Monday, July 04, 2011
I have two versions of Homer’s Odyssey, both picked up in charity shops and left on my shelves largely unread. One buys such books because of the bargain price and the knowledge that they are classics. Making the effort to read them is another matter. It is very easy to get discouraged and lose interest when you doggedly start at the beginning. This is where the qualities of the translation tip the balance. Martin Hammond’s (published in 2000), fools me into thinking I’m reading the Odyssey fresh, in the original Greek: an experience so exciting it drives me to write this piece.
Let us compare it with EV Rieu’s version issued in 1946. As Wikipedia says, “Each night after supper, Rieu would sit with his wife and daughters in London and translate to them passages from the Odyssey.” What resulted was the first in the Penguin Classics series, with Rieu as their general editor. His Odyssey may be considered “classic” in its own right, but that doesn’t make it good, something you don’t have to be an expert to define. Good is what makes the ordinary reader wants to read the whole thing, or be excited enough to spend a morning writing about it. You can judge for yourself from the following parallel extracts: Hammond first, then Rieu. I’ve colour-coded the text to make it easier to compare, and added a few corresponding notes at the end.
“So we sailed from there [the country of the Lotus-eaters] in distress of heart. And we came to the land of the Cyclopes, a violent lawless people, who do no sowing of crops or ploughing with their own hands, but simply trust in the immortal gods and crops of every sort grow there unsown and unploughed—wheat and barley and vines yielding wine from fine grapes—and the rain from Zeus gives them increase. These people have no assemblies for debate and no common laws, but they live on the tops of high mountains in hollow caves, where each man is the law for his own women and children, and they care nothing for others.
“When our ships beached we took down all the sails, and then jumped out ourselves where the surf breaks. And there we fell asleep and waited for the holy dawn.
“When early-born Dawn appeared with her rosy fingers, we went roaming all over the island, delighted with it.
When the sun set and darkness came on, we lay down to sleep where the surf breaks on the shore.
“When early-born Dawn appeared with her rosy fingers, I held a meeting with the men and spoke to them all: ...”
“So we left that country and sailed on sick at heart. And we came to the land of the Cyclopes, a fierce, uncivilized people who never lift a hand to plant or plough but put their trust in Providence. All the crops they require spring up unsown and untilled, wheat and barley and the vines whose generous clusters give them wine when ripened for them by the timely rains. The Cyclopes have no assemblies for the making of laws, nor any settled customs, but live in hollow caverns in the mountain heights, where each man is lawgiver to his children and his wives, and nobody cares a jot for his neighbours.
“It was not till our ships beached that we lowered sail. We then jumped out on the shore, fell asleep where we were and so waited for the blessed light of day.
“When the fresh Dawn came and with her crimson streamers lit the sky, we were delighted with what we saw of the island and set out to explore it.
The sun went down, night fell, and we slept on the sea-shore.
“With the first rosy light of Dawn, I assembled my company and gave them their orders....”
References to the Greek gods
Rieu is just plain wrong to paraphrase the immortal gods as Providence! Unless we can let the text transport us to three thousand years ago, when there was no such thing as Providence—the word evokes a Christian idea—we are at a fatal disadvantage. We are not reading the Odyssey itself but a retelling, like Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare, written for children.
where the surf breaks
Repetition of epithets is one of Homer’s characteristic poetic devices. Hammond preserves them, Rieu makes a point of varying them, as if Homer’s habit is an embarrassing atavism. (I don’t read Greek, but assume the repetitions from Hammond.)
And there we fell asleep and waited for the holy dawn
Hammond tells us how Homer’s Greeks felt about the dawn. Why else should I want to read the Odyssey, but to see through the eyes of his contemporaries! Rieu is more concerned with idiomatic English.
When the sun set and darkness came on, we lay down to sleep Hammond’s version is transparent to Homer’s poetry, conveys the awe of sleeping in the open after the darkening of the sky, an awe not lessened by frequent repetition of the same event. Rieu is impelled by a need to be perfunctory in such matters, for a reader who says “Cut to the chase, EV!”, and likes the same thing said in a different way each time.
When early-born Dawn appeared with her rosy fingers
Hammond repeats word-for-word this most characteristic of Homer’s epithets, one which connects us directly to the animistic source of Greek religious awareness—the personification of phenomena in Nature. I speak here not as an academic. I may have the words wrong in their terms. For Rieu, this rosy-fingered dawn business seems to be tedious, has to be paraphrased anew each time: his Wikipedia entry makes special mention of it.
I held a meeting with the men and spoke to them all
---This sounds like the true voice of Odysseus, clear across three thousand years. “I assembled my company and gave them their orders.” ---This sounds like Rieu, London Blitz survivor, trying to make Homer vivid for those accustomed to ration books, air-raid wardens, the sense of war being carried out on their behalf by heroes elsewhere ...
I’ll grant that EV Rieu was a literary hero of his time. But we the readers have to look out for ourselves. Hammond is your man.
Posted by Vincent at 12:12 pm