[Editorial note: An earlier edition of this translation was reviewed in BMCR 2017.09.11.]
What does it mean for Verity to announce, as his first principle for translating one of the world’s most famous epic poems, that he does not aim for poetry—that his translation, in his own word, is not ‘poetic’ (xxvi)? When the translator’s preface first appeared in the 2016 hardback edition, Verity may have intended the disclaimer made by any classicist who accepts that writing poetry is not among his or her professional talents. Or he may have wished to suggest that literal is the best one can and perhaps should do for a great but ancient poem that is more remote than the casual reader might assume. But between then and the 2018 appearance of Verity’s translation in paperback, Emily Wilson’s version of the Odyssey appeared to wide acclaim, in part because it is composed in taut iambic pentameter, music to the English-speaker’s ear.1 Her assertion that aiming for poetry is the first duty of a translator throws Verity’s choices into high relief (81f). We have to take seriously the significance of his claim “ . . . to use a straightforward English register and to keep closely to the Greek, allowing Homeric directness and power to speak for itself” (xxiv).
Overall, Verity’s is a translation with many virtues; another of his disclaimers, that his shifts midtext from “current to archaic idiom” may strike some as “awkward” but “ . . . this is the way in which Homer has led me” (xxiv), suggests why. Homer’s diction was a complex blend of contemporary and archaic language for his listeners, with virtually none of it part of the daily vernacular, as familiar as the oral poetic tradition might have sounded to its first listeners, and Verity does indeed have a good ear for shifts in tone. Here are some examples that, to my ear, illustrate the resulting range. First, two that by contrast show what can be achieved in one case with archaic phrasing and, in the other, with more straightforward register, compared with Wilson’s translation or Robert Fagle’s translation of 1990.2
Bk 2.96: κοῦροι ἐμοὶ μνηστῆρες; this address, as Penelope cons her suitors about weaving Laertes’ shroud, is tricky, since ‘youths’ sits oddly beside ‘suitors,’ as a subtle reminder of the suitors’ callowness in contrast to this wily queen. Verity has “Young princes, my suitors!” but “princes” is an inference from an archaic context or better, from a prehistoric social reality that survives in Homer’s contemporary performative context, and that privileges a particular, high-status group of young men as kouroi. Fagles, by contrast, settles for the simply literal, “Young men, my suitors,” while Wilson creates a declaration: “Young men / you are my suitors.” Verity’s instinct for the resonance within kouroi seems the most apt.
Bk 2.321f: ἦ ῥα, καὶ ἐκ χειρὸς χεῖρα σπάσατ᾽ Ἀντινόοιο / ῥεῖα; for Verity, this becomes “So he spoke, and coolly pulled his hand away from Antinous’.” “Coolly” is a nicely idiomatic, modern interpretation of ῥεῖα, while Fagles’ “nonchalantly” (“he nonchalantly drew his hand from Antinous’ hand”) seems too much. Wilson’s “He snatched his hand away” ignores the adverb for an effect that is quite abrupt.
The translation of Book 6.238–243 offers a good example of Verity’s choices when it comes to Homer’s traditional register. There, Nausikaa instructs her servants about the nature of the gods’ will:
Then Nausicaa addressed her lovely-haired maidservants:
‘Listen to me, white-armed servants, to what I shall say:
it is not without the will of all the gods who dwell on Olympus
that this man has come among the godlike Phaeacians;
before this he looked to me like a man of mean appearance,
but now he resembles the gods who live in the broad high sky.’
Verity has not shied away from the stateliness that Homer’s oral poetic diction lays upon the young girl’s chat, from the formality of ornamental epithets to the vaguely repetitive poetic form. Contrast Wilson:
She told her slaves with tidy hair,
‘Now listen to me, girls! The gods who live
on Mount Olympus must have wished this man
to come into contact with my godlike people.
Before, he looked so poor and unrefined;
now he is like a god that lives in heaven.’
Wilson’s note on the translation lays down a marker for using blunt terminology—slaves are slaves for her, not servants who bustle around the people who matter. But Wilson has also explicitly constrained herself by the pentameter and by her commitment to the same number of verses as Homer overall (Wilson p. 82); the math is not in her favor in terms of preserving those intricacies of oral poetic diction that Verity maintains, and it shows.
