Homer, Odyssey: An Antipodean Translation for the Early Twenty-First Century
Steele Roberts, $60.00,
Homer’s Odyssey has been a recurring presence in the literature of our islands, from A R D Fairburn landing Odysseus on the pohutukawa-fringed beaches down to Catherine Mayo’s YA novels about the hero’s boyhood. So “an antipodean translation for the early 21st century” raises intriguing expectations: Homeric epic in the down-to-earth Kiwi vernacular of beach, bach and barbeque? A fusion of ancient Greek and Polynesian motifs, as in Robert Sullivan’s Star Waka, Vana Manasiadis’s Ithaca Island Bay Leaves or the art of Marian Maguire?
Sadly, Brian Dawkins’s Odyssey does not live up to the promise of its subtitle. There is very little in its text that is distinctively “antipodean” or “21st century”. Dawkins stresses that his version is designed for reading aloud, and it is well adapted for that, having the genuine virtues of clarity and readability. Each of the 24 books is bookended by a synopsis of the story so far and a summary of key events, making it easy to read (to oneself or others) one or two books at a sitting.
But clarity goes along with flatness. Dawkins’s (very) free verse manages to be more prosaic than the literal prose of the Loeb Classical Library version. Compare Odysseus’s entry into the Phaeacian city in the Loeb:
And Odysseus marvelled at the harbours and the shapely ships, at the meeting places where the heroes themselves gathered, and the walls, long and high and crowned with palisades, a wonder to behold. But when they had come to the glorious palace of the king, the goddess, flashing-eyed Athene, was the first to speak ….
and in Dawkins:
He was greatly impressed by the harbour with its ships,
And the plaza of the sailors. This was surrounded by high walls,
And set into these was an impressive array of standards.
When they arrived at the famous palace of the king,
Athena spoke to him … .
All markers of elevation or excitement are stripped out, reducing epic grandeur to a report of a rather boring holiday trip. Dawkins may be aiming at an unpretentiously conversational, no-ruddy-poetry Kiwi vernacular, but this is undercut by outcrops of poetic diction like “Let no sceptred king know in his mind good” or “When appeared iris-fresh Dawn with her roseate hues”.
Two odd decisions in particular mar the value of the translation. One is Dawkins’s idiosyncratic, hyphen-peppered system for transliterating Greek names. This is likely to confuse Greekless readers, who will almost certainly be misled into pronouncing “Anti-noos” as Anti Noose (rather than An-TI-no-os) and “Tele-makhos” as Telly Marcus. The Phaeacians weirdly become Ffae-akians, which sounds as though an aristocratic English clan such as ffinch-ffotheringay had somehow strayed into Faerie.
The other and more radical decision is to reshuffle the narrative of the Odyssey, moving the first four books (the “Telemacheia”) to a position after Book 14 – a change that Dawkins suggested in an interview would “offend academics mightily”. Sure enough, I’m about to object strenuously, but not, I think, out of pure pedantry (though it could be argued in principle that something calling itself a “translation”, as opposed to an adaptation or retelling, shouldn’t cut-and-shuffle the original work). The problem is that this change wrecks the epic’s carefully planned structure of expectations. Homer (whoever he was) starts with Odysseus lost, his kingdom going to pieces in his absence, and his son Telemachus setting out on a quest for news of him, picking up tantalising scraps of information. Only once our expectations have been thoroughly worked up, by the start of Book 5, does Homer bring his hero on and begin the main story. Dawkins brings Odysseus on stage immediately, and postpones Telemachus’s quest till halfway through the poem – at which point it has no narrative function and no interest whatever. Who wants the support act to come on stage halfway through the main set?
It should be said that this is a handsomely produced, eye-catching volume. Its most striking feature is Dawkins’s own illustrations. Stylised and slightly surreal in black, white and red, halfway between archaic Greek vase-painting and science-fictional graphic novel, cheekily incorporating cross-cultural details like a carved waka prow on a canoe, koru patterns on a Mycenean lintel, a weta peeking out of foliage on a Grecian urn, they have all the quirky imagination and distinctively “antipodean” quality that the translation itself lacks.
Geoff Miles teaches classical traditions in English literature at Victoria University of Wellington and is co-author of The Snake-Haired Muse: James K Baxter and Classical Myth.