“Both Presumptuous and Necessary:”
Daniel Mendelsohn on Translating the Odyssey
For the past several years, classicist and wide-ranging cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn has been working on a new translation of the Odyssey. Over a plate of lemon poppy seed cookies on a chilly afternoon, Mendelsohn and interviewer Eve Romm had a rich conversation about Homeric epithets, identity politics and translation, dactylic hexameter, the rejection of immortality, and what “well-greaved” might actually mean.
Eve Romm: I want to start by asking you about the very first line of the Odyssey, which includes the famously untranslatable epithet for Odysseus, polutropos. Your version reads, “Tell me the tale of a man, Muse, who had so many twisty ways / to wander.” How did you arrive at this rendering?
Daniel Mendelsohn: You know, enjambment can do a lot. The famous problem with polutropos is that whatever “much-turning” means, it clearly is meant to refer both to Odysseus’s personality and his journey. I finessed that by creating what looks like an end-stop—“he has so many twisty ways,” which refers to his way of being in the world—but then in the next line, you get “to wander,” which takes care of the journeying.
There’s always the issue—and it may be moot—but how would a Greek speaker have processed polutropos? The answer to that question is pretty clear: the word was understood to mean “resourceful.” But today it’s hard not to want the etymology—this business of “turns”—to be present in the translation, especially in the way that I translate, which tends to be on the scholarly side. I like maximizing my options for conveying as many nuances as possible.
Jenny Strauss Clay, who was my undergraduate mentor at UVA, and who’s a great Odyssey scholar, pointed out to me that polutropos only occurs twice in Homer. Odysseus is often described as polumetis, and so forth, but polutropos is a pretty rare word in archaic Greek. Then I thought—well, should I try to convey the rarity? Should I use something very fancy or recherché? I like twisty because it suggests, as does the by-now famous “complicated” of Emily Wilson, that this guy is problematic—which he certainly is.
ER: So, one of the characteristic features of Homer is the repetition of epithets and stock phrases—pieces of language, sometimes just half a line, sometimes whole scenes or similes, which recur throughout the text. How did you approach this aspect?
DM: I feel that the repetition of epithets and formulaic elements are a big part of why, to me, Homer feels like Homer. It’s just absolutely crucial.
The problem, to my mind, is not so much the repetitiveness of the epithets, but that some of them are by now so well-known that they’ve lost any real impact. When people hear “rosy-fingered dawn” now, it means nothing—you don’t see or feel anything. It’s too bad, because I’m sure that the first time anyone ever heard rhodoodaktulos, their contact lenses popped out.
But I do feel a certain stiffness in Homer which derives in part from the formulaic repetition, and I mean stiffness in a good way, like the whalebone in a piece of clothing. It’s an archaic, oral quality of repetition. People think modern audiences will get impatient with that. Well, you’re reading a three-thousand-year-old artifact, what did you expect? I made a choice early on in this translation that I wasn’t going to tweak. Many translators have tweaked the epithets so they’re slightly different in different contexts. But to me, the verbatim repetition is vital to that feeling of structure.
The idea of an epithet is an archaic idea, it says something about how ancient people thought about the world. Menelaos is always “good at the war-cry,” even when he’s having breakfast or watching The Crown. In the case of a translator who’s tweaking the epithets, the idea is to reanimate them for a modern reader. I am trying to do that in a different way, which is to say, by thinking deeply about what they mean.
Like glaukopis Athene, gray-eyed Athena. Now, it seems very clear to me that she does not literally have gray eyes. My version of that is “Athena of the bright owl eyes.” This is what I mean by a scholarly translation: there’s a debate about whether glaukopis means “bright-eyed” or “owl-eyed,” so I’m splitting the difference. Clearly what the poet (and I mean that in a collective sense) meant is that unnerving glistening when you come across an owl in the dark and all you see are these luminous eyes. When you read “bright owl eyes,” you have, I hope, a very powerful visual image of that unnerving stare.
Same with the rosy-fingers, rhododaktulos, dawn. I have “dawn who streaks the sky with pink fingers.” “Rosy” is not a word you can seriously use in English anymore, it just sounds too Victorian. When I say she’s streaking the sky with pink fingers, you know exactly what that looks like—it’s vivid. That’s what I mean by reanimating these epithets.
