Why I’m reading all the English translations of The Odyssey

About a month ago, I decided I want to read all the English translations of Homer’s The Odyssey. Given the dozens in existence, “all” will probably be interpreted loosely. But that is not the subject of today’s discussion. Today, I want to talk about, well, what the title of this piece says.

I will start with a secret: The first time I read The Odyssey outside of school, I did not love it.

In 2015, I’d read Stephen Mitchell’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and adored it. As with The Odyssey, I’d read The Iliad in high school (in modern Greek) and graduate school (Richard Lattimore’s translations). Both were … fine. Not favorites. Not my Desert Island Reads.

Given my lukewarm experience of Homer, Mitchell’s Iliad surprised me. His verse pulled me through the poem as if with an invisible string. To this day, trying to read one stanza is like trying to eat one potato chip. And any time I need a model for how to feel empathy, I can trust Book 24 to deliver it.

I loved—and still love—how the poem engages the paradoxes and tensions of being human without trying to reduce or resolve them. They exist, the poem seems to say, and they’re painful. How we choose to respond in these painful moments changes our—and potentially others’—experience of them, even when it doesn’t change the painful reality. We all share an inescapable fate, but we have choices in terms of how we reckon with that fate.

Since most of what happens in the world lies outside of our control, knowing  we have choices and those choices matter feels empowering and grounding. It reminds me of what my father has told me many thousands of time: “The only thing you can control is your attitude.” Given he survived war, occupation, and famine, he is one to know.

My transcendent experience of Mitchell’s Iliad made me curious to revisit The Odyssey. Generally, the latter seems to be the preferred poem. I expected to love it. But, as you know, I did not.

OdysseyInitially, I ping-ponged between the two translations I had on hand: Robert Fagles’ and Robert Fitzgerald’s. The language in both kept me at arm’s length, slightly more so in Fitzgerald than Fagles. I preferred the latter in comparative terms, but not in itself. Problem was, I spent so much energy decoding the poem, trying to picture what was happening, that the story could not subsume me. I was outside of it, observing myself reading An Important Classic. I hadn’t felt that way reading Mitchell’s Iliad. I’d felt myself submerged into a scary, alien world that was also eerily resonant. I’d lose track of time while reading it and not want to put the book down.

For mysterious reasons I don’t fully understand, I was determined to enjoy The Odyssey. So, hoping for a more accessible version, I tried a prose translation by George Herbert Palmer. As with Fagles and Fitzgerald, the language constructed a barrier between the story and me, which further fueled my determination to find a translation I could connect with.

Around this time, I’d begun reading more from and about ancient Greece. I’d read Edith Hall’s Introducing the Ancient Greeks, Mary Beard’s Confronting the Classics, and three books in the “Very Short Introductions” series (Classics, Classical Mythology, and Classical Literature). I’d read several Euripides, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes plays, Apollonius’ Jason and the Argonauts, Longus’ Daphnis and Chloe, Apollodorus’ Library of Greek Mythology, Epictetus’ Encheiridion, Sappho’s poetic fragments. I’d reread a J. V. Luce’s An Introduction to Greek Philosophy and Lucian of Samosata’s Lucius, or, The Ass and A True Story. And others.

Here I was, reading and loving ancient Greek literature, and one of the most influential and foundational texts eluded me.

It would not do.

ComplicatedAs I was researching which translation to try next, I discovered Emily Wilson’s. I ordered it immediately … then promptly put off reading it for fear of not loving it. Again.

I needn’t have worried. Wilson’s Odyssey captivated me. The language pulled me into and through the story. When I wasn’t reading it, I was thinking about it. Finally—four translations later—I found my Odyssey.

Having a strong reaction to a book is what usually inspires me to seek reviews, preferably by readers who have different reactions from mine. Those reviews tend to give me the most to think about. So it was with Wilson’s Odyssey. I read two reviews by classicists who had scholarly reservations about Wilson’s  translation.

The criticism activated one of my gnawing anxieties about reading works in translation: When we read translations, we’re not reading the same book that the original author wrote. We’re reading an interpretation. Our experience of the original is mediated on multiple levels: by the translator, by the constraints of language, and by cultural contexts—the original author’s, the translator’s, the readers’. (For a fascinating discussion of translation issues, check out Tim Parks’ essay collection Where I’m Reading From: The Changing World of Books.)

