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Epic Update

The best translations of Homer try to make something new out of the work. That doesn't mean making Homer modern; it means finding a way to let him be universal.

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When the savants on the school board in Oakland issue a new version of Homer's Odyssey that starts off with the line, "Yo, Muse!

Gimme yo' rap 'bout dat shifty mothaf---a..." you'll hear plenty of croaking from pedants under their sackcloth and ashes, but if the new translation gives its customers a world of heroes they can believe in, where is the problem? It won't be Homer's world, true, but that's beyond the power of any translation, period: "The Odyssey, considered strictly as an aesthetic object... can no more be translated into English than rhododendron can be translated into dogwood." So wrote Robert Fitzgerald, creator of one of the most successful Homers in this century. The odd thing about Homer is that the more his translators aim for absolute fidelity, the more their results seem to resemble cartoons. The best efforts, or at least the ones that last, are those that try to make something new out of the epics instead. That doesn't mean making Homer modern; it means finding a new way to let him be what he is--universal.

Homer is for everyone, but he speaks above all to those who speak English: no author has been translated into any one language as many times as Homer has been recast into ours. Christian industry has given everybody a Bible in his own tongue, but the English and their tribe have been drawn to Homer, as a writer, more often than they have been to God himself. Echoes of the poet can be heard in Chaucer, and the first true translation appeared even before the King James Version, back when freelances were still being strangled and burned for trying their hands at the Bible. Since then Homer has followed Homer in a long and motley parade, dressed up in every conceivable meter of English poetry, singing his verses rhymed, blank, or free, speaking prose studiously archaic or headlong and racy, or just telling tales in the plain talk of the campfire. Different as they are, all these Homers seem to be nourished by the faith, as the author of one of them said some time ago, that "it is better to write one word upon the rock than a thousand upon the water or the sand." That sounds good, but the normal fate of Homeric translations is rapid and total oblivion.

Even so, they keep coming. The latest attempt to make some mark on the rock is a new Odyssey by Robert Fagles, whose Iliad appeared in 1988. Fagles is aiming for a middle ground between flawless accuracy and what he calls "the expectations of a contemporary reader." But such a reader--except maybe the most "contemporary"--will find that Homer has met him more than halfway in this version: within the limits of an unabridged, generally accurate translation in verse, Fagles makes the Odyssey sound as up-to-date as he possibly can.

That's obviously a good thing--as long as we don't get too much of it. Nobody could argue with Fagles's idea of "a modern English Homer," but he takes it as a license to sprinkle his pages with loose-jawed lingo like "look out for your own skin," "he'll sit tight a good long while," "as if there's no tomorrow," "shooting off your mouth," "don't press your luck," "I'm fired up," "she's played it fast and loose," and "cooling our heels." You "catch my drift"--another hard-boiled cliche Fagles jams into the mouth of the poet. Philip Marlowe is a hero too, but when you find his tough talk on top of traditionally Homeric lines like "greeting his king now with winging words" it looks less like the icing on the cake than a tarantula.

The translator's urge to modernize Homer is easy to understand. Though the poet wrote about a world ruled by codes that couldn't be more different from any you're familiar with (unless you happen to be a gangbanger), he peoples it with characters that are as recognizably true and human as any you have ever met. In fact they're a hundred times more true and human, as if electrified by their creator's genius--always set to full, but always in proportion. To render the alienness and the universality of these beings at the same time is the holy grail of Homeric translation, and on this score Fagles succeeds about as well as anyone can.

His Odyssey has a directness that brings the action vividly before your eyes, and a speed that enhances the feeling ("inevitable if not irresistible," said Fitzgerald) that you're watching a movie. What could be more universal than that? I doubt any director in Hollywood has a trick in his bag that Homer didn't use first: the flashback, the spiked drink, the tendency of all females with more than a few lines to fall for the lonely hero, the soft-porn interlude to perk up the audience, dramatic disguise and recognition, sly references to earlier features, the hero's ease in clearing a room against all odds, the swaggering bad guy singled out for gruesome revenge. Even stand-ins for the artist are brought in, Fellini-like, to sing the tales of Odysseus to Odysseus himself. The difference is that Homer, unlike the stubble-faced auteur, believes in his world completely, and he knows how to make us believe in it too.

