within stories

sea lions.jpg

Stories within stories within stories. That’s the Odyssey. We are reading it aloud, to each other, most evenings by our fire. This translation, by Emily Wilson, is really marvelous. It reads smoothly and naturally. I’d wondered when I bought it how she would convey the long dactylic hexameters of the original text and her choice is iambic pentameter, the meter of English narrative poetry. I enjoyed the postscript to Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version in which he discusses at length the strategies he used to try to replicate the formulaic tropes of the poem, part of the legacy of its origins as performance. A translator is always working with equivalencies, I think. I enjoyed too Emily Wilson’s Translator’s Note:

I have taken very seriously the task of understanding the language of the original text as deeply as I can, and working through what Homer maybe have meant in archaic and classical Greece. I have also taken seriously the task of creating a new and coherent English text, which conveys something of that understanding but operates within an entirely different cultural context.

We read and I notice that we smile a lot. We smile when we recognize a moment, or appreciate an image. When Menelaus is telling Telemachus about the old sea god Proteus of Egypt and how he was advised by the god’s daughter, Eidothea, to surprise the god as he slept, he recounts Eidothea’s description of how to find him:

He goes to take his nap inside the caves.
Around him sleep the clustering seals, the daughters
of lovely Lady Brine. Their breath smells sour
from gray seawater, pungent salty depths.

I remembered traveling the length of Lynn Canal, from Skagway to Juneau, by catamaran, and being told by the skipper that we would pass a sea lion rookery enroute. If we were lucky, and quiet enough, we could get quite close to the rookery. On deck, quiet, we were hit by a wall of odour, sour as old cheese, and there they were, the sea lions, some sleeping, some roaring from the rocks. Was there a god among them? Maybe.

“Good evening, stranger…”

kite, in progress

Last night we began to read Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. We’ve been meaning to read together for awhile now, after last winter’s experience of Dante’s Inferno, followed by the odes of John Keats. I was sort of pushing for the Odyssey but John was resistant. Maybe nothing quite so classical this time around, he suggested. But I brought out this beautiful edition, purchased (in part) with my gift certificate from the Galiano Island Literary Festival two years ago, and we simply began. It reads so well. “Tell me about a complicated man.” What an opening. Yes, tell me. I’m going to resist the urge to compare. My beloved Fitzgerald translation lives on my desk, coming apart at the spine, fringed with stickie notes, a source of both solace and inspiration for at least 45 years. I paid $2.04 for it in the University of Victoria bookstore in the fall of 1973. I’ve read other translations but this one has always felt like Homer to me. I have to say that I do love the cadences of this Wilson version, though, and look forward to tonight.

With that, she tied her sandals on her feet,
the marvelous golden sandals that she wears
to travel sea and land, as fast as wind.

I might try a little exercise as we go along, using my Loeb Odyssey and my battered Goodwin Greek Grammar. I know there are more modern ways to immerse yourself in languages but I like the slow work of an old grammar and scraps of paper.

                                                            “Good evening,
stranger, and welcome. Be our guest, come share
our dinner, and then tell us what you need.”

Imagine if we could still open a door to a stranger, a woman in beautiful sandals, and offer her a meal, not knowing that she is a goddess. Imagine.