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Bringing It All Back Home: The Odyssey in Translation

The following article was originally published in FORMA Journal.

The great narrative of the Odyssey is not entirely told by Homer. The arch-poet Homer turns the story over to his hero, Odysseus, and it is Odysseus himself who tells of his voyages. In doing so, Odysseus reveals to his audience that he, like Homer, is a poet. But the meta-layers don’t end there. Those who read the work in translation encounter another poet: the translator. Desiring to understand and experience the original to the greatest extent possible, we ask of our translation: Is it faithful? In so doing, we ask the same question of our translators that has been asked for generations of Odysseus: Is the poet faithful to the truth?—a question especially fitting to the tradition of the Odyssey.

While the poet deals in truth, he does not necessarily utilize literal facts. This is likewise true of translations. Like Odysseus, the translator has a preeminent goal: to bring a work home. In bringing poetry into our native language, each translator will choose how tightly to tether to the original. Even when a translator desires a precise and literal rendering, fidelity to the complexity of Homeric poetry can be elusive.

Homer’s poetic craft is masterful to the point of mystery. Homeric Greek can do much with few words, allowing for poetry of depth and dimension dressed in simplicity and economy. His careful control of the elements of poetry—word, meter, and content—leave the translator a great challenge: how to render these three elements in a way that conveys the greatest poetic knowledge of the original. In general, a translator will prioritize certain elements above others, for English cannot fully capture the depth of Homeric Greek, and the translator must make concessions wisely.

A walk through a selection of the Odyssey, comparing translations to the original Greek, may help us see how choices of translation illuminate different aspects of the original poetry and may ultimately help us select translations suited to our particular purposes.

At the heart of Homer’s Odyssey lies the iconic descendus ad inferos, the journey to the kingdom of the dead. Instructed by Circe, Odysseus has learned that he cannot go directly home but must first journey to the underworld to consult the prophet Tiresias, who alone can tell him the way home. This action takes place in darkness. Odysseus travels to where the ancients believed the very boundary of the earth existed, a place where the sun cannot shine. Structured chiastically, the opening lines of book XI begin and end with images of darkness: as the dark ship sets sail, the journeying ways are darkened, and Odysseus and his companions arrive at the place of νὺξ ὀλοὴ—deadly, perpetual night. Eventually Homer starkly contrasts the darkness with the bright spiritual themes we will come to see in this book. But first, Odysseus walks in darkness.

Disembarking, Odysseus digs a pit and pours a libation to the dead. Invoking the dead, he sees the dread shades approaching. Odysseus’ narration translated by Richard Lattimore is,

the souls of the perished dead gathered to the place, up out of Erebos. (11.37)

And a few lines later:

These came swarming around my pit from every direction

with inhuman clamor, and green fear took hold of me. (11.42–43)

The Greek, which Lattimore translates accurately as “of the perished dead,” is

νεκύων κατατεθνηώτων. (11.37)

Spoken aloud, these two words form a formidable phrase of nine syllables, many of which are long vowels that the ancient rhapsodes would have sung with double length. One cannot rush this phrase in Greek. The three long omegas sound like one long groan. In the original, the audience hears the unsettling groans of the dead before being told five lines later of their inhuman clamor.

Robert Fagles, whose translation flows beautifully when read aloud, phrases this as,

up out of Erebos they came, flocking toward me now, the ghosts of the dead and gone . . . (11.41–42)

Peter Green takes a similar approach:

There came up out from Erebos the shades of corpses dead and buried. (11.36–37)

Though idiomatic, Fagles’ phrase “dead and gone” slows down the pace, and partially replicates the lengthened, lower register sound of the original.

The first soul that speaks to Odysseus is his companion Elpenor, whom Odysseus and the others left unburied on Circe’s island after an accident took his life. Elpenor implores Odysseus to bury his body lest, unburied, it provoke the wrath of the gods. His instructions to Odysseus, translated with clarity by Peter Green, are,

Heap me a burial mound by the shore of the grey sea,

for those yet unborn to learn of an unfortunate man.

