Search This Blog

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Odyssey in Slang
The Speaker, January 19, 1901

The Odyssey Rendered into English Prose. By Samuel Butler. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

Mr. Samuel Butler has at least courage and consistency in pursuing the theory that poetry like that of Homer should be translated in excessively free and familiar language. He has written a translation of the Odyssey in which perhaps the most heroic achievement (among many) is a Penelope who talks of Ulysses as her "poor dear husband." Mr. Butler, of course, has already won some fame in this connection by his theory that the Odyssey was written by a woman, but we did not grasp until we read this book that it was written by a charwoman. There is a vast deal of perverted talent in the translation. We wish Mr. Butler had devoted as much ingenuity to gaining equivalents in heroic English for heroic Greek as he has shown in the curious and diabolical art of discovering English slang with a sort of similarity to some Greek metaphor or form. "I will find you in everything," has, we believe, a special meaning in some English dialect, but when we find it in a rendering of an ancient epic, we can only suppose it (despite the context) to be the address of a priest to some all-pervading deity.

On page 97 there is an extraordinary example of Mr. Butler's love of making the modern and commonplace overpoweringly vivid to the mind. He makes Laodamas, in urging Ulysses to join in the games, address him as follows: "I hope, sir, that you will enter yourself for some one or other of our competitions," which is positively brilliant in the perfection with which it has caught the ill-bred urbanity of the steward with a pink rosette in his frock coat. Some renderings, we admit, are shrouded for us in impenetrable mystery. Why Ulysses should address the Cyclops as "Your Excellency" we cannot think: the title is reserved generally for Ambassadors, and whatever were the virtues of Polyphemus they were not those calculated to advance him in the diplomatic service. A similar cloud rests on Mr. Butler's reason for calling "Chiefs and leaders of the Achaeans" "alder-men and town councillors." If simple and antique words are to be avoided, why mention Achaea? It might be called Paddington. Doubtless a very vivid and popular version of the Odyssey might be written in which the whole voyage should by made by steam, the refusal of Calypso's love become a "sexual problem," the visit to the dead a spiritualistic seance, and the whole conclude with the contest in firing the Mauser rifle of "the much-enduring man." It would amuse us, but we should not sell our Homer as a duplicate.

We should not dwell so strongly upon this craze for the commonplace which has possessed the translator, for we have no desire to make cheap fun of such a benefactor as the author of "Erywhon," if we did not think that Mr. Butler is in this matter only a more courageous and typical exponent of an idea, or rather an absence of ideas, now seriously endangering literature. It is truly extraordinary to what an extent the heroic element is lacking in men of imagination in this decade. When Mr. Butler takes the part of the denunciation of Euryalus beginning [Greek phrase in original] which may be rendered more or less literally, "You have wakened wrath in my heart, saying unrighteous things," and translates it "Your ill-judged remarks have made me exceedingly angry," it strikes the mind at first as being uncommonly like Mr. Penley in the "Private Secretary," and one expects to find the blow that broke the jaw of the colossal Irus described as "a good hard knock." But the matter is far deeper than this. It is a part of that pitiful modern notion, unknown to all the great literatures of the world, that a scrap or two of actual detail, the literal symptoms which appear in conversation or action, are the things that are "like life."

Life is within: a mass of towering emotions and untranslatable secrets. It is heroic poetry that is like life, that attunes itself to this terrible orchestra, that lets our life rush out like the gas out of a balloon. An ordinary modern man shaking with righteous anger against a fool or a tyrant might, as a matter of fact, only stammer out some such fatuous and trivial protest as Mr. Butler has put into the mouth of Ulysses. But that has nothing to do with his "life." He would curse like Homer if he could.
There are few things, therefore, that we should more seriously protest against than an attempt to translate a monumental poem from the language of the passions which is song, to the vast system of verbal ritual which is called casual conversation. If this were done with some other piece of haunting simplicity, let us say the immortal vow of Ruth- if "thy people shall be my people" were to become "I will try and get on with your set," and "thy God my God," "church or chapel, I don’t mind," the effect would not be more human and familiar, but less so. The "realist" seems unable to grasp (being a person of no genial arrogance) that there are things that lose everything in merely losing size. It is as if a cockney put in his front garden a miniature model of St. Peter's, all the proportions being correct.

The Odyssey is a gigantic romance, and it stands to-day as a protest against the strange idea that has taken hold of European literature, that the only strong stories are those that end badly; as if success were not a stronger thing than failure. Tragedy is, by a fatuous notion, conceived to be the highest form of art, and a poet who sits at the right hand of Homer was the last who dared to call a comedy Divine. Simple people express this feeling against modern literature by somewhat clumsy imprecations against the liberties of art; they denounce a realist for no better reason than that which exists equally against a sanitary inspector, that they personally would not like the job. But what we really need is not the veto upon any man, but only the return of the hero. These melancholy revellers are the suitors making merry in the house of art, while above them hangs for ever the bow that they will never draw. Some night there will come a terrible voice in the doorway and their reign will be over. Then, though the history of man be as full of blood and hunger as the Odyssey, yet in the tried value of the old and valiant things, filled with the whole spirit of the return of Ulysses, it shall be well in the evening of the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.