Our book today is Homer’s Odyssey, in the 1946 prose translation by E. V. Rieu that kick-started the legendary Penguin Classics series and has sold in very healthy numbers ever since. Rieu’s aim for that series in general was the same as his aim for this book in particular: to put the classics of Greece and Rome into clear English accessible to the modern reader who has neither Greek nor Latin. This aim met with scorn from certain quarters right from the start (not least from some of Rieu’s own fellow classicists), and it’s a bit depressing to consider how much of that scorn lingers today. In the half-century since Rieu’s Odyssey appeared, we’ve entered into a protracted golden age of verse translations of the classics, and it’s tough to argue with a golden age. The prose translations of the early Penguin line – not just the Odyssey but the Iliad as well, and the Metamorphoses and the Argonautica and many others – are disparaged as mere trots, plodding and artless, abominations almost on the level of novelizations. Much of this is mere snobbery, which is odious in any of its guises, and all of it is ill-judged, since enormous amounts of care and work went into these prose translations.

Rieu was as aware as anybody of the dangers involved, and it’s worth noting that many of those dangers were the exact same ones faced by versifiers. Rieu puts the age-old dilemma well:

I realize that in Homer, as in all great writers, matter and manner are inseparably blended, and I have sought, in so far as English prose usage allowed it, not only to give what he says but to give it in his own way. But style is one thing and idiom another. In the very attempt to preserve some semblance of the original effect, I have often found it necessary – in fact my duty as a translator – to abandon, or rather to transform, the idiom and the syntax of the Greek. Too faithful a rendering defeats its own purpose: and if we put Homer straight into English words, neither meaning nor manner survives.

Actually, no translator can do otherwise than inseparably blend manner and meaning – the age permeates, as it has a habit of doing, and the praiseworthy urge to make the original speak bubbles up. Some translators fight this urge and produce wooden, lifeless things of high but unenviable accuracy. Others abandon themselves to the urge and produce adaptations full of cell phones and motorcycles. The best translators try to walk Dryden’s celebrated middle path, leaving the distinct but respectful imprint of their own time on the three thousand year-old original, often making a weirdly precious amalgam in the process. We read the Chapman and the Pope Homer as much for Chapman and Pope as for Homer, and it’s entirely right that we do so.

Likewise Rieu, who imbues his prose with a good deal of Homer’s susurrations, as in the moment when Odysseus, being led to see King Alcinous, beholds the Phaeacian capital for the first time:

With this Pallas Athene led the way at a quick pace and Odysseus followed in the goddess’ steps. The Phaeacians, those famous seamen, failed to observe him as he passed them by on his way through the town. For the Lady Athene used her formidable powers to prevent it, shedding a magic mist round her favourite in her concern for his safety. As he walked, Odysseus marvelled at the harbours with their well-found ships, at the meeting-place of the sea-lords and at their long and lofty walls, which were surmounted by palisades and presented a wonderful sight.

Anybody familiar with Homer’s Greek will see at once the almost brazen amount of ‘padding’ going on in that passage, all the mild mid-century Britishisms – and yet, the whole is redeemed by typically beautiful Rieu touches like that ‘long and lofty walls,’ or the neat little ball-tossing from noun to verb with ‘palisades’ and ‘presented.’ The narrative sureness carries over even to the quick, gruesome scenes at the climax of the work – the scenes readers tend to forget, choosing instead of remember only the epic revenge-story of the slaying of the loutish suitors. Such readers sometimes forget the castrating of dead bodies, or the sluicing of gore, or the fact that Odysseus immediately orders that all the women who hung around his palace with the suitors be summarily executed. He tells his son Telemachus to take them outside and put them to the sword, and once outside, in a remarkable little moment, Telemachus disobeys his father. “I swear I will not give you a decent death,” he snarls to the terrified (and, it should be remembered, harmless) women, and he proceeds to rig up something worse than quick beheadings:

With that he took a hawser which had seen service on a blue-bowed ship, made one end fast to a high column in the portico, threw the other over the round-house, and pulled it taut at such a level as would keep their feet from touching earth. And then, like doves or long-winged thrushes caught in a net across the thicket where they come to roost, and meeting death where they had only looked for sleep, the women held their heads out in a row, and a noose was cast around each one’s neck to dispatch them in the most miserable way. For a little while their feet kicked out, but not for very long.

The defense of this passage and all the rest of Rieu  – that it’s good Homer, feels a bit pathetic to make, even after all these decades of reading and re-reading this book. But Rieu’s own defense – that it’s good reading – wins the day ever time. I re-read the Odyssey every August, and this year it’ll be E. V. Rieu’s pleasant company I keep.

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