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Date: Nov. 14, 1996
New Translation of Homer's Odyssey Designed for Ear as Well as Eye
Robert Fagles Answers Questions About Epic Journey
Princeton, N.J.--For years at 7:30 a.m., anyone crouching with ear to the door of Robert Fagles' East Pyne office would have heard the Arthur W. Marks '19 Professor of Comparative Literature "mumbling and muttering" to himself, he says. Why? Because he was working on the now completed translation of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, together some 28,000 lines of ancient Greek poetry.
"These poems weren't meant as literature or words on a page to be read," he says, "but as a song in the air." Fagles, the translator of archaic Greek hexameters, talks to himself, so Fagles, the composer of poetry for performance in the 1990s, can hear himself.
"Nothing is as important to me as a sense of cadence," he asserts. Claiming that a prose translation cannot convey why Homer's works have lasted nearly three millennia, he says that their power is in the poetry. "Without the poetry Homer reduces to what J. Edgar Hoover would have called 'a raw file,' the story itself."
The story told in the Odyssey is summarized by Aristotle in his fourth century BC Poetics as follows: "A certain man has been abroad many years; he is alone, and the god Poseidon keeps a hostile eye on him. At home the situation is that suitors for his wife's hand are draining his resources and plotting to kill his son. Then, after suffering storm and shipwreck, he comes home, makes himself known, attacks the suitors: he survives and they are destroyed."
The publisher Viking is shipping 27,000 copies of Fagles' 541-page translation of the Odyssey to bookstores. The official publication date was set for November 14. The introduction is by Bernard Knox, whom Fagles met when he took Knox's course in Greek tragedy in the late 1950s to fulfill the second year of an ancient language requirement for a PhD in English at Yale. Book-of-the-Month Club has made the Fagles-Knox Odyssey a main selection for November.
Fagles' Iliad , published by Viking in 1990, is in its ninth soft-cover printing. To date readers have purchased 140,000 copies in Penguin paperback. And 35,000 sets of tapes of an abridged reading by Derek Jacobi have been sold. Despite the widely reported demotion of Western "classics" and the now clichéed disparagement of "dead white male" authors, Homer's Iliad in the Fagles translation has been not only a critical, but also a big commercial success.
Noting those statistics in his October 28 Time Magazine feature on the new Odyssey , Paul Gray asks, "Why expect people to pay $45 for a boxed set of tapes (issued by Penguin Audiobooks) on which the British actor Ian McKellen reads the text of Fagles' translation over a listening time of some 13 hours?" The article's answer is summarized in its headline, "Scoring a Homer: Robert Fagles' new translation of the Odyssey restores the original joys of the performing bard."
Nobody really knows who or what Homer was--a singular poetic genius like Shakespeare or a collective of inspired voices like the King James version of the Bible. But we do know that 2,700 years ago when the Iliad and Odyssey came into being the poems were heard, not read.
Fagles' is a Homer to hear, not just read. Listening to McKellen perform Fagles' Homer may be as close as most of us come to experiencing what it would be like to make an odyssey aboard a time machine.
It is not only that Fagles "re-creates," as the poet James Dickey says, "a world where everything is living, down to the chairs and table linens," but that the translation is designed so that world can come alive the way it first did through the ear instead of eye.
What Dickey says could have been said of other English verse translations; it is what an intoxicated Keats said "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." Chapman translated Homer into verse at the outset of the 17th century. Keats, who was almost 21 in 1816 when he wrote that sonnet, could have read Pope's translations into rhyming iambic pentameter couplets. But Pope's Homer, which dates to the first quarter of the 18th century, was going out of fashion by the outset of the 19th century.
Until Fagles, the 20th century's most acclaimed translators into English verse were Richard Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald. If Fagles is more performative, Fitzgerald is more literary.
Fitzgerald and Fagles were friends. Says Fagles, "I honor his work greatly. I've found myself translating many of the things that Robert translated before me. And before starting on Sophocles (Fagles' Three Theban Plays was published in 1982), I asked how he'd feel about it. Before starting on the Iliad , I asked as well. I couldn't with the Odyssey because he was gone, but I would gladly have asked. He was 'homerically' generous when it came to the Iliad ."
Fagles, who is more than familiar with other English translations of Homer, says, "I guess I'm somewhat competitive when it comes to other versions, but that's not what motivates me. I take a much more processive, evolutionary approach. My least favorite review of the Iliad is entitled 'Whose Homer Wins?' as if translating were a 'gunfight at the OK Corral,' a fight to the finish. That is not my view. I am trying to have my own say, that's all."
Perhaps even more than he has been influenced by his predecessors, Fagles has been affected by the freest and no doubt greatest translation of the Odyssey --James Joyce's Ulysses . He says, "I was drawn in part to translate the Odyssey because I had read Joyce so much. By a kind of reverse spin of English, Joyce alters one's notion of the Odyssey as much as the Odyssey alters one's notion of Joyce. It's a wonderful kind of reciprocity."
