Homer: It’s All Greek to Me (And It’s Better That Way)

In any translated work of literature, much of the artistry is lost. There is simply no way to capture all the nuances of the original language in a translation. Works of poetry especially suffer in translation, because it is very difficult, and in many cases impossible, to preserve the original work’s meter, rhyme scheme, and other poetic devices. Homer’s Odyssey is no exception. Producing an accurate, readable English translation of the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter (The poetic meter of the Iliad and the Odyssey) would be next to impossible. Anyone capable of such a feat probably deserves to have an epic written about him.

Here are the first ten lines of the Odyssey:

“ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς μάλα πολλὰ
πλάγχθη, ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν πτολίεθρον ἔπερσεν:
πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν ἄλγεα ὃν κατὰ θυμόν,
ἀρνύμενος ἥν τε ψυχὴν καὶ νόστον ἑταίρων.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐδ᾽ ὣς ἑτάρους ἐρρύσατο, ἱέμενός περ:
αὐτῶν γὰρ σφετέρῃσιν ἀτασθαλίῃσιν ὄλοντο,
νήπιοι, οἳ κατὰ βοῦς Ὑπερίονος Ἠελίοιο
ἤσθιον: αὐτὰρ ὁ τοῖσιν ἀφείλετο νόστιμον ἦμαρ.
τῶν ἁμόθεν γε, θεά, θύγατερ Διός, εἰπὲ καὶ ἡμῖν.”

(Dr. Bruce McMenomy has kindly provided a recording of these lines for his Greek IV students, which can be listened to here.)

Here is E. V. Rieu’s prose translation (revised by D. C. H. Rieu) of those first ten lines of the Odyssey:

“Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man who was driven to wander far and wide after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy. He saw the cities of many people and he learnt their ways. He suffered great anguish 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 transgression that brought them to their doom, for in their folly they devoured the oxen of Hyperion the Sun-god and he saw to it that they would never return. Tell us this story, goddess daughter of Zeus, beginning at whatever point you will.”

D. C. H. Rieu writes in the preface of E.V. Rieu’s revised translation that his father’s vision “was to make available to the ordinary reader, in good modern English, the great classics of every language”.

Here is Richmond Lattimore’s verse translation of the first ten lines of the Odyssey:

“Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he sacked Troy’s sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the Sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.”

Lattimore, in the introduction to his translation, says, “I have tried to follow, as far as the structure of English will allow, the formulaic practice of the original”.

Here is my own translation of those first ten lines:

“Muse, tell me of a much-travelled man, who wandered very much, after he sacked the holy city of Troy: he saw the cities of many men and he knew their mind, and he suffered many troubles in his heart at sea, while striving to win his own life and the homecoming of his companions. But he did not save his companions, although he was very eager (to do so): for they perished by their own wickedness, the childish fools, who gobbled down the cattle of Helios Hyperion: but he took away the day of homecoming from them. O goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning at any point tell us of these things also.”

The purpose of my translation is merely to show that I have understood what the Greek says and how it says it. It is accurate, but the English is stilted and unidiomatic in some places.  For instance, “he knew their mind” is not a typo. The word for mind used in this passage, νόον, is singular. Greek frequently ascribes a collective singular mind or heart to groups, whether they are cities, armies, or companions of Odysseus. It is not idiomatic English, but it is what the Greek says.

There is a clear difference between the three translations I have provided. The translators all achieved their stated purposes, but none of their translations manages to maintain the same rhythm as the original Greek. The ease of reading the translations also varies. Certainly my translation is not one that would be the easiest to read. It is not meant to be a publishable translation, anyway. Of the two published translations, Lattimore’s more closely follows the style of the Odyssey, but it is not as easy to read as Rieu’s. All three fail to capture the nuance and the poetic charm of the Odyssey.

