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Book review: “Odyssey” by Homer, translated by Allen Mandelbaum

Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey is one of the best English versions of the epic. I liked it a lot, but not as much as the 2007 Odyssey by Emily Wilson.

Mandelbaum’s translation, published 33 years ago in a beautiful edition by the University of California Press, with 12 moodily jagged engravings by Marialuisa de Romans, is stately, intelligent and rather formal. 

That formality comes across in his frequent use of subordinate clauses, such as these lines about the flight of Hermes to tell Calypso to set Odysseus free:

Wand in hand,/Hermes took flight. He passed Pieria’s peaks/and, from the upper air, swooped toward the waves;/then, like a bird, he skimmed — a tern that bathes/its thick wings in the brine as it hunts fish/in surge that never rests — the dread abyss./So Hermes rode the countless troughs and crests.

By contrast, Wilson offers:

[H]e seized the wand he uses to enchant/men’s eyes to sleep or wake as he desires,/and flew.  The god flashed bright in all his power./He touched Pieria, then from the sky/he plunged into the sea and swooped between/the waves, just like a seagull catching fish,/wetting its whirring wings in tireless brine./So Hermes scudded through the surging swell.

There is much to like in both, particularly their vivid imagery. Mandelbaum writes of the “surge that never rests” while Wilson describes the tern “wetting its whirring wings in tireless brine.”

For my taste, Wilson’s version flows here and throughout the epic better than Mandelbaum’s because she doesn’t let her lines and cadences get interrupted by those pesky clauses.  She has a drive to her narrative.  Mandelbaum is more measured, almost like a march.

Nonetheless, Mandelbaum is Wilson’s equal in putting the poem’s poetic imagery into English.  One very minor example is the way he translates the Greek word that refers to Troy as a bad place for the Greeks to have been — “Troy-the-Ugly.”  Wilson takes a different but also piquant tack, calling it “Evilium,” i.e., evil Ilium.

Odyssey books

In this Pump Don’t Work blog, I’ve written several times about Odyssey translations and books related to Homer’s two epics.  Here’s a list of links:

“Sluts” or “bad girls”?

The bulk of this review will look at various excerpts of the poem as rendered by Mandelbaum and Wilson.  (My review of Wilson’s version took a similar approach but putting up her translation against several others rather than just one.)

But, before getting to that, I want to note that Wilson has been identified by her publishers and many reviewers as the first woman to translate the full Odyssey.  From what I’ve seen, she has tried to sidestep such characterizations, wanting to be seen as a translator who happens to be female rather than the other way around.

Even so, her femaleness seems to have provided rich insights into the story in terms of the women characters.

Like many a male before him, Mandelbaum describes in Book XIX the female house servants who slept with the suitors as “shameless bitches” and “sluts.”  By contrast, Wilson is much less judgmental, calling them “bad girls.”

Some may consider this a soft-pedaling of the betrayal that the women servants committed with the suitors.  However, just how bad, or evil, those women were is a question that, to my mind, is open.

This comes into play at the very end of the epic when the 12 “bad girls” are hung for their sins.

Here are some comparisons between the translations:

Book II – Eurycleia to Telemachus

Mandelbaum: “Do not stray/across the never-resting sea’s harsh ways.”

Wilson: “Do not go/searching for danger out on restless seas!”

Comment:  Here, Mandelbaum offers a reading of the line — “the never-resting sea’s harsh ways” — that is mellifluous and meaty while Wilson opts for something more straight-forward and colloquial.


Book V – Calypso bad-mouths Penelope

Mandelbaum: “And yet/I’m sure that I am not inferior/to her in form or stature: it’s not right/for mortal women to contend or vie/with goddesses in loveliness or height.”

Wilson: “And anyway, I know my body is/better than hers is.  I am taller too./Mortals can never rival the immortals/in beauty.”

Comment: Wilson makes Calypso seem more like a woman in what she says — that her body is “better” and that she is “taller.”  Perhaps she translates this way because she is a woman.  The male Mandelbaum gives the goddess more distant words, such as “not inferior” and “form and stature.”


