translating The Odyssey

Download (29)Colin Burrow at the LRB:

All of this makes The Odyssey much harder to translate than The Iliad. One person’s interpolation or historical curiosity will be another person’s moment of deep psychological insight. That problem is compounded by the subject matter and social world of the poem. It is full of travellers and strangers who might be gods, or con men, or, like much enduring godly Odysseus of the many wiles himself, a little bit of both. So no one ever quite knows what’s going on. A swineherd might turn out to be an abducted prince. A Cyclops might greet a stranger who addresses it politely by bashing the brains out of one of his companions as if he were a puppy. A good king might politely offer a wary welcome and food, listen to a stranger’s story, and then after a tactful delay ask who he is and where he is from. And then the guest might lie. People in their conversations in this poem often proceed cagily in order to allow for what they do not yet know. Telemachus doesn’t quite know whether his mother is planning to remarry. We don’t know either.

Throughout the magically poised final books of the poem it’s never clear whether or not Penelope suspects that the disguised travelling beggar who has come to her house is Odysseus. The delicacy with which Odysseus checks that his wife remains loyal, while she holds off acknowledging him in case he is even more of a trickster than he appears to be, makes Book 19 of The Odyssey one of the first and greatest pieces of psychological drama, in which no one – readers, characters, and perhaps even the author(s) – knows exactly where they stand.

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