Friday, August 23, 2013

The Odyssey

The Odyssey
Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Odysseus is a wily and courageous man who spends ten years on the battlefield of the Trojan War below the high walls of Troy. He is also a determined man who overcomes all obstacles for another ten years while returning home to his beloved Penelope. And Stephen Mitchell is a determined man who translates Homer’s Odyssey on the shoulders of previous translations by Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, and Robert Fagles, among others.

If you’ve been putting off reading the Odyssey, Mitchell’s translation is a good place to start because his vocabulary is contemporary. The Odyssey has been singing for over 2,000 years; Mitchell’s lines read easily and move the reader quickly through a story that sings again in his version. M. L. Finley’s The World of Odysseus provides a solid foundation for reading the Odyssey. In it, Finley reminds us of the intensity and depth of commitment required to present an epic like the Odyssey:
In 1954…a sixty-year-old Serbian bard who could neither read nor write recited a poem of the length of the Odyssey, making it up as he went along, yet retaining meter and form and building a complicated narrative. The performance took two weeks, with a week in between, the bard chanting for two hours each morning and two more in the afternoon.
That’s an accomplishment very hard to imagine in the era of Twitter, hashtags, and shrinking attention spans.

  Here are four short examples of translations of the same lines (lines 250 and following) from Book Twelve of the Odyssey. Odysseus has filled the ears of his men with beeswax so they cannot hear the songs of the Sirens, as anyone who hears their singing leaps into the sea and then drowns trying to reach them. Odysseus has been tied to the mast so that he can hear the singing that has led to death for everyone else who has heard it. He calls to his men to release him, but they are deaf to his requests.
The lovely voices in ardor appealing over the water
made me crave to listen…. (Fitzgerald 1961)

So they sang, in sweet utterance, and the heart within me
desired to listen…. (Lattimore 1965)

So they sent their ravishing voices out across the air
and the heart inside me throbbed to listen longer.
 (Fagles 1997)

This was the song they sang with their lovely voices,
and my heart longed to hear it. (Mitchell 2013)
Mitchell’s version is closest to our use of language today. But I retain a fondness for some of the early work by Fitzgerald, especially for his translation of the words of Odysseus when he finds himself surrounded by the spirits of the dead in Hades: “Here was great loveliness of ghosts!” Neither Lattimore’s “and now they gathered in swarms around the dark blood” nor Fagles’s “and there slowly came a grand array of women” approaches the mysterious beauty of the Fitzgerald translation. Nonetheless, if you haven’t read the Odyssey yet, I encourage you to start with Stephen Mitchell’s accessible translation.

- James Reid

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