Marathon readings of Ulysses take place at Symphony Space (2537 Broadway, New York City) each June on Bloom's Day. Leopold Bloom is Joyce's "Ulysses" (the latinized version of the Greek "Odysseus"). Instead of pure Joyce this coming Bloom's Day, episodes from Homer in Fagles' translation will be paired with their Joycean counterparts.
Joyce's indebtedness illustrates how the Odyssey functions as a long footnote to Western literature--the text required to explain so many subsequent references in so many subsequent works. Or, according to Fagles' notion of reverse spin, Western literature can seem a long footnote to Homer. The effects of the Iliad and Odyssey have been vast.
How does it feel to tackle such towering masterpieces?
Says Fagles, "It's daunting, and it's also a blessing. It involves a lot of arrogance, I'm afraid, and a lot of chastening humility. You have to kid yourself into thinking you are good enough to tackle these great works; and yet the works are so great that they make you feel quite small; they dwarf you."
What does such a prolonged intimate engagement with the poetry suggest about Homer's identity?
"I am committed to the proposition, though it's awfully hard to prove, that there is one Homer, not only within the Odyssey but within the Iliad and the Odyssey . It's a romantic notion, because I like to hold on to the idea of a single great imagination that could conceive the world of Troy and the world of Ithaca, the world of war and the world of peace. But that's an oversimplification.
"The two poems know each other. They complement each other. Though we'll never prove one author did each poem, let alone both, a translator who does both poems finds that the notion of one Homer is something of a necessity, will want that kind of consistency in his or her own work. Different as the poems are, the challenge is to convey the sense that a voice using similar language and similar tones is working at Troy and working at Ithaca, working at Ithaca and working at Troy."
How are the stories told?
The Iliad by count is something like 60 percent direct discourse. The Odyssey is something like 70 percent direct discourse. In other words, the characters' speeches comprise dramatic structures within an otherwise objective third person narrative. The usual Cliff Notes cliché about epic poems is that the story is an objective, third-person narrative. Nothing could be further from the truth.
"This dramatic structure must have meant that the epic composer and reciter had to be a ventriloquist--more than half his work involves his personifying other voices. Both Jacobi and McKellen do that to great effect in their readings. McKellen told me the gradual meeting between Penelope and Odysseus is one of the most moving things he's ever acted out and he was overwhelmed by its dramatic quality."
Not only does most of the Odyssey consist of characters speaking, but they tell stories, so that the poem is made up of stories within a story involving elaborate flashbacks. Some of those stories, notably by Odysseus (the preeminent storyteller), are deliberate fabrications that contrast with his "true" stories. Isn't Odysseus, the epic hero, himself being characterized as a poet?
"In many ways one of the most moving moments in the poem for me is when Odysseus strings his bow at the end of the 21st book. The simile for stringing the bow describes the hero as 'an expert singer skilled at lyre and song' who tunes his harp to a new pitch. That means the bow, the killing instrument, is really a musical instrument at the same time. Story-telling at that point becomes action.
"It's as though Homer were taking his whole narrative art and conferring it upon his hero and saying, all right, take your bow and treat it as a lyre and play a new song. With that lyre-bow Odysseus recomposes his kingdom; he rids it of discordant elements--the suitors--and establishes a new era of harmony. The storytelling image and the whole activity of heroism come together and are one and the same."
What do y,ou make of the encounter in the underworld between the living Odysseus and the dead Achilles, the heroes respectively of the Odyssey and the Iliad?
"I love that marvelous meeting between Odysseus and Achilles. It brings back all the latent hostility between the two of them that you see in the Iliad , especially in the ninth book. Achilles, the great hero of the Iliad , is a ghost who yearns for life, and Odysseus is able to give him a form of life that's very precious--the depiction of the heroic life of Achilles' son Neoptolemus. As long as the son is leading that life, the father can leap triumphant across those fields of asphodel. Two things are being stressed: the extreme fragility of life and how terrible its loss, on the one hand, and how very precious the extension of life is into the next generation.
"Odysseus plays such a crucial role because by giving the sheep's blood to the dead, he animates them. That's the power that the living have, to reanimate the dead--to reanimate memory. It's what we do. We are forever in conversation with these great ancestors."
Note: The following are two excerpts from the Fagles' translation of the Odyssey, which are discussed above:
So they mocked, but Odysseus, mastermind in action,
once he'd handled the great bow and scanned every inch,
then, like an expert singer skilled at lyre and song--
who strains a string to a new peg with ease,
making the pliant sheep-gut fast at either end--
so with his virtuoso ease Odysseus strung his mighty bow.
Quickly his right hand plucked the string to test its pitch
and under his touch it sang out clear and sharp as a swallow's cry.
(Book 21: 451-458)
there's not a man in the world more blest than you--
there never has been, never will be one.
Time was, when you were alive, we Argives
honored you as a god, and now down here, I see,
you lord it over the dead in all your power.
So grieve no more at dying, great Achilles."
I reassured the ghost, but he broke out, protesting,
"No winning words about death to me, shining Odysseus!
By god, I'd rather slave on earth for another man--
some dirt-poor tenant farmer who scrapes to keep alive--
than rule down here over all the breathless dead.
But come, tell me the news about my gallant son."
(Book 11: 547-559)