If Fagles can be faulted, it's because he sometimes succeeds too well at making Homer contemporary. Near the end, for instance, when one of Penelope's suitors clasps Odysseus around the knees and begs for his life, Fagles has him say, "Never, I swear, did I harass any woman in your house"; nowadays that sounds like a denial that he complimented them on their makeup. (Odysseus, who had a policy of zero tolerance in this area, whacks his head off anyway.) And at the climax of the poem, when the hero finally takes his wife in his arms, Fagles writes that Odysseus "wept as he held the wife he loved." The last word puts a decidedly modern gloss on a quality that, in Homer, refers to something "suited to his taste" rather than to an object of romantic love. If Homer speaks for the childhood of humanity, as many have said, then Odysseus's "love" for his wife is probably closer to what an eight-year-old feels when he says, with all the passion his little heart can muster, "I love pizza!"

This is not to belittle the heroic couple. Their bond is profound, and it lies at the center of Odysseus's overwhelming desire to get home. But to make Homer seem more modern than he is merely dulls the edge of his universality. This is especially true in the domestic realm, the real heart of this epic. For all the thrills of its hero's great wanderings, we can see a lot more of ourselves in the light cast by the home fires of the Odyssey than we can around its campfires in faraway lands. The Iliad, a few significant exceptions apart, is all about men, war, and glory. The Odyssey is about trying to find the peace, and more than anything else that means peace between men and women. Let us see how Homer arranges this peace, step by step, as Odysseus makes his way back to Ithaca and Penelope's arms.

We find him first on an island in the middle of the ocean, being held as a kind of sex slave by a nymph named Calypso. She has forced Odysseus to lie beside her every night for seven years, "unwilling lover alongside lover all too willing"; but now Zeus is finally giving him leave to go home. Calypso, like any other woman in her position, demands to know how Odysseus can possibly leave a goddess like her for his own wife, a mere mortal growing inevitably long in the tooth. "All that you say is true," Odysseus answers,

Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you,
your beauty, stature. She is mortal after all
and you, you never age or die. . .
Nevertheless I long--I pine, all my days--
to travel home and see the dawn of my return.

Here, during the first boy-girl breakup recorded in European literature, the best our famously clever hero can do is trot out the old "It's not you, it's me" speech, a line that must have been ancient even then. This is poetry, however, so it works like a charm. The couple enjoys one last night together ("long in each other's arms they lost themselves in love"), and the next day Calypso quite gaily helps Odysseus build the raft that will take him away. They have managed to part "friends," to adopt the modern euphemism for this condition, though for their farewell Calypso slips on "a loose, glistening robe, filmy, a joy to the eye," just to make sure her lover knows what he's leaving behind.

Odysseus abandons a nymph, but then immediately finds a nymphet. After his raft is splintered by an angry god he collapses on the shore of Scheria, a gentle fairyland that serves as a kind of halfway house between the magical world of his adventures and the hard realities he's got to face back home on Ithaca. Completely naked, filthy with mud and sea wrack, Odysseus is wakened by the princess Nausicaa and her friends playing a game of beach ball. Just as her kingdom is an enchanting blend of magic and reality, so Nausicaa herself is delicately poised at the moment when she is no longer simply a girl but not yet fully a woman. Odysseus, whose hands once drove a smoking stake into the eye of the Cyclops, now comes before this young beauty holding a bunch of leaves to cover himself, begging her for help. Nausicaa takes pity on him, and after he cleans up and gets dressed (the girls had just been doing laundry) she develops an epic-size crush on the castaway, telling her friends,

At first he seemed appalling, I must say--
now he seems like a god who rules the skies up there!
Ah, if only a man like that were called my husband,
lived right here, pleased to stay forever. . .