By contrast, this passage in Book Six illustrates the strength of Verity’s translation if the reader wishes to engage the epic as a poetic artifact of its time and culture. His lines represent the intricacies and occasional ungainliness of Homer’s poetic style, and they do so consistently. Put another way, this translation can safely be used, for instance, in a course on Archaic Greek epic if a goal is to engage the oral traditional style that undergirds and informs Homer’s poetry. The same cannot be said of Wilson’s translation, however beautifully it reads aloud in English (and it does).3
That every translation is a betrayal is well known, and this is especially so for poetry. The question lies in how the betrayal goes about its thievery and its imposture. A final example, from Book 23 (202–7), gives us a sense of the peril:
‘οὕτω τοι τόδε σῆμα πιφαύσκομαι· οὐδέ τι οἶδα,
ἤ μοι ἔτ᾽ ἔμπεδόν ἐστι, γύναι, λέχος, ἦέ τις ἤδη
ἀνδρῶν ἄλλοσε θῆκε, ταμὼν ὕπο πυθμέν᾽ ἐλαίης.’
ὣς φάτο, τῆς δ᾽ αὐτοῦ λύτο γούνατα καὶ φίλον ἦτορ,
σήματ᾽ ἀναγνούσῃ τά οἱ ἔμπεδα πέφραδ᾽ Ὀδυσσεύς·
Verity translates these five lines that are the climax of this homecoming poem thus:
‘There now; I have revealed the token to you. I do not know,
lady, if this bed of mine is still firmly planted or if some man
has now cut through the tree’s base and moved it elsewhere.’
So he spoke, and her heart and knees at once went slack,
as she recognized the sure token Odysseus had revealed to her;
There is a simplicity here that is hard to criticize, and the Greek diction in verse 204 does permit the flip of actions, to first the cut of the tree and then its move, for easier flow in English. But it’s not Homer, who has it the other way around, so that the desecration of the olive tree closes Odysseus’ outrage with a thud. And how long has it been since anyone’s knees went slack? Must such a cliché mark that instant when Penelope yields, in fact be the visible sign of her finally giving up her long-held suspicion of guests? Well, maybe, since the cliché of loosening limbs in Greek is Homer’s regular way of describing a warrior’s death, especially in the Iliad : Odysseus has overcome something here in Penelope as thoroughly as an enemy dispatches his adversary in a duel. That the cliché is also used to describe Erôs (as in lusimeles, the limb-loosener) adds a fine erotic touch as well. So Verity has gone for a cliché whose resonance is ancient and wide, but without explanation even in his endnotes. Either the reader knows all this or is left to wonder at the melodramatic, old-fashioned tone.
Wilson’s version offers a different betrayal of the reader:
“Now I have told the secret trick, the token.
But woman, wife, I do not know if someone—
a man—has cut the olive trunk and moved
my bed, or if it is still safe.”
her heart and body suddenly relaxed.
She recognized the tokens he had shown her.
Wilson’s spare pentameters do not prevent her here from overtelling what she insists her readers understand: the token was a trick, in case we missed that; Penelope may be either just another woman or his wife, and Odysseus is pretty exasperated with the ambiguity; the point of his outrage is neither the cutting of the bed nor the moving of it but whether she’s kept it “safe” or not. It’s as if for Wilson, we must see one particular Odysseus here, one who has no trust in a woman deeply faithful to him all along. Such an Odysseus can certainly be found elsewhere in the epic and even here, but perhaps the choice should be ours? And Wilson’s Penelope neither wilts like a dying warrior nor feels the first longing of long-delayed passion; instead her physical relaxation seems to follow her mental relief.
In keeping with the practice of Oxford World’s Classics series, Verity’s translation appears with a brief introduction by William Allan, which situates the epic in its historical and generic contexts and covers major themes such as hospitality and recognition, Odysseus as hero, marriage and family life, as well as a section on mortals and immortals. This last discussion admirably describes divine behavior without making the usual fuss over potential contradictions in an overarching theodicy. Otherwise, the introduction feels underwhelming, too little for the first-time reader of Homer and without much nuance in the interpretation of those major themes. Oddly enough, the volume’s single map is also not particularly useful; of Greece and Asia Minor, it shows neither Crete nor Phoenicia, both of which figure so prominently in Odysseus’ tales of wandering. Allan’s explanatory endnotes are spare but usually helpful.
Shortcomings in the volume’s apparatus, over which Verity and Allan may have had little control, notwithstanding, Verity manages a consistent, readable translation. As promised, he has pursued a rendering of the Odyssey that tries to follow the Homer he hears, and he succeeds very well.
1. Wilson, Emily, trans. Homer, The Odyssey. (New York; London: W. W. Norton, 2018.)
2. Fagles, Robert, trans. The Odyssey. (New York; London: Penguin, 1996).
3. Wilson, however, explicitly aims to “reject” the redundancy and repetitiousness that she argues are the unacknowledged hallmark of Homer’s style (82f.).