Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Fitzgerald, Lombardo, Mitchell

In the September 23 New Yorker : an excerpt from Stephen Mitchell’s forthcoming Odyssey, a passage from book 17 with the title “The Death of Argos.” The passage is a celebrated moment from the poem, as Odysseus’s long-suffering hunting dog hears His Master’s Voice and dies an easy death.

A translation of a poem as vast as the Odyssey rises or falls not in its treatment of great, memorable lines — such as those that describe Argos, lying neglected and bug-ridden on a pile of dung — but in its treatment of what might be called ordinary lines, those that go by in a way that invites no special attention from a reader. Someone walks into town; someone offers a greeting; someone serves a meal: the translator must attend to it all. Three lines from Mitchell got me making comparisons to my favorite translations of the Odyssey, those of Robert Fitzgerald (1961) and Stanley Lombardo (2000).

The scene: Odysseus, returned to Ithaca and disguised as an itinerant beggar, has been staying out in the country with the swineherd Eumaeus. Eumaeus is one of the most appealing characters in the poem; Homer even addresses him directly as a mark of affection. Eumaeus is something of an avatar of Odysseus himself: the swineherd is the son of a king and queen, a displaced person who lost his noble home in childhood. He was raised by Laertes and Anticleia alongside Odysseus’s sister and and has lived as a slave in Ithaca for many years. In book 16, Eumaeus welcomes Telemachus (who has returned from searching for news of Odysseus) in what looks like a father-son reunion (Telemachus even calls Eumaeus atta, father). Eumaeus is pious, loyal, righteously indignant, and stealthy (in 16 he speaks quietly to Penelope about her son’s return). And like Odysseus, Eumaeus is a figure of great versatility: though he seems never to have fought before, he will soon join Odysseus, Telemachus, and the cowherd Philoetius in a Special Forces unit to deal out doom to the suitors.

As our scene begins, Odysseus and Eumaeus stand before Odysseus’s palace. Odysseus has commented on the palace at length, praising its design and construction, and noting from smell (roasting meat) and sound (a lyre) that men are inside feasting. Eumaeus compliments Odysseus on his perceptiveness and, for a brief moment, shapes the story by posing the question of who should enter the palace first. Eumaeus is in distinguished company: Athena, Odysseus, Penelope, and Telemachus all work on the story, giving another character a role to play or setting up the course of events.

Here is Fitzgerald’s Eumaeus:

Numbskull is a wonderful touch, and it’s not twentieth-century slang either: the Oxford English Dictionary dates the word to 1697. “This action” is military in its sound, fitting in light of what is to come.

Here is Lombardo’s Eumaeus:

The rhetorical question is a good touch: the beggar’s intelligence is no surprise to Eumaeus. In 14, Odysseus told a story so as to finagle a cloak from Eumaeus: Eumaeus figured out what Odysseus was up to and was happy to oblige him.

And here are the lines from Mitchell’s Eumaeus that got me making comparisons:

I cannot hear Eumaeus’s voice — or anyone’s voice — in these lines, which sound to me like the translationese of bad subtitles. I’m sticking with Fitzgerald and Lombardo.

Some related posts
Gilgamesh in translation (Stephen Mitchell and N.K. Sandars)
Whose Homer? (the Big Four: Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, Stanley Lombardo)
Translators at work and play (another line by the Big Four)
Three Virgils (Fitzgerald, Lombardo, Fagles)
Translations, mules, briars (Guy Davenport on Lattimore)
New from Homer (Mitchell’s Iliad)

[Does Mitchell know Homeric Greek? It seems a reasonable question. He has said that he never read the Iliad before translating it because he could never get through book 1 in a translation. Did Mitchell thus learn Homeric Greek to translate a poem he had never read? It’s all very puzzling. See the discussion beginning here.]

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