Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.06.42

Rodney Merrill (trans.), The Odyssey of Homer. With introductions by Thomas R. Walsh and Rodney Merrill.   Ann Arbor:  The University of Michigan Press, 2002.  Pp. viii, 421.  ISBN 0-472-08854-8.  $27.95 (pb).  ISBN 0-472-00305-4.  $57.50 (cassettes).  

Reviewed by Stephen Evans, University of Turku (
Word count: 1910 words

This new English translation of the Odyssey by Rodney Merrill (henceforth M.) is prefaced by two substantial essays. The first, entitled 'The Odyssey: The Tradition, the Singer, the Performance' is by the translator together with Thomas Walsh. The second is M.'s own essay on 'Translating Homeric Song'. There are also three maps, a bibliography and at the end of the book a list of proper names in the Odyssey. There is also an audiobook available on twelve cassettes recorded by M. The whole enterprise is a very bold and ambitious project deserving far more than 'the scorn of the critics' that M. fears he may incur.

M. sets out his ideology in his introductory essay. It is essential to read and reread this essay to fully understand all that M. has set out to do. M. aims strictly to adhere to the use of dactylic hexameters, the metre 'by which the formulaic language of Homeric poetry is rendered as musical phrasing rather than as a simple repetition of ideas'. This version claims 'to recapture the oral-formulaic experience as never before'. Although it has often been translated, the author argues that earlier and current versions of the poem do not give the reader the full sense of its oral epic nature and that reading this version -- especially aloud -- will grant both students and teachers fresh insight into the nature of Greek epic. M.'s cassettes will have to compete with Ian McKellen's recordings of Fagles' translation of the Odyssey. Interestingly M. sides with Taplin in advocating six performance sessions of four books per session. He aims to reproduce the hexameter line, complete with foot division, caesura and dieresis, though he is aware how the natural stress of English may differ from metrical stress. I select the following line to illustrate M.'s craft (6,137): 'Dreadful he seemed to their eyes, made filthy and foul by the sea-foam.' A more clumsy example would be 20,109: 'Now were the others asleep, since they were through grinding their wheat meal.'

M. started this work in Lisbon, Portugal in 1977 'with not much else to do and nobody to tell me I was mad'. Since the rhythm of the verse is a primary consideration in this version, M. has, following Fitzgerald, used accents on any transliterated Greek names that might cause problems in reading aloud. The English spelling of ancient Greek names was not a problem at all for Shakespeare, Milton, Pope and Tennyson as they simply used the Latin equivalents of Greek names. Recent poet-translators have tried to get closer to the original Greek and have transliterated the Greek names directly. The book ends with a complete catalogue of the proper names in the Odyssey. M. uses an acute accent for major stress in a word and a grave accent over a final 'e' denoting that it is to be read as an unstressed syllable, e.g. Alkándrè. M.'s system of accents then goes further than Fitzgerald's. Indeed the Phaeacian (Phaiákian) family consists of Arétè, Alkínoös, Náusikaä, and grandfathers Nausíthoös and Rhexénor. Other significant names are Aphrodítè, Perséphonè, Circë, Kaly/pso, Lampétiè. Amongst the suitors we find (22,242-243) 'also Eury/nomos, Démoptólemos, and Amphidédon, / talented Pólybos too, and Peisander the son of Poly/ktor.' This is then a genuine attempt to encourage the reader to pronounce Greek names with the correct stress.

The introductory discussions alone are more valuable than those in Lombardo (the whole work was reviewed by Zwarg BMCR 2000.07.06), Fagles (reviewed by Slavitt BMCR 1997.01.09), Lattimore, Fitzgerald, the Rieus, Shewring (who appends a useful epilogue on translation) or Hammond (reviewed by Goldstein BMCR 2001.08.39), though Cook includes complete essays, to which M. acknowledges his debt. M. takes an opposite stance on translation to that of Shewring and takes issue with Ezra Pound's injunction to 'make it new'. M. then goes on to condemn the versions of most recent translators in which they attempt to bring the language close to the presumed literary tastes of contemporary readers. He claims to have achieved Homeric directness, to have avoided archaising but admits to having condoned inverted syntax in his translation. Shewring on the other hand maintains that the great and continued influence of a new school of poets, notably Ezra Pound and Eliot, has led many to take the view that poetry ought to keep the words and word-order of common speech with no archaisms, no inversions and rely for its effect on freshness of imagery and rhythm, on the sequences and concentrations of thought.

M. is intent on turning the clock back from Lombardo, Logue, Pound and Eliot. The result is startling and at times very successful. M.'s style reminds me of Crudden's translation of the Homeric Hymns (Evans BMCR 2002.03.33). M. gladly acknowledges his debt to earlier commentators and translators: while the text is that of Stanford, his most constant companions among the translations have been those of A.T. Murray, revised by George E. Dimock in the Loeb series, Albert Cook, valuable for its literalness, and Richmond Lattimore. M. has striven to render the music and the nobility of Homer, erring at times in the side of an Authorised Version Klang in the language.

M.'s version is close to the Greek, sometimes even extending to grammatical incoherence. Take for example 10,13 'Theirs was the city to which we came, and the beautiful houses.' In the original, 'the city' and 'the beautiful houses' are together at the end of the line. M. has compounded syntactical incoherence here. In the Cyclops' famous speech to his ram, the first word emphasis of 'last' and 'evening' are well represented (9,447-448): 'Dear old ram, why thus are you leaving the cave, I wonder,/last of the flock,' where ὕστατος is rendered with exact emphasis. Compare 9,451-452: 'and first you were eager to come back here to the fold when/evening came' where ἑσπέριος is nicely stressed and positioned at the beginning of the line.

