“Each generation must translate for itself”: Few works better illustrate T. S. Eliot’s observation than Homer’s Odyssey. Since the epic was first translated into English by George Chapman in the early seventeenth century, it has been cast into our language some 60 times—with every version colored by the sensibility, vernacular, and values of its time. Each generation, in a word, gets the Odyssey it deserves.
Inevitably, each generation also gets the Odysseus it deserves. The ancient Greek hero is so complex and multifaceted that even a single interpreter can see him multiple ways. Sophocles portrayed Odysseus in one work as an exemplar of restraint and toleration while in another as slippery to the point of slimy. Two millennia later, Dante was similarly torn, consigning Odysseus to an innermost circle of hell for the sin of lying even while praising his virtues of wonder and curiosity.
Inevitably, perhaps, twenty-first-century readers are no less torn. In her recent and revolutionary translation of the Homeric epic, Emily Wilson tweaks the celebrated opening line. Rather than following the traditional rendering of polytropos, the adjective applied to Odysseus’ character, as “many-turning” or a “man of twists and turns,” she instead presents him as a “complicated man.” With that simple change, Wilson casts Odysseus as a man whose character is tailored for a world of moral ambiguity and political uncertainty. As a “complicated” man, Odysseus becomes less a hero than an antihero, a man whose ethos is strikingly unethical—a man who deceives, dissembles, and defrauds. He is, perhaps, the Odysseus best suited to our post-truth, post-fact, and post-shame era.
A TALE TWICE TOLD
The beginning of every story harbors its end. Here “end” can mean not only finality—how the tale finishes—but also function, or why the tale is meaningful. In the version of the Odyssey translated by Robert Fagles in 1996, Homer begins by calling the Muse to sing of “the man of twists and turns . . . / driven time and again off course.” This man fought, through suffering
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