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Penguins on Parade: The Odyssey!

By (May 13, 2013) No Comment

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Some Penguin Classics are just a bit more famous than others, and the top spot there will likely always go to E. V. Rieu’s 1946 translation of Homer’s Odyssey, because it got the whole show started.

penguin odysseyAnd it started in the way all the best intellectual endeavors do: on amateur footing, without a thought of profit. During the Second World War, to alleviate the nightly tension of the German assault on London, Rieu translated passages of Homer for his family and found he had both a taste for it and a knack for it. After the war, he and his friend Allen Lane convinced their editors to print his translation in a cheap pocket book. It was the first Penguin Classic, and it sold three million copies (at a time when all of Greater London held perhaps eight million people). It’s safe to say Rieu’s Odyssey has been read by more people than any other edition since Homer smote his bloomin’ lyre.

Purists immediately lamented that fact, because Rieu’s Odyssey is rendered in prose. Classicists from Bristol to Boston wailed that this made Rieu’s version no better than a muddy little trot – a wretched thing fit for students to crib from, but nothing more. Rieu expects this reaction in the first line of his Introduction: “This version of the Odyssey is, in its intention at any rate, a genuine translation, not a paraphrase or a retold tale.” The man was an Oxford-trained scholar himself, so he knew first-hand the near-impossibility of translating Homer’s dactylic hexameters into intelligible English, and hence the inevitable necessity of throwing the whole long-winded, perfectly-balanced mess onto the bed of Procrustes and proceeding to chop and stretch with abandon. How anybody can look at some of the verse Odysseys that have resulted and call them more “faithful” than Rieu’s is one of the enduring mysteries of classical scholarship.

And Rieu’s version is quite often beautiful. It may not be done in verse, but you’d have to be deaf not to notice the poetry that’s obvious in even brief passages, as when Ulysses is telling the story of how his wayward men butchered the cattle of Hyperion the sun-god, who complains vigorously to Jupiter and gets a ringing response:

“Sun,” the Cloud-gatherer answered him, “shine on for the immortals and for mortal men on the fruitful earth. As for the culprits, I will soon strike their ship with a blinding bolt out on the wind-dark sea and break it to bits.”

(“This part of the tale I had from the fair Calypso,” Ulysses assures his listeners, “who told me that she herself had heard it from Hermes the Messenger.”)

It’s true that Rieu made free with the idioms of his own wartime era – there are bits and pieces of this Odyssey in which characters sound like they just stepped out lucy absorbing homerof an Agatha Christie story – but in this too more sanctimonious translators share a measure of guilt, although they’re never willing to admit to it (unless their gimmick is to revel in it). And Rieu intended it to increase the transparency of his translation, however much passages like this one (in which Telemachus is lamenting – with an irony Homer’s audience would have picked up immediately – that he doesn’t have the same determination as Orestes) might make a 21st century grin:

Ah, if the gods would only give me strength like his, to cope with the insufferable insolence of my mother’s suitors and settle accounts with those ruffians for their blackguardly tricks! But Fate has no such happiness in store for me, nor for my father either. I have to grin and bear things as they are.

Over the decades, even some of the starchiest teachers have made the concession that a prose Odyssey arranged in chapters and paragraphs is more hospitable to students than columns of over-straining blank verse. It’s friendlier for plenty of non-students as well, and Lane and Rieu must have suspected that would be the case, although they can’t in their wildest dreams have anticipated the reception this, the quintessential Penguin Classic, would get. Try it and see if you don’t find yourself liking it.