Wednesday, October 6, 2004


In Odyssey 17, Penelope voices her hope for vengeance against the suitors, and her son immediately sneezes. Telemachus’ sneeze is an omen foretelling Odysseus’ triumph over the suitors. (Why? As Ralph Hexter explains in his commentary on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of the Odyssey, the Greeks thought that because a sneeze cannot be produced at will or suppressed, it must be from the gods. Makes sense, right?)

How do the major American translators of Homer bring the sneeze into our language?

Richmond Lattimore:

She spoke, and Telemachos sneezed amain, and
     around him the palace
re-echoed terribly to the sound.
Amain? Re-echoed? Terribly? Lattimore here seems pretty stilted.

Robert Fitzgerald:
                                               The great hall below
at this point rang with a tremendous sneeze--
“kchaou!” from Telémakhos--like an acclamation.
An almost cartoon-like exclamation: Pow! Bam! Boof! But with a Greek look too--ahchoo would look merely silly here. The Greek verb eptaren is onomatopoetic, as Hexter points out, so Fitzgerald’s humor has a solid basis in the original.

Robert Fagles:
At her last words Telemachus shook with a
     lusty sneeze
and the sudden outburst echoed up and down the
Shook? Lusty? Five of the twenty words are clichéd: sudden outburst, up and down. And do sneezes really echo?

Stanley Lombardo:
Just as she finished, Telemachus sneezed,
A loud sneeze that rang through the halls.
Clarity itself, but I miss “kchaou!”

[Postscript: I just noticed that Lombardo’s lines make the sneeze ring by following sneezed with sneeze.]

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