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No, we shouldn’t bury Homer: A response to Takis Theodoropoulos

In his 1837 lecture “The American Scholar,” the American transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson called books the “best type of the influence of the past.” Yet he also emphasized that society should not seek inspiration exclusively from ancient books. No book, after all, is a pure distillation of eternal truths; every book is, inevitably, a document of its time:
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As no air-pump can by any means make a perfect vacuum, so neither can any artist entirely exclude the conventional, the local, the perishable from his book or write a book of pure thought, that shall be as efficient, in all respects, to a remote posterity, as to cotemporaries, or rather to the second age.

 

Thus, Emerson pronounced, “Each age, it is found, must write its own books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. The books of an older period will not fit this.”

The same is true of translations of certain “books of an older period,” books that we call “classics”: those older books that do still have the power to delight, fascinate, instruct and inspire us today in “remote posterity.” Each age must produce its own translations of these books; or rather, each generation for the next succeeding. After all, as Telemachus says in Book 1 of the Odyssey, people always prefer the song that is newest.*

In the United States, Emily Wilson has recently produced an Odyssey for the next generation, and this newest Odyssey has certainly proven pleasing to many. Perhaps not since Seamus Heaney’s 1999 Beowulf has a new translation of an old classic sold so well or been the subject of so much discussion. The language of “Wilson’s Homer” is clear and bright, faithful to the text yet accessible; unlike most modern English translations of the poem, it is even metrical (she has rendered Homer’s dactylic hexameter into English iambic pentameter, the meter of Shakespeare).

This new Odyssey is now introducing a whole new generation of English-speakers to the Homeric poems. An economist friend of mine recently read Wilson’s entire translation aloud to her eight-year old daughter over a series of bedtimes. My university students have been inspired by Wilson to study Greek mythology and start studying Ancient Greek. Wilson has nearly 25,000 followers on Twitter, where she posts mostly about issues of translation. By using Twitter to compose “threads” in which she compares and comments on different translations of single passages of ancient poetry, she has, in the words of a New Yorker writer, “redefined what Twitter can do.” Some of these threads, which Wilson calls “scholia” (a reference to ancient scholarly notes written in the margins of texts) are collected on her website. In short, Wilson, who is now at work on a translation of the Iliad, is giving us a Homer for our own age—and the next succeeding generation.

Yet the appearance of this new translation, and the praise that it has received, seems to have worried some people. Among them is Takis Theodoropoulos, one of the most troubled of them all. So disturbed is he by the conversation around Wilson’s translation that in his August 28 Kathimerini column “Perhaps we should bury Homer?” he went so far as to suggest that, in light of how Wilson and her many fans and followers are misrepresenting the ancient epics, “Perhaps … we should bury [Homer] with due honors and the hope that others, whether humans or hominids, will rediscover him in the future and start reading him again from the beginning.”

Two major points about the conversation around Wilson’s Odyssey seem particularly to disturb Theodoropoulos, and the fact that he sees those two points as closely linked to each other says a great deal about his point of view.

First, he makes clear that he is unimpressed by the fact that Wilson’s is the first complete English translation of the Odyssey to be published by a woman. The media has been preoccupied with that point, but it is not something that Wilson herself emphasizes in such simple terms. Her Twitter biography in fact includes the line: “NOT the first woman to publish a translation of the Odyssey.” Instead, what she has repeatedly foregrounded (including in an interview with Kathimerini) is the existence of professional and cultural barriers that hinder women (and people of color) from becoming professional translators of ancient texts. She has never painted her translation as an Odyssey au féminin; she does not, as Theodoropoulos hypothesizes, make a fuss about the plight of poor Penelope.

