Sunday, 13 May 2018

On Translating Homer



In the correspondence that ensued from his recent review in the London Review of Books of three new translations of the Odyssey, Oxford academic Colin Burrow remarks that “one doesn’t have to read beyond the first two lines of William Morris’s verse translation to realise it’s not going to offer much poetical joy (‘Tell me, O Muse, of the Shifty, the man who wandered afar,/After the Holy Burg, Troy-town, he had wasted with war’)” .  I’m not sure how well any of us are equipped to challenge that critical judgment.  Even devoted Morrisisans may well not have read Morris’s 1887 version of Homer, and even if we have, we probably do not possess the mastery of ancient Greek which would let us do a comparison with the original itself.


So we perhaps have to turn to older and better equipped commentators for some help here.  One looks first to J.W. Mackail, as always, but he doesn’t give us much comfort, since in his view Morris’s Odyssey chiefly demonstrates a “disparity between the original and the method of rendering”, which in this case is the anapaestic meter of Sigurd the Volsung.  Half a century later, Geoffrey B. Riddenhough, who wrote learnedly about several Morris translations, notes that in the Homer version Morris ‘once more … reveals his curious hatred of the Latin element in the English language, a feeling which he allows to falsify his translation”.


So far, so bad, then; and Colin Burrow’s judgement would appear to be in the ascendant.  So we must turn instead to Oscar Wilde who reviewed the two volumes of Morris’s Homer as they came out with gusto: “of all our English translations this is the most perfect and the most satisfying”.  Or, twenty-seven years later, there is A. Clutton Brock’s little book on Morris where, though conceding that the translation is “rough and odd at times”, he insists that Morris “has kept the momentum and excitement of the story better than any other translator … it is as near to Homer as we are likely to get until another master of narrative poetry as great as Morris chooses to spend some years of his life upon a translation”.  These assessments should be enough stimulus to us, surely, after the BBC’s recent gripping mini-series on Troy: the Fall of a City, to turn to Morris’s Odyssey to follow up the character – admirably played by actor Joseph Mawle - who was far and away the most intriguing figure in the BBC version.

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