Note: I wrote this before the publication of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. My thoughts on it are here.
“You know what the ancients said…”
Growing up, I heard this phrase more times than I can count. The “ancients” referred to the ancient Greek philosophers, poets, playwrights, etc. I don’t know if this is true in all Greek families, but in mine, ancient wisdom was standard fare.
One bit I remember my dad repeating (and he still has to remind me from time to time): Πάν μέτρον Άριστον. Everything in moderation. First he’d say it in Greek, then in English. It’s an important message, so it bears repeating! I’ve also seen the Greek phrase translate to “Moderation in all things.” The basic idea is the same: Maintain a sense of proportion in life. It’s a pretty excellent motto, really. (We could you some of that these days, yes?)
Getting to the implied question in my title (finally): When I first began reading The Odyssey, I shuttled between Robert Fitzgerald’s translation and Robert Fagles’. I couldn’t decide which I preferred and often found myself rereading chapters to figure it out. As you can imagine … time consuming! The Odyssey was becoming an odyssey. Know what I mean?
Reading every chapter also prevented me from fully immersing myself in the story. I was just so hung up on the words and their meaning and how their meanings changed and what it meant. Then I encountered this sentence that turned the tide in favor of Fagles:
In Fitzgerald (where I first saw it):
better a sense of measure in everything.
Balance is best in all things.
Here’s the fuller context:
Alkinoos’ answer was a declaration:
”Friend, I am not a man for trivial anger:
better a sense of measure in everything.”
“Oh no, my friend,” Alcinous stated flatly,
”I’m hardly a man for reckless, idle anger.
Balance is best in all things.”
You’ll notice their names are spelled differently. But that’s not really the point. Seeing a sentiment that was familiar to me from the ancient Greek gave me a teeny glimmer of insight into the translation project and its formidable challenges. I’d guess from this translation that Fitzgerald’s is perhaps more literal. Perhaps it’s more faithful to the rhythms and grammar of ancient Greek. I say this because the literal translation of Πάν μέτρον Άριστον is “all measure the best.” But Fagles’ translation feels more dynamic and vibrant.
I don’t know. I’m not a translator, and I don’t know ancient Greek. Still, that’s the moment I decided to commit to reading Fagles’ straight through. Also, this experience has made me want to learn ancient Greek so I can read The Odyssey in the original. Perhaps someday…
If you’ve read The Odyssey, which translation did you read? What did you find pulled you into the story or made it difficult to engage with it?