This brings us to the second point, the one that bothers him most, namely the “view of Homer that has emerged as a result of the translation.” Wilson and her acolytes take the deeply anachronistic and dishonest view that the Homeric poems touch on contemporary issues such as gender identity, migration and refugeeism, and cultural difference. To read the Odyssey as having anything to do with these themes is to twist and distort the poem to suit the desires of a specific public, “like Chinese restaurants that adapt their recipes to local tastes.” For Theodoropoulos, Wilson’s Odyssey has engendered a perverse and absurdly modernized view of the ancient poet, one that insists that “Homer was a good person, and if he were alive today he might well participate in Pride events, because deep down he was progressive.”

Now, Theodoropoulos freely confesses that he has not actually read Wilson’s translation, and that he is not qualified to judge its merits as such. Yet his complaint that to see themes of, e.g., gender fluidity and refugeeism in the Odyssey is entirely anachronistic suggests that he has not read much ancient literature either. Was Euripides, too, forcing political correctness upon the Trojan Cycle when he composed tragedies such as Trojan Women, Andromache, and Hecuba, that is, plays that center the trauma of refugees—and specifically of refugee women?

In some cases, what Theodoropoulos would see as anachronistic political correctness is in reality a more faithful rendition of Homer. As Wilson has noted in one of her threads of “scholia,” “Many translations import misogynistic language when it isn’t there in the Greek.” The example that she discusses occurs in several published translations of lines spoken by Telemachus in Book 22, during the scene of the “slaughter of the suitors.” Here Odysseus’ son condemns the female slaves (δμῳαί)) of the palace to a brutal, vengeful death:

μὴ μὲν δὴ καθαρῷ θανάτῳ ἀπὸ θυμὸν ἑλοίμην

τάων, αἳ δὴ ἐμῇ κεφαλῇ κατ’ ὀνείδεα χεῦαν

μητέρι θ’ ἡμετέρῃ, παρά τε μνηστῆρσιν ἴαυον. (462-4)

 

In Robert Fagles’ 1996 translation, the female slaves who in Homer’s Greek “slept beside the suitors” become, in Telemachus’ mouth, “sluts” and “whores.”

 

“No clean death for the likes of them, by god!

Not from me — they showered abuse on my head,

my mother’s too!

You sluts — the suitors’ whores!”

 

Before Wilson, Fagles’ translation was the most famous modern English Odyssey, and the one most often assigned to students at American high schools and universities. But, as Wilson points out, his version exaggerates the blame that Telemachus lays on women who were victims of the suitors. I first encountered Homer via translation, and so had always taken for granted that these female slaves were “girls who had partied too hard” and deserved to be brutally punished. I have since read this scene many times in Greek, but it was not until I read Wilson’s Twitter thread that I realized how, even in Greek, I was continuing to project Fagles’ interpretation onto Homer (and Telemachus). And so I wonder: is Theodoropoulos equally concerned about how Fagles, too, forced modern “politics” onto Homer and the Odyssey?

In the end, what surprised me most about Theodoropoulos’ column wasn’t the way that it linked the fact that Wilson is a woman with assumptions about some rampant and disingenuous political correctness of her translation. Nor was it even that he espoused such strong opinions about the public reception of a book he has never read. No, what surprised me most was his fundamental pessimism about Homer: his doubt that the ancient epics have anything “relevant” to say to us today.

Thanks to Emily Wilson’s translation, more young people than ever are reading Homer (and having Homer read to them before bed!). In the Anglophone world, it is as if a grizzled old Homer has triumphantly reemerged from behind the scenes like the character Demos at the end of Aristophanes’ Knights: beautiful, fresh and rejuvenated. Why on earth would we bury him now?

 

Johanna Hanink is associate professor of Classics at Brown University and editor of the Journal of Modern Greek Studies. Her latest book is How to Think about War: An Ancient Guide to Foreign Policy (Princeton 2019), a translation of selected speeches from Thucydides.

 

* τὴν γὰρ ἀοιδὴν μᾶλλον ἐπικλείουσ’ ἄνθρωποι / ἥ τις ἀϊόντεσσι νεωτάτη ἀμφιπέληται, Odyssey 1.351-2


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