As you know, there are a lot of compound adjectives that show up in stock epithets and phrases and which begin with eu, “well”—“well-greaved” or “beautifully braided,” for example. But what does it mean to be well-greaved? Does it mean they fit right, they look nice, they’re big? What do I know about greaves? Or euplokamoi, for women, meaning “well-braided.” I have trouble braiding a challah, so that one’s a real challenge for me! Does it mean they’re elaborately braided? Are the braids wrapped around their heads? When you really start thinking of some of these things, it’s electrifying.
This has been one of the most fun parts of this translation. I’m not accepting these epithets at face value, and thinking about what they really are meant to convey has been a delicious challenge.
ER: Some of what you’ve said about whether modern audiences can handle so much repetition touches on an ongoing debate in translation, particularly relevant to the translation of ancient texts, about familiarity and foreignness. Is it more faithful to create a text that feels familiar to a 21st century person, or to honor the fact that this is coming to us from a huge temporal distance and from a culture that’s almost completely foreign?
Apparently effortlessly, your translation steers clear of both archaism and anachronism. How were you thinking about the temporality of the poem?
DM: I’m trying to strike a middle position. I do think it’s important to experience it as slightly strange, particularly in the case of Homer. Homeric Greek is not a language that anyone ever spoke, so I think you’re justified in putting some starch, some whalebone into it. It never sounded like ordinary speech, even in 800 BCE.
That said, I wanted to avoid strangeness in diction, which can get you into trouble. Every now and then I do it, when there’s a word that only occurs once, or something really strange. Then I’ll allow myself something just a bit odd.
I feel like the problem with either being overtly archaic or too contemporary is that it’s a “stopper,” as one of my editors likes to say—it stops you in your experience of the text, and you’re like, “What?” Even if it’s an admiring “what?”, it's getting in the way somehow. I’m much more about communicating a sense of foreignness by means of syntax or—there is no other word—feel.
ER: I’m very interested to hear about how you have been working with Homeric meter. One of the things I most love about reading Homer in Greek is dactylic hexameter itself, with its amazing ability to be both the same and different every line. Since five of the six dactyls can be a spondee, there are almost endless variations. A common equivalent in English is iambic pentameter, which is not nearly as flexible. What was your metrical approach?
DM: Dactylic hexameter is a very special meter in the ancient languages. In that sense, it’s different from blank verse, which in English is used for all genres of poetry. Dactylic hexameter, in classical Greek and Latin, is the meter of epic. I wanted a longer line, a six-beat line. A longer line feels more weighty and important—not heavy, I hope, but just weighty.
I also thought that having a longer line would allow me, in the way I was referring to before, to extract more from the original and expand it into the translation. There are times where a Greek word has an array of meanings on a fairly broad range, and often I take advantage of my longer line so as to be able to get both (or more) of those possible shadings into my translation. So I’m slightly having my cake and eating it too.
The great question was which meter to establish as the one I’d use. What I tried to put into my lines is a mixture of dactyls and anapests, sometimes doing substitutions of iambs, heavy iambs, spondees or trochees. What I want you to feel is that there is a kind of bounce, without being locked into a rhythm. Two really solid dactyls in a line gives you that slight galloping sense without making you feel like you’re Johann Strauss, king of the waltz.
ER: Zooming out a little bit, to the bigger picture of the Odyssey and your relationship to it: you have a long history with this text, including a memoir you recently wrote about reading the Odyssey with your father [An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, Alfred A. Knopf, 2017]. Has working with the Odyssey as a translator changed your personal connection to the text?
DM: To me, one of the most interesting experiences in this translation has been to re-experience the text. Nothing is as intimate as translating, even if you’ve taught a text a million times and written a book and published papers about it.
You know, there are words in Homer whose meaning nobody really knows. In these moments, the translator has to make a real interpretation—you’re left naked, with no external support, and you just have to do something. You basically have to think the way the author did, which is at once presumptuous and necessary. It’s as if you were speaking for a close friend. I feel an advantage in the case of the Odyssey, because it’s a text I’ve been thinking about for literally all of my adult life. That’s a kind of cushion that you sit on, so to speak, and it gives you the confidence to make interpretive choices.
And look, what’s the worst that could happen? You’ll be wrong. It’s not the end of the world.
ER: Do you have a favorite scene in the Odyssey?
DM: One of the by-products of the special kind of translational intimacy I was referring to is that I’m forced to grapple with parts I never used to like. I never used to like Book Two—I didn’t feel that any part of it was exciting. The focus of this book is the great assembly of the Ithacans that Telemachos summons, and I was like ugh, who cares. After rolling up my sleeves and getting into it, I’m completely turned around. There’s an incredible passage where Zeus sends a sign to the crowd—two eagles, fighting in mid-air—and it’s just thrilling!
