The Odyssey by Homer
Translation by Barry B. Powell
It is no surprise that there are many translations of Homer’s Odyssey. This ancient book – actually a long poem – by a man about whom we know nothing, is a classic that is relevant today because many writers from diverse cultures draw upon it for allusions and metaphors they insert in their books and poems. Readers of these modern writings who fail to recognize these devises miss much that the authors intended to tell. Additionally, many stories written in the past and still today are variations on the plot and events that Odysseus, the Greek Trojan war hero, encountered during his difficult ten-year journey home. He was an adventurer and trickster, different than other people, yet everyman.
This translator of the poem, Professor Barry Powell, who published his version of the Iliad last year, renders the classic in energetic verses that are easy to read and absorb. He avoids the formal style of the ancient text which some former translations felt compelled to copy. He enhances the clarity by beginning his book with a four-page Forward, a two page Preface, and a thirty-six page Introduction that explain the background of the book and what it contains and means. He includes illustrations, pictures of ancient art, maps, explanations, a timeline, and a glossary. For example, in the verse copied below that mentions Calypso, he explains who she was.
The Introduction includes discussions such as who Homer was, how the book was first transmitted orally, a feat that is impossible today because the poem is “much too long.,” He reveals the various ideas about the Trojan war, where and when it occurred, and some scholarly views that it never happened. He tells about the difficulty of reading Homer: its expressions are exaggerated, its emotions overstated, it is overloaded with gore, and there are many repetitions in the book which facilitated the transmission of the book orally. All of this is awkward for modern readers. But the book is important and Powell tells why. He shows the Odyssey is the oldest example of the later oft-repeated folktale modern scholars call “The Homecoming Husband.”
He describes how the tale of the Odyssey is radically different than Homer’s Iliad. While the Iliad is about war, the destruction of families, the rape of women, and murder of children, the “Odyssey is about a man trying to get home to his family, to protect them. On the way he becomes a symbol for the human spirit in quest of the meaning of human life.” Odysseus doesn’t seek knowledge, yet the long poem symbolizes the human quest for knowledge, the restless human search for what is new.
We can see Powell’s clear style by comparing his translation with another. Homer describes the theme of his book in his opening passage. In the 1996 translation by Professor Robert Fagles, who also translated the book in clear modern English, Homer writes:
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard he strove-
the recklessness of their ways destroyed them all…
And Homer continues:
But one man alone…
his heart set on his wife and his return – Calypso,
the bewitching nymph, the lustrous goddess, held him back,
deep in her arching caverns, craving him for a husband…
Powell’s translation is different.
Sing to me of the resourceful man, O Muse, who wandered
far after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy. He saw
the cities of many men and he leaned their minds.
He suffered many pains on the sea in his spirit, seeking
to save his life and the homecoming of his companions.
But even so he could not save his companions, though he wanted to, for they perished of their own folly…
And Homer continues:
A queenly nymph, Kalypso, a shining one among the goddesses
held back in her hollow caves, desiring that he become