BMCR 2017.09.11

Homer, The Odyssey (With an Introduction and Notes by William Allan)

, Homer, The Odyssey (With an Introduction and Notes by William Allan). Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016. xxix, 354. ISBN 9780199669103. $27.95.

In his brief “Note on the Translation” (xxvi) Anthony Verity identifies his goals: to respect the line-numeration of standard editions of Homer and to keep as closely to the Greek as possible, using a “straightforward English register” and “allowing Homeric directness and power to speak for itself.” Though it takes the form of a poem, Verity’s translation is not poetic and “does not claim to be.” He concedes that some readers may find his shifts from current to archaic idiom “awkward,” but prefers inelegance to inaccuracy.

Verity’s translation is supplemented by William Allan’s concise introduction and helpful explanatory notes, which provide book summaries and “clarify mythical references, place-names, and the like, while also discussing selected passages in light of key themes covered in the introduction” (xxv). Some notes are more analytical in nature, clueing readers in on key details, omissions, and ironies that they might otherwise miss, such as when “Calypso neglects to mention Zeus’ command and makes her offer sound like spontaneous generosity” (332). Notes like these are useful reminders for first-time readers that small details are worth paying attention to, even in orally-derived formulaic poetry.

Allan’s introduction situates the poem and its creator in their cultural and poetic contexts and considers a few of the poem’s prominent themes—hospitality, recognition, heroism, the relationship between mortals and immortals, and the household. Aimed at first-time readers, the introduction prioritizes clarity over complexity, glossing over some of the thorniest Homeric problems. One senses that Allan wishes to spare readers the potential distraction of centuries of scholarly debate: “all that really matters is the Iliad and Odyssey themselves and their shaping by a master poet or poets, who (for the sake of convenience) we will call Homer” (vii). Allan’s discussion of the poem’s defining themes contextualizes them both within the Odyssey and within the culture in which the poem was produced. Thus, Odysseus’ indiscriminate violence at the end of the poem, though disturbing to modern readers, “is fully in line with…the ethics of ancient Greek society” (x) and “embodies the stern but fair system of Homeric justice” (xx). One may continue to question the fairness of the justice that Odysseus imposes on the suitors and the slaves who served them, but Allan leaves the reader to pursue such interpretive points further.

One of the assets of Verity’s translation, in accordance with its ambition, is its accurate reproduction of the line- numeration of the original. Verity translates the 12,110 hexameters of Allen’s OCT in 12,109 lines. With the exception of book 18, where two hexameters are condensed into one line (18.423), the line-numeration of each individual book of the translation matches that of Allen’s edition exactly. Verity’s version is thus useful for quick consultation from the Greek and, were it accompanied by a facing Greek text, could rival Murray’s Loeb as a crib-text of choice for students of Homeric Greek.

True to his intention, Verity follows the Greek very closely. His commitment to reproducing every word of the original is most apparent in his treatment of epithets. He translates every epithet, which makes for a literal, if plodding, reproduction of Homer’s Greek (3.397-401):

but Nestor the Gerenian horseman offered Telemachus, the
dear son of godlike Odysseus, a place to sleep in the palace,
on a fretted couch under a far-echoing colonnade; and next
to him slept Peisistratus of the fine ash spear, captain of men,
who alone of Nestor’s sons in his halls was not married.

In this his practice is similar to Lattimore’s (who is, however, slightly more efficient than Verity):

but Nestor the Gerenian horseman gave Telemachos
the dear son of godlike Odysseus a place to sleep in
upon a corded bedstead in the echoing portico.
Next him was Peisistratos of the strong ash spear, leader
of men, who of his sons in the palace was still a bachelor.

Contrast Lombardo’s version, which is a little more than half the length:

But Nestor told Telemachus to sleep
Under the echoing portico on a corded bed
Next to Peisistratus, a good man with a spear
And the only of Nestor’s sons still unmarried.

Verity not only translates all epithets, he also expands many of them, turning formulaic adjectives into relative clauses that simultaneously exaggerate their significance and diminish their generalizing force. Ἀλκίνοος θεοειδής becomes “Alcinous who looked like a god,” Ἡρακλῆα θρασυμέμνονα θυμολέοντα becomes, “daring-spirited Heracles, who had a lion’s heart,” and πολύτλας δῖος Ὀδυσσεύς becomes “glorious Odysseus, / he who had endured so much.” This sort of epithetic expansiveness is exceptional, even among the most literal translations of Homer.

But Verity’s commitment to word-for-word translation goes well beyond his rendering of formulaic epithets. Particles, for example, are given full expression. Translations of τοι are typical: “I tell you;” “I say to you;” “you must know;” “you may be sure.” Similarly, duals are brought out, even when a pronoun’s dual nature is clear from context: “we two ate,” “we two delight,” “we two sat.” The Sirens’ call for Odysseus to listen to their “twofold song” is especially striking.

Verity’s close adherence to the Greek is occasionally reflected in paratactic word order, in imitation of Homeric hyperbaton and enjambment. In some cases, this parataxis works relatively well, as when Telemachus rebukes Penelope: “Talk must be men’s concern, all of / them, and mine especially.” The separation of the epexegetical “all of / them” from “men’s” reflects the enjambed and hyperbatonic πᾶσι, which is emphatic in the Greek, as it is in Verity’s translation. But Verity translates all such enjambed adjectives paratactically, whether emphatic or not. Take, for instance, Eurycleia’s instructions to the servants: “you, wipe down the tables with / sponges, all of them.” Unless Homer intended to emphasize the quantity of tables to be wiped down, a more straightforward translation would surely pair the adjective with the noun it modifies: “wipe down all the tables with sponges.”

