Boris Smus

interaction engineering

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson (audio)

As a kid, I read The Odyssey in some canonical translation. That is to say, I knew it was a classic, and wanted to check the box. I read it quickly and retained nothing from the experience. When I learned about this new, accessible translation from Tyler Cowen's interview with the translator, my interest was piqued.

In an extended intro, Wilson justified the constraints of her translation. I agreed with her that constraints are fun to work within, and found the specifics of translating from dactylic hexameter the meter of all homeric epic poems, to iambic pentameter the usual meter of English classics to be super interesting. Impressively, she also constrained herself to the same number of lines as the original. All this while keeping to modern language that isn't overly flowery or archaic. In her own words:

But of course, the English of the nineteenth or early twentieth century is no closer to Homeric Greek than the language of today. The use of a noncolloquial or archaizing linguistic register can blind readers to the real, inevitable, and vast gap between the Greek original and any modern translation. My use of contemporary language—rather than the English of a generation or two ago—is meant to remind readers that this text can engage us in a direct way, and also that it is genuinely ancient. My Homer does not speak in your grandparents' English, since that language is no closer to the wine-dark sea than your own. I have tried to keep to a register that is recognizably speakable and readable, while skirting between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang.

I loved Claire Danes' reading of the translated poem, and Audible's production, especially that little blooming musical flourish in the end. I wonder how hard it was for the producers to be so parsimonious with effects.

Recurring themes

  • Hospitality: There's a steady emphasis on hospitality as a way to appease gods, especially Zeus. There is an element of it being encouraged in general, and an element of fear: any old beggar may in fact be a god in disguise. It plays out in the narrative too when the suitors' evil is illustrated in their disdain for Odysseus disguised as a beggar.
  • Weaving women: Every great woman spins cloth, including all noble wives and most notably Penelope.
  • Gods concealing as humans: Athena is often disguised as Mentor, Telemachus' ally and advisor. The pattern of Gods disguised as familiar people is super compelling as a narrative device. There are moments in life when it feels that way, no?
  • Constant bitching: Odysseus is constant bitching about how hard his life is, while his crew is dying left and right. This is odd -- under such dire circumstances, should he not be glad to be alive?
  • Metaphors for Dawn: I really liked all of the descriptions of Dawn. Rosy fingered, braided, Dawn on her golden throne, bright-throned Dawn.
  • Awesome monsters: Polyphemus the cyclops eats Odysseus' crew, Circe the nymph turns them into swine, The Sirens lure his men to thier doom, Scylla, a giant six headed sea hydra decimates his ships and Charybdis, a whirlpool monster, threatens to be his end.
  • Bards rock: bards, poets and singers are universally great. They bring the people to tears, and generally speaking, survive.

Answered questions

  • After sneezing, Russians sometimes say "truth". There is a passage related to this, and I got curious. Does the Russian tradition come from the Greek? Apparently, yes.
  • Athena continually disguises as Mentor, a man in Odysseus entourage. Mentor is also extremely wise and a great advisor to Telemachus. Is this the origin of the word? Apparently yes
  • Are Phaeacian Phoenicians? There are similarities beyond their names, like great skill in navigation. I answered this myself since eventually both appeared in The Odyssey as distinct peoples. However there is some interesting academic writing on this: "The onomastic qualities of Phaeacian personal names in book 6-8 of the Odyssey further indicate that the bard envisioned the Phaeacians as a fantastical clone of the real-world Phoenicians."

Narrative observations

The story itself was pretty clear, but I was super confused about Odysseus' side trip to Hades. I had to read about it separately. The trip was just to talk to a prophet in order to find out what to do next? Such a needless tangent.

There is some complex structure in the narrative. Big chunks of the story are narrated by the actors themselves. Odysseus retells part of his story to King Alcinous (Father of Nausicaa). Telemecus reveals a sparknotes version of The Iliad when he visits Nestor.

One of the greatest scenes must have been Odysseus confronting the suitors as a beggar in his own house. It's so vividly written, with great details including Argos' death. This is apparently the only time the dog is ever mentioned, but it makes the listener feel as if there's so much more to the story.

Although the narrator is clearly on Odysseus side, his decision to kill all of the suitors was clearly disproportionate to their crimes. It's easy to imagine Odysseus as a villan, triply so with the mass strangulation of slave girls that slept with the suitors, and his vicious torture of Melanthius.

Is this really the end of Odysseus' adventures? As soon as he returns, he must venture off again to appease Posideon. Sounds like another arduous journey, and another decade of disappointment for Penelope. Her patience and the ambiguity with which they reunite is palpable.