Reading Emily Wilson’s Trash-Talking Odyssey in the Time of Covid
By Rex Bowman
It’s early summer and I’m sitting on the couch, hurriedly flipping through the sports channels with an air of desperation, as if the pin has just fallen out of the grenade and I need to find it pronto: ESPN, ESPN Classic, ESPNU – none of the channels is offering up anything new. Professional sports have not yet completely awakened from their months-long, COVID-induced coma, which means sports-talk radio and the various permutations of ESPN television are still unable to offer up a full serving of that delicious stew that sports fans know as trash talk. Yes, forget the sporting events themselves, the baseball and the soccer, it’s the trash talk among athletes that I crave, the verbal clash of combatants. And I can’t find it anywhere.
I drop the remote control on the sofa and mope into my office, where a stack of books awaits my attention. I pick up a couple of volumes I’ve been meaning to get to, then put them aside. Then I spot Dr. Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey. Jackpot. I sit down at my desk and begin reading. Two hours later I’m still there, gripped.
I can’t say how other fans are getting their fix, but to get my fill of bruising and biting bon mots, I’ve turned to the Odyssey of Homer. There are so many things to love about Wilson’s English version of the more than 2,700-year-old epic poem, but for my money, the happiest highlight of her galdrcraft is all the sweet Greek trash talking that she adroitly manages to make shine. Not every translator gets it right. Even the skilled linguist T.E. Lawrence – the fabled Lawrence of Arabia – couldn’t turn Homer’s hexametric Greek into sick burns the way Wilson can. In Wilson’s handling of the text, the Greeks talk smack as smoothly as Achilles handled his sword, and with the same cutting effect. For a trash-talk junkie, this book is as satisfying as ice cream on a summer day.
I speak as an admirer of the poisonous putdown, as a man who couldn’t even play Monopoly with his two young sons without ratcheting up the intensity of the game with a little trash talk (“Go ahead and buy Boardwalk, kiddo. They’ll be scraping your token off Baltic Avenue when I take the rest of your cash”). I was raised on the verbal bashings of Muhammad Ali – the one-two punch of insults and taunts delivered in that soft voice that made his boxing matches comic spectacles both inside and outside the ring. To quote Ali: “If you even dream of beating me you’d better wake up and apologize.” That’s Grade-A trash talk, the kind of tongue-lashing that made Ali the all-time champion of the art. Since Ali’s prime, of course, ESPN has amplified this genre of intimidating and abusive speech: it has evolved from a face-to-face, chest-to-chest vocal encounter on the sports field – designed to demoralize or back down an opponent — to a disparaging remark replayed and analyzed by on-air commentators and rapidly spread via social media.
Trash talking is nothing new. The Greeks and their gods were doing it thousands of years ago. The problem is, some translations of Homer’s Odyssey don’t always expose the sharp end of the ancient speech – the sarcastic, mocking, and scornful barbs of the characters don’t quite pierce the flesh in all translations. Dr. Wilson is adept at allowing the speakers to carve up their enemies. If you haven’t read the Odyssey, spoiler alert: It’s an epic poem, divided into twenty-four books, about a Greek hero, king Odysseus, who struggles to make his way back home to Ithaca after the Trojan war; following a series of fatal calamities and bloody encounters with sundry hostiles, he succeeds, but only after killing a slew of young Greek thugs who had been hitting on his wife, Penelope. I’ve read the story more than half a dozen times. First, in high school: I had read the Iliad and couldn’t get to the library fast enough to check out the sequel, which is what the Odyssey is. The version of the Odyssey on the shelf was Samuel Butler’s 1900 translation, a prose rendering mired in the moral earnestness of the Victorian era, but boy did I love that book. I followed it up a few months later by reading Alexander Pope’s famous poetic translation from 1725, in which Homer’s sprightly hexameters become a forced march of English iambs. I found Pope’s version aggravating, but my ardor for the story itself didn’t cool, and in the following decades, I read Lawrence’s prose translation (1932), Robert Fitzgerald’s translation (1961), Richard Lattimore’s (1967), Robert Fagles’s (1996), and finally, Wilson’s, which was first published in November 2017.
