What is your epithet?

Map of “Ulyssis Errores,” by Abraham Ortelius, in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, c. 1608.
“Ulyssis Errores,” by Abraham Ortelius, in Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, c. 1608. Credit: Lapham’s Quarterly

I am currently reading classicist Dr. Emily Wilson‘s translation of The Odyssey, and was so very much reminded of how important a good translation is in order to reel your reader in to read and be more interested and invested in an ancient poem from three millennia ago. I mean, this is how her translation starts:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men back home.
He failed, and for their own mistakes, they died.
They ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

Compared to Robert Fagle’s translation:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns …
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove— the recklessness of their >own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will—sing for our time too.

I noticed a pattern that whenever I had trouble reading some heavyweight texts, especially those from centuries ago, I would turn to read the essays of the authors to have an idea of the themes and their stance on things. This was what I did with Edward Said — I poured in hours of reading his essays on post-colonialism, Palestinian conflicts, literary critics, & music — before finally delving into his celebrated text Orientalism, of which I initially found (and still do) to be too dry and highly academic. But it is different with poems. Literature is not my area, and I have not done much research about how much you should relate and understand an ancient poem, and how it is still relevant — but in some ways I do want to understand the themes and what it says without having to do online search to find out what some complicated words mean. This is also my notion with understanding Rubaiyat of Umar Khayyam, of which I am currently reading Samarkand, a novel on how the Rubaiyyat was written and all its challenges.

The first 80 pages on Emily Wilson’s introduction itself are worth a read. I’m intrigued by the idea of ‘epithets’ in Homeric text:

Characters and objects all have their own descriptive terms in Homer; these are known as epithets, rather than adjectives, because they express an essential quality of characteristic, rather than a trait that the object or person possesses only in particular moment.

For example, Odysseus’ and Telemachus’ epithets:

Most of the epithets applied to Odysseus begin with the prefix poly-, meaning “much” or “many”: he is a figure who possesses many attributes, and possesses them intensely.

Telemachus’ standard epithet, pepnumenos, suggests “of sound understanding” or “thoughtful”; the poem traces the boy’s developing cognitive maturity, as he learns what adult masculinity might mean.

The theme of hospitality to guests (xenia, meaning ‘guest-friendship’) is also abundant in the Odyssey. The only question is how different everyone in ancient Greece does it, in their own peculiar ways:

Each of these hosts seem to offer a perversion of a frightening exaggeration of the ordinary modes of hospitality. Aeolus, the god of the winds, provides Odysseus with a means of transportation or “sending” that is more powerful than he or his men can handle: the bag of winds, once opened, blasts the ship back in entirely the wrong direction. A normal host may provide guests with poetic and musical entertainment before he goes to sleep; the Sirens entice their visitors with a song so fascinating that they want to stay forever, and never go home again. Many of these hosts pervert the ordinary way that guests are given food and drink. The Lotus-Eaters share a plant that makes those who eat it forget all thoughts of going home. In order to meet the dead, Odysseus himself has to act like a peculiar kind of host, welcoming them into the world of the living — by allowing them to drink blood from a ditch. The witchlike goddess Circe provides her guests with a magical drink that turns them into pigs.

The hospitality does not only include accommodation, food, and some entertainment, but also pompe — a proper sending off:

As Menelaus pompously declares, “To force a visitor to stay/ is just as bad as pushing him to go.” Providing help with the next leg of the trip — pompe in Greek, “sending”, a common word and essential concept in the Odyssey — is thus an important component in hospitality.

Odyssey’s yearning for home could also be triggered by how Calypso was so insistent on him to stay, suppressing his freedom:

Calypso gives her human guest more than enough of everything a visitor could ask for — except the final crucial ingredient: pompe — the ability to get away.

The Odyssey, unlike the Iliad where women are often portrayed as treated by the warriors as slaves and prized possessions, are held in higher regards. The goddess Athena, for instance, acts as Odyssey’s mentor — guiding and strategising all his plots, schemes, and disguises so he could return to Ithaca — and in some situations uses her divine powers to aid this plan. Helen, whose abduction by Paris caused the Trojan war, has a face that “launched a thousand ships”, as mentioned in Christopher Marlowe’s famous words. Penelope chooses not to marry any of the suitors invading her house, and she uses her loom as an excuse to delay their attempts to court her. Then there we have persistent Calypso, resourceful Circe, and kind Nausicaa.

Finally, there is also a question about the question of home and finality. The Odyssey is a story of nostos, “homecoming” — this where we get the word ‘nostalgia’. But Odysseus returns home to Ithaca halfway in the poem, and when we think this is how it would end, it still does not exactly reflect how it is the finality of it all. I feel this line so much, as someone who came home abroad and after 6 years, still trying to adjust to the idea of home: “Coming home means more than simply reaching a particular spatial or geographical location.”

Coming home to Ithaca, as a war survivor, is proven hard for Odysseus, having pillaged cities, killed multiple lives, and missed the whole childhood of his son’s, Telemachus:

One of the epithets most commonly used of Odysseus is polytlas, which means “much-enduring”. In modern term, we can see Odysseus as a veteran soldier with his own version of PTSD; he is moody, prone to weeping, often withdrawn, and liable to sudden fits of aggression.

Translation theorist Lawrence Venuti opens his book, The Translator’s Invisibility: A History of Translation, with a quote by respected literary translator Norman Shapiro, “I see translation as an attempt to produce a text so transparent that it does not seem translated. A good translation is like a pane of glass. You notice that it’s there only when there are little imperfections — scratches, bubbles. Ideally, there shouldn’t be any. It should never call attention to itself.” Emily Wilson’s translation is unapologetically direct — yet none of them is losing any of the nuances of the ancient poem — is a breath of fresh air. Elitists could argue that it is not the best translation compared to those from Fagles, Wilson, Riue, and Chapman — citing Wilson’s translation as “limited”, “inconsistent”, “imposing” (in a sense that Wilson was found to override how the ancients viewed the world and imposed on her own), among others. But what good is knowledge if we are to keep them within a gatekeeping culture, and if Wilson’s translation will open doors for those who don’t have English as their native language (like me) and not from an English literature background, then what do we have to lose?

Check out Wilson’s defense of her choices for translation:


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