Just five words into the Greek of the Odyssey translators run into some difficulty. The fifth word, πολύτροπον (πολύ, “much, many”, + τρόπος, “turn, direction; way, manner, fashion, guise”), can in this context mean “much-travelled, much-wandering” or “shifty, versatile, wily”. Both senses certainly apply to Odysseus; he travels much and is quite cunning. (In fact, another word Homer frequently uses to describe him is πολύμητις, “of many devices, crafty, shrewd”.) Which sense are we supposed to understand here, though? I would argue that we are meant to understand both senses here; Odysseus is both a wily and a much-wandering man. None of the translations I provided have attempted to translate πολύτροπον to capture both meanings; Lattimore chose to translate it as “of many ways”, Rieu chose “resourceful”, and I chose “much-travelled”. There simply is no single English word that can capture all the senses of the word πολύτροπον.

Puns also do not survive in translation. In Book IX of the Odyssey, when the Cyclops Polyphemus asks Odysseus what his name is, Odysseus answers that his name is “Nobody”. The Greek word he uses is Οὖτις, which, aside from the slight difference in accent, sounds like οὔτις, “nobody”.  The word οὔτις suggests another word meaning “nobody”, which is μήτις (sometimes split into μή τις). In turn, μήτις suggests μῆτις, which means “wisdom, skill, craft”.

Later, after Odysseus and his trusty companions blind Polyphemus, Polyphemus cries out to the other Cyclopes in the area. Hearing the racket, they come to his cave and stand outside the door, which is sealed by a large rock. They stand outside and ask him, “What in the world is so great, Polyphemus, that overwhelmed you thus during the holy night and made us sleepless? Truly, is not someone of mortal men driving away your flocks against your will? Truly, is not someone killing you yourself by deceit or force?”

Polyphemus replies, “ὦ φίλοι, Οὖτίς με κτείνει δόλῳ οὐδὲ βίηφιν.” This can be understood in a couple of ways. Polyphemus means, “O friends, this-guy-named-Outis is killing me by deceit, and not by force.” However, because Οὖτίς sounds like οὔτις (the pain-ridden Cyclops was probably not too concerned with proper accentuation, anyway), and because οὐδὲ here can mean either “or” or “and not”, the other Cyclopes understand it as “O friends, nobody is killing me by deceit or by force”.

The other Cyclopes then reply, “If nobody is overpowering you, who are alone—there is no way to avoid an illness from great Zeus; but pray to your father, lord Poseidon.” (There also seems to be an implied “Now shut up and let the rest of us get some sleep!” here as well.) They reply using the words μή τίς, “not anyone”, which again calls to mind the word μῆτις, “wisdom, skill, craft”. Thus Odysseus  gives Polyphemus a false name, which saves him from death, and which also reminds us what a clever fellow he is—and nobody reading a translation would know that this pun existed unless it were footnoted. Even if it is footnoted (Rieu’s translation notes the οὔτις/μήτις pun; Lattimore’s does not. Neither translation notes the double meaning of the word οὐδὲ.), the experience is not the same as understanding the joke as one is reading.

Many other aspects of the Odyssey also are lost in translation. Although the names of Homer’s characters are transliterated, without knowing Greek, one would not know that many of the characters’ names often also describe their characters. One of the suitor’s names, Antinoos, is a compound of ἀντί, “opposite, against”, and νόος, “mind, understanding, thought”. The good Phaeacian king’s name is Alkinoos, which means “Brave-minded” or “Minded to help”. Calypso, the nymph who kept Odysseus on her island for several years, has a name that comes from καλύψω, “I will hide”. Thus Homer not only shows us the behavior and actions of his characters, but he even gives many of them names according to their most important characteristics.

In translation, one also misses instances of alliteration and assonance, such as the assonance of “η” in IX. 439, “θήλειαι δὲ μέμηκον ἀνήμελκτοι περὶ σηκούς” (“But the unmilked females were bleating around the pen”). The repetition of “η” (pronounced like the “ai” in “wait” or “bait”) also mimics the sound of bleating sheep.

