BMCR 2000.07.06

Homer, Odyssey. Introduction by Sheila Murnaghan

, Homer, Odyssey. Introduction by Sheila Murnaghan. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett, 2000. lxiii, 414. $9.95 (pb).

Both Samuel Clemens and Henry James were invited to Bryn Mawr College on separate occasions to lecture before graduating students. During his visit, James delivered a diatribe against the shifting idioms of the English language in America, his lecture suggestively entitled “The Question of Our Speech.” Clemens, by contrast and against his daughter’s wish, chose to tell a story in dialect much like the idiomatic gaming of blackface minstrelsy. Despite their proximity in cultural history, literary critics rarely situate these two authors side by side; perhaps this story about their different address to the women of Bryn Mawr College tells us why. Yet, like so many others, such critical segregation is arguably a mistake, particularly when we consider how both authors give artistic expression throughout their careers to the traumas devastating the structures of power and freedom in the aftermath of war. And both men, like Freud soon to follow, found the “question” of our speech, however halting and various in its patterning, to be the royal highway to these traumas.

With its excellent introduction by Sheila Murnaghan, this new translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Stanley Lombardo highlights the value of such shifting speech patterns for the painful reconstructions after war. It does so by deploying a familiar range of colloquial and idiomatic phrases now naturalized in the speech of many English-speaking Americans, notably those of us who have been teaching the Odyssey to undergraduates during the twenty-five year aftermath of the Vietnam war.

Here, at last, we have an Athena willing to tell Telemachus “to stop acting like a child” (1.313-314). Emboldened by a mentor, this Telemachus warns the suitors that “things have gone too far” (2.68). Proving his status as one of the “arrogant bastards”(2.289) Antinous bullies Telemachus by insisting that he’s “got some nerve” (2.93). Indeed, it is common for Lombardo’s Antinous to dismiss what he considers inappropriate behavior by asking “are you crazy?” (4.831). No surprise then that Polyphemus calls Odysseus “dumb” (9.265) for expecting gifts from the Cyclopes. And after Hermes reminds Calypso of Zeus’ aegis (confiding “you know how it is” [5.103]), the Ogygian goddess assures Odysseus that her “heart is in the right place” (5.189) when questioned about her decision to send the poor man home.

In this world, Menelaus knows that Telemachus is “not just anybody” (4.68) though it is his wife Helen who always speaks her mind first and “ha[s] other ideas” (4.231) when Telemachus begs for rest. Nausicaa, who tells her mules to “giddyup”(6.82) also “ha[s] other things on her mind” (6.258) when Odysseus asks for an envoy to her father. Told the protective lie that it was Odysseus who held back from walking to the palace with his daughter, Alcinous calls Odysseus “my kind of man” (7.334).

Of course, Athena herself is said to have “had another idea” (18.200) on numerous occasions, notably when Penelope declines to freshen up for her taunting appearance before the suitors. In this universe, Athena jostles her father from indulgent reveries of Aegisthus by saying “It’s Odysseus I’m worried about” (1.53). In the same direct way, Athena assures Telemachus that there is “no way in the world” that Odysseus is dead (1.213).

Throughout this poet’s song, ocean storms whipped by an angry Poseidon are called “tsunamis” and disgruntled crew members complain that “this guy [Odysseus] gets everything” (10. 45). With a little help from Athena, the poet/translator Stanley Lombardo makes sure that Odysseus “gets” still more when hailed as a “walking pile of shit” (17.238) and accused of never having “done a hard day’s work in his life” (17.247). Later, of course, Odysseus has an opportunity to “separate the men from the boys” (22.5) by killing Antinous and shouting “you’re a dead man” to a weaseling Leodes (22.347). Odysseus seems to enjoy calling his father an “old-timer” and complaining about his “unwashed, scruffy” appearance (24.256), but relents after witnessing his father’s painful reaction to his never-ending lies. After a battle run amuck with blood, broken dishes and dramatically kicked furniture, Zeus hints that the families of the suitors might be made to forget the slaughter: this suggestion is “all Athena needed to hear” (24.507) before her final appearance as Mentor in voice and form.

