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Homer, Odyssey I
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A- : thorough, useful overview and introduction
See our review for fuller assessment.
The complete review's Review:
Homer's Odyssey remains one of the foundational literary texts, in every sense, and continues to be widely read and studied -- and frequently translated, at least into English: recent major translations include ones by Stephen Mitchell (Simon and Schuster, 2013), Barry B. Powell (Oxford University Press, 2014), Anthony Verity (Oxford University Press, 2016), Peter Green (University of California Press, 2018), and, of course, Emily Wilson (W.W.Norton, 2017).
Beyond that, there are the classic translations, from George Chapman's to E.V.Rieu's Penguin-standard to the more recent Robert Fagles.
I ought to say that the translation makes no pretence to literary merit; it is certainly not intended as a rival to the many freestanding translations of the entire poem that are readily available. It is designed to help the reader to construe the Greek on the facing page and to reflect, as far as possible, effects of word order and sound in the original.There are, of course, those of us who want exactly that in their translations; certainly it is the most appropriate approach to take here, where the point is to help illuminate and, in a sense, make 'readable' the original text, rather than to find/present an English equivalent. (The difference between this and what we usually expect from translation is worth keeping in mind.)
Comparing the proem (lines 1-10) to other recent translations should give some sense of Pulleyn's approach:
The man — tell me, Muse, [of him] of many turns, who was veryOkay, so that doesn't quite have the poetry -- or more natural feel -- of the standard English translations -- but, again: that's not the intention or purpose.
In literary translations, the focus is much more on the English. Stephen Mitchell (2013), for example, has it:
Sing to me, Muse, of that endlessly cunning manMeanwhile, Emily Wilson (2017), has it (arrestingly succinctly):
Tell me about a complicated man.And then, of course, there are versions like Chapman's (1615):
The man, O Muse, inform, that many a wayOf course, Pulleyn's translation differs from the others in that it is not meant to be read on its own: it is not a stand-alone translation; the commentary is a vital complement, and that and the English rendering are meant to give the reader the necessary insight into the original Greek. And so the reader finds twelve pages of commentary to go with just these first ten lines -- allowing for a 'fuller' reading, specifically of the Greek.
So, for example, the first line describes the (unnamed) Odysseus as: πολύτροπον. Mitchell presents him as: 'endlessly cunning', while Wilson makes him simply: 'complicated'; Pulleyn's '[of him] of many turns' reads, on its face, awkwardly -- but the relevant commentary explains why he expresses it that way, as he begins by noting:
The word is plainly derived from πολύ- ('much') and τρέπω ('turn') but its meaning is nevertheless ambiguous in Greek: does it refer to Odysseus' many travels or to his versatility of mind and his cunning ? The word recurs only once (Od.10.330) in a context no more helpful as to meaning. [...] The overall ambiguity may be preserved in English by translating 'of many turns'.Ultimately, arguably, this isn't nearly as limiting as the choices Mitchell, Wilson, et al. (are forced to) make.
The Commentary is not a word-by-word gloss of the text, but it is very detailed, with discussion of at least a word from almost every line (and some in their entirety), as well as some discussion of or observations about specific passages and sections, often in simple summary, such as:
178-212 Mentes answers Telemachus' question by posing as a trader in metals who knew Odysseus in the past. It is the beginning of a careful strategy to find a way into Telemachus' affection and so encourage him to action.Most of the entries do focus on word-meaning, and consider alternatives, including those mentioned in the literature (with references, for those eager to explore further), and compare and contrast to examples from elsewhere (mostly) in Homer. While the sheer amount of commentary might seem inordinate, Pulleyn is not, if fact, overly digressive; as throughout (i.e. also in the excellent Introduction), Pulleyn gets to the point -- and points readers to supporting and alternative claims from the literature in the references. Reading a text while relying on and referring to such extensive supporting material is never going to be particularly easy -- the reading experience will obviously never be a very smooth one --, but the Commentary is an excellent and thorough study-guide.
A substantial part of the volume (some sixty pages) is also taken up by the Introduction, with Pulleyn managing to address a great many of the relevant aspects concerning the Odyssey thoroughly but also succinctly; it serves as an excellent introduction to the work and can be recommended on its own, even apart from the translation of and commentary on book one that follows.
In the Introduction, Pulleyn devotes brief sections to a variety of aspects of the epic, beginning with: 'The Appeal of the Odyssey' and followed by, among others, sections on: 'Structure', 'Style', and 'Transmission'. Pulleyn considers the work as a whole here -- including its relation, in language, subject matter, and more, to the Iliad, including observations such as that the Iliad is "far more taken up with the doings of the gods than the Odyssey", or how:
The Iliad is an almost unbearably concentrated narrative of death and loss; the Odyssey is about life -- it might be complex and challenging but it is also breath-taking in the possibilities that it offers and which are exemplified in a man life Odysseus.For contemporary readers, Homer's use of repetition is particularly glaring, and Pulleyn addresses that (and its obvious roots in the oral tradition, the origins of the poem) at some length here. He notes the remarkable statistic that:
One one reckoning of the 27,853 verses that make up the Iliad and the Odyssey together, some 9,253 are repeated in whole or in part elsewhere. That means that approximately one-third of the poem is formulaic; two-thirds are not. This figure refers to strictly verbatim repetition. On another analysis, taking account of expressions that are similar as well as identical, these proportions are reversed.Pulleyn emphasizes how unusual Homer's formulaic approach is, as even imitators (e.g. Quintus Smyrnaeus' Posthomerica) might go through the motions, but: "their formulae are more like window-dressing rather than an integrated part of the fabric of their work".
One consequence of the repetition, and something that Pulleyn grapples with throughout then in the Commentary, is:
How can we judge when the choice of word is deeply telling or when we might be making a mountain out of a cliché ?Fascinating, too, is the counterpart to the formulaic, the unique words -- hapax, words that appear only once --, as the 'Homeric hapaxes' (words that appear only once in Homer, but are picked up by later Greek writers) make up some two percent of the total words in Homer (about once every ten lines) and a stunning 33 per cent of the discrete items of vocabulary in the Odyssey.
The sections in the Introduction also look to broader contexts, down to considering what understanding the Greeks of Homer's time had of, for example, physiology, as well as things like the role and perception of women or slaves. These are quick but insightful overviews; helpfully, each section also points to a few volumes of 'suggested reading' which address the relevant subject in greater detail. (So also the extensive Bibliography is an excellent resource covering an enormous amount of the literature of interest.)
Discussion of metre and dialect and grammar -- including charts of some of the declensions of the troublesome-in-Homeric-Greek parts of 'to be' (εἰμί) and of 'to go' (εἶμι) -- are helpful reference points, but the novice (and even some more advanced readers) will probably still require some additional support (though, again, the Commentary also proves helpful in this regard as well).
Supplementary sections -- including a (Greek) Glossary and a glossary of Technical Terms -- are also useful, completing this well-presented volume.
Homer, Odyssey I can certainly be recommended to anyone who wants to explore this classic work more closely, and specifically to engage with the Greek text. The Introduction gives a very good overview of many aspects of the work as a whole, and while the text and Commentary then are (essentially) limited to book one of the Odyssey, they do immerse the reader fully in it, making for a great stepping stone to the rest of the work.
Homer, Odyssey I is perhaps more tool than reading-book, but, exemplary in its presentation, highly recommended as such.
- M.A.Orthofer, 6 February 2019
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Simon Pulleyn read and taught classics at Oxford, and has also practiced law.
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