Although the examples above are hardly exhaustive and only draw on a few small portions of the Odyssey, they should serve as proof that Homer is much better in the original Greek. However, I would also like to point out one final thing that perhaps hasn’t been made clear in this post. Homeric Greek (all Greek, actually) is really fun—even more fun than reading Homer’s works in translation. I realize that “fun” is a subjective experience, but I offer two solid, objective facts to support this:

The Greek IV 2011-2012 class (which I am a part of) finished all the assignments for the class on April 27th. We were given the option of either stopping there and having a few weeks off before the exam was sent out, or continuing to meet and translate more of the Odyssey. This extra translating would not show up on the exam and would not affect our grades in any way whatsoever. If some students did not want to continue, but others did, that would be fine, and Dr. McM would be available for those who wanted to keep translating. All six students chose to continue translating.

Dr. Bruce McMenomy thinks that teaching Greek IV is so fun that it is even worth being awake at 6 AM for him to teach it on Tuesdays and Fridays—even after all the assigned work is finished and we are only translating for the fun of it.

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5 Responses to “Homer: It’s All Greek to Me (And It’s Better That Way)”

  1. Lauren Hunter says:

    Really excellent article, Lucie. I completely agree. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on whether you think that prose translations such as Rieu’s, or verse translations such as Lattimore’s, are more helpful to a non-Greek-reader — or if perhaps that’s irrelevant and it depends only on the method of translation. I have realized these difficulties afresh after going through selections of the Iliad last semester at Berkeley. It was great to read your article and remember what fun I had in Dr. McM’s Greek IV class. 🙂

  2. Many thanks to Lucie for writing this entry: I hope it’s the first of many student-generated (or alumni-generated) entries for this blog. I think it fosters the kind of discourse we want as an academic community. (If you’d like to contribute, drop me a message and I’ll get you set up with a contributor account.)

    In response to Lauren’s challenge, I’ll put in my own two cents, but it shouldn’t discourage you from responding, Lucie. I think that just as two eyes help you get a stereoscopic view of something, and it’s much clearer than either one alone, so multiple translations can help in this process. In my Western Literature to Dante class I’ve deliberately chosen two radically different translations of the Homeric poems (Fagles’ Iliad and Rieu’s prose Odyssey) precisely to try to help foster that appreciation. Of course that still only gets you somewhat closer to the reality. It’s not the full deal, but it’s better. If one had only to choose one, I’m not sure what I’d suggest — does one value the stately poetic diction or the clarity of storytelling that Homer manages to bring into such amazing unity?

  3. Lucie Buisson says:

    I would definitely agree that reading multiple translations will help a non-Greek-reader get a better sense of Homer. I’m not sure whether one can really say whether a poetic translation of the Odyssey (or the Iliad) is better than a prose translation, or vice versa, simply because one is a poetic translation and the other is prose. Other factors may make me consider a specific poetic or prose translation better than another translation, though, but not that.

    However, I do think that for a particular non-Greek-reader, especially one coming to Homer for the first time, then there might be a certain type of translation that would be better for that particular person. I remember attempting to read Lattimore’s Odyssey sometime around 6th-7th grade. It was too difficult for me, and I tossed it aside for Rieu’s translation, which I enjoyed. When I took Western Literature to Dante in 9th grade, I remember liking Fagles’ translation of the Iliad a lot, even though it was more challenging to read than Rieu’s Odyssey. For someone coming to Homer for the first time (especially a younger person who might get frustrated by a poetic translation or someone who dislikes poetry), I would probably recommend a prose translation. For someone coming to Homer for the first time who I am certain would be enthralled by Homer’s poetry, I would probably recommend a poetic translation.

    Ultimately, I think that the “best” translation for a particular non-Greek-reader would be whichever one(s) makes that person fall in love with Homer’s stories–and convinces that person to study Greek so that he or she can read the originals.

  4. Daniel Thomas says:

    Hi Lucie!

    I’m glad to see that you’re still taking Greek. I enjoyed the article immensely, since I had listened to an audio lecture about the passage you describe. As I study and prepare for the medical field, I cannot emphasize how much I still appreciate the study skills and basic Greek roots that I learned in my two years.

    Daniel Thomas

  5. […] still insist, is to be able to read Greek literature in its original terms. Lucie Buisson wrote an eloquent defense of Homer in Greek not long ago in this blog. You cannot acquire a perspective on the Homeric poems like Lucie’s […]

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