I don’t have reading proficiency in ancient Greek, but I do have cultural knowledge. This both from growing up in a Greek family that had an ancient quote for every occasion and from studying classical thought in and out of school.  While I’m not in a position to assess the overall accuracy of one translation against another, I have cultural context to read translation choices, when I’m aware of them.

Being fluent (at an elementary level) in modern Greek, I’ve experienced how impossible literal translation is. My siblings and I amuse ourselves translating idiomatic expressions literally. One we heard many times as children: «Θα φας ξύλο.» Literally, it means, “You will eat wood.” Functionally, it warned a spanking was imminent.

Further, within a language, words can have multiple meanings. For instance, in modern Greek, the words for widower (χήρος) and pig (χοίρος) sound the same. Though in this case, they are spelled differently (“η” and “οι” both make an “e” sound). Maybe you’re thinking, “Who’d confuse a widower with a pig?” I’m here to tell you it can happen. As a teenager, I spent a summer with my cousins in Athens. One evening, my uncle took us kids out to dinner. One of my cousins remarked, for reasons unknown, that my uncle could be a widower out to dine with his four children. My aunt is very much alive, so this observation was met with stony silence, causing my cousin to nervously clarify he meant widower not pig. He was dangerously close to eating wood.

Then there are the problems of context and connotation. For example, in modern Greek, as in ancient, χανθος means “fair” or “light” in color. Often, this is interpreted to mean blond, but that’s not always so. (Tim Whitmarsh discusses this as it pertains to criticism of the BBC’s The Iliad adaptation here.) My grandfather was called χανθος. He had red hair, green eyes, and pale, freckled skin (yes, there are natural redheads in Greece). My brother has also been called χανθος. He has light brown hair and eyes and fair-ish skin that tans deeply.

To return to Homer, each translator wrestles with whether and/or how to make the poem comprehensible and/or accessible and/or faithful. The results are so distinct that while each presents the same story, it’s not the same book.

What brought all these thoughts into my foreground: One of the critics I read took issue with Wilson’s translation of the Greek work “αρετη” (arete) in Book 24.

In modern Greek, arete translates to virtuousness, roughly speaking. I was also taught the word as an ancient concept denoting excellence, virtue, valor. Appropriately enough, I cannot think of a single English word that fully captures it. But if I had to pick just one, I would probably choose “valor.” Mostly because valor suggests persevering over hardship, which, I was taught, our ancient ancestors valued. In ancient Greece, valor would surely include courage in battle, but it’s more than just that. It’s about achieving your best in whatever you do.

In the Book 24 scene the critic took issue with, Odysseus has killed his wife Penelope’s suitors and prepares to face in battle their enraged male family members. Fighting at Odysseus’ side will be his father, Laertes, and son, Telemachus (as well as two loyal servants and the goddess Athena). As the men arm themselves, Odysseus urges his son to live up to their family’s reputation on the battlefield, where men’s arete is judged. Telemachus assures his father that he need not worry. Laertes delights in seeing his son and grandson argue over who has more arete.

Prior to reading the criticism, I  didn’t know that the word in the ancient Greek text is arete. I hadn’t consulted the untranslated text or thought to compare different translations of that scene. I’d been thinking about how I wanted to experience the poem not how each translation negotiates the challenges of bringing an ancient text into the modern world. I had not been thinking about how each translator’s interpretation of the poem affected my reception of it.

Comparing seven versions of the same scene, the differences can be subtle but telling. Arete appears in two parts: in Odysseus’ statement to Telemachus and in Laertes’ observation of his son and grandson. I’ve bolded both parts for ease of reading:

In E. V. Rieu (prose):

OdysseyOdysseus “turned at once to his dear son and said: ‘Telemachus, when you find yourself in the thick of battle, where the best men prove their mettle, you will soon learn how not to disgrace your father’s house. In all the world there has been none like ours for courage and manliness.’

And the thoughtful Telemachus replied: ‘If you care to, father, you will see me in my present mood by no means disgracing my father’s house, as you put it.’

Laertes was delighted. ‘Dear gods!’ he exclaimed. ‘What a day this is to warm my heart! My son and grandson competing in valour!’”

