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“Sing the song for us too...”

Rachel D. Friedman

Homer’s Odyssey begins not by naming its hero, which doesn’t happen until line 11, but by describing him with an adjective and a four-line relative clause:

Sing into me, Muse, of the man of many turns who wandered far and wide after he sacked the holy city of Troy: he saw the cities of many men and learned their minds but suffered greatly at sea....

The adjective that I have here translated as “of many turns” is polutropos. It is formed from the adjective polu, which means “many,” and the noun tropē, which means “turn.” We might well wonder what it means to speak of a man of “many turns.” The challenges posed by this adjective speak both to the elusiveness of our hero and to the many forms that the stories about him have taken in the almost 3,000-year history of the Odyssey. A survey of several of the options used in the 400 years of the poem’s history in English, the focus of our exhibit, reveals just how different one Odysseus can be from another: Ogilby’s (1669) is “prudent,” Bryant’s (1871) “sagacious,” Morris’ (1879) “shifty,” Butler’s (1900) “ingenious,” Lawrence’s (1932) “various-minded,” Fitzgerald’s (1961) “skilled in all ways of contending,” Fagles’ (1996) “the man of twists and turns,” Lombardo’s (2000) “cunning,” and Wilson’s (2017) “complicated.”

The multiple turns of the adjectives used to describe Odysseus point both to the variability of the poem’s hero and to the shifting and versatile nature of the stories told about him. He’s a hero who is as hard to pin down as are those stories to classify. Is he the loyal husband who rejects an offer of immortality from the goddess Kalypso so that he can return home to Penelope?; the roving warrior always interested in new journeys and new opportunities to accumulate wealth?; or the deceitful trickster who brings his poor father Laertes close to death when he tests him in Odyssey 24? In fact, he is, as readers of Homer’s poem know well, all of these things, though as the poem has traveled through time each, era has inevitably found both the traits that it wants to celebrate and those it wants to obscure.1

The Odyssey is self-conscious about the versatility of its subject matter and even celebrates it. After it opens with the deliberately ambiguous identification of its hero, it offers a quick synopsis of Odysseus’ and his companions’ experiences since Troy and then calls on the Muse again, this time to implore her to find her own way into the story: “From any place, then, goddess, daughter of Zeus, sing the song for us too.” The poet leaves up to the Muse the decision as to where to begin the song. In doing so he acknowledges that the poem could open in many ways. When he asks that she sing it “for us too,” he further points to the fluidity of the poem by asking for, as it were, the latest version of the poem, the one that is most appropriate for the particular audience hearing the poem at a specific moment in time.

Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey were written down sometime in the eighth century Bce, though they were the products of a much earlier history of oral composition. When they were committed to writing the particular versions of the stories they contain—the Iliad treats the last year of the Trojan War and the Odyssey covers Odysseus’ ten-year journey home—became relatively fixed in time. Prior to this fixing of the poems into the forms that remain recognizable today almost 3,000 years later, there were undoubtedly many variable renditions of the stories surrounding the Trojan War circulating. While the oral origins of both the Odyssey and the Iliad have been understood in at least some form since the Italian Enlightenment thinker Giambattista Vico (1668–1744) first suggested an evolutionary model for the emergence of the poems, it was only with the work of the American scholar Milman Parry in the 1920s and ’30s and then his student, Albert Lord, that the full implications of this idea were revealed.2 Their work played an essential role in revolutionizing Homeric scholarship. Parry and Lord’s findings made it possible to understand how radically differently we must read and interpret a work that was composed orally. It was no longer enough to acknowledge the poems’ origins in an oral tradition and then simply proceed to read them as we would any text.

Among the most important of Parry and Lord’s discoveries, which they made through fieldwork with bards (guslari) still practicing in remote Balkan villages, was that for poets in an oral culture, the poem is composed anew, in the moment of performance, each time it is performed. The bard is able to do this because he has inherited a toolbox of traditional material—a fixed metrical line, as well as repeating epithets, formulae, and type scenes—that he draws on as he rearranges the song’s elements from performance to performance. While the guslar might say that the song he sings is the same every night, for a literate person listening to the songs each one would sound markedly different: maybe the bard begins his song in a different place from night to night, maybe he omits or amplifies one episode or another, or maybe the of the performance overall varies significantly. What Parry and Lord discovered, then, was that we cannot think of Homer’s poems as texts that existed in one original or pure form, but that they each represent only one particular version of utterly fluid and mutable songs. To read the Homeric poems, we must understand this fluidity and consider the ways that the poems themselves existed in constant conversation with other iterations of their stories.