It looks like a good deal for Odysseus too. Nausicaa's kingdom is a utopia utterly at peace, and the princess herself is as winsome a young lass as our hero could ever hope to find: subtle, gracious, and brave, "white-armed Nausicaa" is the great Lolita of antiquity, though a chaste one. She has smitten the scholars at least, to judge by the many fulsome if not quite Humbertian bouquets they have offered in praise of her virginal charm. Still, Homer is not Nabokov. When the wise old king of this never-never land asks his guest to please stay on as his son-in-law, and even throws in a house and riches to sweeten the deal, Odysseus takes the hard road back to Ithaca instead. "Remember me at times," the girl says as she bids goodbye to her handsome stranger. I don't think too many of his commentators, given the same choice, would have so easily disappointed the hopes of one of the most fetching young maidens in literature.

What is it about Penelope anyway? She has drawn Odysseus steadily homeward through a decade of danger and temptation, meanwhile arousing the interest of every one of the most eligible bachelors on Ithaca and the surrounding islands--men who are probably ten years her junior, if not more. Whatever Penelope has, it is powerful stuff. Unless I am mistaken Odysseus never puts his wife's appeal directly into words, but we do have the testimony of the unofficial chief of her suitors. This woman, he says, is

quick to exploit the gifts Athena gave her--
a skilled hand for elegant work, a fine mind
and subtle wiles too--we've never heard the like

Of all the most celebrated queens of the past, he goes on, "not one could touch Penelope for intrigue." These men are wooers, remember; they all want to marry Penelope--not for her husband's property, which they feel perfectly free to steal anyway, but because of who she is as a woman. Homer's chief epithet for her is translated variously as "wise," "circumspect," "cautious," and "prudent": the suitors, as we might say, love her for her mind. Among all the dazzling goddesses, ladies, and concubines that decorate Homer's poetry, it is Penelope, "shining among women," who stands out as his most indelible female creation.

Most people think of her as the epitome of loyal womanhood, but any woman that tough is bound to get a few spitballs from the boys in the back of the class. T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia), who also translated the Odyssey, called Penelope "the sly cattish wife"; one of Homer's chief modern editors put her down as "rather vain and inert"; and another scholar that editor quotes with approval resented her for being "just the kind of woman who cries herself to sleep in difficulties, and wakes up looking wonderfully plump and fresh"--a Bronze Age Scarlett O'Hara. But whatever any one man may say about a woman who is willing and able to outsmart him, that mob of 108 young bucks roistering outside Penelope's door--"all of them lifting prayers to lie beside her"--is pretty clear proof that the type is immemorially fascinating to the brutes in general.

Penelope, in her feminine way, is every bit as wily as her husband. They are perfectly matched, they complete each other; they make, to borrow another modern phrase, an exceptionally good team. Maybe it's in this sense that Penelope is "suited to his taste." When Odysseus finally comes home he is disguised as a beggar, and the tension Homer draws out of a husband and wife facing each other for the first time in 20 years is exquisite. Odysseus won't tell Penelope who he is, but there is such electricity in the moment that it's impossible not to feel that a kind of subliminal understanding is passing between them, proof of the depth of their kind of "love."

Does she know or doesn't she? Homer isn't clear on the point, perhaps by design, and it has been debated endlessly. But it really isn't much of a stretch to suppose that "circumspect Penelope" is playing a very deep game with her husband, fully aware of the dangers of exposing him too soon. It is Penelope, after all, who comes up with the idea of making the suitors compete for her hand by trying to string her husband's great bow; Odysseus himself seems to have forgotten all about it. This is a decisive stroke, because the bow is just the kind of weapon he's going to need to kill the men massed against him. We can also understand how Penelope, after the battle, might still doubt that the man now claiming to be her husband really is Odysseus. Twenty years of dashed hopes are not likely to be erased in an instant. So she asks him to move their marriage bed, the one he'd built around the rooted trunk of an olive tree--an everlasting token of their union. It is the final and most intimate test of his long journey back. Everybody wants to get home, but Odysseus really made it, alone, and for all time.

