The “Odyssey” is a wondrous poem. Joe Sachs’ Afterword to his translation is a thought-inducing meditation on wonder, on Homer’s imaginatively and artfully conceived wonders and on Homer’s people, who are—above all, Odysseus—open to wondering and to its ensuing wisdom…
Joe Sachs’ brief introduction to his translation begins, memorably, like this: “I’ve never met a translation of the Odyssey I didn’t like.” He is paying fair tribute to this most imaginatively intricate and compositionally sophisticated of epic poems—whoever has had the hardihood to turn its twenty-four books into English will, of necessity, have captured some of its wonders. And so has Mr. Sachs, in a most distinctive way.
Before telling what I like so very much about the translation itself, let me say how the book as a whole is helpful to any reader—be it a convert-to-be or a longtime lover.
The above-mentioned—briskly informative—brevity of the Introduction is itself a blessing, since it lets the reader get to the thing itself that much the sooner, but now alerted to the possible commitments a translator might have. It is supplemented with a lovely Afterword, which helps the already enchanted reader to recognize just how Homeric magic works. (see excerpts here, Ed.)
The keyword here is “wonder”—the Homeric poems, both the Iliad and the Odyssey, are wondrous. “Wonder” is a two-sided word. It means both the awed, initially numbing, sense we have in the face of certain beings and occurrences as well as these events themselves: We experience wonder; we are first taken aback and then transported beyond our ordinary flaccid interests—that is subjective wonder. But the wonders themselves that cause our wonder—they are objective, the marvels of the poets, of Homer’s world. Mr. Sachs’ Afterword is a thought-inducing meditation on wonder, on Homer’s imaginatively and artfully conceived wonders and on Homer’s people, who are—above all Odysseus—open to wondering and to its ensuing wisdom.
The Afterword is followed by a Glossary of the approximately 400 proper names that turn up in the poem, in which the probably overwhelmed reader can look up (if it seems necessary) who these people are and how they figure in the poem. Then comes a very useful Guide to the story, which acts in place of an index. Fictions aren’t usually indexed, but when they are as long as is the Odyssey, a reader may often want help in construing the progress of the whole tale or in locating a particular story-site. Finally, there are Notes, supplying a wider mythological setting for, or scholars’ comments on, or the translator’s own interpretation on particular lines.
And now to the Mr. Sachs version of the Odyssey: It seems to me distinctive in two chief ways, in its versification and its verbal style. Mr. Sachs himself says that his “own translation falls unambiguously on the prose side… even though it is laid out in lines”—very long lines. I find that in muttering them to myself they seem rhythmic, and though they stick to no clear metric scheme, they seem to have inescapable cadences. Here verse and prose are intentionally melded past prying apart. I think this scheme is the author’s own invention. I’ve not come on anything exactly like it. It works.
It works particularly in conjunction with the vocabulary, which is sometimes astonishingly, unabashedly, casual/contemporary:
Of Odysseus: “There were many people whose towns he saw whose minds he took/the measure of…” (I 3-4)
Of Penelope: “And his [the singer’s] divinely inspired song was recognized from upstairs by/Icarus’s thoughtful daughter Penelope and it got under her skin.” (I 298-299)
Athena to Odysseus: “Son of Laertes, of the race of Zeus, resourceful Odysseus, hold it/right there!” (XXIV 542-543)
Such diction works particularly nicely for the so-called epithets, the descriptive terms that are, as it were, nailed to the names of Homer’s people, telling how their world defines them. Thus Telemachus bears an epithet usually translated as “discreet.” Mr. Sachs says “levelheaded;” “level-headed” Telemachus fits that boy, the progeny of the canniest couple in literature, to a T.
This translation is full of these, at first sight disconcerting and soon delight-inducing, liberties. Which is to say: Mr. Sachs’ Odyssey is very readable. And since you haven’t lived until you’ve read this poem, that is a cause for thanks.
This essay was originally published here in May 2015, and appears again in celebration of Dr. Brann’s ninetieth birthday.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is “Laestrygonians Hurling Rocks at the Fleet of Odysseus” from the 1st century BC, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.