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Pre-Discussion: The Odyssey

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Our February episode of The Idle Book Club will be on The Odyssey, specifically the Emily Wilson translation.

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Great, looking forward to that! I know The Odyssey well, although the most recent translation I've read is Barry B. Powell (2014). I gather this new Emily Wilson one is excellent too, so perhaps you'll be the last nudge I need to pick up another version.

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Finished this today. Some thoughts:


This is the first time I've read The Odyssey from start to finish. I've never really read or studied much in the way of the ancient classics, aside from the occasional foray into extracts from Aristotle and Plato as part of studying English Lit. In my case most of my prior knowledge of The Odyssey probably came from reading Ulysses. Joyce's novel is perhaps more generous with its interpretation of Homer than is commonly supposed, but in a strange way I think it helped. Although trying to map one directly on to the other is mostly just an exercise in frustration. At any rate, I know very little about prior versions of The Odyssey in English.


Reading the translator's note - which is a wonderfully passionate piece of writing in itself - I was struck by Wilson's insistence on producing a translation which was both proper, in the sense of presenting the truth of the original text as far as possible without unnecessary embellishment; but also right, in an ethical sense. (This is touched upon in the interview posted above as well.) She's very precise, for example, in referring to characters as 'slaves' when they might once have been called 'servants'. These are deliberate, thoughtful decisions. And she doesn't shy away from depicting the immediate brutality in the story, even when this might affect the sympathies we hold for the characters.


I think this idea that an author or translator might have an immediate moral duty towards their audience is perhaps the most modern thing about this translation. I found it easy to imagine earlier translators who might subordinate what is right or what is correct to what is beautiful, but Wilson puts this the other way round. There is no sense here of a writer who has tried to imagine themselves into the moral codes of another era by framing something awful as something righteous. A rose is a rose is a rose: a slave is a slave is a slave.


Wilson seems to be operating on the idea that art is no longer entirely for art's sake; some of it might be morally good or bad after all. That this translation has been so positively received is a sign perhaps that it's entirely fitting for our era, in which we seem to expect a higher moral standard from artists (or at least evidence of some moral standard). We don't want the author to be dead; we want them very much alive, and responsible for their texts. Ideally we want them to be good people as well.


And yet I never had the sense, reading this, that this ethical imperative was overriding the aesthetics of the text. It's kind of the opposite: first we have the ethical choice, and what proceeds from that is aesthetic effects that might have unexpected resonance. Wilson has a remarkable talent for creating imagery that lingers in the mind as it might in a particularly affecting horror movie. There's so many wonderful scenes here but the one that haunts me as I write this is the ghastly picture of the slave women brutally hanged by Odysseus and Telemachus near the end of the story: 


At that, he wound a piece of sailor’s rope
round the rotunda and round the mighty pillar,
stretched up so high no foot could touch the ground.
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap –
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony. They gasped,
feet twitching for a while, but not for long.


But she doesn't loom in judgment over the text. The translator isn't here to tell the reader how to feel about what happens every time Odysseus does something reprehensible. It is just there, plainly. 'A bitter bedtime' - what a phrase. 


The whole thing is very beautiful. Did I mention that? It's very beautiful.

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