To see how Fagles stacks up against his predecessors in his delivery of this tale, let's check in at the point where the hero first comes into view. Thanks to the pacing and restraint of our poet, this moment is delayed until well into Book 5 (out of 24). If the epic were a two-hour movie, that would mean keeping Eastwood or Schwarzenegger offscreen for more than 20 minutes--unthinkable for Hollywood, but Homer knows a deeper art. He builds our interest first by revealing the character of his hero in war stories told by old comrades-in-arms, and by showing us how the situation on Ithaca is growing more desperate by the day. Young toughs from the neighborhood have taken over Odysseus's household, making free with his vast stores of wealth and paying crude attentions to his wife. Penelope has been loyal so far, but after 20 years without a single word from her husband she may be developing two minds on the subject; she is nobody's fool, exactly the kind of woman who likes to keep her options open. Odysseus's father has been reduced to a mental and physical wreck by his son's absence, and the hero's own son is a mere hobbledehoy unable to defend his interests. The suitors aren't taking any chances, however, and are waiting in ambush to kill him.

Odysseus, meanwhile, is still captive on Calypso's island, where the situation couldn't be more different. The place is a wonderland of fragrant woods and trickling streams, with all kinds of flowers, herbs, and fruit for the picking. The warden of this prison paradise is an immortal goddess, as gorgeous as they come, who wants nothing more than to make Odysseus immortal too, if only he will have her. Homer even makes a point of praising the loveliness of Calypso's voice--a pertinent detail to any man looking at more than a few lifetimes with the same woman. Ithaca apart, things could obviously be a lot worse for the hero. But Ithaca is everything to Odysseus, as we see at once when Homer's camera eye finally pans over to him on the beach, catching a scene of pure heroic manliness:

Off he sat on a headland, weeping there as always,
wrenching his heart with sobs and groans and anguish,
gazing out over the barren sea through blinding tears.

So Fagles; now let's see what the competition offers. Here is Richmond Lattimore, from his well-known translation of 30 years ago:

but he was sitting out on the beach, crying, as before now
he had done, breaking his heart in tears, lamentation, and sorrow,
as weeping tears he looked out over the barren water.

Fagles is more plain, always a good thing in Homer, but Lattimore is more accurate. Our poet says nothing about "blinding" tears, which muffles the piercing intensity of the hero's gaze, a typical Homeric touch. Lawrence may have captured it best of all in his prose version (1932, and still in print):

Odysseus, who sat weeping on the shore as was his wont, crying out his soul with groaning and griefs and letting flow his tears while he eyed the fruitless sea.

Both Lattimore and Lawrence, on the other hand, sound stilted next to Fagles, whose Odyssey has an overall matter-of-factness that goes down easy. Lawrence chose his archaic words deliberately, "to raise the colour." Lattimore didn't aim for stiffness, but with his passion for verbal accuracy and his line-for-line fidelity to Homer's text--a daunting standard that Fagles does not attempt--he did put himself into a pretty tight box, and sometimes you feel that he's squirming.

Lattimore is more faithful to Homer in his meter too, especially at the end of the verse. This is where it really counts, because nearly every one of Homer's lines ends in the same way, with a dactyl (long syllable and two shorts) followed by a spondee (two longs). Lattimore mimics this beat whenever he can, as at the end of the first two lines quoted above. If the rhythm eludes you there, try these examples drawn from the headlines of today: Nelson Mandela, Hillary Clinton, and Beavis and Butt-head. As these names range from the noble to the deplorable, by way of the indictable, so too does Homer bring the whole breadth of life under the singular rhythm of his verse--"the strongest weapon in his poetic arsenal," as Bernard Knox writes in his excellent introduction to Fagles's Odyssey. "The long line," he explains, "no matter how it varies in the opening and middle always ends in the same way...imposing on things and men and gods the same pattern, presenting in a rhythmic microcosm the wandering course to a fixed end." That's hard to beat as a description of Homer's line, but unfortunately the translation that follows does little to convey the hypnotic pulse of the epic.

