BMCR 2004.09.41

The Odyssey. Introduction and notes by Richard P. Martin

, , , The Odyssey. Johns Hopkins new translations from antiquity. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004. xlviii, 418 pages ; 25 cm.. ISBN 0801868548 $35.00.

Edward McCrorie’s translation of the Odyssey into English hexameter has much to recommend it. The brisk, simple, ruddy verses contain some marvelous turns of phrase that are true to Homer’s Greek. At the same time, I find the transliteration of proper names at times jarring and affected, some epithets to be distracting, and the hexameter not as unrestrictive as Johns Hopkins’ press release would suggest. Often the verse line affects the elevation of the epic. Richard Martin’s accompanying notes to the translation are treasure trove of learned contextualization, and superior to the notes accompanying Fagles’ translation, although Knox’s majestic introduction to the latter far outshines the introduction of Martin.

One is reminded of Matthew Arnold’s advice to future translators, and his famous four qualities of Homer. The translator of Homer, Arnold never tires of telling us, must remember that he:

is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and the expression of it, that is both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is the matter and ideas; and finally, that he is eminently noble.1

It may seem a bit old-fashioned to summon up Arnold here. Parry and numerous others questioned his remarks and grasp of Homer’s movement, and Mr. Newman has long since retired. At the same time it is useful to keep Matthew in mind (Arnold not Gumpert), in so far as McCrorie is presenting us with Homer in English hexameter, which Arnold called for. One reviewer of Fagles suggested the implausibility of Lattimore’s hexameter — the implication being that it won’t work in English — without addressing Arnold at all. This invites a brief comparison of McCrorie with Lattimore. Lattimore opens his Odyssey this way:

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.

Here is McCrorie:

The man, my Muse, resourceful, driven a long way
after he sacked the holy city of Trojans:
tell me all the men’s cities he saw and the men’s minds,
how often he suffered heartfelt pain on the broad sea,
striving for life and a way back home for his war-friends.
Yet he saved no friends, much as he longed to:
they lost their lives through their own reckless abandon,
fools who ate the cattle of Helios the Sun-God.
Huperion seized the day they might have arrived home.

Tell us Goddess, daughter of Zeus, start in your own place.

McCrorie’s first line, as one would expect of a new translation is striking; retaining Homer’s word order — placing Odysseus’ epithet “resourceful” after “the Muse” — suggests in this ambiguity the poet’s calling upon the goddess as his resource. We ask, is the goddess or Odysseus πολύτροπον ? In general, the verse line of McCrorie is observably much more direct and brisk than that of Lattimore; at the same time “start in your own place” retains an elevation that is preferable to Lattimore’s rather casual, meandering, “From some point here … speak … ” There is a point to Lattimore — the absence of “the man” in the Telemacheia, as well as the temporal shifts that represent the genius of the exposition are accommodated. But as an opening, McCrorie’s demand for inspiration is more evocative.

McCrorie would undoubtedly please Arnold in mastering the first three suggested qualities of Homer. Despite the opening, the fourth is I suspect often wanting. One can’t help but feel a lack of nobility, emotion and elevation in the way certain scenes are conveyed; space prevents me from giving more than one brief example. Consider Telemachus’ dashing of his spear to the ground in anger when addressing the assembly in Book II. McCrorie gives:

He spoke in rage and wept, throwing the scepter
hard on the ground. All the people felt pity.

This, while brisk, plain and paratactic, misses something of the elevated thrill and nobility of Fagles:

Filled with anger,
down on the ground he dashed the speaker’s scepter —
bursting into tears. Pity seized the assembly.

Fagles’ free verse has the maneuverability to convey the tense excitement of the scene in English in the way that hexameter simply cannot. The difficulty of meeting Arnold’s call for simplicity conjoined with nobility is one that expresses more the limitations of the meter than the limitations of the translator. It seems superfluous to point out what everyone knows, that Greek meter is quantitative and English based on accents, but the problem is eternal and ubiquitous. All the same, McCrorie’s application of the hexameter comes off remarkably well in battle scenes and ritualistic descriptions of feasting, food preparation and dreams. He captures Homer’s remarkable ability to evoke so much with so little, as in his rendering of Demodokus’ tale of the Trojan horse, or the description of Odysseus’ shooting of Antinous. My main criticism is that emotion-filled scenes often sacrifice emotion and flow to the demands of the meter.

McCrorie’s regular use of “he spoke that way” is for me, a little too plain, a little too unnatural. Consider Alcinous telling Nausicaa that she can take a cart to wash her clothes:

“Go on then; slaves will help you harness the mule-cart,
The high one with well-rimmed wheels, topped with a

He spoke that way ( ὣς εἰπών), he gave commands and servants obeyed him.

