BMCR 2001.08.39

Homer: The Odyssey

, Homer: The Odyssey. London: Duckworth, 2000. xxvi + 290. $17.95.

H.’s new prose translation of the Odyssey offers readers a complementary volume to his successful 1987 Penguin edition of the Iliad. The book includes a brief preface by H. himself, an introductory essay by Jasper Griffin, and an index of names and places. H. does not state explicitly the type of reader for whom the edition is designed, but it is best suited to the casual reader or the student coming to Homer for the first time. The latter is particularly well served by Griffin’s essay, which is an excellent introduction to Homeric poetry. H. also includes a note on the text that he uses (Allen’s OCT) and lists the points at which he diverges—information incongruous with the non-academic atmosphere of the book but useful for students studying the original Greek and using his translation as an aid. In general, students dislike using prose translations as an aid because they often do not provide running line numbers (e.g., Shewring’s edition), which makes working from the English to the Greek unbearably tedious; H., however, has done a remarkable job of providing running line numbers and keeping his lines in rough accord with the Greek verse. One unfortunate omission, for any level of reader, is that of maps. In a poem in which geography (and confused geography at that) plays an integral role in the narrative, it is essential to understand where various cities and peoples are located. The only help available is found in the index, where brief descriptions of places are given.

H.’s preface begins with the dictum traditore traduttore. Too often students who read foreign literature believe that translations differ only slightly from the original work, so his brief discussion on the vast difference between Greek and English is welcome. To justifiy his decision to translate an epic poem into prose, H. opines that “prose is now the natural medium for narrative, if it is to be read: and prose can have both power and charm” (p. vii). The second part of his argument is undoubtedly true, but the first is wanting: is the translator of Homer responsible for carrying over nothing more than the Muse’s narrative? Moreover, considering that bookstores on either side of the Atlantic are fraught with both verse and prose translations of Homer,1 one wonders why a new edition of the Odyssey is needed at all. H. answers this question by arguing that Lattimore’s versions have a “craggy integrity” and a “distinctive ‘voice'” (p.vii). This may be true (especially in the case of the Lattimore’s Odyssey, which is inferior to his Iliad), but it ignores the remaining slew of widely used translations on the market.

The proem of H.’s translation is presented below, followed by those of other translations (I offer brief comments on the former, but not, for reasons of space, the latter):

Muse, tell me of a man: a man of much resource, who was made to wander far and long, after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy. Many were the men whose lands he saw and came to know their thinking: many too the miseries at sea which he suffered in his heart, as he sought to win his own life and the safe return of his companions. But even so, for all his efforts, he could not save his companions. They perished through their own arrant folly—the fools, they ate the cattle of Hyperion the Sun, and he took away the day of their return. Start the story where you will, goddess, daughter of Zeus, and share it now with us.

The clarity of H.’s translation deserves high praise—especially since he maintains it throughout the entire work. Lucidity is due in part to his sound use of pause and punctuation: H. keeps a tight control on sentence and colon length, and the relatively short clauses endow his prose with a punchy, rapid force. Also remarkable is his ability to preserve pauses found in the original Greek, for the breaks after “Muse, tell me of a man” and “the fools” reflect actual caesurae.

We notice immediately the difference in rhythm and tone when we compare the 1913 translation of Butcher and Lang:

Tell me, Muse, of that man, so ready at need, who wandered far and wide, after he had sacked the sacred citadel of Troy, and many were the men whose towns he saw and whose mind he learnt, yea, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the deep, striving to win his own life and the return of his company. Nay, but even so he saved not his company, though he desired it sore. For through the blindness of their own hearts they perished, fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios Hyperion: but the god took from their day of returning. Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus, whencesoever thou hast heard thereof, declare thou even unto us.

The following is the opening of Shrewing’s 1980 prose translation—which is H.’s market competitor:

GODDESS of song, teach me the story of a hero. This was the man of wide-ranging spirit who had sacked the sacred town of Troy and who wandered afterwards long and far. Many were those cities he viewed and whose minds he came to know, many the troubles that vexed his heart as he sailed the seas, labouring to save himself and to bring his comrades home. But his comrades he could not keep from ruin, strive as he might; they perished instead by their own presumptuousness. Fools, they devoured the cattle of Hyperion, and he, the sun-god, cut off from the day of their homecoming. Goddess, daughter of Zeus, to me in turn impart some knowledge of all these things, beginning where you will.

And last, the translation of the aforementioned Richmond Lattimore:

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven Far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s citadel. Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of, Many the pains he suffered in his sprit 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 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 greatest strength of H’s translation is the ease with which it flows: he has certainly taken to heart Arnold’s advice that the translator of Homer must be penetrated by the sense that he is an “eminently plain and direct”2 poet. No attempt is made to give the poem an archaic touch: the style is decidedly simple throughout. H. writes in the preface that “I have written the sort of translation that I would like to read” (p. viii). To achieve this goal, H. often uses plain vocabulary and colloquial expressions. For Ζέφυρος, he prefers “west wind,” instead of “zephyr,” or “Zephyros.” At 8.351, we find “worthless is as worthless does” for δειλαί τοι δειλῶν γε καὶ ἐγγυ . With compound adjectives, H. often eschews literal translation and prefers an adjective or phrase more natural to English. The famed οἶνοψ πόντος is translated not “wine-dark sea” but “sparkling sea”; ῤοδοδάκτυλος Ἠῶ is turned into “dawn with her rosy fingers”; ἀγρὸνπολυδένδρον at 23.139 becomes “orchard farm.” H. does not always abandon the compound, however, but rather judges each case individually, to see what will sound natural in English. So at 8.256 the compound in Ἀλκίνοος θεοείκελος is retained with “godlike Alkinoös.”; for γλαυκῶπις, we find “bright-eyed.”