One of Lombardo’s characters might say “Well, you get the idea.” Such phrases appear on every page. Why does Lombardo work this way? In his delightful postscript he reveals his wish, as translator of both the Iliad and the Odyssey, to lock “eyebrows with Homer” (382) and to honor the way “we remember our own voice as the poet’s” (383). Even in my brief account, one can see how Lombardo weaves his cherished idioms into important patterns of repetition and transformation so familiar to the telling of the Odyssey. And the words of Lombardo are borne out, for this process puts “emphasis on the physicality, rapidity, and suppleness of the verse” and provides “varied treatment of epithets and formulae,” often “highlighting their effect as poetic events” (383). Above all, such familiar phrases serve to remind us of the oral character of the original Odyssey, providing the reader with an uncanny immediacy and relevance.

I say all of this as one who cannot comment upon the relationship of this text to the “original”, in this instance the text from which Lombardo himself worked, the Greek text of W.B. Stanford, The Odyssey, 2nd edition, London and New York, 1967 (itself based on T.W. Allen’s Oxford Classical Text). Instead I am one of the veterans of the world of the Odyssey who has been teaching from translation to translation, notably the texts of Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald. As such, I always engage students in translation’s power over our sense of Homer’s voice and vision by providing them with parallel translations of separate scenes. Despite the obvious limitation of this method (I am not a Classicist), I have sometimes found my blinded position productive; in noting the shifts from one translation to another I base my preference both on an attentive consideration of artistic touches and on the yearning which emerges as those touches disappear. Often when I find myself missing something from an earlier translation I run to my colleague Joe Russo for a conversation about the change, and we have a wonderful time trying to capture between us the spirit of the song that I can never fully see or hear.1 This vain effort to hug the flesh and blood of the original is the situation of so many of our students. Along with me, most students have agreed that the shift from the Lattimore to the Fitzgerald (and now the Lombardo) creates a larger Odyssey because it opens to view perhaps the most important element of translation, the shade of the untranslatable peering out from each.

To situate my review, then, I want first to show the way that the Lombardo actually restored certain key patterns which were lost to me and my students when I started teaching the Fitzgerald after the Lattimore translation. To take just one example, I missed the slow repetition and transformation of the phrase “did he ever live” in the Lattimore, spoken first by Telemachus (15.268) then Penelope (19.315) and finally Laertes (24.289) when asked to think about Odysseus, sometimes by his invitation. In Fitzgerald, Telemachus does not use this phrase, perhaps because he is not talking with Odysseus, and Penelope, albeit in the beggar’s presence, simply asks “did I dream him”(19.374), leaving only the father to wonder out loud if his son “indeed existed” (24.316).2 I was originally teaching the Lattimore at Reed College in their Humanities program and I found the slight variation of the haunting question in Lattimore’s Odyssey to be a useful guide to the problematic but resonating historical issues raised by the poem. I remember telling the students that my world had been the world of the Iliad (with Vietnam), while their world would be the more difficult world of the Odyssey (though I knew it would be mine as well). I was particularly concerned to show how this doubting refrain of the Odyssey, so tied up with the questions of identity throughout that epic, could recall Lattimore’s decision in the Iliad to have Helen ask (of the entire Trojan war and her terrible role in it) “did this ever happen?” (3.180). The enigmatic questions weaving in and out of both epics culminated, I thought, in the work of the Odyssey, resonating as well for the world of my students, particularly as promptings to experience and identity in a post-traumatic setting.

Lombardo tells us that, with the guidance of Johnathan Shay, he did incorporate the language and behavior of combat veterans. With this attentiveness to trauma, it is perhaps no wonder that he decides to include these repeating involuntary questions in his Odyssey, giving the same line (“If he ever existed”) to Telemachus (15.295) and Penelope (19.347), and only a slight variation to Laertes, who wonders in the presence of Odysseus, “If I ever had a son” (24. 294). In its attentiveness to the post-traumatic stresses of war, including the phantasmagoric register of conviction and its loss on the domestic front, Lombardo’s is an Odyssey for our time.