Or again, consider Odysseus’ instruction to Eurycleia to lock the doors of the megaron :

“… Say if anyone hears an uproar and shouting —
Noise from the men though the walls — no one should dash out.
Let them stay right there, quietly working.”
He spoke that way ( ὣς ἄρ’ ἐφώνησεν) and, all her words being wingless,
She barred the doors of the hall where the people had lived well.

The first is a little better as the scene is somewhat pastoral. In the second, the effected meter is lovely, if a little dry (sleepy?) as a prelude to the slaughter that is to ensue. ὥς is not I think best rendered “that way” or “in that way,” but as “so” or “thus” which is the choice of most translators here. It may be the case that sometimes, when appealing to traditional or ritual behaviour, someone may “speak that way” as when Alcinous addresses the Phaiakians and tells them to prepare contests in honour of their guest. “He spoke that way,” i.e. he gave them that kind of instruction. For the most part, however, “thus he spoke” and action continues paratactically.

McCrorie does keep us aware of the narrative voice of Homer with the recurrent use of “he spoke that way”, but it is not always faithful to Homer’s own voice. For a little earlier, Antinous’ orchestration of the suitors in the contest of the bow is marked by

ὣς ἄρ’ ἐφώνησεν (21.163)
ὣς φάτο (21.175)
ὣς φάθ’ (21.181)

rendered by McCrorie as:

he spoke that way (163)
he stopped (175)
he stopped (181)

Of course every translation is a series of small choices and this is hardly a criticism. Some of McCrorie’s are truly remarkable. Homer’s ἔπεα πτερόεντα become “words with a feathery swiftness” — Martin’s remarks on McCrorie’s sensitivity to the ambiguity of “winged words” are an apt observation. “What words get over the wall of your front teeth” is an inspired literal rendering of πο=ίον σε ἔπος φύγεν ἕρκος ὀδόντων. One only wishes there were many more instances of McCrorie’s skill at wordplay. I get the sense from overall effect of the translation as a whole that the meter intrudes as much as it liberates. Still it is a translation ardent in its desire for literal accuracy and bold in its sustaining of stark simplicity.

Semantically, the translation is not always so precise. For McCrorie Telemachus is not πεπνυμένος, he instead gives sensible answers, yielding a line with a striking rhythm — “Telemachus gave her a sensible answer”. Martin notes that McCrorie does this to emphasise the maturing of Telemachus. The problem here is perhaps a worry over accuracy, as well as difficulty in context. Is it sensible to say in Athena’s presence that not even the gods can help his father? Athena certainly thinks not and rebukes him for saying so. To recall Parry’s observation, Homeric epithets are tools for accommodating the dactyl that do not intrude on the narrative. The advantage of the oral poet is that his audience is enraptured by sound rather than philosophical semantics, but a sensible Telemachus, in an auditory context slips by an auditor more easily than a sensible answer that is immediately said not to be sensible. Homer does not nod here. The rendering of πολύμητις as “full of designs” agrees with Parry’s theory of epithet, but does danger lurk herein for a first time reader? Odysseus is “wily,” a “man of many turns,” clever and versatile in many situations. Can being “full of designs” even when he is being sincere, as is the case in his graceful responses to Nausicaa regarding his departure and the hint of unrequited love perhaps be misleading?

“Be well stranger and go to the land of your fathers
remembering how you owed your life to me first here.”

Odysseus, full of designs ( πολύμητις), answered by praying:
“Nausikaa, Great-hearted Alkinoos’s daughter,
may loud-thundering Zeus, the husband of Here,
help me to see my homecoming day and my own house …”

To a reader, “full of designs” here sounds almost as if Odysseus is not being sincere. What is the relevance of his design here? Is he planning on secretly marrying with Nausicaa? Will he curse, not celebrate, her in his own house? This is not the sense of the passage and the epithet is distracting. “Resourceful” (McCrorie’s translation of πολύτροπον in the opening invocation) or even Fitzgerald’s “the man of all occasions” fits the meaning better, or less literally. Fagles’ abandonment of the epithet in favour of “Odysseus rose to the moment deftly”. But McCrorie’s project is literal accuracy; what that means and how it is effected we entrust to the translator. And McCrorie is a translator of no small ability.

Other choices of stock and epithet are lovely. McCrorie’s “Glow-eyed” Athena and “Thought-Full” Penelope are full, almost Miltonic, and “When new born dawn came on with her rose fingered daylight” has an elevated meter and broad resonance. I always liked “when the child of morning, rosy fingered dawn appeared”, but McCrorie’s dawn grows on one as it continually comes on.

