Few people know that T.E. Lawrence, aka “Lawrence of Arabia” was not only a derring-do military guy who organized the Arabs during WWI to drive the Turks out of Arabia, but was also an archaeologist, classicist, motorcyclist, inventor, writer, and book lover. One of his early schemes was to start a private press to print some of his favourite books, and later in his career he made a translation of Homer’s Odyssey into English. Because I was (and am) a big TEL fan and a lover of the classics, and because of the story it told, the Odyssey became my favourite book.
TEL’s preface begins “The twenty-eighth English rendering of the Odyssey can hardly be a literary event…” before going on to describe the philosophy he followed while translating. But that reference to his being the 29th English translation piqued my interest. Were there really that many? And what were they? I spent the next few years accumulating a list of translations culled from various bibliographies and lists of books for sale, and added to the efforts of a couple of other similar-minded lunatics who went so far as to publish pamphlets with the results of their researches. By the time my list was fairly complete this newfangled Wikipedia came along, and seemed to be the right place for my list, so there it resides. I’ve also been collecting (or is it accumulating?) copies of as many translations as are readily available, and have about half of them on my bookshelves.
But was TEL correct? Was his really the 29th English translation? His was published in 1932 (in an edition that I would absolutely love to own), and I count on my list 38 published before that date. So he was off by just a bit. Since then, a new translation comes out every couple of years, some better than others, of course. My favourites are Fagles and Fitzgerald, each for their own particular reasons. I dream of someday being capable of, and making, my own translation; but I guess that that’s sort of like saying that someday I want to be a great pianist but don’t want to make the effort to learn.
A different way to approach a translation is to extend the story a bit, which is what Zachary Mason did in his new novel The Lost Books of the Odyssey. The book purports to be a translation of a “pre-Ptolomaic papyrus excavated from the desiccated rubbish mounds of of Oxyrhynchus” but we know better. (The same is claimed of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, purportedly written by a medieval monk. It makes a great story, anyways.) Mason starts with the characters and situations found in the Odyssey but takes them in new and sometimes surprising directions, some more satisfying then others. He doesn’t tell a new version of the Odyssey, either in completeness or consistency — some of his tales are inconsistent with others — but the overall effect is quite good. I especially liked his story, in the chapter “The Iliad of Odysseus”, where we discover that our hero is the source of the tales that were eventually ascribed to Homer. Well done, Mr. Mason.