Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.1.9


Robert Fagles (trans.), The Odyssey, with an Introduction and notes by Bernard Knox. New York: Viking, 1996. Pp. 541. $35.00 (hb). ISBN 0-670-82162-4. Penguin Audiobooks version, read by Ian McKellen, unabridged, 18 hours on 9 cassettes. $45.95. ISBN: 0-14-08643-0-X.


Reviewed by David R. Slavitt, University of Pennsylvania, slavitt@mail.med.upenn.edu.

One may as well begin at the beginning, because that's the section everybody knows. It is likely, moreover, to be one of those passages with which the translator took the greatest pains, knowing that first impressions count for a lot with editors, reviewers, and, eventually, readers. Homer may nod now and then, but not in the first dozen lines. Here is how Robert Fagles starts out on his Odyssey:

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 bringing 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 the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will sing for our time too.
The first thing to notice is how Fagles has found a voice that is at once stately and natural. The dangers are absurd pomposity on the one hand, an overbearing kind of Hollywood-epic orotundity, and, on the other, a too colloquial folksiness. One wants elevation but of a tolerable kind. And with that balance, which is not at all easy to find and maintain, Fagles succeeds wonderfully well. Compare these first few lines with the Robert Fitzgerald version with which most of us have been comfortable for a generation:
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.

He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.

Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.
It's appealing, sometimes striking ("took from their eyes the dawn of their return" is elegantly done). But ... "townlands?" And, at this point, the Helios marked with a circumflex seems just a bit mannered. In old movies we see the fins on those cars of the sixties and wonder what we could have been thinking about. Some of Fitzgerald's orthographic eccentricities now seem willful and quaint. Kalypso? Kyklopes? Why not go the whole hog and do "Kalupso," for that matter?

These are trivial niggling objections, but a translation is a series of small decisions, some of them conscious, most of them not. The English text is an expression of the sensibility and taste of the translator whose take on the original depends on his talents as a reader and whose expression of that take are limited or enabled by his talets as a writer. The odd thing is that a reader who is too adept may find himself getting in his own way as a writer. Fitzgerald, for instance, may well have been considering that astea has a certain grandeur to it. (Athens and Rome were astea.) So he wanted to suggest a central town or citadel with its surrounding dependencies. But this may be more than we need to know at this juncture. And "townlands" is so weird as to be distracting.

Fagles has put a different spin on the Greek. What the text says, literally, is "Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose minds he learned," but by taking a liberty and turning it to "Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds," he loosens his hold a little on Homer's syntax because it feels quirky in English and goes with the dramatic sequence you see the cities first, after all, and then you meet the men, and then you learn their minds.

Fagles is well aware of the chewiness of Homer, or, as he puts it with rather more elegance, "his blend of mass and movement both his lines have so much body or ongkos yet so much grace and speed." But to try to imitate that paradoxical quality too closely is to betray the poem. A translator has to be aware of it, has to have it in his mind and, more important, his nerve endings, but then has to write as clearly and as directly as he knows how to do. "I have tried," Fagles says in his Translator's Postscript, "to make my own lines as momentarily end-stopped, and yet as steadily ongoing too, as English syntax and the breathing marks of punctuation will allow. My hope has been that each turn in the verse might mark a fresh beginning, moving toward a fresh conclusion, turning and returning, like a version in minuscule of a familiar Odyssean rhythm."

Again, comparing the two versions, the way Fagles ends that first paragraph is altogether admirable. "Launch out on his story, Muse," is not quite an interpolation, but one can make a case for it. At any rate, it is in character for Homer and in harmony with Fagles' vision of the poem. It also compels the emphasis he wants and it pays off in the absolute authority of that "sing for our time too." This is where the reader begins to trust him, to put down the critical weaponry, and to allow himself to read in innocence and eagerness.

Fitzgerald's space before that second invocation to the Muse seems wrong to me, a little stagy, and his version of these lines does not achieve the same grand resonance. For the long wait for his verb there is no real reward or surprise, and "lift" seems tame beside that "Launch" at the beginning of Fagles' sentence. Beginningness is the basic idea here, anyway. Yield to it. Go with it. It's a nervy thing to do, and if Fitzgerald's refinement got in his way, Fagles' more energetic approach is hardly crude or vulgarizing.

