(J. M. W. Turner, Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus
Photo credit: National Gallery)
Standing in the bright kitchen, darkness still pressing closely against the windows, waiting for the coffee to brew, I turn the pages of The Odyssey, the first published translation into English of Homer’s epic by a woman, Emily Wilson, (British) Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania.
Thinking of the beginning of the poem in English, the phrase I usually have in my head is ‘Tell me, Muse, of the man of many devices’. I can’t now be sure of precisely where that came from. The closest is the old Loeb edition, translated by Murray, except that he seems to have ‘O Muse’. I thought it might be E. V. Rieu’s prose translation from 1946, the first-ever Penguin Classic, later revised by his son. That was certainly the first version I ever read but the copy I now have begins: ‘Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man’.
‘Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns’, Robert Fagles has it. And Emily Wilson? ‘Tell me about a complicated man.’ The next line begins ‘Muse’—I’d thought at first the opening line ended with a comma but it doesn’t.
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
Not having the Greek for purposes of comparison, I go by ear as, I presume, the vast majority of readers must. Or I simply trust Guy Davenport, who did know Greek and translated Sappho, Herondas, Archilocos and Herakleitos, among others. In his essay ‘Another Odyssey’, he discusses translations by Richmond Lattimore (the ostensible occasion for the essay), Butcher and Lang, Robert Fitzgerald, William Cullen Bryant, William Morris, T. E. Lawrence, Chapman, Pope, Christopher Logue and Samuel Butler—opening with the poet Salvatore Quasimodo’s rendering of the opening lines of the third book of The Odyssey into Italian. Davenport mentions ‘the two most exciting translations from Homer in recent years’—Robert Fitzgerald’s and Christopher Logue’s—and quotes an extract from the nineteenth book of The Iliad as translated first by Lattimore, then by Logue. ‘We have all been taught,’ Davenport comments, ‘to prefer the former, out of a shy dread before Homer’s great original; we instinctively, if we have ever felt a line of poetry before, prefer the latter.’ Davenport was writing in 1968 and estimated that there had been at least fifty versions in English of Homer’s second epic poem. There have been around twenty since then, with three just in the past year (Emily Wilson, Peter Green and Anthony Verity).
Wilson’s version goes with a swing because she’s opted to use iambic pentameter, the traditional metre of English narrative poetry (she also matches the poems line by line). ‘The original’, she points out, ‘is written in a highly rhythmical form of verse. It reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse.’ The Odyssey, she argues, ‘needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud.’ True enough; I can vouch for the efficacy of that rhythm, having begun reading her Odyssey aloud to the Librarian.
The beginning of the poem is a very obvious point of comparison: the address to the muse, which seems straightforward but is, apparently, not. As far as my fingertip decipherings in Liddell and Scott’s dictionary go, Odysseus could be described as ‘much-turned, i.e. much-travelled, wandering’, turning many ways, versatile, ingenious, changeful or manifold. Plenty of scope there, then.
(Emily Wilson discusses the decisions to be made about that single word, polytropos, here:
I’m reminded of the debate over the ‘correct’ rendering of Camus’ ‘maman’ in the first line of The Outsider (or The Stranger, as it’s always been known to the far west of me). I always remember that line as ‘Mother died today’, probably from Stuart Gilbert’s 1946 translation, which was followed only after a long interval by Joseph Laredo’s version, then by translations from Kate Griffith, Matthew Ward and Sandra Smith. ‘Mother’ seems to have shifted only as far as ‘my mother’, with the exception of Ward’s reversion to maman.
It’s a question of relative formality (mother, mum, mummy, mom) but there are obvious cultural differences too, French retaining certain formalities or faint memories of a courtliness which English and American speakers have largely shed. The issue was discussed by Ryan Bloom in The New Yorker (11 May 2012), where, reviewing Camus’ opening sentence—‘Aujourd’hui, maman est morte’—he concluded: ‘The ordering of words in Camus’s first sentence is no accident: today is interrupted by Maman’s death. The sentence, the one we have yet to see correctly rendered in an English translation of “L’Étranger,” should read: “Today, Maman died.”’
(See: https://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/lost-in-translation-what-the-first-line-of-the-stranger-should-be )
‘He observed, that all works which describe manners, require notes in sixty or seventy years, or less’, Boswell remarks of Samuel Johnson. Cultural habits, cultural assumptions, such things change constantly, in both small and fundamental ways. So do expectations of who might read a literary work: their gender, their social class, their level of education. But as to who might read this Odyssey, it’s pretty safe to venture ‘anyone at all’.
 Homer, The Odyssey, revised translation by D. C. H. Rieu, in consultation with Peter V. Jones (London: Penguin, 1991), 3.
 Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (London: Penguin, 1997), 77.
 Homer, The Odyssey, translated by Emily Wilson (New York: Norton, 2017), 105. Caroline Alexander’s The Iliad: A New Translation (Vintage, 2016) is, apparently, the first published version in English of that poem by a woman. See A. E. Stallings’ review of Alexander in The Spectator (9 April 2016).
 Guy Davenport, The Geography of the Imagination (Boston: David R. Godine, 1997), 29-44; 36, 37.
 Wilson, ‘Translator’s Note’, 81, 82.
 James Boswell, Life of Johnson, edited by R. W. Chapman, revised by J. D. Fleeman, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), 509.