In Robert Fitzgerald (verse):

“He said / to put cheer in his son:

‘Telemakhos, / you are going into battle against pikemen / where hearts of men are tried. I count on you to bring no shame upon your forefathers. / In fighting power, we have excelled this lot / in every generation.’

Said his son:

’If you are curious, Father, watch and see / the stuff that’s in me. No more talk of shame.”

And old Laertes cried aloud:

‘Ah, what a day for me, dear gods! / to see my son and grandson vie in courage!’”

In the Loeb (prose):

Odysseus “at once spoke to Telemachus, his staunch son:

‘Telemachus, now shall you learn this—having yourself come to the place where battle distinguishes those who are bravest—to bring no disgrace on the house of your fathers, who in times past have excelled in strength and valor over all the earth.’

And wise Telemachus answered him: ‘You shall see me, if you wish, dear father, as far as my present mode goes, bringing no disgrace whatsoever on your lineage, as you suggest.’

So said he, and Laertes was glad, and spoke, saying:

‘What is this day that you have brought me, kind gods? I utterly rejoice: my son and my son’s son are quarreling over which is the bravest.’”

In Richard Lattimore (verse):

Odysseus “spoke to his dear son, Telemachos: / ‘Telemachos, now yourself being present, where men do battle, / and the bravest are singled out from the rest, you must be certain / not to shame the blood of your fathers, for we in time past / all across the world have surpassed in manhood and valor.’

Then the thoughtful Telemachos said to him in answer: ‘You will see, /dear father, if you wish, that as far as my will goes, / I will not shame my blood that come from you, which you speak of.’

So he spoke, and Laertes also rejoiced, and said to them: ‘What day is this for me, dear gods? I am very happy. / My son and my son’s son are contending over their courage.’”

OdysseyIn Stephen Mitchell (verse):

“Odysseus […] said to his son, ‘Telemachus, in the thick / of battle, where warriors prove their worth, I expect / that you will bring honor and not disgrace to our family, / who throughout the world are known for our strength and courage.’

Telemachus answers, ‘I think you will see for yourself, / Father, how well I distinguish myself in the fighting. / I won’t bring shame on your lineage, as you put it.’

When he heard this, Laertes was filled with joy, and he said, / ‘Dear gods, what a day! How proud and happy I am / to see my son and my grandson competing in valor!’”

In Alexander Pope (verse):

“‘Behold, Telemachus!’ (Nor fear the sight,) / The brave embattled, the grim front of the fight! / The valiant with the valiant must contend. / Shame not the line whence glorious you descend. / Wide o’er the world their martial fame was spread; / Regard thyself, the living and the dead.’

‘Thy eyes, great father! On this battled cast, / Shall learn from me Penelope was chaste.’ / So spoke Telemachus: the gallant boy / Good old Laertes heard with panting joy

‘And bless’d! thrice bless’d this happy day! (he cries,) / The day that shows me, ere I close my eyes, / A son and grandson of the Arcesian name / Strive for fair virtue, and contest for fame!’”

in peter green (verse):

Odysseus “addressed his dear son Telemachos, saying: / ‘Telemachos, you’ll now learn for yourself’—having come / where battle picks out the truly best men fighting’— / not in any way to disgrace your father’s ancestors, who / long ago excelled the world over in manly strength and valor.’

Sagacious Telemachos responded to him, saying: / ‘You’ll see me, if you so wish, dear father’—such is my spirit’— / in no way, as you say, disgracing your ancestry.’

So he spoke. Laertes was glad, and made this declaration: / ‘What a great day for me, you kind gods! I’ve joy past measure! / Here are my son and my grandson contending over valor!'”

In Wilson (verse):

Odysseus said, “‘Now, son, / soon you will have experience of fighting / in battle, the true test of worth. You must / not shame your father’s family; for years / we have been known across the world for courage / and manliness.’

Telemachus inhaled, / then said, ‘Just watch me, Father, if you want / to see my spirit. I will bring no shame / onto your family. You should not speak of shame.’

Laertes, thrilled, cried out, ‘Ah, gods! / A happy day for me! My son and grandson / are arguing about how tough they are!’”