While Verity attempts to reflect Homeric enjambment in word-order, in conformity with his proclaimed avoidance of poetic style, he shows little sensitivity to his own line-breaks. It is perhaps unfair to fault a translator for disregarding a stylistic feature that he disregards intentionally, but because Verity’s unpoetic translation assumes the form of a poem, it becomes necessary to retrain the eye to read a poetic form as though it were prose. This makes for halting reading (4.15-19):

So these men, neighbours and clansmen of renowned Menelaus,
were feasting in the great, high-roofed house, and making
merry; and among them a god-inspired singer sang to his
lyre, and through the midst of the company two tumblers
went spinning, taking the lead in the dance and the song.

Even when line-breaks correspond with sense and syntax, there is often a breathless quality to the translation (5.399- 406):

when he was as near as a man’s voice carries when he shouts,
and indeed could hear the sea crashing against the rocky coast—
for the huge rollers kept breaking against the hard land with a
fearful roar, and everything was obscured in salt spray, nor any
place to anchor, but only jutting headlands, reefs, and sea-cliffs—
then indeed Odysseus’ limbs and heart went slack, and,
deeply troubled, he spoke to his great-hearted spirit […].

One might note how the breathlessness of the reader corresponds to Odysseus’ breathlessness as he swims for shore, gasping for air as the waves rush down upon him. But Verity’s handling of similar passages, particularly extended similes, suggests against such intentionality. Take, for example, the simile comparing Nausicaa to Artemis, which Verity renders in one seventy-eight-word sentence that contains eight commas, two dashes, and one semicolon (6.102-109):

Like Artemis, shooter of arrows, when she moves down
the mountains, striding along lofty Taygetus or Erymanthus,
taking delight in the chase of boars or swift deer; and
country-haunting nymphs, daughters of aegis-wielding Zeus,
sport with her as she goes—and Leto’s heart is gladdened
because Artemis holds her head and brow higher than them
all, and she is easily marked out, though all are beautiful—
just so the unwed girl stood out among her maidservants.

Rather than enjoying the delight of the chase, the reader experiences the shortness of breath that accompanies it.

Verity translates many Greek idioms literally, with little attention to idiomatic English. Telemachus advises Penelope to “be strong to listen;” Odysseus predicts “the end of death” for Antinous; and Odysseus and Iphitus cannot “further their intimacy at table.” In some cases, the attempt to bring out the Greek hinders clarity and defamiliarizes the text. The Atreidae summon the Achaeans to gather “towards the sun’s setting” (ἐς ἠέλιον καταδύντα), which is a literal but cryptic translation of an idiom that means “at sunset.” Similarly, Τυδέος υἱὸς ἀρήϊος is rendered “the son of Tydeus, a son of Ares,” which is sure to confuse readers who do not know that Diomedes is not, in fact, a descendant of Ares. For κατάθνητος, which nearly every other translator renders “mortal,” Verity gives “death-doomed.” The depiction of the Old Man of the Sea rising “from his salt-element” (ἐξ ἁλός) is especially awkward.

Verity is generally consistent in translating repeated words and phrases, but there are a few cases where the translation differs from passage to passage for no discernible reason. Take, for example, the various translations of ῥάβδος. When Hermes goes to Calypso’s island, he is equipped with a magical “wand,” but when he descends to the underworld, his implement is downgraded to a nondescript “rod.” Athena uses a “rod” to transform Odysseus into an aged beggar, but later restores his appearance with a “staff.” Circe, on the other hand, always uses a crude “stick.” The difference is subtle, but it is significant that Hermes, Athena, and Circe are each equipped with the same transformative instrument, and it is unfortunate that the translation obscures this connection.

More distracting, however, is Verity’s inconsistent use of abusive and gendered language. Translations of κυνῶπις and κύων are notable in this regard. In light of his thoroughgoing commitment to literal translation, one expects Verity to translate κυνῶπις in the same manner by which he translates so many other compound adjectives—“dog-faced.” Instead, Verity renders κυνῶπις into English variously as “bitch,” “shameless trollop,” and “brazen bitch.” This singular departure from the Greek is perplexing. The addition of “trollop” and “brazen,” neither of which can be traced back to the Greek, is inconsistent with Verity’s stated methodology. The case of κύων is similar. In Homer, κύων is applied equally to male and female characters and is used as a term of abuse by characters of both genders. Yet, Verity’s translation is divided strictly along gender lines. Each time κύων is applied to a male character, Verity translates “dog.” The four times it applies to female characters, however, Verity gives “hussy,” “brazen hussies,” and “shameless hussy” (twice). It is difficult to understand how “dog” is not a more straightforward translation of κύων.

With some notable exceptions, this translation indeed “keep[s] closely to the Greek,” suggesting the limitations of literality. While Verity’s aspirations are understandable, his translation is not as straightforward as he claims (if indeed “a straightforward English register” exists), and he fails to allow “Homeric directness and power to speak for itself,” though I doubt if any translation can do such a thing. Verity’s translation is most useful for those who know some Greek, especially students of Homeric Greek looking to corroborate their own translations. But those who are not already convinced of Homer’s poetic genius before reading Verity’s translation are unlikely to be persuaded of it upon finishing.