Book VI – Odysseus steps out of the underbrush to Nausicaa and her maidens

Mandelbaum: He moved out as a mountain lion would/when — sure of his own strength, his eyes ablaze —/through driving wind and rain, he stalks his prey,/wild deer or sheep or oxen; he’ll attack/a cattle-fold, however tight the fence/that pens the herd — his hunger’s so intense. So did Odysseus seem as he prepared/to burst into the band of fair-haired girls/though he was naked; he was ravenous.

Wilson: Just as a mountain lion trusts its strength,/and beaten by the rain and wind, its eyes/burn bright as it attacks the cows or sheep,/or wild deer, and hunger drives it on/to try the sturdy pens of sheep — so need/impelled Odysseus to come upon/the girls with pretty hair, though he was naked.

Comment: The original Greek must be particularly vivid here as Mandelbaum and Wilson both respond with muscular lines about ferocious, ravenous Odysseus.


Book XI – Achilles on being supreme among the dead

Mandelbaum: “Odysseus, don’t embellish death for me./I’d rather be another’s hired hand,/working for some poor man who owns no land/but pays his rent from what scant gains he gets,/than to rule over all whom death has crushed.”

Wilson: “Odysseus, you must not comfort me/for death.  I would prefer to be a workman,/hired by a poor man on a peasant farm,/than rule as king of all the dead.”

Comment: Mandelbaum stresses the contrast between the hired hand who pays rent “from what scant gains he gets” and the one who rules “over all whom death has crushed.”  Wilson’s version is much simpler, Achilles preferring to be a “workman” rather than “king of all the dead.”


Book XXII – Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors

Mandelbaum: Astute Odysseus now threw off his rags./He leaped onto the great threshold; he grasped/the bow; he grasped the quiver full of shafts./He cried out to the suitors://“Now at last/the crucial test is at an end, and yet/there is another mark, one that no man/has ever struck before. But I’ve a chance/to reach it — if Apollo is my friend.”

Wilson: Odysseus ripped off his rags.  Now naked,/he leapt upon the threshold with his bow/and quiver full of arrows, which he tipped/out in a rush before his feet, and spoke,//“Playtime is over.  I will shoot again, towards another mark no man has hit./

Apollo, may I manage it!”

Comment: The first sentence or two of each of these translation pack great power, and I like both. Mandelbaum’s “Now at last/the crucial test is at an end” is wordier than I’d like, but it’s better, to my mind, that Wilson’s “Playtime is over” which seems too colloquial.


Book XXII – The hanging of the female servants

Mandelbaum: Just as when doves or thrushes, wings outstretched,/head for their nests but fall into a net/that’s set within a thicket, finding death/and not the place where they had hoped to rest,/so were those women’s heads, aligned, caught tight/within a noose, that each of them might die/a dismal death.  Their feet twitched for a while —/but not for long.

Wilson: As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly/home to their nests, but oneone sets a trap —/they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime; just so the girls, their heads all in a row,/were strung up with the noose around their necks/to make their death an agony.  They gasped,/feet twitching for a while, but not for long.

Comment: Both translations are brutal (and beautiful) to read.  But I can’t help but feel that Mandelbaum is all-in on the guilt of “those women” — they got what they deserved.  Wilson, by contrast, portrays the hanging with a sense of what it felt like for the “girls.”  It’s, to my mind, a richer reading of the scene.

“The pavement smoked”

Let me offer one final example, this one from Book XXIV at a point where the shades of the suitors are describing their deaths.

Wilson writes:

There was a dreadful noise of screaming/and broken skulls; the whole floor ran with blood.

I think Mandelbaum’s version is much superior.  For once, he avoids subordinate clauses and their interruptions and offers:

Those struck/cried out in horror, and the pavement smoked/with blood.

That’s an astonishing image — “the pavement smoked with blood” — and it’s proof that, however stodgy Mandelbaum’s translation may seem at times, he is a translator who has done right by the Odyssey.

Patrick T. Reardon


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