Translating the Odyssey is getting very popular these days. As one of the participants, I’m probably the last person who should be reviewing one of my many competitors. All that said, I will do my utmost to treat Richard Whitaker’s new “South African” translation with the respect it fully deserves.
Whitaker, who has already produced a version of the Iliad, is an Emeritus Professor of Classics at Cape Town. Like almost all translators of Homer into English over the past century, he is an elderly white man – a fact worth mentioning since so much astonishment has been expressed about my own deviation from this demographic norm.
In terms of style and interpretation, Whitaker’s translations of Homer are in many respects entirely in line with debatable contemporary Anglophone conventions. Like all English translations known to me, except my own, he euphemizes Homeric slavery to a large extent: for instance, δμώη is regularly translated as “women-servant” or “maid”; we find here the usual “modest housekeeper”, the “serving women”, the “housemaids”, the “stewards” and “men” (for the male field slaves), although Whitaker does also use the word “slave” on occasion, creating a confusing set of mixed signals about the social set-up.
Again like most contemporary English translators, Whitaker heroizes the protagonist, who is often called here a “hero”, and simplifies the relationships. Penelope and Telemachus are regularly “wise” (debatably unambivalent translations of periphron and pepnumenos respectively, which also erase the difference between the intelligences of mother and son in the original). Odysseus is often “patient” (again, a debatably unambiguous rendering of polytlas). The suitors are “haughty”; and Odysseus’ final massacre results in a house “set to rights”.
We see here, too, the usual tendency to translate gender-neutral terms in markedly masculinist ways. For instance, one of many examples: when Penelope talks about the ambiguity of dreams in book 19, she says that not all of them are fulfilled “for people”, ἀνθρώποισι (19. 561). The term can apply to those of either gender, and presumably does, in a context when a woman is discussing her own dreams. Yet Whitaker makes Penelope say, “Not everything they say comes true for men” (p. 433). The habit of imposing markedly masculine language on a gender-neutral original is shockingly the norm, and Whitaker probably does it no more than most of his peers.
Also like most contemporary translators of Homer, Whitaker does not try for a kind of English that a contemporary poet might write. There are the usual constant archaisms and stiff phrasing, such as “sore heart, in weariness and pain”, or “beards grew and flourished on their chins”, or “sea-washed Ithaka / has many vessels”: phrases nobody would ever say or write, unless translating from the archaic Greek. Sadly, in the field of classical translations, clunkiness is often taken not as a fault, but a mark of authenticity.
Again like most contemporary Anglophone translators, Whitaker uses a non-metrical line: the text is laid out like verse, but does not scan in a regular way. Whitaker describes his free verse as a “five beat line”, though it doesn’t take at all long to get to a six beater: “to tell the nymph with braided hair our firm decree” (p. 91; line 1.86). But Whitaker’s handling of rhythm is significantly better than some of his rivals. Unlike a depressingly high proportion of contemporary translators of classical verse, Whitaker does have an ear: notice that the line I just quoted is a real-life iambic hexameter. His lines and line breaks generally make some kind of sonic sense. In this respect, as in many others, his translation is a vast improvement on the low bar set by Anthony Verity or Barry Powell, or even the much-revered Richmond Lattimore, whose faux-hexameters still have their admirers. Like the sometimes-metrical Robert Fitzgerald, the non-metrical Robert Fagles, or the even-less-metrical Stanley Lombardo, Whitaker uses free verse with some memory of blank verse in its bones.
But in two key respects, Whitaker’s translation is distinctive. Firstly, unlike most translations – but like my own and that of Peter Green, 2018 – he sticks to the same number of lines as the original. It is far more quick-paced than the expansive work of, for example, Fagles, and quicker than Green, who uses a lumbering sometimes-hexameter line.
Secondly, Whitaker’s translation is marketed not as any old Odyssey, but as a specially “South African” one. I felt some concern that Whitaker’s publishers might be ghettoizing his work according to one aspect of its creator’s social identity. I have felt similar frustrations over the coverage of my own translation of the Odyssey, which has frequently been labeled “A Woman’s Odyssey” (Mary Beard)—rather than, say, an iambic pentameter Odyssey. My gender has been assumed to predetermine all my literary and scholarly choices. But in fact, the cases are not entirely alike. There is no “women’s dialect” of English, although linguists have searched hard for it. By contrast, Whitaker has made a deliberate decision to include South African dialect in his translation, and he has a glossary full of alluring words that will be unfamiliar to most North American and British readers: bywoner, melkbalie, knobkierie, kloof, sjambok, umkhonto, skelm. The words are not there just for fun. Whitaker is making an intervention in the interpretation of Homer, reminding his readers that the world of Homer is an oral culture, with certain analogies to the South African tradition of praise-singing. He is also reminding us that the Homeric world is “simpler, smaller in scale, than the world usually imagined in translations of Homer” (p. 82). As Whitaker persuasively notes, it is misleading to translate basileus as “king” (he uses “chief”), or to make these characters live in “palaces”. The use of dialect words—from a mix of Afrikaans, Dutch, Portuguese, Sotho, Tswana, Xhosa and Zulu—provides a useful reminder that Homer is not set in the grand world of medieval or eighteenth-century palaces. The constant surprise of dialect words provides a salutary invitation to keep recalibrating our sense of scale. The dialect is also—although Whitaker has less to say on this equally important point—a welcome reminder that Homer is not a European.