And this is the difficulty of reviewing translations. One gets used to things. Having taught Fagles for five years, I got used to ξανθόν Menelaus being red-haired — as there is no real consensus on the meaning of ξανθός, McCrorie is certainly entitled to make Menelaus blond. I like gray-eyed Athena, despite the charm of glow-eyed. I am used to Scylla and Charybdis, Cyclops and Sirens; I find Skulla and Kharubdis, Kuklops and Sierenes, Aias, Aides, Ieson (the latter are Ajax, Hades and Jason) a bit unnerving. Klutaimnestre is positively ugly (well perhaps Agammemnon would agree), Parnesos and Kupros a bit distorted. Odysseus remains Odysseus, because he’s a household name, but so too are many of these others. Circean, not Kirkian is the Oxford English Dictionary entry, defined as bewitching, and Cyclops and Cypriot are to be found there as well.

Would Sting still be considered a young apprentice if trapped between Skulla and Kharubdis? Skulla sounds scary alright, but perhaps for the wrong reasons — I think of pirate flags, not the dog of Modern Greek — Scylla makes me think of signs in the Greek countryside warning ” kindunos skylos” — “beware of the dog”. (Martin notes that in ancient Greek it is related to puppy.) People ski on Parnassos, taking breaks in lovely Arachova below, and Denktas disputes with Anan over Cyprus in English.

Melantheus, for some reason, is spelled two ways in the book, (Melantheus 20.173; Melanthios 21.175,176) a fact that Martin is aware of but appears to hurry over in his notes. Martin for the most part adapts McCrorie’s transliterations, but one feels a resistance in his so doing — a note with the header “Sierenes” looks like this: “12.39 Sierenes: The Sirens are never said to lure men to their death …”

Of course any system of putting Greek names into English will have compromises, but I am again reminded of the codgery stubbornness of Matthew Arnold:

The real question is this: whether our living apprehension of the Greek word is more checked by meeting in an English book about the Greeks names not spelt letter for letter as in the original Greek, or by meeting names which make us rub our eyes and call out, ‘How exceedingly odd!’2

Thankfully McCrorie does not saddle us with the embarrassing translation of the names in the catalogue of Phaiakian sportsmen that Fitzgerald gave us. “Seareach” and “Shearwater” are transliterated along with their friends and accompanied by an explanation of their meanings in Martin’s notes.

As I suggested at the outset, Knox’s Introduction to Fagles is much more full and informative than the Introduction in McCrorie, but Martin’s notes at the end — some 50 pages — are impressive and enjoyable, both for their depth and their breadth. I was impressed to find even a brief discussion of Porphyry’s remarks on Ithaca. I suspect that Martin’s rather extended running discussion of the long-standing question of whether or not and/or when Penelope recognizes Odysseus might have formed an interesting part of the introduction in place of the constant referrals to the back of the book at relevant points. I would take issue with very little in Martin’s reflections, but one of his observations puzzled me. When Odysseus arrives in the land of the Phaiakians, he takes shelter in two bushes of wild thorn and olive. Martin’s observation is that the olive and the thorn represent the cultivated and wild sides of Odysseus. But is this going a bit far? I would think that Odysseus’ taking shelter there shows his cleverness in solving the dilemma presented in the preceding lines — being attacked by wild beasts or freezing. The thorn solves the former problem, the olive the latter. There were, and remain, in these shores wild olive tress, after all.

I noted a small confusion in Martin’s notes on Circe (11.8). McCrorie translates δεινὴ θεὸς αὐδήεσσα as “a feared goddess who spoke like a human”, but the header to the note by Martin is ” Goddess who spoke like a woman“.

As for the layout of the book, I find the use of side subheadings rather distracting and at times unfortunate. For example beside the passage where Nausicaa tells Odysseus to approach Arete first upon entering Alcinous’ palace, we are unnecessarily distracted by the sidebar “Go to the Lady first” and when Odysseus approaches her, the sidebar announces “the Lady’s knees”. In general it would be better if these were omitted.

Someone cursed with as meterless an ear as myself would be rash to attempt to scan McCrorie’s verse, or comment further on his sublime acuity in rendering his understanding of Homer’s meter. I am thinking as a teacher in saying that I prefer the Fagles for its layout, for its maps (despite the fact that Pylos appears misplaced), for its introduction and for its accessible and engaged free verse. Perhaps I don’t care for headings, as I dislike the chapter titles in Fagles, though not as much as the sideheadings in McCrorie. However I cannot overstate how informative Martin’s notes are if students would have the patience/discipline to refer to them. The dust cover for McCrorie’s Odyssey claims that the book is truly an Odyssey for the twenty-first century. I am not clear on what makes it so, but, on third reading, I have developed an appreciation for the clarity and briskness of McCrorie’s verse.


1. Arnold, Matthew, On Translating Homer, London: John Murray (1905, 41).

2. Ibid., 105.