Do this for me, and set on my tomb the oar

with which I rowed, when alive, among my comrades (11.75–78)

In the original, “Do this for me, and set on my tomb the oar” is,

ταῦτά τέ μοι τελέσαι πῆξαί τ΄ επι τύμβω ἐρετμόν. (11.77)

Fagles chooses the command “plant” rather than “set,”

Perform my rites, and plant on my tomb that oar

I swung with mates when I rowed among the living (11.85–86)

as does Lattimore,

Do this for me, and on top of the grave mound plant the oar

With which I rowed when I was alive and among my companions. (11.77)

Though πῆξαί does mean to set or plant, it can also imply a more repeated action than either setting or planting, more like making something fast by hammering a few times. The phrase πῆξαί τ΄ ἐπὶ τύμβω ερετμόν, spoken aloud, sounds like a steady metrical drumbeat. In the original, this phrase heard with the next line, “with which I rowed, when alive,” recalls the action of a boatswain keeping time, hammer in each hand, striking the beat as the oars of the rowers rhythmically strike the water. Lattimore’s translation follows Homer’s hexameter. While it approximates the pace of the original and lends a foreign ethos to his translation, it is a meter not naturally rhythmic in English. Here, Green and Fagles imitate in English the rhythmic nature of Elpenor’s instructions in the original Greek. We can picture Odysseus pitching Elpenor’s oar upright in an action reminiscent of the time-keeper. Elpenor, whose name incidentally closely resembles ἐλπίς, hope, exhorts Odysseus to remember; to remember him while we remember the passage of time itself.

Next, Tiresias speaks to Odysseus, this conversation being the raison d’être of this journey to the underworld. However, before Tiresias speaks, Odysseus sees the soul of his dead mother, Antikleia, and, unaware until this moment of her death, breaks into tears. Tiresias speaks for thirty-eight lines in the original, telling Odysseus of his homecoming, including a warning to not harm the pasturing cattle of Helios and that trouble awaits him in his household. After this long speech, Odysseus, the poet, a man whose epithets are prefixed with many- and much-, surprisingly replies with a one-line statement in the Greek, with no subsequent questions about his homecoming. Both Lattimore’s and Green’s line-by-line translations replicate the surprising brevity of the original. Green’s translation:

Teiresias, it may be that the gods have spun this thread. (11.139)

While Odysseus’ response in Green’s translation could be understood as thoughtful or wondering, Lattimore’s translation relates this as conclusive and practically dismissive, closer to the mood of the original Greek:

All this, Tiresias, surely must be as the gods spun it. (11.139)

Odysseus then asks about his mother, specifically why she sits in silence. Tiresias responds, in Green’s translation,

Whosoever of those that are dead and gone you permit

to come up to the blood will converse with you truthfully;

but any that you refuse will go back to where they came from. (11.147–49)

In this, Homer begins to reveal a crucial truth: the most important knowledge is found among the dead, among what is dead and gone, but only Odysseus can give it voice. Antikleia sits in silence until Odysseus gives life to her voice in the form of blood. Odysseus has traveled to the underworld to learn of his future, but he remembers that it is the past and the present he does not know. In a triumph of what is past and familial, Odysseus dismisses the seer and magnifies his mother. After partaking of the blood, she speaks first, addressing him simply as τέκνον ἐμόν, my child. Green’s translation,

My child, how did you penetrate this murky darkness

while alive? (11.155–56)

Antikleia is unhappy to see Odysseus here in this place of darkness. In the original, Odysseus responds in uncharacteristically simple language, which enhances the pathos of this encounter. Μῆτερ ἐμή, my mother, he says. Fagles, Fitzgerald, and Lattimore translate this more formally as mother, but Green captures the simplicity of Odysseus’ language and the intimacy of the moment with,

My mother, need brought me down here to Hades’ realm:

I had to consult the shade of Theban Teiresias. (11.164–65)

Having no questions for Tiresias about the future, he questions his mother first about how she died, next about his father and son, then about his wife and her fidelity to him. In the original, Antikleia’s response immediately brings Odysseus hope. She leads with the news of Penelope’s endurance, answering his last question first; and after her first few words, we understand that Penelope is waiting for him, Καὶ λίην κείνη γε μένει τετληότι θυμῶ. Green’s and Lattimore’s translations accurately reflect her motherly instinct to quickly comfort him,

Truly indeed she holds on with steadfast spirit. (11.181)

And Lattimore’s,

All too much with enduring heart she does wait for you. (11.181)

Fitzgerald’s translation is beautiful, though it does not make perfectly clear the good news until the second line:

Still with her child indeed she is, poor heart

Still in your palace hall. (11.204–5)

In her final words to Odysseus, Antikleia tells him to hurry towards the sunlight and to remember all that he has seen so that he may tell his wife. Green’s translation:

But quick, hurry back to the light now, with all these things

stored in your mind, to tell your wife hereafter. (11.223–24)

The word that both Green and Lattimore translate as “hereafter” is translated by Fagles as “one day,” and Fitzgerald as “in after days”; all fitting translations for the original μετόπισθε. Yet there is a certain timelessness about the word hereafter that hints of retellings and calls to mind the work of Odysseus, not only the husband but the poet.

At some point, Odysseus pauses, and we remember that he is relating this story to the Phaiakians in the hall of King Alkinous. Here also, darkness has fallen. It is night, and the halls are dark and shadowy, and everyone sits in silence, paralleling the land of the dead. Queen Arete speaks first, breaking the silence. Green translates the Queen’s words,

Phaiakians, how does this man’s character strike you?

His looks, his stature, his equable inner mind? (11.336–37)

The phrase that Green translates as “equable inner mind” is translated as “inward poise” by Fitzgerald, and “the balanced mind inside him” by Fagles. Lattimore chooses “the mind well balanced within him”:

Phaiakians, what do you think now of this man before you

For beauty and stature, and for the mind well balanced within him? (11.336–37)

While Green, Fitzgerald, and Fagles offer elegant translations of this phrase, Lattimore’s translation is the most thought-provoking. The original Greek is φρένας ένδον ἐίσας. The word ἐίσας is the same epithet that Homer uses in both the Iliad and the Odyssey to describe ships. Homeric ships are well-balanced, swinging evenly on the keel, maneuvering forward and backward. Shields are also well-balanced. Where this word ἐίσας appears, Lattimore does not vary the translation; he is comfortable replicating Homer’s repetition. While an English translation may not be able to bear the full repetition found in the original, Lattimore’s tendency to reflect this repetition helps us to perceive indirect comparisons; Queen Arete is likening Odysseus’ mind to a ship, the only means of returning home for the Greeks who fought in Troy, and a symbol of salvation.

Despite his mother’s final advice to hasten back to the light, it is Odysseus’ nature to want to know more. After speaking to the wives and daughters of heroes and Agamemnon, he sees Achilles, the greatest of the Achaians, who reveals that he would rather be a hired hand for a landless man than lord over all the perished dead. Then Achilles asks about his son: Was he a champion in the war? After hearing Odysseus praise his son as a champion in both war and council, Achilles walks away. Odysseus describes the manner in which Achilles leaves, translated by Fitzgerald,

But I said no more,

for he had gone off striding in the field of asphodel,

the ghost of our great runner, Akhilleus Aiakides,

glorying in what I told him of his son. (11.639–42)

Lattimore translates these latter lines as:

So I spoke, and the soul of the swift-footed scion of Aiakos

Stalked away in long strides across the meadow of asphodel,

Happy for what I had said of his son, and how he was famous. (11.538–40)

Lattimore’s translation here is faithful to the words in Greek. However, Fitzgerald weaves in what tradition believes to be true about Homer. Long strikes, μακρά Βιβᾶσα, symbolize victory and glory. In the Iliad, Hektor took μακρα βιβας when fighting against the Achaians by their ships, after being assured of victory by Apollo (Iliad, 15.305). Fitzgerald here deviates from the Greek, opting for the word glorying, which is not in the original, rather than Lattimore’s happy, to associate these steps with battle victory; it is a thoughtful interpretative choice and well-grounded in context.

Though some translations are more interpretative than others, all translations are interpretations, offering to us truth as prioritized by the translator. For those who would appreciate more of the interpretative work done for them, Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey is both poetic and insightful. Lattimore, on the other hand, will not disappoint the student or scholar who does not know Homeric Greek but wants to be able to quote Homer accurately. Fagles and Green are somewhere in between, with Green being closer to Lattimore in his precision, while still being delightfully musical. For a well-balanced poetic experience of the Odyssey, bring one translation home this year, then commit to a different one hereafter.

This article was originally published in FORMA Journal, Winter 2022. Purchase the full edition here. Subscribe to FREE future issues here.

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