The Odyssey – It’s a translation, d’uh

So, in  “Introduction to Literature 109” course  we are reading The Odyssey.  Of course it’s not THE  Ὀδύσσεια, it’s that which was translated. (This particular version was translated by Fitzgerald. ) Yet it seems like we are to accept what we are reading as THE ODYSSEY.

As a student of translation, I know that there are no perfect translations.

In Book 5, Odysseus says to  Kalypso:

“My lady goddess, there is no cause for anger.
My quiet Penelope–how well I know–
would seem a shade before your majesty,
death and old age being unknown to you,
while she must die.

The professor asks the class to discuss exactly what HOMER meant by “quiet” and why that was a virtue. Warning bells go off in my head! What Homer meant?! Maybe this is what Fitzgerald meant. Unfortunately, but didn’t get a chance to utter my profound observation in class.

But I couldn’t let it go!

I checked out another translation, this time by Fagles, and found that whatever the word was in Greek had been rendered “wise.”

This was too interesting! I can’t resist a challenge! I had to find the Greek original. And by chance, I managed. Here’s how I did it:

  • Luckily, because of my mathematical background, I am familiar with the Greek letters, so I found a Greek version online.
  • I noted that the passage was about halfway through Book 5, and I noted, too that both the stanza in question and the one before had the word “Odysseus” at the end of their first lines.
  • By positioning myself in the Greek version about halfway through,  I  managed to find two consecutive stanzas with Ὀδυσσεῦ  at the end of the first lines.
  • From there, it was easy enough to find the line in question, since I could make out the word Penelope in Greek — Πηνελόπεια (pi, eta, nu, epsilon, lambda, omega, pi, and the “eia” at the end)!  So I found περίφρων Πηνελόπεια  (see this site line 216)
  • Now I could see the word describing Penelope, which was  περίφρων, and which I looked up in the Greek dictionary attached to the site (you just have to click on the word!)  
  • The translation given was “very thoughtful, very careful” … which could be interpreted as either quiet or wise!

I wrote my professor:

Dear Prof. K
Yesterday we were discussing the passage about Odysseus’s “quiet” Penelope and you questioned the meaning behind the word “quiet.”
The fact that this is a translation of Greek must be very CAREFULLY taken into account, and unless one can actually go and examine the original Greek (and understand THAT) we cannot take this word as Homer’s. Indeed,  Fagles  translated the passage as “Look at my wise Penelope. She falls far short of you…”  Other translators ignore the matter, as in, for example
It is very problematic when we “analyze” meanings of a translated text, because, in effect, the translator has “analyzed” it for us first. …
At any rate, I think that this is a very important and CRUCIAL point to remind the class.

To which he replied:

Now all you have to do is learn Greek!

Which is when I did my detective work.

 At class that afternoon, he did mention my first comment, but he hadn’t yet seen my email with the Greek. I told him I had indeed “found” the original. “You know Greek?” he asked. “Well, I know as much as I know from math.” He actually called up a colleague to confirm it. (I was correct, natch!) 😉

And that’s the end of this story.

3 Responses to “The Odyssey – It’s a translation, d’uh”

  1. eleanorio Says:

    Isn’t it nice being right?

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