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Immortal Tale: ‘The Odyssey’

March 3, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Odyssey may be 2700 years old, but this ancient, oral epic about a warrior’s return home is still popular. Robert Fagles’ new translation is in its third printing, just two months after coming out. Professor of Comparative Literature at Princeton University, Fagles, a poet, himself, has also translated the Iliad and plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus, among other works. Thank you for being with us.

ROBERT FAGLES, Princeton University: Thanks for asking me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: What is it about this story and about this poet that makes him and it so popular all of these years after it was written, or after it was told?

ROBERT FAGLES: It doesn’t hurt that he was the first. And according to a lot of mythology, the first is always the best. And I know a lot of people who would agree. I think in the case of the Odyssey it’s a poem that can hit us, strike chords with us at virtually every age, the kind of wild and wooly yarn from childhood. It’s a tale of growing up for adolescents. It’s a tale of struggle, an epic poem of struggle and success for our middle years, if we’re lucky, if the gods are good. And for our later years, it’s always a song of eternal return. It’s everything to all people. It’s something like the autobiography of the race and most everyone’s favorite poem.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s surprising to me in looking over it–I hadn’t read it for a long time–and in reading your translation–Odysseus, though cast in the heroic mode, is very modern in some ways. As the poet says, his twists and turns in the face of all that’s happening to him are, they seem somewhat modern.

ROBERT FAGLES: I think that’s one of the great sources of appeal of the poem. In some ways he’s an anti-hero. He doesn’t always come clad in armor. He’s often clad in beggar’s rags, and he’s devious and deceptive and cunning and a little cruel too. At the same time, his mother died of longing for his sweetness, and he treats his people as a father treats a child. So there are many aspects to him. He’s many-faceted, and I think that’s a great source of his appeal.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The translations that existed when you began this were not bad. Why did you–

ROBERT FAGLES: Not at all.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: –decide to undertake a new translation?

ROBERT FAGLES: There are many reasons, I think. One is that I’d worked out, as you pointed out, I’ve worked out in tragedy for a long time, and I wanted to go back to the source. That was very important to me.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Back to the source in the sense that Sophocles–well, the great Greek tragedy writers certainly relied on Homer.

ROBERT FAGLES: Relied. He was their source. And I thought I would try my hand at going back to first things. That meant a great deal to me. Turning to The Odyssey I wanted to do that after the Iliad. It’s a natural sequence–sequel. But I think more important than anything is the feeling that I was deeply fond of the poem, and a great translator, a French translator, Even Bonfois, said that if a work does not compel us, it is untranslatable. I found the The Odyssey compelling in at least two ways. One is full of personal reference to me and you and everyone else in terms of autobiography, but personal as that connection is, once you’re inside the poem the poem is remarkably enlarging because it describes a world far larger than any we can inhabit in terms of adventure, geographical scope, surprise, danger, a variety of things that keep us going.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Please read something for us.

ROBERT FAGLES: I’d love to. This is the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope after 20 years of warfaring and wayfaring. “He wept as he held the wife he loved, the soul of loyalty, in his arms at last. Joy, warm as the joy that shipwrecked sailors feel when they catch sight of land. Poseidon has struck their well rigged ship on the open sea, with gale winds and crushing walls of waves, and only a few escape, swimming, struggling out of the frothing surf to reach the shores; their bodies crusted with salt, but buoyed up with joy as they planted their feet on solid ground again, spared a deadly fate. So joyous now to her, the sight of her husband vivid in her gaze, that her white arms embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s beautiful. What kind of problems did you face in translating this passage? And how were you different from other translators?

ROBERT FAGLES: I can’t quote the other translators, but I’ll tell you one problem that came to mind immediately. The line “would never for a moment let him go”–in Greek that’s opo pompon–which is an awkward kind of phrase. It means “not yet completely would she let him go.” And I wanted a phrase that could remind us that it took 20 years of longing for each other, and finally in one embrace, that one moment of embrace, their remarriage is sealed, and from it comes a kind of long life and, indeed, the longest kind of life because we’re still reading about these people. The sight of her husband vivid in her gaze, that her arms embracing his neck would never for a moment let him go. That’s just one of many.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve been praised for capturing the subtlety of Homer’s presentation of especially of Penelope, but of women in general and the domestic scene. Gary Wills recently–the current issue of the “New Yorker”–praises you for this, and so have others writing about your translation. Tell us about that.

ROBERT FAGLES: Well, I was talking with my wife about it this morning. What would have happened if I tried to translate The Odyssey a hundred years ago? Would my strategies have been different, would my interests have been different? I think I’ve been assisted greatly by certain wonderful feminist critics I can think, especially a colleague named Froma Zeitland, who has written about the bed especially. That’s the organizing principle of this episode. But I think that, if I may so, women have meant a great deal to me. My mother–I was an only child and my father died young. My wife of 40 years and my two daughters aged 29 and 31–and equally important, I suppose, is the recognition that anyone has to recognize, that The Odyssey is a deeply married kind of poem. It’s a poem for men and for women, and if you don’t try to seize on that, you’re missing a great part of it. So early on, my teacher and now comrade, Bernard Knox, and I agreed this is one of the main points of emphasis, we should try and give a total presentation of The Odyssey, especially in the 90′s.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us about the marriage bed in that scene. I love that story.

ROBERT FAGLES: I love that story too. It’s one of the great scenes. Penelope finally recognizes this is Odysseus and yet like him–they have so much in common–she wants to test him and test him and test him to make absolutely certain. And so she tells her nurse to go take the bed out of their bedroom. Quite impossible. Odysseus knows this– he built the bed around an olive trunk that was growing in their courtyard. It couldn’t possibly be moved. And he flares in anger at his loyal wife, goes through the whole history of how he built the bed out of the olive trunk, and she finally recognizes that this is it; there’s nothing more to be said, simply an embrace, because, as Odysseus says, the bed is the story of their lives; it’s what consecrates their marriage. It does not simply prove his identity. It brings the two back together again for as long as their lives will last. It’s a wonderful scene.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: We talked about the way your translation specially deals with the subtleties of the man-woman relationship, but what about other new things in your translation? Every translation of a great work must reflect its age. What is in yours, do you think, that tells us something about ourselves?

ROBERT FAGLES: I think, to get back to something we were talking about before, this whole question of the man of twists and turns, this–the modernity of this kind of heroism I think is very much with us. Then I think what I just referred to, the married quality of this poem, if I may put it this way, this is a poem about family values, and where families are of value, and the families don’t always get along so well. There’s a lot of irritation and abrasion, as well as deep affiliation and affection that finally wins out. And then I think too that The Odyssey is the great poem of the post war world, and for many of us we inhabit a post war world, a post World War II world, a post Cold War world. And it’s a time where, yes, there are battles to be fought and battles that can be won, the battle to win home, as we have in The Odyssey, but there’s also peace to be enjoyed and relished, and The Odyssey is much about that.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Robert Fagles, thank you so much for being with us. And congratulations on this fine work.

ROBERT FAGLES: Thank you very much, Elizabeth.