This understanding of the oral origins of the poems better positions us to understand how each new version of one of the poems becomes its own work. In this exhibit we consider nineteen versions of the Odyssey as we showcase selected editions from the poem’s 400-year history in English. Our exhibit includes many important milestones in this one segment of the poem’s nearly 3,000-year history: the first translation into English (George Chapman, 1616); the first translation by an American (William Cullen Bryant, 1871); and, a mere few months before the opening of this exhibit, the first translation of the poem into English by a woman (Emily Wilson, 2017). Also among our translators are figures one might not expect to see in this company: the political philosopher Thomas Hobbes (1588–1679), T.E. Lawrence of “Lawrence of Arabia” fame (1888–1935), and William Morris (1834–1896), a member of the British Arts and Crafts movement better known for his wallpaper designs than his classical scholarship.

Each of these translators, together with, as the case may be, their patrons, editors, illustrators, and publishers, produced their own Odyssey. Once we accept this seemingly obvious truth, then the full richness of the individual works can emerge. We have much more to gain when we can appreciate each one on its own terms and evaluate them, no longer by the increasingly outmoded concept of fidelity to the “original”—since, as many translators would themselves now acknowledge, such a thing is not really ever possible—but by asking ourselves

“Who is this Odysseus”? What is this Odyssey? Every translation is itself an act of interpretation. The etymologies for the English words “translation” and “metaphor” are the same. The first is formed on Latin roots (trans + fero, whose perfect participle is latum) and the second on Greek (meta + fero). The first element is a preposition that means “across” and the second, the same in both languages, the verb “to carry.” So, despite the fact that we think of a translation as having a more exact relationship to its source text than a metaphor does to the object of its comparison, the root meaning of both words is the same: a carrying across. In both cases the carrying across is figurative and inexact. What choices does a translator make about what to carry across from one language, one form, one culture to the other? What sort of metaphoric relationship does she create between her work and the ancient Greek poem?

We can get a sense of some of the decisions involved in this process of carrying over by looking at two roughly contemporaneous works from the exhibit, both displayed in case 10. The first is E.V. Rieu’s 1946 translation, which became the first volume in the Penguin Classics in Translation series.3 In his introduction Rieu says that it was his aim “to present the modern reader with a rendering of the Odyssey, which he may understand with ease and read with appreciation.”4 His paperback translation, which cost 25¢ in 1945, the equivalent of about $3.50 in 2017, went on to sell more than two million copies by 1964.5 When the translation first came out, it was reviewed in the New York Times by Eugene O’Neill Jr., son of the playwright and then an Assistant Professor of Greek at Yale, whose review was titled “Famous Voyage, Cut-Rate.” In his cheeky title and exuberant opening line—“The Odyssey, in English prose, for twenty-five cents!”—O’Neill celebrates the democratizing appeal of this easily available and easily readable prose version. It is to his credit that O’Neill was able to appreciate these merits of Rieu’s translation even though he goes on to call the “style and the tone of the translation... hopelessly unHomeric” and to say that Rieu’s language is egregiously lacking in dignity.6

The plainness, even, we must say, flatness, of Rieu’s style comes through in the way that his translation begins:

The hero of the tale which I beg the Muse to help me tell is that resourceful man who roamed the wide world after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy. He saw the cities of many peoples and he learnt their ways. He suffered many hardships on the high seas in his struggles to preserve his life and bring his comrades home. But he failed to save those comrades, in spite of all his efforts. It was their own sin that brought them to their doom, for in their folly they devoured the oxen of Hyperion the Sun, and the god saw to it that they should never return.

 There is a matter-of-fact quality that accurately conveys the sense of the poem but preserves none of its beauty. In his 1991 introduction to a revised version of his father’s translation, D.C.H. Rieu describes his father’s concept for the Penguin Classics series this way: “His vision was to make available to the ordinary reader, in good modern English, the great classics of every language. This vision, shadowy at first, came to him in the early days of the Second World War, when he used to sit in the drawing-room after supper with the Odyssey on his lap, translating aloud to his wife and daughters, while the bombs fell on London.”7 Though the younger Rieu leaves the connection implied but not expressed, there is certainly, in his recollection of his father’s vision for the series, the idea that the spreading of the wisdom contained in these paperbacks to as many people as possible would serve as some kind of antidote to the barbarity gripping Europe at the time.