Wilson’s is now my favorite, narrowly besting Fagles’s, and specifically due to her ability to buff the brickbats until they gleam. Take, for example, a scene in Book One in which Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, grumbles to a disguised goddess Athena that the suitors for his mother’s hand are wrecking the family finances, since they sit around drinking Odysseus’s wine and eating his sheep. In Wilson’s rendering, Telemachus says, “If they saw him return to Ithaca, they would all pray for faster feet, instead of wealth and gold and fancy clothes.” The put-down is so pert, you can imagine it coming from the lips of Ali himself (something like, “If they saw me coming, they’d pray for faster feet instead of money …”). Compare Wilson’s translation to Lawrence’s: “Ah, if they did but catch a glimpse of the Master returning to Ithaca, how they would beseech high heaven for the gift of swifter running rather than more wealth in gold or raiment.” Whatever else it is, the sentence isn’t sufficiently light-footed to be trash talk. The elevated diction – were words like “beseech” and “raiment” still au courant in Lawrence’s time? – suggests Lawrence was trying to give some sort of dignity to the line where what was really required was a razor-sharp zinger. Perhaps Lawrence’s time as a guest of the Arab tribes left him too conscientious of offending anyone’s sense of dignity and honor, even a fictional character’s. But he isn’t the only translator who missed the mark. Pope, fenced in by the parameters of iambic pentameter, has Telemachus say:
Should he return, that troop so blithe and bold,
With purple robes inwrought, and stiff with gold,
Precipitant in fear would wing their flight,
And curse their cumbrous pride’s unwieldy weight.
Yawn. Only Fagles, in my estimation, manages to equal Wilson. His Telemachus says, “But that man — if they caught sight of him home in Ithaca, by god, they’d all pray to be faster on their feet than richer in bars of gold or heavy robes.” Not only does the line alliteratively deliver the punch, the use of “bars of gold” and “heavy robes” conjures the nightmarish horror of running for your life while weighted down. Still, though Fagles gives us all the juice of the Homeric fruit, he has sacrificed speed. Wilson didn’t.
I should mention here that I don’t speak or read Greek, modern or ancient. I have no way of knowing which translator has rendered the more accurate, word-for-word translation of Homer’s original text. But no matter: I don’t want Homer’s translators to be foolishly faithful to Homer – I want them to be committed to the modern reader; I want them to be faithful to me. This modern reader delights when the translator has Homer’s characters speak in a way that I can understand. And I understand the sharp smack of a verbal slap. Like Fagles, Wilson gets it. In Book Five, as the goddess-nymph Calypso at last begrudgingly allows Odysseus to leave her island after seven years, she can’t resist trash talking his wife, Penelope. Or at least it comes off as trash talk in Wilson’s version. Says Calypso: “And anyway, I know my body is better than hers is. I am taller too. Mortals can never rival the immortals in beauty.” She’s telling Odysseus that he’s free to run home to Penelope if that’s what he wants, but he’ll never enjoy a smokin’-hot body like hers again. Oh, snap! Compare that to Fitzgerald’s Calypso: “Can I be less desirable than she is? Less interesting? Less beautiful? Can mortals compare with goddesses in grace and form?” And Lattimore’s: “And yet I think that I can claim that I am not her inferior either in build or stature, since it is not likely that mortal women can challenge the goddesses for build and beauty.” In the hands of Fitzgerald and Lattimore, Calypso sounds plaintive, whiny even, not at all the fierce force she is or the aggrieved goddess she thinks she is. Wilson’s Calypso is injured, sure, but the reader understands she is still haughty and capable of bringing the pain.
Trash talking seems best suited to the world of sports, of course – at least that’s where it mostly shows up in American culture — and Book Eight features a sporting event with optimal taunting. King Alcinous hosts a track-and-field competition at which Odysseus, who has washed up on Phaeacia’s shores, is the honored guest. The king’s men, who do not know Odysseus’s identity, nonetheless have marveled at his well-built body, and one of them, Euryalus, attempts to goad Odysseus into joining the competition. Wilson translates Euryalus’s words this way: “Stranger, I suppose you must be ignorant of all athletics. I know your type. The captain of a crew of merchant sailors, you roam at sea and only care about your freight and cargo, keeping close watch on your ill-gotten gains. You are no athlete.” The taunt is good and the translation satisfying: Not only is Odysseus’s athletic prowess derided, but his livelihood is disparaged as dishonest. But in this instance, Fagles delivers more of the sports-talk smackdown you find on ESPN. His Euryalus says: “I never took you for someone skilled in games, the kind that real men play throughout the world. Not a chance. You’re some skipper of profiteers, roving the high seas in his scudding craft, reckoning up his freight with a keen eye out for home-cargo, grabbing the gold he can! You’re no athlete. I see that.” The kind that real men play! Here, Odysseus’s very manhood is trashed. The other translators, at least the ones I’ve read, render the passage well; the put-down is so brazen, so direct, that none of them, not even Pope, missed the point:
A wandering merchant he frequents the main
Some mean seafarer in pursuit of gain;
Studious of freight, in naval trade well skill’d,
But dreads the athletic labours of the field.