H.’s preference for a style natural to English makes the speeches a particular success, such as the following of Odysseus to Kalypso at 5.215-224:

Great goddess, do not be angry with me at this. I myself know it all full well, that good Penelope is less than you in beauty and imposing stature: she is a mortal woman, and you are immortal and ageless. But even so it is my wish and my yearning all the time to go home and see the day of my return. And if some god wrecks me on the sparkling sea, I shall bear it with a heart in my breast that is used to sorrow. Already I have suffered much and endured many hardships in wave and war: this can join the others.

The pause followed by a short, forceful closing is just what we find in the Greek, μετὰ καὶ τόδε τοῖσι γενέσθω. Lastly, H.’s ear for fresh vocabulary deserves recognition. At 4.1 we find, “the bowl of Lakedaimon”; at 9.22, “quivering leaves”; at 17.220, “lick-plate”; 20.347, “unnatural rictus”; at 22.10, “two-lugged.”

Despite the overall success of the translation, it is not without its infelicities. This is not the place to dissect the translation, so I shall limit my remarks. H.’s handling of the adjective δῖος is a constant problem. For some reason, he only translates the word according to its root sense, meaning “of Zeus,” and by extension “holy, divine.” While a reader with a knowledge of Greek will appreciate his attempt to acknowledge the root affinity between the adjective and the supreme god, this is entirely lost on a Greekless reader, and for him the translation becomes misleading. So at 3.306, where we find δῖος Ὀρέστης, H. has “godlike Orestes.” An analogy with the divine is unwanted here; we need instead an adjective that denotes mortal glory, such as “illustrious.” Orestes is being presented to Telemachus as a model for emulation—a good son who honored and avenged his father and seized control of his rightful kingship. To describe the son of Agamemnon as “godlike” is certainly not to deny him glory, but it sets him on too high a pedestal and the point of the repeated attention to Orestes is obscured. At 5.180, Kalypso is described as δῖα θεαῶν, which H. renders as “queen among goddesses.” The unsuspecting reader may be lead to think that Kalypso ranks much higher in the divine hierarchy than she actually does (in fact, she is decidedly a marginal goddess in the poem). An epithet of general commendation is more appropriate here. (In certain cases, however, such as 3.266, where δῖα Κλυταιμνήστρη is translated as “queen Klytemnestra,” there is no confusion.) Elsewhere the problem is not as serious, but the translation is still unsatisfactory. With phrases like ἅλα δῖαν at 3.153, translated as “holy sea,” or Η 9.151, rendered as “holy dawn,” H. would have fared better with an adjective simply denoting brightness. Despite this tendency to levy excessive holiness onto the Homeric landscape, H. occasionally mistranslates words that do indeed denote the sacred. At 13.20, we find “Alkinoös, powerful king” for ἱερὸν μένος Ἀλκινόοιο. Another constant problem is the translation of θεός as “god.” To render it this way is literally correct—provided that the noun is in isolation; in context it suggests monotheism, however. For 8.43-45, H. translates, “And summon the divine bard, Demodokus: he is the man to whom above all others god has given the gift of song.”; at 12.169, “and god stilled the waves.” Anarthrous nouns naturally work differently in Greek (especially Homeric Greek3) and English, and in this case especially one should not try to handle them as equivalents. Alternatives include “the god” or “the divine.” We find other phrases translated too literally, but the consequence is only awkwardness. H. often preserves the Greek periphrases with κεφαλή : at 11.557 we find “head of Achilles” where we should have just “Achilles.” Curiously, H. also imports the Greek freedom to put the first person pronoun first in a conjunctive phrase; so at 9.286, we find “I and these men managed to escape stark destruction.”

Two final scenes require mention. The first occurs at 6.211, which H. translates, “So she spoke, and the maids stood still and called to each other.” To render the phrase ἀλλήληισι κέλευσαν as “called to each other” is to lose the scene: the girls are bickering because they do not want to approach Odysseus, and each one is telling the other to do it. Second, in book nine, Odysseus distinguishes the Cyclopean race from the race of men, but H. destroys this contrast by using the words “people” (9.106, 9.112) and “man” (9.114, 9.229) to describe the Cyclopes and Polyphemus, respectively. Neither word occurs in the Greek. Overall, H. succeeds admirably in presenting a translation that is easy and enjoyable to read and faithful to Homer. I do, however, have my doubts about how serviceable it is for college students, whether they are reading it solely in translation, or using it as an aid to the original Greek. At that level, the edition of Cook or Dawe is more suitable. But for the casual reader and the high school student coming to Homer for the first time I can think of no better way to begin than with H.’s edition. The reader himself may not feel this way, however, given the price difference between H.’s volume ($17.95) and the competing prose version of Shewring ($8.95). In any event, this translation is a welcome achievement.


1. Verse translations by W. Cowper, R. Fagles, R. Fitzgerald, R. Lattimore, S. Lombardo, and G. Chapman are available at most bookstores; for prose, those by G. Palmer, E.V. Rieu, and W. Shrewing. More advanced students are served by A. Cook’s translation, and the edition with extensive commentary by R.D. Dawe. For a comprehensive history of English translations of Homer, see Homer in English (New York: Penguin, 1996), ed. George Steiner, pp. 350-355.

2. Matthew Arnold, On the Classical Tradition, ed. R.H. Super, from The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 1960), p. 102.

3. See Smyth, Greek Grammar, sec. 1099-1117.