Bryn Mawr Classical Review 02.06.14


T. E. Lawrence (trans.), The Odyssey of Homer, with an introduction by Bernard Knox. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991. Pp. xxii, 327. ISBN 0-19-506818-1.


Reviewed by William C. Scott, Dartmouth College.

T.E. Lawrence, known to the world as Lawrence of Arabia, produced a translation of a work which he loved by an author with whom he felt a special kinship. In many ways all ancient works deserve such a translator -- committed to his author and a believer in his ability to render that author. This closeness of translator and author brings extraordinary qualities -- for good or ill -- to this version of the Odyssey.

First is the unquestioning love of the full tale itself; in his "Translator's Note" Lawrence writes: "In this tale every big situation is burked and the writing is soft. The shattered Iliad yet makes a masterpiece; while the Odyssey by its ease and interest remains the oldest book worth reading for its story and the first novel of Europe... The author misses his every chance of greatness, as must all his faithful translators." The idea of faithfulness is always difficult to define but it is a constant key to the motivating energy with which translators set to their task; I will return to it. The second striking quality of this Odyssey is Lawrence's stated desire to endow the Greek tale with his special knowledges and experiences. He had already prove n his ability to write lively accounts of adventures in his autobiographical report on the years spent in the desert war. In addition, he felt possessed of special insights: "I have hunted wild boars and watched wild lions. Built boats and killed many men. So I have odd knowledges that qualify me to understand the Odyssey, and odd experiences that interpret it to me." How easy it was for Lawrence to accept the offer of Bruce Rogers in l928 to produce a new translation of another great adventure story. As a result he developed certain guidelines in handling Homer's Greek: "Wherever choice offered between a poor and a rich word richness had it, to raise the colour. I have transposed: the order of metrical Greek being unlike plain English... I have been free with moods and tenses; allowed myself to interchange adjective and adverb; and dodged our poverty of preposition, limitations of verb and pronominal vagueness by rearrangement. Still, syntax apart, this is a translation." These alterations are based on a good acquaintance with the Greek text; Lawrence had read Homer in Greek during his school days and was steeped in the Odyssey; a friend, E.F. Hall, reported from their stint at Officer Training Corps camp: "If I remember rightly, it was a copy of the Odyssey carried inside his tunic pocket that was his constant companion." The third distinctive quality, much related in its results to the second, is Lawrence's neglect of Parry's work and its implications. Lawrence is true to his word; he makes choices for variety and colour, while Parry argued for a repetitious smoothness. Freedom in dealing with the oddities of Homeric syntax suits Lawrence's spirit much better.

Finally, Lawrence claims a special knowledge of Homer which he has ferreted out from his spiritual kinship with the Odyssey: "In four years of living with this novel I have tried to deduce the author from his self-betrayal in the work." His deductions are stated with a maddening self-confidence: "I found a bookworm, no longer young, living from home, a mainlander, city-bred and domestic. Married but not exclusively, a dog-lover, often hungry and thirsty, dark-haired. Fond of poetry, a great if uncritical reader of the Iliad, with limited sensuous range but an exact eyesight which gave him all his pictures" and so on. Seldom was Sherlock Holmes more clever. Much of this conglomerate sketch, however, sounds like an Odysseus turned poet -- yet the picture is unfortunately enriched by Lawrence's own inexperience of women which leads him to conclude that Homer had an "infuriating male condescension towards inglorious woman." Thus "Nausicaa ... enters dramatically and shapes, for a few lines, like a woman -- then she fades, unused," and Penelope is reduced to being "the sly cattish wife."

These qualities generate a translation which is, as I have said, the product of one who believes in the worth of the adventure story and is committed to a well-defined image of the author -- presuppositions which agree neither with the reigning view of Homer nor the Odyssey today especially in regard to the important contributions of Milman Parry.