Of course, it is equally important to observe how, in reading the Lombardo, I noticed certain turns from material upon which I had begun to rely in my teaching of Fitzgerald’s Odyssey. I found the description of Penelope and Odysseus finally going to bed to be far less satisfying than the poetic phrasing “So they came / into that bed so steadfast, loved of old, / opening glad arms to one another (23.331-333) of Fitzgerald. However loyal to the “original” voice of Homer “And they went with joy to their bed / And to their rituals of old” (23.302-303) are lines that simply do not provide the same exquisite (because so long deferred) gratification. I also missed the edginess of Fitzgerald’s handling of the scene in Book 4 when Helen and Menelaus struggle before Telemachus to describe their relationship to Odysseus at Troy. In Lombardo’s scene, Menelaus appears much more consoling, less catty in his response to Helen’s equally problematic story. I also missed Fitzgerald’s deft handling of the moment in Book 11 when Alcinous, no doubt tired of hearing about all of the famous women Odysseus saw in the underworld, demands to hear about his “companions/ who sailed with [him] and met their doom at Troy” (11.430-431).

In Lombardo’s speech, Alcinous is far too gracious, telling Odysseus “Your words have outward grace and wisdom within,/ And you have told your tale with the skill of a bard —/ All that the Greeks and you yourself have suffered. But tell me this, as accurately as you can:/ Did you see any of your godlike comrades/ Who went with you to Troy and met their fate there?” (11.377-382). In the words of Fitzgerald’s Alcinous, there is more distrust of the bard and a familiar emphasis on the tension between political prowess and poetic speech, even as that tension is contained in the moment of its expression. Thus Fitzgerald writes: “You speak with art, but your intent is honest./ The Argive troubles, and your own troubles,/ you told as a poet would, a man who knows the world./ But now come tell me this: among the dead/ did you meet any of your peers?” (11.427-431). Perhaps most of all, I missed the freedom Fitzgerald took when Odysseus gives his name as “Quarrelman” to his grieving father, adding “I come from Rover’s Passage where my home is/ and I’m King Allwoes’ only son” (24.334-336). Like Lattimore, Lombardo returns to the more conservative (though no doubt more “accurate”) lines “I come from Alybas and have my home there. / I’m the son of Apheidas and Polypemon’s grandson. My name is Eperitus” (24.312-315).

Yet even as these shifts remove a register of the Odyssey upon which I had begun to rely, there emerged in the Lombardo still more wonderful moments for establishing a productive conversation with my students. For example, a significant change takes place when Lombardo decides to have Odysseus tell Polyphemus that his name is “Noman.” At first I found this jarring, expecting the familiar “Nobody” of both Lattimore and Fitzgerald. Yet as the scene unfolds, the patterning of the idiomatic speech makes it work: as Odysseus sails away and thinks to blurt out his real name, his men plead with him “Don’t do it, man!” (9.493). For the modern reader, the crisp familiarity of that phrase lends the crew members a flash of insight, establishing an important identification as well. Don’t do it, man, could be the reader’s mantra throughout.

By far the most intriguing aspect of this translation is Lombardo’s decision to set apart the epic similes by displacing them from the flow of the poetic line and highlighting that displacement by using italics. Here too the process feels like a pedagogical tool designed to make students more aware of Homer’s device in the poem. Yet something valuable happens over the course of their increasing displacement in our reading. By the time Eumaeus greets a returning Telemachus in the presence of his real father (though disguised), the pathos of the idiomatic “Papa” used by Telemachus in his embrace of Eumaeus is deeply enriched by the ironic character of the simile Homer chooses to describe the encounter. ” And as a loving father embraces his own son / Come back from a distant land after ten long years,/ His only son, greatly beloved and much sorrowed for —” (16.19-21). By displacing his similes throughout the poem, Lombardo allows them to resemble traumatic aftermath, at once highlighting the double-consciousness of intense experience and displaying how such experience is sometimes healed through the temporal delays of analogy. Here, of course, the seductive value of the simile is enriched by the contagious ironies spreading to contain at once the loving bond of Eumaeus and Telemachus, the pathos of Odysseus’ restraint as he witnesses that bond, and the residual yearning Eumaeus no doubt experiences in the boy’s longing to hug his own flesh and blood.