Book Four may still be my favorite, after all these years. The vast majority of Homeric verse is dialogue. As a writer, I really appreciate the way the seeds of drama are already present in Homer, because drama has to be able to personify without the benefit of narratorial intervention. Helen is characterized in Book Four purely through what she says and her interactions with others, and it’s a great characterization. You have such a strong sense of who this person is; and man, is she something else.
And then there’s the part in Book Five where we’re told that Odysseus has refused immortality, which the goddess Kalypsô has offered him, because he wants to go home. I think this is one of the most moving things in all of literature. I understand that there’s cultural differences: marriage, courtship, everything was different; to be sure, Penelope had no say in marrying Odysseus. And yet, with all of that on the table, it’s still an incredible tribute to the power of this relationship—the fact that Odysseus accepts death in order to be back where he belongs. The idea of acceptance of death as the ultimate expression of both the wonder and tragedy of the human condition is, among other things, a moment of contact between the Odyssey and the thought-world of its predecessor, the Iliad, which is all about coming to terms with mortality, of course. Here, Odysseus has already made the choice, with absolutely no fuss. I think that’s incredibly moving.
ER: In the first translation workshop I took, our professor would often ask, “What’s the one thing?” If you could only get across one aspect of this text, what is most important for you? His idea was that if you’re really committed to this one aspect, and you start there, then everything else will come along with it. For you, what’s that one thing about the Odyssey?
DM: It’s so hard to choose. And some of the qualities that you think are so important are, ostensibly, in direct opposition to other qualities. To me, one of the things that’s paramount about the Odyssey is its quality of charm. I don’t know how else to say it. One of the reasons I’ve always admired the Fitzgerald translation so much is he understands the humor, the charm, the flirtatiousness...and I don’t mean charm in a shallow sense. There’s an enchanted quality, the sense of a twinkle in the eye.
I do feel, and this is not meant as a criticism of any translator living or dead, that it is a mistake for one person to translate both epics. It never works. Whatever the prehistory of these texts is, the Odyssey and the Iliad are two completely different thought-worlds, although obviously they share the same culture. In a strange sense, from the point of view of translation, they’re completely different. I don’t know of a single example of a person who has done both persuasively. Pope's Iliad is one of the greatest thing of all time, and the Odyssey is an afterthought. Fagles’ Iliad is so much better than his Odyssey. Fitzgerald translated the Iliad—nobody cares. It’s a matter of temperament. You’re either an Odyssey person or an Iliad person.
ER: Emily Wilson’s recent Odyssey made headlines for being the first to be translated by a woman. Yours may be the first to be translated by an openly gay man. In your view, what bearing does the identity of the translator have on their work? Do you feel that your own individuality—not just a Jewish gay man, but your particular life and perspective—has shaped your translation? In what ways?
DM: I think one has to be wary here. Going back to my grad school days as a gay activist and a person who was thinking a lot about gender and gender studies, what I dislike about this whole “first woman translator” or “first openly gay translator” stuff is the deeply essentializing assumptions that underly it—the assumption that, for instance, only women care about (or perceive) gender issues, that only women have a feel for female characters. I dislike all this because it’s a kind of reductive thinking that erases precisely the kind of complexities that literature is supposed to illuminate. There is no such thing as a “female translator” any more than there is a “male classicist” (Really? What kind of male? Gay? Straight? Jewish? Muslim? Disabled?). I think this is an extremely dangerous path to go down—it allows people to dismiss the work of writers or scholars or translators based on a very superficial approach to identity. I have to say that it never occurred to me, when we were planning the marketing of my Cavafy translation (C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) to say that I’m the first openly gay translator of this gay poet, because it didn’t seem to matter. You either know Greek and you have taste, or you don’t. I started writing and publishing in the late ’80s, during the culture wars and the beginning of gay studies, but as much as that moment marked me I would never want anyone to talk about me as if the only salient thing about me were my gayness, or for that matter, my Jewishness. I just don’t think it’s relevant.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with the idea that someone of a given identity or persuasion will foreground an issue that seems to have been neglected—that’s something I’m happy to talk about, because that’s what causes disciplines to evolve. But in the end, I would repeat that you bring everything you are to everything you write and everything you translate. You like to feel that part of who you are might make you particularly sensitive to a certain aspect, or feel something more deeply than someone who had no experience of that thing. But again, it’s not necessarily the case.