This brings out the extreme meticulous literalness of M.'s translation. I confess that I have not heard the tapes, but I expect that ending the line with a preposition or a possessive adjective would not matter when the text is read out aloud. Rather than cite the opening of book one, I quote a rather dramatic section to illustrate enjambment (18,79-88):

'So having spoken to them, he drew his keen sword from the scabbard,
bronze, well whetted on both of its edges, and leapt at the other
yelling a terrible yell; at the same time, noble Odysseus
shot off an arrow and struck him square in the chest by the nipple,
driving the shaft into the liver; and out of his hand he
cast his sword to the ground, as he sprawled out over the table,
doubled up falling in death, on the ground thus spilling the victuals,
also the two-handled goblets; the earth he beat with his forehead,
racked by the pain in his breast; then, kicking with both of his feet, he
set the chair shaking, and over his eyes death-mist came pouring.'

This passage well illustrates M.'s style. He can put even the subject of the verb, adjectives, or even personal pronouns at the end of the line, leading of course to enjambment often mimicking the Greek. This is presumably to keep the dactylic rhythm at any expense. The first example in the entire book is 1,33-34: 'when they of themselves by/their mad recklessness'. The next is 1,59-60 'Yet even for this no/care is your heart now taking, Olympian.' M. will allow the following word-order: adverb, subject, adverbial phrase, object, verb. Equally we find object, subject, verb as in 1,132: 'Nearby, his own painted chair he set.' Or 5,111 'him however the wind and the waves bore, bringing him hither.' Or 15,135 'Hand-washing water a maid then carried to them in a lovely gold-wrought pitcher.'

The front cover illustration is of a stamnos depicting Odysseus tied to the mast of his boat listening to the Sirens' songs. Since the enchantment of language is one of Thomas Walsh's key themes, this passage is worth visiting: 'Come to us here, the Achaians' renown, much honored Odysseus,/drawing the ship right in, so that you to our voices may listen.' At the end of the sentence, the subject 'you' is directly followed by the indirect object 'to our voices', thus jolting the Sirens' seduction. Stock epithets present a problem for the translator: M. has felicitously at 4,390 'fish-thronged' (cp. 'fish-cold' Fitzgerald, 'fish-filled' Hammond and Murray, 'fish-laden' Cook, 'teeming' Rieu, Lombardo and Shewring, 'where the fish swarm' Lattimore), at 1,92 (repeated e.g. at 4.320) 'thick-thronged sheep and swing-paced, crooked-horned cattle', at 3,189 'greathearted Achilles', at 17, 560 'much-suffering, noble Odysseus', 'steadfast-hearted Odysseus', at 20,75 'Zeus the great thunderbolt-hurler', and at 11,424 'bitch-eyed woman'. Sometimes M. errs towards the archaic as in 7,73 'since no whit is she wanting in excellent judgment and wisdom.'

Indeed, M. wishes to stress the precise formulaic echoes in Homer, proposing 'heavy hitter', 'worthy colleague' and 'bed of roses' as English equivalents of formulae and having double-checked lines from Dunbar's Concordance to ensure exact repetition where it occurs in the Greek in contrast to Lombardo who deliberately translates the famous 'dawn' line in several different ways. M. has a standard version ' Soon as the Dawn shone forth rose-fingered at earliest daybreak.'

M. is a poet-translator or rather 'oral epic poet-translator' in the modern market to be compared to Fitzgerald, Fagles, Lombardo, though Greek students will have Rieu, Shewring, Hammond and Murray at their elbow too. M. stresses oral-poetic performance, readability, metric equivalence and musical phrasing. In justifying a new translation of this most-translated poem, he appeals to antiquity, monumentality, and epicness since, as Steiner points out, every new translation of Homer literally competes with existing versions. Reading this version--especially aloud--will grant both students and teachers fresh insight into the nature of Greek epic. As such, its meter allows for pleasing variations with a strong basic 'beat', thus providing a rhythmic impetus that carries the story swiftly forward. It should be borne in mind, however, line-for-line translations in the metre of the original have been attempted before, e.g. H.B. Cotterill in 1911. That version has not proved to have been very successful. The resulting 'music' should indeed have important repercussions for the reader's perception of the many repeated elements that provide structure for the poem and bring out significant themes, just as the repetitions in a piece of music do. M.'s biblical vocabulary nevertheless jars at times, upsetting this music.

Recent debates over canon-formation, authorship, reception and translation have sought to redefine the 'classical' by investigating the institutional, cultural and political processes through which it is constructed. Translation is one such process. It not only attests to the timeless value of classical works, it also adapts, transforms and manipulates them in accordance with changing priorities in taste, culture, morality and politics: witness recent translations into Korean (Oditseia, 1993), Hebrew (Odysea, 1996), and Arabic (Al-Udissah, 2000). Translations have not merely reproduced a predefined classical canon but have actively built this canon, by bestowing on certain works the status and qualities of a classic. M.'s contribution is a significant new addition to the vast library of English translations of the Odyssey.

Whether or not this newcomer is 'perfect for the car or classroom' or 'ideal for students, teachers and general readers', it is a very laudable achievement that will certainly whet the listener's and the reader's appetite to go back to the Greek to spot the rhythmic richness, verbal resonances and energetic sweep of the lines.

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