Friday, May 1, 2020

"The Odyssey," by Homer & Translated by Emily Wilson--Fiction Review

Welcome to May, my dear internet strangers! Today we’re going to discuss “The Odyssey” by Homer and translated by Emily Wilson. So obviously, unless you at least speak Greek and understand the older incarnations of that language, there is no way to “read” the original “The Odyssey,” which isn’t something I can do, despite the rumors that I’m a time-traveling demon. 

What this effectively means is that if you are like me and are incapable of understanding ancient Greek, not that time-traveling demon business, then to enjoy “The Odyssey,” you’ll have to read some scholar’s translation. So, since there are several to choose from, you should know the experience is always heavily influenced subjectively by that particular translator. 

Homer Emily Wilson

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

I like Emily Wilson as a translator. Her language choice is accessible to a modern audience, which makes the text of this ancient story of a Greek hero easier to understand. There is an argument, in some scholarly circles, that this makes the experience less pure—but I feel that’s nonsense. They reason that since this is a foundational story of the western literary canon, then the language choice should be elevated, antiquated, and often arcane. I find that all stupid because archaic English and ancient Greek have about as much in common as beagles and badgers—in the sense that they’re related if you go backward in time far enough, but not too closely.

I also like Odysseus as a character from the Greek pantheon of heroes—in fact, he’s probably my favorite of them. “Hero” means something very different to us in modern times, then in Homer’s day. Odysseus is often a duplicitous dick; in fact, he’s celebrated for that fact because he’s the cleverest man of his age. He might not be the most heroic person, to our modern sensibilities, but he is the one that figured out that whole let’s give the Trojans a giant horse trick, that won the war. Unlike Hercules or Achilles, Odysseus rarely needs to use his martial skill to solve a problem—typically, it’s his guile that sees him through any situation.       

What I don’t love about this book:

So like with all ancient stories I’ve experienced, “The Odyssey” has a social commentary that is rooted in its particular place and time, and it’s often uncomfortable to modern ears. Women aren’t treated well for one, and the values of the age aren’t the most liberally minded. Odysseus is a legendary warrior who would have lived during what is known as a “heroic age.” The defining trait of heroic ages is they suck for ordinary people—think like the Roman Empire has just collapsed and you’re a peasant on your way into the dark ages, and you’ll get the idea. In such a period, the law is really just what the toughest local bastard says it is, so that means most people get randomly murdered. It’s important to remember this and that “The Odyssey” is a product of a different time and place, so applying modern morals isn’t fair. But it’s also still cringe-worthy when our hero hangs a bunch of women because they got too familiar with the suitors trying to steal his wife and home.

Also, after years of being lost and presumed dead, when Odysseus does return home to Ithaca, there’s a scene where he meets his father, who doesn’t recognize him and is still grieving his death. So naturally, Odysseus uses this moment to screw with his father’s mind. Why? Because that’s what Odysseus does with everyone—he screws with them, he can’t help himself, but still not one of my favorite scenes. 

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The Odyssey is divided into twenty-four “books” in most translations, but the term means something different than how we take it today, each “book” is more akin to what we call a chapter. The narrative starts in medias res, after the events of “The Illiad,” and Odysseus is already well into his adventure to return home after the war with Troy.

The first book’s focus is on Odysseus’ son Telemachus who is desperately seeking any news of his father, who is presumed dead since he never returned after the war with Troy. Telemachus’ mother, Odysseus’ wife Penelope, is being courted by a group of suitors that threaten Telemachus’ inheritance and his place in Ithacan society. Penelope, for her part, without really knowing if her husband still lives, has kept up a heroic effort of stringing out the courtship process so that she doesn’t have to marry one of the suitors. The suitors, however, spend all their time in Odysseus’ house, literally eating up all of Odysseus’ wealth.

When we finally get to Odysseus, he has been trapped on an island with the nymph Calypso, who won’t let him leave because she’s fallen in love with him, for seven years this went on. Calypso has even offered Odysseus immortality, but he’ll have none of it and wants to go home. Eventually, Zeus, greatest of the gods, by way of Hermes, the messenger god, orders Calypso to free Odysseus, which she does, begrudgingly.

Of course, it isn’t so simple to just sail home from there via a raft, because Poseidon, the god of the seas, hates Odysseus because the hero once blinded his son. So Poseidon destroys Odysseus’ raft, and Odysseus barely survives but eventually washes up on the island of the Phaeacians. There he tells his hosts, the Phaeacians, the story of his trials and tribulations, including the one where he blinded Poseidon’s son. Eventually, the Phaeacians give Odysseus a ship so he can return to Ithaca.