The other standard translation is Richmond Lattimore's, which is in hexameters and is often dismissed for that reason. Hexameters in English? The main difficulty seems to me to be that modern readers of English have trouble counting to six, but the undertaking impressed me with its decorum when I first encountered it thirty years ago. And it holds up remarkably well:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.
The way Lattimore contrives that enormous stress from the placement of "fools" seems to me altogether admirable. Fagles can't trust his variable line lengths to do this for him and he has to throw in an adjective and make it "blind fools" which is better than nothing, but less efficient and dexterous than what one gets out of the supple regularity of the hexameter line. Fitzgerald's "children and fools" avoids the adjective but only by introducing a superfluous noun. On the other hand, Fagles' "man of twists and turns" strikes me as a clearer and livelier way of rendering "polutropon" than either Fitzgerald's "skilled in all ways of contending" or Lattimore's accurate but unexciting "man of many ways."

The craftiness of the Lattimore is subtle and self-effacing as with his rendition of the Greek in "Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of," which brings "pollon d' anthropon iden astea kai noon egno" quite naturally and effortlessly into English words and, more important, English syntax. That sinewy quality of Lattimore's is what I have always loved.

None of these versions is bad. Fagles' Odyssey has one shrewd and inventive solution after another, illuminating the poem for us and making our reading of it richer and more resonant which is all one can ask even of the ideal translator. His decision to use a Poundian line of varying quantity makes his Homer sound like a modern poet, which is a reasonable thing to do. If Pound didn't invent the modern idiom, he was present at the creation. And Fagles is comfortable with it. Here is Fagles' version of the famous piece from Pound's first canto:

But look, the ghost
of my mother came, my mother, dead and gone now ... [his ellipsis]
Anticleia, daughter of that great heart, Autolycus,
whom I had left alive when I sailed for sacred Troy.
I broke into tears to see here there, but filled with pity,
even throbbing with grief, I would not let her ghost
approach the blood till I had questioned Tiresias myself.

At last he came. The shade of the famous Theban prophet,
holding a golden scepter, knew me at once and hailed me:
'Royal son of Laertes, Odysseus, master of exploits,
man of pain, what now, what brings you here,
forsaking the light of day
to see this joyless kingdom of the dead:
Stand back from the trench put up your sharp sword
so I can drink the blood and tell you all the truth.'
This is very fine and I can think of no greater praise than to say it holds up to lines that have been in my head for forty years:
And Anticlea came, whom I beat off, and then Tiresieas Theban,
Holding his golden wand, knew me, and spoke first:
'A second time? why? man of ill star,
'Facing the sunless dead and this joyless region?
Stand from the fosse, leave me my bloody bever
'For soothsay.'
It's breathtaking, and the only way to get there is to be utterly reckless and shameless. That last line and a half with "fosse" and "bever" and "For soothsay" is sheer mania, and sheer genius. But even though Fagles is not a maniac, his version seems by no means shabby.

The real issue, for me, is his decision not to use the hexameter line Lattimore worked with. Those hexameters do leave Homer at some remoteness to our present moment, but that seems to me agreeable. (Or it may be that I like this version best because it was the one I encountered first and the one to which I have returned most frequently. Certainly, it was what I had in mind when I undertook the Metamorphoses in English hexameters. I had no question about the feasibility of such an undertaking. And I welcomed the constraint for what it did to the texture of the verse.)

Along with the book, which is quite handsomely produced and comes with sensible notes and a graceful and helpful introduction by Bernard Knox, there is the set of cassette tapes in which, after some spooky movie music from Julia Wolfe, Ian McKellen reads the entire text at what seems to me a rather too rapid tempo. I found it difficult to listen to except with the text in hand. McKellen wants perhaps to get it all into the eighteen hours? Or he wants to show off how clear his diction can be even at that brisk clip? At any rate, he enjambs everything, and it is possible to imagine hexameters, albeit at some remove, so that one reconstructs the poem more or less like this:

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 bringing 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
the day of their return. Launch out on his story,
Muse, daughter of Zeus, start from where you will
sing for our time too.
This is not in Fagles' text although these are the same words in the same order. But even with only a little real Homer in mind, something like this is what one is likely to translate McKellen's Fagles into. And I confess that I like some of the things that happen, as for instance the way "the blind fools" an appositive at the end of the line, gets the contemptuous throw-away spin that "nepioi" has, deferred as it is to the beginning of the next line in the original.

I never really cared for the Fitzgerald. It is too smooth and slick, which are qualities that make his Aeneid so good, because Virgil is a suave, smooth poet. Fagles awareness of Homer's grace and ongkos (body? lumpiness, even!) is such that he gives us a plausible epic, persuasive, engaging, and resonant. He deserves congratulations and thanks.