I don't mean to say that Fagles hasn't got rhythm, but it's often hard to hear and it almost always lacks the Homeric stamp. His line is loosely iambic, the meter of Shakespeare. That's not a bad thing in itself, but joined to his plain-Jane vocabulary and syntax the result can sound pretty flat. Here is Fagles in one of Homer's typical transitions to a new day:

As the sun sprang up, leaving the brilliant waters in its wake,
climbing the bronze sky to shower light on immortal gods
and mortal men across the plowlands ripe with grain--

Now listen to Fitzgerald's version (1961), done in the same meter:

The sun rose on the flawless brimming sea
into a sky all brazen--all one brightening
for gods immortal and for mortal men
on plowlands kind with grain.

Fagles's verse can give the impression, as I think it does here, of simply having too many words. Though Fitzgerald's Odyssey is more densely "poetic," it's also suffused with a lightness and lyricism that make it very appealing. Those may not be Homeric qualities, but since the translator cannot reproduce Homer, he has to re-create him. To do that he has to have an idea of Homer.

Fagles's line is shorter and cleaner than Lattimore's, which seems pedantic in comparison, and it flies much closer to earth than Fitzgerald's; this is not an Odyssey for the antiquarian, but for anyone willing to take the time to listen. The book itself is attractively produced, and will soon be followed by a Penguin edition. For all these reasons Fagles's translation is well placed to become the standard in verse. Still, it's not clear just what his overall idea of Homer is. Maybe that's by design, a deliberate restraint. Sometimes his Odyssey reads like an attempt to apply the robustness of Lawrence to verse like Fitzgerald's, but the result is neither as burly and masculine as the one, nor, to my ear, as poetically rich as the other.

Perhaps the word that best describes this translation is free. Fagles's approach is scholarly and the result is nothing if not distinguished; but like every translator of Homer he's had to sail between the Scylla of literalism and the Charybdis of his own fancy, and like many before him he seems to have found the second a less repellent danger. His style works best in his treatment of Homer's repeated formulas: the epithets of the major characters, the set pieces of daily life, the transitions, and the dozens and hundreds of lines that amount to nothing more than "he said." They're all artifacts of oral poetry that can easily drag a reader down, and Fagles has been ruthless in bending them to his purpose--to create the swiftest and the clearest Homer he possibly can.

According to a famous set of principles laid down by the Victorian Matthew Arnold, a good translation of Homer has to be rapid; plain and direct in words; plain and direct in ideas; and it has to be noble. The first three are within the reach of any translator who has good taste and a good ear, and Fagles has done a lot here we can admire. Nobility presents a different problem. You can't aim for it directly, but it's what makes Homer Homer, often where you least expect it: a gust of wind bellying out a sail, tears exploding in loneliness or frustration, the blood of a sacrificial ox soaking sand on the beach, the daily acts of washing, dressing, and eating--Homer irradiates them all with his matchless sense of dignity and proportion.

If Fagles comes up short in this respect it's hardly fair to blame him. We're closer to Shakespeare in time and language than even Aristotle was to Homer, so the real wonder is that the first poet of Europe can touch us at all, let alone with such warmth and immediacy. But to translate his nobility--that would take another Homer, or at least another epoch. Of all the antiquated and barbaric virtues running through the Odyssey, which is more alien to the present than that?

Homer: The Odyssey, translated by Robert Fagles (Viking: $35).

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Heather McAdams.

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