The Great Conversation: Complicated Translations

The Great Conversation: Complicated Translations of The Odyssey
Posted on 02/19/2024
Translations of The Odyssey“Tell me about a complicated man.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost…”

So begins Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. The Greek word, polytropos, literally means many twists, many turns. Professor Wilson translates this word as complicated. This choice was controversial in 2018 when she became the first woman to author an English translation of The Odyssey. She was compared to other admirable translators. Robert Fitzgerald translated polytropos as: “The man skilled in all ways of contending.” Robert Fagles’ translation: “the man of twists and turns.” 

In an interview, Professor Wilson responds to her critics, asserting that it is an apt translation. In the early 17th century, complicated meant to combine, entangle, intertwine. It stemmed from the Latin complicare (meaning: folded together). In other words: someone who is complicated is one who is multi-layered and has various aspects folded into one another. The New Oxford American Dictionary states that contemporary usages of this word retain this sense of interconnecting parts and many different, confusing aspects (e.g., a complicated stereo system; a long and complicated saga).

But does Professor Wilson’s translation of polytropos take too many liberties? Is it fitting to say that Odysseus has various and confusing aspects? Is complicated so idiomatic that something is lost to readers?

Paul Ricoeur, one of the most notable philosophers of the 20th century, is a helpful adjudicator for these questions. He compares translation to hospitality. An authentic hospitality involves welcoming a stranger (the foreign language of an original work) into your home (the language into which the original work is translated). To have a mutual exchange, the stranger must retain his or her foreign-ness, but also must be understood in the home into which she is welcomed. Ricoeur remarks that it’s a delicate exchange. The stranger must become acculturated to the home she has come to, but if she completely assimilates then a trespass has happened as the original culture is left behind. However, if the stranger does no assimilation, then no understanding and empathy occurs with the host. Thus, the right mark of hospitality/translation is to welcome the stranger so that the original foreign-ness is respected, but the foreign is made at home and understood. 

Using Ricoeur’s argument, a great translation of polytropos offers the strangeness and spirit of the Homeric world; and yet, there must be a sense of congruence where we can know the Homeric world in our own terms so that we might truly encounter Odysseus in a way we can understand. Perhaps Professor Wilson’s choice is in the realm of what’s appropriate, but Fagles’ translation of “the man of many twists and turns” seems to hit the Ricoeurean mark. Regardless, one must ultimately read The Odyssey to see exactly what makes Odysseus polytropos. Thankfully, all our students get this chance in eleventh Humane Letters to encounter Odysseus and see just how many complicated twists and turns there are to this man.

A collage of The Odyssey book covers

Website by SchoolMessenger Presence. © 2024 SchoolMessenger Corporation. All rights reserved.