Finally, when he’s managed to return to his home island, Odysseus still has to deal with the suitors who are still bent on courting his wife and seizing his home. Odysseus, being alone, and so far removed from Ithacan society, doesn’t have many allies to start with other than the goddess Athena. Not being the most martial of the Greek heroes, Odysseus takes back his home via subterfuge and his wit at first, and doesn’t outright fight and kill the suitors until he’s improved his prospects.   


Doing a direct analysis of “The Odyssey” is really beyond my bandwidth, and it isn’t something that I’m capable of because I can’t actually read “The Odyssey” as I explained above; I can only read a translation of “The Odyssey.” Translation adds a whole layer of subjectivity to what is presented and is influenced by the person doing the translation.

For people who only speak one language, which, for the most part, includes me, it’s sometimes difficult to truly grasp that different languages don’t match up synonymously with one another. What I mean by that is we mono-language speakers tend to think of translation like this: gato means cat in Spanish and perro means dog in Spanish, and we conclude we can just go on like that changing each word to their English equivalent, and that’s translation. But it isn’t—neither gato or perro precisely mean cat or dog, that’s part of their meaning, but specifically, in both cases, they both refer to male animals—for the females they’re gata and perra. This is because words can be feminine and masculine in Spanish in a way they can’t in English. This isn’t just a wacky feature between English and Spanish, either. There are all kinds of things that don’t translate perfectly, or their tone and emphasis are different, or they plum just don’t translate at all from one language to another—between any two languages. So translating from ancient Greek to modern English leaves a lot up for interpretation.

What I can comment on is the translator’s prerogatives when she created her translation of “The Odyssey.” In her introduction, she talks about how “The Odyssey” was originally done as an oral tradition, as in a storyteller would verbally perform it for an audience. Since it’s really quite long for a story being told, out loud to an audience, the storyteller would have to do some practical things. One that I found interesting is the repetition of the same kinds of descriptions verbatim several times throughout the story. In a novel, this wouldn’t be viewed positively—it’d be considered lazy at best and hackneyed at worst. But she explains that since “The Odyssey” in the days it was new had more in common with poetry spoken aloud then a novel written out, these repetitions were done this way so that the storyteller could “keep time” almost like music. So every time the storyteller talked about the sea, he would, at some point, describe it as “the wine-dark sea.” Then he would remember the last time he said that and when the next time he would be repeating it, and thus be better at orienting himself where he was in telling the story. 

Wilson also puts a fresh perspective on the story when she describes Helen—describing her as dog-like. Which seems insulting at first, because it is and the ancient Greeks meant it as such, but not in precisely the way we perceive it in modern times. They meant it more as a descriptor of a mannerism, servile, a little too eager to please—and as a social status, valued, but lower in the hierarchy to men. Some male scholars, however, took the opportunity to translate whatever stands for dog-like in ancient greek to our modern equivalent of a female dog, which is a bitch. By describing Helen as such and then when our modern ears hear it, it’s easy to see how people could be led to make assumptions about Helen’s character that Homer might not have precisely intended.     

Parting thoughts:

Odysseus gets a bad rap because of his sneaky demeanor in roman literature and by Dante Alighieri in “Dante’s Inferno,” which is basically Alighieri’s self-insertion fan fiction where he gets to hang out with his favorite Roman poet Virgil and tour hell. There Odysseus, known as Ulysses because the Romans were weird about his name, is being punished for all eternity alongside Diomedes because of their whole let’s trick the Trojan’s with a giant horse thing.

Odysseus, or Ulysses, if you prefer to be roman about it, was a character living during a “heroic age.” What this means is the standard of his time to measure his worth was how good he was at taking from others and providing for those who follow him—nothing else mattered. Odysseus is ostensibly king of Ithaca, but when he does finally return home—alone since all of his crew died on the journey—he didn’t doubt for a moment that if he just marched in proclaiming himself king, the suitors would just kill him. I feel this tells you a lot about a culture, what it implies, to me at least, a random guy on the interwebs is that the ancient Greeks didn’t entirely view the concept of a king the same way I do, which I’ll admit is heavily influenced by the idea of English kings. King to them was less god’s will and always inherited by the firstborn male heir, and more guy we follow today because he holds all the power in the form of push comes to shove he could probably kill us in a fight.

An excellent resource—that I’d be remiss not to mention—for insight into Odysseus, I'd suggest The Great Courses, “Heroes and Legends” taught by Professor Thomas A. Shippey, specifically lecture two. Professor Shippey shaped my understanding of the full implications of Heroic Ages, and if that isn’t enough for you, it’s also just an awesome lecture series.

I think I like Odysseus so much because he’s atypical for the world he lived in, and yet was still highly respected. No one followed Odysseus for his strength in battle but because he was the smartest guy in the room, and everyone knew that about him. For a pantheon of heroes and gods known more for their brawn and prowess at sport, he sticks out. Also, I just have to respect a guy who literally turns down a goddess, and immortality, because he’s legendarily determined to make it home.

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