To see in more detail how Whitaker’s translation reads, let’s look at the famous passage in book 8 when Odysseus asks Demodocus to sing of the Wooden Horse, his own great triumph. The poet sings, and Odysseus surprisingly starts crying. A famous simile compares the conqueror to one of his own many victims, a woman enslaved after the slaughter of her husband and the sacking of her city. Here is Whitaker’s version:
So the famous imbongi sang. But Odysseus
gave in, the tears ran down and wet his cheeks.
As a wife collapses, weeping, on the body
of her husband, who falls before his people,
trying to ward off the day of doom from town
and children; seeing him gasp out his life,
she ululates over his body, as men beat her
with assegais about the head and shoulders
and drag her off to toil and suffer as a slave,
and her cheeks are wasted with pitiful grief —
so pitiful tears fell from Odysseus’ eyes.
The use of dialect words –”imbongi”, “assegais” — adds an nice specificity to a passage that is in other ways composed in fairly conventional translationese, littered with archaisms and clichés (“day of doom”, “wasted with pitiful grief”, “toil and suffer”).
But the emotional effect is somewhat undermined by clumsy syntax, especially in the use of almost-dangling participles: “weeping” modifies the woman, but “trying” modifies the man, and then “seeing” modifies the woman. Whitaker’s version emphasizes the victimhood of all three characters—Odysseus, woman and man—but somewhat diminishes our sense of their three distinct kinds of pain. The stilted rendering of ἐλεεινοτάτῳ ἄχεϊ as “pitiful grief” makes it hard actually to pity or grieve with the woman, rather than notice that we are supposed to feel bad for her. Whitaker’s choice to use “wife” for gune also creates a certain distance from the victim, as if she matters primarily, perhaps only, in her relationship to the man.
Whitaker’s version, here and in general, is adequate, but has a disappointing flatness. His decision to retain the long single sentence for the simile comes at a high price in terms of clarity and readability, and therefore also in terms of emotional punch and immersive engagement. In my own version, I broke up the clauses to make sure that it is obvious, as it is the Greek, that the fall of the woman and the fall of the husband are distinct but intertwined (ἀμφιπεσοῦσα… πέσῃσιν): to retain the parallelism, without creating meaningless ambiguity.
His cheeks were wet with weeping, as a woman
weeps, as she falls to wrap her arms around
her husband, fallen fighting for his home
and children. She is watching as he gasps
and dies. She shrieks, a clear high wail, collapsing
upon his corpse. The men are right behind.
They hit her shoulders with their spears and lead her
to slavery, hard labor, and a life
of pain. Her face is marked by her despair.
In that same desperate way, Odysseus
was crying. (Wilson)
I resorted to using two verbs for a single participle, making the woman “fall to wrap her arms” around him, to try to capture the mirroring of husband and wife (both are falling), and the difference: for a moment, but not for long, the woman has the power to act, to surround her dying husband with herself. Whitaker adds the word “body” in line 523 (where the Greek has the woman enfolded round her husband himself, not around his “body”). This addition creates a confusing muddle about when exactly the man dies: he is a “body” in 523, but then gasps out his life in line 526. Richmond Lattimore and Stanley Lombardo both do exactly the same thing, although Fagles, to his credit, does not. It seemed to me essential that the simile unfolds over time. At the start, the man is not yet dead, and we follow the woman’s actions and reactions to his last breath, his death, and feel how she has barely a moment to grieve for him, before she is beaten and forced into slavery. I used “despair”, because I believe that modern English idiom tends to create pity and empathy in a reader by showing the pain, rather than telling her what to feel. The effect of Greek idioms is not always captured by translating them “literally”, into unidiomatic English.
Setting all my inevitable quibbles and disappointments aside—all of which must be taken as the partisan observations they inevitably are —Richard Whitaker deserves to be applauded for a translation of the Odyssey that provides an excellent corrective to the Eurocentricism of most Anglophone classical translations, including my own. I found myself wishing that Whitaker had gone even further in thinking through his South African setting for the Odyssey. Neither the translation itself, nor the introduction, suggest any particular interest in colonial or imperial dimensions of the poem, nor does Whitaker seem to pay any attention or have any insight into how Homer represents unequal multi-cultural societies, or ethnic alterity. A truly, deeply South African translation would have surely provided a far more sustained invitation to reread Homer in a different and illuminating light. But Whitaker’s translation is still a good, solid, above-average contribution to the growing ranks of English Odyssey translations. Its speed gives it an edge over Peter Green. For readability, it ranks above the foreignizing of Richmond Lattimore. Its straightforwardness is often preferable to the creative additions and omissions of Robert Fitzgerald. Its relative lack of grandiosity is often a distinct advantage over the magenta free verse of Robert Fagles. This translation is less radical, less fully South African, than you might expect or hope. But it is a solid, serviceable rendition of this great and endlessly re-readable poem.