For me the most powerful effect of splitting these Homeric similes off from the casual flow of the poetic line resides in the type of traumatic insight they provide. These similes always had that power, of course, but their distinctive and fragmentary appearance on the page allows them to fly into our consciousness like the involuntary and intrusive flashbacks of sublime and traumatic experience. The point is that Lombardo works with Homer like a good analyst to show how these intrusive lines can sometimes be woven again into the fabric of the world they appear to displace through attentive listening and analysis. How else to read the amazing moment when Odysseus asks the bard in the palace of Alcinous to recount the tale of the Trojan horse, itself a product of his own metis, as Sheila Murnaghan so skillfully reminds us in her insightful introduction. In Muraghan’s wonderful reading, this request sets up the recitation of an “alternative Iliad“, one showing how the victory in Troy is less a result of the might of Achilles than it is with the brilliance of Odysseus. In my view, this powerful reading is enhanced by the displacement of the poetic simile describing the involuntary response Odysseus cannot mask as he listens to Demodocus:

A woman wails as she throws herself upon
Her husband’s body. He has fallen in battle
Before the town walls, fighting to the last
To defend his city and protect his children.
As she sees him dying and gasping for breath
She clings to him and shrieks, while behind her
Soldiers prod their spears into her shoulders and back,
And as they lead her away into slavery
Her tear-drenched face is a mask of pain
So too Odysseus, pitiful in his grief. (8.564-575)

Murnaghan tells us that the tears of Odysseus, here compared to those of the “war’s most wretched survivor” (xxiii) show how enclosed he remains in the world of pain and deferred pleasure. I would add that the “alternative Iliad” setting the scene for the abrupt irruption of this pain encourages us to imagine a type of alternative Odyssey as well. The “ethic of similitude” (xlix) being played out here is one that offers insight into the traumatic experience Odysseus cannot yet work through. It reveals to us the untranslatable enigmas of experience at the heart of the Odyssey itself.

Sophisticated theorists find an association between translation and the healing work of psychoanalysis and argue that the drive to translate is not recoverable in the meaning of the original but in the power of that which remains untranslatable there.3 This is another way of saying that the most powerful imperative of translation is that which hovers unthought in the original. The wonderful and abrupt figuration of Odysseus as a woman at the traumatic center of war returns us to the question of our speech and its role in cultural crisis. In the end, the promise of such a moment in Lombardo’s epic derives from the untranslatable possibility of freedom and peace already haunting the traumatic figures and questions throughout Homer’s speech.


1. Alas, Russo was on leave as I wrote this review, so we did not have a chance to consult on the Lombardo text.

2. This phrase is itself a nice reflection of the slightly more prominent role of dreams in the Fitzgerald text. I’m thinking particularly of the Seirenes’ song in book 12, when Fitzgerald ends with “No life on earth can be / Hid from our dreaming” (244-245).

3. One of the most provocative theorists is Jean Laplanche, whom I quote here. “To make come to oneself or to head out towards the other? Is there a third option: to prolong the movement forward? In any case, this is the option proposed by [Walter] Benjamin, according to which authentic translation ought to be nothing but a moment in the very after-life of the work; the Trieb zur Übersetzung (the drive to translate) doesn’t come from the translator, but from the work itself” (202). Also note: “The obligation to translate, its inevitable Trieb (drive), doesn’t come from meaning; the drive to translate … comes more from the untranslatable. Once more, it’s an obligation that does not come from the receiver. It’s an imperative which is brought to him by the work itself. It’s a categorical imperative: ‘you must translate because it is untranslatable'”. (Jean Laplanche, “The Wall and the Arcade”, Seduction, Translation, Drives, trans. Martin Stanton, ed. John Fletcher [London: Institute of Contemporary Arts, 1992] 202).