Homer: The Odyssey, trans. by Peter Green | University of California Press £24.00

Historian, translator of Greek and Latin poetry and, in former lives, wartime serviceman in the Far East, journalist and historical novelist, Peter Green is the Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin. His translation of The Odyssey follows his Homer: The Iliad (Berkeley, CA, 2015) and is richly supported by commentary and notes. However, it’s the quality of writing in the actual translation that I want to discuss.

Until now, my preferred translator of The Odyssey has been Robert Fagles. He finds a rival in Green, who offers a significantly different reading experience. Here’s Fagles’s opening:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove –
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out their day of return.

Here are the same lines in Green:

The man, Muse – tell me about that resourceful man, who wandered
far and wide, when he’d sacked Troy’s sacred citadel:
many men’s townships he saw, and learned their ways of thinking,
many the griefs he suffered at heart on the open sea,
battling for his own life and his comrade’s homecoming. Yet
no way could he save his comrades, much though he longed to –
it was through their own blind recklessness that they perished,
the fools, for they slaughtered the cattle of Hēlios the sun god
and ate them: for that he took from them their day of returning.

Not having classical Greek I can’t say whether “hard as he strove” is a more precise translation than “much though he longed to” or vice versa. The difference of impact is obvious, though, and reflects a general difference of style. “Hard though he strove” is much more physical, both in terms of the actual muscular activity involved in saying the words and in the way their meaning focuses on physical struggle. “Much though he longed to” focuses in a more abstract way on the hero’s mind and desires. Throughout this passage and in all his narrative, Fagles’s translation is remarkable for its forward drive, its emphatic rhythms propelled by powerful stresses and alliteration, the directness of his expression and the strength of his verbs. In his opening line and a half, the rapid repetition of “the man” pushes the line on with a hint of impatience. In Green’s version, the wandering build-up to the repetition dissipates its force. Again, Fagles’s “driven time and again off course” is powerful and direct. The insertion of “time and again” piles the pressure on instead of letting it out. Green’s “that resourceful man, who wandered / far and wide” subtly dissolves narrative drive both in the comma-pause after “man”, making “who wandered” a qualifying phrase rather than a defining one, and in finishing the line with an unstressed syllable, so that we seem to drift into the line ending rather than leaping over it. The result is a style less muscular and forceful, more subdued, meditative and inward. Such different approaches throw differences of colouring over the whole story.

Each style brings benefits and cost. In Green’s version, there’s a relative loss of narrative impetus. In that by Fagles, the emphatic style can become relentless, and though it’s very well suited to involving you in the urgency of unfolding action, it doesn’t lend itself so well to more subtle and inward effects. Take the tale of the mariners’ sojourn with the master of the winds (Aeolus to Fagles, Aiolos to Green). Aeolus / Aiolos gives Odysseus a bag containing all the winds to help him quickly home. In sight of the shores of Ithaca, Odysseus, who’s been steering his ship day and night for nine days, allows himself to fall asleep. When his sailors open the bag, thinking it contains treasure, all the loosened winds sweep them back to Aeolus’s island and they return to their disastrous wanderings. Green makes this episode linger in our minds, first for the wonder of Aiolos’s power over the winds and his existence on a floating island in a palace where his six sons are married to his six daughters and then – in the bit I’ll quote – for the haunting closeness of the sailors’ homecoming before disaster strikes:

For nine days on end we sailed, both by day and by night,
and now on the tenth our homeland came into sight –
close enough indeed to see men tending their watch fires:
then it was that sweet sleep came upon me in my exhaustion

Clearly, some of those words are mere fillers from the point of view of conveying information – “by”, “now”, “indeed” for example. However, they have a crucial function of a non-informative kind. They make us linger, creating a mental space for us to absorb the implications of the main statements and encouraging us to imagine ourselves into the sailors’ situation. They throw great weight onto the line about sleep. “Sweet” is of course a recurring epithet for sleep in Homer, but the emphasis on the line makes us reflect on the ironies of the way this sleep both is and is not sweet – on the one hand it’s not just routinely but overwhelmingly sweet for a man who hasn’t let go for nine days; on the other, it’s disastrous in its consequences. Contrastingly, it seems to me that the whole episode of Aeolus and the winds has curiously little impact in Fagles. This is partly because the emphatic style tends to have an inflationary effect – if everything is emphasized nothing stands out, so shorter episodes get lost in the sweep of action – and partly because in Fagles’s version everything seems to lean forward as if in anticipation of what will come next. Instead of stilling our imaginations in contemplation of the present situation, Fagles draws them away from it. Perhaps brief quotation can’t fully make my point but if you read these lines aloud I think you’ll see how, despite the presence of what might be thought to be filler words, the rhythm discourages lingering:

Nine whole days we sailed, nine nights, nonstop.
On the tenth our own land hove into sight at last –
we were so close we could see men tending fires.
But now an enticing sleep came on me, bone-weary

I should make it clear that I haven’t been trying to compare Fagles’s and Green’s versions in terms of overall merit. I’ll go on reading both because I think they complement each other: each draws different things into the light, and they involve you in different ways, one particularly through action and suspense, the other by encouraging a more contemplative absorption.

