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The Impossibility of Translating Homer into English

posted by Jason Kottke   Mar 27, 2019

Emily Wilson, who produced this banging translation of The Odyssey and is currently at work on The Iliad, recently tweeted a list of “reasons why it’s more or less impossible to translate Homer into English in a satisfactory way”. Here are a few of those reasons:

2. There aren’t enough onomatopoeic words for very loud chaotic noises.

3. “Many”, especially when repeated over and over, sounds childish; repeating “lots of” sounds worse. There are not enough words for large numbers of people or objects, and those we have (“multitude”, “plethora”, “myriad”) are often too pompous to use repeatedly.

6. Terms for social rank imply a particular wrong social order. “King” suggests monarchy. “Chief” has several connotations, none quite right. “General”, “Marshal”, “Officer” etc. suggest an established military hierarchy. “Mr” & “Sir” suggest business suits.

Last year, Wilson shared her process behind translating the first two lines of The Odyssey.

How much of Troy did he sack? ptoliethron is the lengthened form of polis, “city” (later, city-state). Sometimes =central part of city. But sacking just part of Troy isn’t really enough… Shd. the translator make it non-dumb if possible, or not worry about that?

There’s alliteration (polla/ plangthe … ptolietron epersen, notice the “p” sounds). What, if anything, should or can a translator do, when the sound of every word in her language is different from the words of the original? And, what to do about meter? Genre? Tone?

What’s the judgment, if any? Or narrative perspective? Do we feel OK about Odysseus being defined, instantly, as a city-sacker (ptoliporthos, one of his standard epithets)? Is the narrative voice invested in one side or another? It’s very hard to say. A judgment call.

And it goes on like that for more than a dozen tweets…for just two lines!