Once I knew that “tough” was meant to translate “arete,” it seemed a reductive choice. Odysseus and Telemachus are not arguing over who is tougher. They’re both intent on proving they can bring their best when confronted with obstacles, thus bringing honor to the family name, thus being worthy of carrying that name. Whatever I may think of this, it’s a very Greek concept that persists even today. In this scene, Odysseus expects to do his best at and confer honor through bravery in battle because his immediate obstacle is an armed, angry mob that intends to murder him. But being tough is not the only way he has brought honor to his family name. He has also done so by being clever and strategic. He’s Athena’s favorite precisely because he is not recklessly brave but crafty and measured. This is reflected in the poem’s opening description of him as πολύτροπον (polytropon): a “man of many devices,” as the Loeb edition puts it. The Trojan Horse was his idea.

All this is to say, I can understand why a critic might see “tough” as a misreading not only of the word “arete” but also of the cultural moment the scene represents—whether that misreading is intentional to shape the reader’s judgment of that moment and/or accidental in that the translator can’t step outside of her (or his, in other cases) context to see the moment on its own terms.

I’ve been so fixated on finding a comprehensible, enjoyable translation that I hadn’t thought about the extent to which different translations are “true” to the poem. Or even the extent to which it is possible for a modern English translation to be true to an ancient Greek poem. I say “extent to which” because it’s a continuum not a set of absolute boxes marked “true” and “not true.” Some moments may be truer than others, and this will vary across translations.

Even if I read The Odyssey in ancient Greek, which I hope to live long enough to accomplish, I cannot experience the poem as its original audiences did. But I can think about how it has been received and examine why it has been translated as it has. Reading multiple versions of The Odyssey feels like the fullest way to understand its allure across time, to understand what it has meant to different readers at different times, and to recognize the ways  translators’ choices shape my experience and assessment of the poem.

As to why I want to do that, stay tuned…

4 Replies to “Why I’m reading all the English translations of The Odyssey”

  1. I think what you’ve been doing is just so cool. I love when you share the same translation of a passage by different writers – it illustrates so well this fascinating challenge/journey you’ve set for yourself.

    And I like how you talked about finding “my Odyssey.” Mine is the Fitzgerald version, at least based on excerpts I’ve read of other translations.

    When you talk about distance from the text, it made me realize why I might like the Fitzgerald version and you don’t. I never sought to relate to or completely understand The Odyssey when I read it – I don’t feel a kinship to Ancient Greek culture like you do, even though I really enjoy Greek mythology and art. But I guess I feel like I would relate to the bigger ideas, the ones that are sort of universal, even if smaller ones inevitably escaped me due to distance in culture and time. I think it’s touching and really neat how you want to really experience the story and its setting to the fullest. I guess I’m like that about 19th century European and American books, maybe because I think it’s more likely to be able to relate to them and “see” their settings. And yet, not necessarily, of course – who today would know exactly what every object authors like Dickens and Balzac describe, look like or are used for?

    Thanks for giving me this food for thought.

    And I can’t wait to read more about your “odyssey” (har har) into this poem and other Ancient Greek texts!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, as always, Alysa. I always, always, always look forward to your comments and what you will inspire me to think about. I have to tell you, looking at the different translations of this particular scene has made me appreciate Fitzgerald in a new way. I am planning to reread his translation. Of all the versions of this scene, his is probably my favorite. It’s poetic but also best captures what arete means (among the versions I’ve read so far). It’s such a central concept to Greek identity as I understand it—hard to capture but so important. I’m slightly appalled by the use of the word “tough.”

  2. It’s been so interesting to follow your journey with these translations. I’ve only recently been reading more books that have been translated but it’s always a question of what’s being lost and how the story has changed when it’s presented in a different language. I can definitely see how ‘tough’ feels out of place in that passage but it does seem really complicated to pick out the perfect phrase when each of those authors found different ways of saying the same thing. Very cool!

    1. I am so glad that you’re finding it interesting. 🙂 And yes! Definitely very complicated. I know with modern Greek, it’s such a colorful, idiomatic language with so many built in analogies. It’s super hard to translate. I can’t imagine doing 12,000+ lines of poetry from ancient Greek. I admire all the translators simply for undertaking such a challenging project. On Twitter, Emily Wilson said she decided, after much agonizing, to change “tough” in the paperback because it had too much “ironic distance.” That was her phrase, and I think it’s the perfect, concise expression of what I didn’t like about it. It’s awe-inspiring to think about how much thought goes into a single word choice.

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