The kind of absorption offered by Green’s translation seems particularly relevant to the reading of a poem from an alien culture and period. It contributes to the opening of the imagination that is surely one of the main pleasures of reading such a work.

Far more than the world of The Iliad, that of The Odyssey is densely realised, with vivid detailing of scenery, background and setting, ordinary practical activities and the speech and behaviour of common people. I say “world”, though of course there are contrasting worlds in this story. The things the hero encounters in his wanderings are in some ways almost as strange to him as to us. But his own home is bound to seem challengingly alien to us in many of its most basic moral beliefs and assumptions. One of the great benefits of Green’s style is the way it encourages us to dwell on this strangeness rather than gliding over it, to breathe in, not just an action but a moral atmosphere, so that we move imaginatively into the mindsets of the characters as well as seeing them with the eyes of our own age. Doing that, we find that for all the profoundly foreign values and assumptions they live by, their animating passions and reflexes are often strikingly like our own. I think seeing these familiar passions and reactions in unfamiliar contexts makes them stand out more vividly in their essential natures. It may be that putting ourselves imaginatively into the world of the story also makes us question assumptions we normally hold in too cosy and unthinking a way. We’re kept on our toes by constant shocks of adjustment between our own viewpoint and that implied by the poem.

Such shocks of adjustment are present in the very grain of Green’s language, for example in an interweaving of elevated and down to earth diction. When Hermes tells Kalypsō that Zeus has ordered her to release Odysseus, Green writes “So he spoke; and Kalypsō, bright among goddesses, shivered”. In this line, the formal and formulaic phrases leading up to “shivered” sharpen its impact by contrast. It’s as if the mask of decorum suddenly slips, letting the reality of Zeus’s power and Kalypsō’s fear leap out at us. Or take Green’s use of a word that struck me as jarring at first. When Odysseus wakes on Ithaca after being deposited there by the Phaiakian ship, Green describes Athene as approaching him “in the likeness of a young man, a herder of sheep, / one delicately nurtured as are the sons of princes… in her hands a hunting spear”. “Delicately nurtured as are the sons of princes” sounds lovely, but “delicately” at first seems startlingly inappropriate, given its contemporary meaning and associations. Sheep-herding is an earthy occupation, by modern standards, and the sons of Homer’s princes are bred to bloody battle. On reflection, though, the word becomes effective because its very incongruity provokes a shiver of recognition of how alien Homer’s world is.

On a larger scale, Green is faithful to the epic’s ritualistic and formulaic descriptions of activities like the bathing, massaging and dressing of guests before they’re feasted, with a great deal of verbal repetition from one such episode to another. Translators sometimes tone down these repetitions. I think they contribute to the richness of the experience the poem gives us, even on a silent reading, though of course the impact would be greater if we were listening to a recitation. Beyond simply reminding us that the physical pleasures and social graces involved in such rituals are as much a part of the changing weather of experience as pain, grief and disaster are, the repetitiveness of the actual words in which they’re presented weaves its own reassuring music out of these recurring patterns.

I recommend this translation not only for its weighty introduction and notes but above all for the sensitivity of its expression. The Odyssey is a poem which contains markedly different kinds of material. In large blocks, we have first Tēlemachos’s struggle with his mother’s suitors and his journey to mainland Greece to try to find information about Odysseus; then Odysseus’s wanderings among gods and monsters; and finally a convergence of those plotlines in the tale of Odysseus’s return and the suitors’ defeat. Each block is itself richly varied in subject matter and emotional tone. Aldous Huxley’s classic essay “Tragedy and the Whole Truth” praises Homer for the speed and sureness of touch with which he’s able to shift between angles of vision. Green’s Odyssey is unified by a flexible hexameter line (adapted, he says, from C Day Lewis’s translations of Virgil) but it combines this unity with great variety of pace and tone, giving vivid but different expression to the contrasting elements that make this work so compelling in detail and wide in imaginative scope.

by Edmund Prestwich

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