I’m reading Daniel Mendelsohn’s poignant memoir, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son and an Epic (2017), treating it as a kind of coda to Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer. Now Mendelsohn is a classical philologist, just like Wilson, so of course he did his own translations for the book. They read nothing like Wilson’s.
The framing story of the memoir is how the father, Jay, a hard-headed mathematician not ordinarily drawn to literary texts, asked his son if he could take the course on The Odyssey that Daniel was scheduled to teach at Bard College. Father and son gradually, eventually came to know each other through the poem. That is what is so intriguing to me. Which poem? Which is to say, whose translation?
Here I juxtapose the opening stanza of The Odyssey as translated by Mendelsohn and Wilson, then ask how and why are they so different. Finally, if I may—like Augustine, I have no Greek, and I’m certainly not a poet—I ask, which rendition is better?
I tried to make the line breaks match up so that we could compare the stanzas with some precision. That didn’t work, which raises more questions.
A man— track his tale for me, Muse, the twisty one who
wandered widely, once he’d sacked Troy’s holy citadel;
he saw the cities of many men and knew their minds,
and suffered deeply in his soul upon the sea
try as he might to protect his life and the day of his men’s return;
but he could not save his men, although he longed to;
for they perished through their wanton recklessness,
fools who ate of the cattle of Hyperion,
the Sun; and so they lost the day of their return.
From some point or another, Daughter of Zeus, tell us the tale.
“Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me how he
wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain he suffered in the storms at sea,
and how he worked to save his life and bring his men back home.
He failed to keep them safe; poor fools, they ate the Sun God’s cattle,
and the god kept them from home.
Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.”
Where to start? How about the difference in the number of lines, 10 as against 8? How did that happen? Notice how many adjectives and adverbs pile up in Mendelsohn’s rendition: Odysseus didn’t just wander, he wandered “widely,” he didn’t just suffer, he suffered “deeply in his soul,” and so on. Wilson’s translation is spare to the point of austerity: the “holy” town of Troy was wrecked (notice: not sacked), the crew was made of “poor” fools, and that’s all for the adjectives until the direct address to Athena at the end of the stanza. Mendelsohn’s translation conveys meaning through emotion-laden words—additional lyrics, as it were–Wilson’s through meter, sound, and rhythm, as in music.
Mendelsohn’s translation is also formal to the point of drudgery, as if he’s parsing for a pedantic professor. Or as if epic poetry is too lofty a genre for plain speech. The crew “perished through their wanton recklessness,/fools who ate of the cattle of Hyperion,/the Sun; and so they lost the day of their return.” Notice the adverb “wanton,” and notice that these fools “ate OF the cattle of Hyperion”—transitive verbs need not apply—and notice that they “lost the day of their return.” They lost the day? This begins to sound literal, and therefore clumsy.
How about, instead, “and so they never got home”? Wilson is close, with “the god kept them from home.” This isn’t exactly colloquial, but it does sound more like the spoken word, or rather like words set to music, words whose meanings would be diminished without musical accompaniment.
Another small example of how Mendelsohn builds out the lines to the point of padding them is: “try as he might to protect his life and the day of his men’s return;/but he could not save his men, although he longed to.” Of course he longed to, we already know that—what is the point of this redundant reminder, except to give us a word-for-word replica of Homer, rather than an interpretation?
Wilson leaves it at this: “he worked to save his life and bring his men back home./He failed to keep them safe.” These lines convey a trust in the reader. She doesn’t want us to be awestruck by the liturgical majesty of the ancient words; she wants us to dig this complicated man.
I guess the question is, what’s the purpose of translation, to make it new or keep it old? Bring it to life, into the present, or force us to understand how distant we are from the time and the place of the poem’s composition? I know, it can’t be an either/or choice, no matter where the text resides in the history of civilization and the history of poetry. But Mendelsohn, it seems to me, has practically embalmed Homer, making the verse seem as familiar and mobile as a mummy.
The last lines of the stanza prove the point. Mendelsohn: “From some point or another, Daughter of Zeus, tell us the tale.” Wilson: “Now goddess, child of Zeus, tell the old story for our modern times./Find the beginning.”
In effect Mendelsohn denies any purpose to the translation except to explain the nature of epic poetry to the reader and his father. The relevance of the poem and the responsibility of the translator to his readers in the present—Homer can’t speak for himself anymore—are accordingly refused. “From some point or another”? Not even Homer thought there was such a thing as a God’s-eye view of the human world, mainly because he knew there were too many Gods conniving to change it.
In the voice of Homer, Mendelsohn says, Athena, you decide on how to narrate this endless loop, as if the Gods still determine our destinies. Wilson won’t give her that privilege. In the voice of Homer, she says, Athena, here’s what we want from you, as if the Gods are now at our command. Go all the way back, to the very beginning. But make it new. We need this story, and we need it now.
The difference in the translations couldn’t be more clear, then. Mendelsohn writes about epic poetry as if there’s no difference between The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid, and, more significantly, he translates the middle term by rote, placing it beyond not comprehension but beyond any recognizably modern purpose. He won’t make it new because he assumes it’s too old, too far beyond anything we, the readers, might imagine.
Wilson writes about epic poetry as if there is a huge difference between these exemplars, and, with her translation, she convinces us that Odysseus speaks directly to us, marooned as we are in our modern times. She makes him new because she assumes that all his contradictions—he’s a craftsman, a liar, a warrior and a thief, he’s a faithful husband, an adulterous lover, a joyful man who knows nothing but grief—all these are still at work in every one of us.
You are not Spartacus. We are Odysseus.