But the major question is how well the translation succeeds. There are admittedly many places where Lawrence's Englishness gets in the way. For example, the Loeb version of I.80-83 is: "The goddess, flashing-eyed Athene, answered him: "Father of us all, though son of Cronos, high above all lords, if indeed this is now well pleasing to the blessed gods, that the wise Odysseus should return to his own home..." Lawrence's version: "Athene, the clear-eyed, the Goddess, answered and said: "Father and Lord of all, Kronides, if indeed the ineffable Gods now judge it fit that prudent Odysseus should return..." The basic content is the same, but (1) Athena is "clear-eyed," as we should all hope, but at the cost of losing her meaningful epithet (at line 44 she was "the goddess of limpid eyes" though the Greek is the same); (2) "fit" replaces "pleasing" with the suggestion that there is a qualifying test rather than a need to appeal to the affections of the gods and "prudent" replaces "wise" as though he is known for his restraint; and (3) the gods have become ineffable (again a failure to repeat the formula used at 45). Such nuances are subtle but they do provide strong color which is blended from the image of Britannia, English military standards, and Victorian religion -- in other words, it derives from Lawrence of Arabia, the committed believer in his special competence to understand the Odyssey. The problems with Lawrence's translation are perhaps best illustrated in this harmless passage, but in other places the values are quite out of kilter especially in Book 6, where Nausicaa seems more royal princess and heiress to the throne than young girl, and Book 8 where Arete is more a congressional investigator.

Given the strong coloration which Lawrence provides to Homer, however, one must praise those passages which gain from his predispositions; such passages occur in strongly male oriented settings and especially where servants are involved. For example, here is Eumaeus (l4. 72-75): "As he was speaking he hitched the slack of his smock quickly into his loin-cord and betook himself to the sties that held the piglet clans. From their mass he chose two young ones for butchery, singeing and chipping them up be fore spitting them to roast" (p. 196). The swiftness of the passage in English conveys this simple action with the right emphasis within its scene even though Lawrence has ignored the parataxis of the original ("he brought them in and slew them both, and singed, and cut them up, and spitted them." Loeb trans.). But of even more importance is the easy choice of words which come from a real kitchen that Lawrence had seen -- these pigs are not "slain" and "cut up"; they are "butchered" and "chipped up". Similarly this description of the dark, foggy night is probably taken from his experience (9. 144-48): "The ground fog shrouded our boats nor could any moon-beam from the sky pierce the lowlying clouds. Wherefore no one of us saw anything of the island, or of the long slow waves rolling unbroken upon its shelving beach" (p. 123f.). And one must admire those famous words of the military hero Achilles which are rendered so powerfully by Lawrence (11.488-91): "Do not make light of Death before me, O shining Odysseus. Would that I were on earth a menial, bound to some insubstantial man who must pinch and scrape to keep alive! Life so were better than King of Kings among these dead men who have had their day and died" (p. 165).

Lawrence is a faithful translator -- but then so are all serious translators, even if they are only faithful to the correctness of the grammar. But there is a whole world which Lawrence admits that he brings to his understanding of Homer. Without awareness of Parry's work and the whole world of oral versemaking which Parry opened as a background for Homeric studies, Lawrence is inevitably off focus in most features of his translation. From his military background and his life in a strange desert world he brought a body of experience and immense enthusiasm which few translators of any author have possessed. When the Homeric scene was fairly congruent with Lawrence's experience, the results bring life to a passage. But when they are not, Lawrence is not beyond pushing Homer and his characters into a mould which can only distort their finer features and impoverish the tale as Homer told it. Essentially Lawrence is faithful to his image of Homer and his understanding of the Odyssey; he is fair enough to explain these biases clearly in his translator's note.

Bernard Knox's excellent Introduction to the translation deals with many matters about Lawrence and other translators. I have not had to compare his Odyssey with other prose translations, especially Rieu's, because Knox has done this well.

Lawrence's translation is spirited -- but a reader must like that spirit; at the very least it is a wonderful curiosity, well produced in this new publication.