Odysseus gives as good as he gets in this encounter, and his retort raises a smile in all translations. Wilson’s Odysseus responds to Euryalus: “… you look impressive, and a god could not improve your body. But your mind is crippled.” Lawrence has him say, “Take yourself — a masterpiece of body in which perhaps not even a god could see amendment: yet naught in mind.” As for Fitzgerald: “You now, for instance, with your fine physique — a god’s, indeed — you have an empty noddle.” Zing!
The ultimate sporting event of the Odyssey is of course the contest among Penelope’s suitors to see who can string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a row of twelve axes. The climactic scene is disappointing in terms of trash talk, however, because the suitors are seemingly the most dim-witted villains in the entire book, capable only of threatening to beat or kill others, especially Telemachus. Their gibes are full of malice, but little wit. Fortunately, snubs, slanders, and cheap shots aplenty proceed the fatal contest. In Book Seventeen, a swineherd leads Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, to town, and on the way they meet Melanthius. The sight of a pig farmer leading an old beggar is too much for him to resist, and Wilson’s Melanthius says, “One scoundrel leads another! Makes sense: gods join like things with like. You foul pig-man, where are you taking this old swine?” Odysseus has just been called a pig, and quite cleverly.
Odysseus too manages to hurl a few good insults before getting down to the archery contest. In Book Seventeen, for instance, after he has arrived at his own house disguised as a beggar, he chides Antinous for his unwillingness to share a bite from the feast he is enjoying. “Handsome idiot!” Odysseus says in Wilson’s version. “You would not give a grain of salt from your own house. You sit enjoying someone else’s food, and yet you will not give a crumb from this great banquet to me.” Odysseus is not the only beggar at the banquet. There’s also Irus, whom the suitors egg on to attack Odysseus, hoping to see the ancient version of a hobo fistfight. That leads to a hot-tempered exchange between the two beggars. Irus says, in Wilson’s version: “Get away, old man! Get out! Or else you will be dragged out by the foot.” To which Odysseus responds: “Do not stir me to fight or lose my temper. I am old but I will crack your ribs and smash your face to bloody pulp — then I will have a day of peace tomorrow; you will not return here to the palace of Odysseus.” (Fitzgerald’s prose also shines in this encounter. He has Odysseus respond to Irus: “But drop that talk of using fists; it could annoy me. Old as I am, I just might crack a rib or split a lip for you. My life would go even more peacefully, after tomorrow, looking for no more visits here from you.”) Naturally, Odysseus thrashes him. But that only gives the slave girl Melantho a chance to deride Odysseus: “… a better man may fight you soon, and punch your face so hard you will be kicked out of this house all drenched in blood.” Compare that (Wilson’s translation) to Butler’s almost dainty rendering: “… take care that a better man than he does not come and cudgel you about the head till he pack you bleeding out of the house.”
One could go on and on; the Odyssey is chock full of zesty, combative dialogue. And when things get tense, you’ve got a good chance of witnessing one character slyly slander another. Trash talking is uncomplicated and simple language, and this plays to the strength of Wilson’s approach as a translator: As she says in her Translator’s Note: “I have frequently aimed for a certain level of simplicity, often using fairly ordinary, straightforward, and readable English. … Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement.”
Perhaps trash talk isn’t one of the “deeper modes of engagement” that Wilson had in mind. But it sure makes the Odyssey a rollicking read when ESPN doesn’t deliver.
Rex Bowman is a writer who enjoys reading The Odyssey over and over and over. His writing has appeared in various publications, most recently in The Smart Set. He lives in Virginia.