In our exhibit Rieu’s Penguin shares a case with Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 edition. The two works could not be more different. Fitzgerald’s translation was published in cloth by Doubleday, with stunning line drawings by the Swiss artist Hans Erni, and sold for $4.95 when it came out, the equivalent of about $41 in 2017. It actually began as an experiment he undertook in a review of Rieu for Poetry magazine. His review, titled “A Prose Odyssey,” like O’Neill’s, expresses appreciation for the value of a project like Rieu’s, but his focus is on what is lost by rendering Homer’s poem in prose.8

Homer’s poems were composed in a dactylic hexameter, a meter which creates a very regular and rhythmic metrical pattern. When the poem is rendered into prose, as by Rieu and, before him, Murray (1919), Butcher and Lang (1924), Butler (1900), and Lawrence (1932), one of its defining characteristics is erased. For Fitzgerald, a poet, this was the problem with a version such as Rieu’s. Fitzgerald had been a student of Milman Parry’s at Harvard, and he felt that his understanding of the oral origins of the poems freed him as a translator to create a poem in his own right. In reflecting on the fact that “free improvisation was part of the essence of every performance,” he celebrates the “possibility” that “arises of translating not from one dictionary into another dictionary, so to speak, but from one tradition into another, from one literature into another, from one life to another.”9 Part of this act of translating, though, must, for Fitzgerald, preserve the poetic quality of the source.

Fitzgerald used an iambic blank verse and was able to create an Odyssey that is plain in the best sense of the word while also fresh, contemporary, and poetic. Here is his version of the same passage quoted in Rieu above:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man skilled in all ways of contending, the wanderer, harried for years on end, after he plundered the stronghold on the proud height of Troy.

He saw the townlands and learned the minds of many distant men, and weathered many bitter nights and days in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only to save his life, to bring his shipmates home. But not by will nor valor could he save them,

for their own recklessness destroyed them all— children and fools, they killed and feasted on the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,

and he who moves all day through heaven took from their eyes the dawn of their return.

It’s almost hard to believe that he was translating the same lines that Rieu was. His lines are clear and plain and achieve their music without relying on archaisms or bombast. It’s an Odyssey that can be accessible, as Rieu wanted, while also remaining a poem. In a laudatory review in Poetry called “A Poet’s Odyssey” that becomes a sort of coda to Fitzgerald’s review of Rieu (“A Prose Odyssey”) in the same journal some thirteen years earlier, Reuben A. Brower begins by saying that “the reader of Robert Fitzgerald’s translation will be certain of one thing— that the Odyssey is a poem.”10 This review, with its simple opening declaration, gets to the heart of Fitzgerald’s project; one could imagine that it would have pleased him greatly.

This brief look into two of the exhibit’s Odysseys gives some indication as to the kinds of stories behind all of the volumes on display and to some of the issues that are at stake each time a new translator approaches the ancient poem. We hope that the exhibit encourages you to explore not only the nineteen versions showcased here but others too. Find your own Odyssey and cherish it.

Rachel D. Friedman is Associate Professor and Chair of the Greek and Roman Studies Department.

Works Cited

Berry, Steven M. 2016. “Vico’s Prescient Evolutionary Model for Homer.” 

Brower, Reuben A. 1961. “A Poet’s Odyssey,” Poetry 98 (6), 397–403.

Connell, P.J. 2004. “Rieu, Emile Victor (1887–1972).” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Fitzgerald, Robert. 1948. “A Prose Odyssey.” Poetry 72 (1): 28–34.

———. 1977. “Two Long Engagements with Homer.” Bulletin of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 30 (4): 21–30.

Hall, Edith. 2008. The Return of Ulysses: A Cultural History of Homer’s Odyssey. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Lord, Albert Bates. 1960. The Singer of Tales. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. O’Neill, Eugene Jr. 1946. “Famous Voyage, Cut-Rate.” The New York Times, December 8. Parry, Adam, ed. 1971. The Making of Homeric Verse: The Collected Papers of Milman Parry. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Rieu, D.C.H. 1991, transl. (revision of E.V. Rieu’s 1946 edition) The Odyssey. London: Penguin Books.

Stanford, William Bedell. 1992 (first edition: 1954). The Ulysses Theme: A Study in the Adaptability of a Traditional Hero. Dallas: Spring Publications, Inc. 

  1. Stanford (1954) and Hall (2008) both provide rich histories of the reception of the poem.
  2. On the ways that Vico anticipated later discoveries about the poems’ evolution, see Berry. The German scholar Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824) played an important role, in his Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795), in further developing the idea that the poems were the result of the editing of earlier oral compositions. Parry’s career was cut short when he died in 1935 at the age of 33. His papers were edited posthumously and came out in 1971. Lord’s The Singer of Tales came out in 1960.
  3. The edition of Rieu on display in our exhibit is a 1952 reprint from Methuen.
  4. Rieu (1991, 31).
  5. Connell (2004).
  6. O’Neill (1946).
  7. Rieu, D.C.H. (1991, 4).
  8. Fitzgerald (1948).
  9. Fitzgerald (1977, 30).
  10. Brower (1961).