A Brief Odyssey of Various Odyssey translations & the lrb


In the London Review of Books of 26 April, Colin Burrow reviewed three translations of the Odyssey, the most recent one being Emily Wilson’s, here. After reading it I felt that Burrow had missed out on a further major recent translation, that done by Charles Stein, & for once decided to send a letter to the editor. The lrb responded with what I take is its usual email, stating: “Many thanks for your letter, which we are considering for publication.” Of course it did not publish my letter — the new lrb, just in, has a long response to the review by Emily Wilson & a response to the response by Colin Burrow. Be that as it may, here’s my ‘letter to the editor:’

Colin Burrow’s review of 3 new(ish) translations of the Odyssey is an excellent read as he expertly comments on the differences of the Green, Wilson & Verity versions & on the problems, semantic, psychological, this poem poses in its difference from the earlier Iliad. A shame, however, that Burrow was unaware of, or didn’t think it worthwhile to include & comment on, the 2008 translation by Charles Stein (North Atlantic Books). In terms of contemporary poetry & poetics, the three reviewed translations seem to my eye & ear somewhat clunky, often rather pedestrian, trying to imitate Homerian measures as blank verse, iambic or not, or “translate” their hexameters into iambic pentameters (Wilson).

Stein, on the other hand, as the excellent contemporary poet & performer he is, manages to keep in mind that Homerian epics are not exclusively or not first off immutable written text, but were performed by rhapsodes, “whose work must have supplied the sources and standard for the written versions,” (as Stein writes in his introduction), while in later Hellinistic periods the extant texts were “analyzed and standardized and given the form that comes down to us today.” Translators —from Roman times to today — are, Stein suggests, the continuators of the rhapsodes, as interpreters & performers. In that sense a truly contemporary translation, would not want to stay with an anyway impossible imitatio of the enshrined textual version at the level of its formal measure, or with a similar (in line-length) free-verse version that would try to maintain a vaguely identical verse number. Such a version — & Stein’s is the best one I know — would want to open up the Homeric verse to a contemporary ear & thus to line-breaks that let the poem breathe (a “breathturn,” Celan called his change from a classic to a contemporary measure). as an example, here is how Stein translates the lines Burrow quotes in Green’s translation:

…he himself tossed this way and that
as a man with a sac of fat and blood
before a great blazing fire
turns it rapidly this way and that
eager to get it roasted,
so he tossed and turned
over how to get his hands on the shameless wooers,
one man against a multitude.
Green’s quoted version is:

As a man cooking a paunch chockful of fat and blood
on a fierce blazing fire will turn it to and fro,
determined to get it cooked through as fast as he can,
so Odysseus tossed this way and that, trying to work out
how he was going to lay hands on the shameless suitors,
one man against so many.

Or, the next excerpt, which Burrow’s takes from Emily Wilson’s version, calling it a “sprightly rendering:


‘Be strong, my heart. You were
hounded by worse the day the Cyclops ate
your strong companions. But you kept your nerve,
till cunning saved you from the cave; you thought
that you would die there.’

But which Stein gives as:

Forbear my heart.
You have endured more doglike stuff than this.
When feral Cyclops ate my men, you endured
until my stratagem got you out of the cave
where you thought to perish.
There is a liveliness & accurate complexity (vide the you/my back & forth) to Stein’s translation that I miss in those various others reviewed here. Even if this were due to my own ear & eyes, I think it would have enriched Burrow’s assessment of current versions of the Odyssey in English, if he had included the Stein translation in his review. The obvious differences in approach to translation of the Stein version would have put the three reviewed ones in a very different light.


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1 Response

  1. Gordo McClellan says:

    After reading Burrow’s review I ordered the translations by Green & Verity. After reading your comments I ordered Stein’s translation. I remain a fan of Fagles’ translations of the Illiad and the Odyssey which have displaced those of Lattimore and Rieu in my affections. My fundamental enchantment is with Homer – whomever he may have been – so I continue to look for new portals into “the realms of gold”. It’s remarkable that he continues to command this level of interest, both at the academic and readership levels, after the better part of 3000 years.
    Thanks for bringing this to my attention.

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