὴ ἐμῇ κεφαλῇ κατ᾽ ὀνείδεα χεῦαν
μητέρι θ᾽ ἡμετέρῃ παρά τε μνηστῆρσιν ἴαυον.

Butler is the most faithful to the Greek here: "and used to sleep with the suitors", not "when they lay beside the suitors" (Wilson). This sexual offense of sleeping with the suitors is not their primary offense, but rather the culmination of their offenses. What's most important is that they aren't loyal to Odysseus' household. There are many servants in the household, some of them loyal, like Eumaios and Eurykleia, some of them not; in the end everyone gets their deserts. I think Wilson is wrong here when she says that the maidservants didn't have a choice; the point is that they did, or at least Telemachus thought they did – each servant made the choice whether to remain loyal or not (though that doesn't make it ok to hang the whole lot of them). It's true that the lines you quote, π108-109, make a point that the suitors were sexually harassing maidservants, but 1) it's Odysseus speaking to Telemachus, badmouthing the suitors, 2) not all handmaidens were unloyal, 3) The author of the Odyssey is often a bit inconsistent with this sort of thing from one passage to another anyway, saying whatever works in the present context.

Wilson talks about Odysseus being himself "serially unfaithful", and it's true that the rules were different depending on whether you were a man or a woman, free or a slave (or a god!). It would have never occurred to the Greeks to compare Odysseus' affairs with Circe and Calypso with what the maidservants did with the suitors, especially, as I said, their primary offense is being disloyal to Odysseus' family, not promiscuity. While Odysseus is suffering hardships between Calypso's sheets, Athena in disguise tells her son a white lie that his father must be "alive somewhere on a island, held captive by harsh men", α 197-199:
ἀλλ᾽ ἔτι που ζωὸς κατερύκεται εὐρέι πόντῳ
νήσῳ ἐν ἀμφιρύτῃ, χαλεποὶ δέ μιν ἄνδρες ἔχουσιν
ἄγριοι, οἵ που κεῖνον ἐρυκανόωσ᾽ ἀέκοντα.

But when Odysseus finally meets Penelope and they've made love for the first time in twenty years, he tells her everything about his adventures, including Circe and Calypso. ψ 335-7:
(Od. tells P. how)
ὥς θ᾽ ἵκετ᾽ Ὠγυγίην νῆσον νύμφην τε Καλυψώ,
ἣ δή μιν κατέρυκε, λιλαιομένη πόσιν εἶναι,
ἐν σπέσσι γλαφυροῖσι, καὶ ἔτρεφεν ἠδὲ ἔφασκε
θήσειν ἀθάνατον καὶ ἀγήραον ἤματα πάντα:
ἀλλὰ τοῦ οὔ ποτε θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ἔπειθεν
(The whole passage starts a ψ300 and is too long to quote here.)

What the poet is saying here, I think, is that Odysseus and Penelope have no secrets between them. The rules aren't the same of men and women, and if Odysseus says that all the time he just wanted to come home, she'll accept that.

"Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men." Here again I think the discussion is bit of an oversimplification. As far as the word δμωαι are concerned, it's a form feminine of δμως, which also occurs often in Homer. The term doesn't imply oppression of just women, but oppression in general. Why are the slaves in Odysseus' household mostly women? Well, read the beginning of book 9 for instance – in war, only women were taken captive most of the time, men who were taken prisoner were slaughtered. (Eumaios for instance was kidnapped as a child. Other male slaves were, I suppose, born in captivity.) I suppose adult men taken captive were just too dangerous and thus inconvenient to be used as slaves, especially as household slaves.
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Re: Wilson's New Odyssey Translation in the New York Times

Postby jeidsath » Wed Nov 08, 2017 10:01 pm

Medea makes the double standard that you talk about explicit (assuming the bracketing is correct). At line 244:

ἀνὴρ δ᾽, ὅταν τοῖς ἔνδον ἄχθηται ξυνών,
ἔξω μολὼν ἔπαυσε καρδίαν ἄσης
[ἢ πρὸς φίλον τιν᾽ ἢ πρὸς ἥλικα τραπείς]:
ἡμῖν δ᾽ ἀνάγκη πρὸς μίαν ψυχὴν βλέπειν.

But Jason certainly didn't get away with it!

I wasn't sure if it was clear, but "straying husband" is the idiom for "cheating husband," and the Hero's Journey home is not what that phrase brings to mind to me anyway.
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Re: Wilson's New Odyssey Translation in the New York Times

Postby Paul Derouda » Wed Nov 08, 2017 10:29 pm

jeidsath wrote:But Jason certainly didn't get away with it!

Odysseus and Penelope were a happy couple, Jason and Medea not!

jeidsath wrote:I wasn't sure if it was clear, but "straying husband" is the idiom for "cheating husband," and the Hero's Journey home is not what that phrase brings to mind to me anyway.

Ah ok, I didn't get that actually, I thought I simply meant "lost" or something. How boring. Why can't we just look at an old text for a minute without passing judgment? On the other hand, compared for example to the Iliad, the Odyssey is a very moralistic poem, so perhaps it's only fitting that it's been translated by another moralist, even if the translator's morals are very different if not opposed to the author's.
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