Tasting the tang of the surf

Old mash or crisp fries? Oliver Taplin seeks the perfect recipe for serving up Homer's epic voyage to modern readers; The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles, Viking, pounds 25
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Towards the close of Derek Walcott's poetic masterpiece Omeros, the spirit of Homer appears to the narrator and shows him the golf-course developers and their like tormented in the volcanic sulphur pits of St Lucia, like the damned souls in Dante's Inferno. The Walcott-narrator admits that he hasn't read the epics properly ("Forget the gods!" Omeros growls, "and read the rest"), but then breaks into a muttered rhapsody: "When I was a boy/your name was as wide as a bay, as I walked along the curled brow of the surf ... Master, I was the freshest of all your readers."

That is the point: Homer always has fresh readers. Every generation needs a new translation, but these days one seems to come every five years. According to George Steiner, in his excellent Penguin anthology of Homer in English, there have been a dozen complete English Homers since the War.

Many of Homer's major translators have had a go at both epics, nearly always the Iliad first, and in nearly every case critics have rated the Odyssey less successful. Robert Fagles published his Iliad in 1990, yet this new Odyssey seems to me to be remarkably consistent, not only in metre and tone, but also in its high quality. Like his Iliad, it comes in a beautifully produced hardback, with a superb introduction by Bernard Knox. It is marketed as the best thing since Alexander Pope sliced heroic couplets. So is it?

There is only one way, I think, to test a new translation, and that is to spot-check a single passage across a range of versions. This is admittedly like testing chefs by sampling a potato cooked by each - it may be unrepresentative, but it can be very revealing. I have plucked three lines from the scene where Phemius, the resident poet on Ithaca, has been singing about the troubles the Greeks have had getting home from Troy.

Penelope, whose husband has still, of course, not made it, is upset. She tells Phemius to choose something else from his repertoire. But the young Telemachus takes issue with his mother. His rebuke includes the three lines which, as literally as I can manage, say:

"It is no reason to be indignant with him that he sings of the bad fate of the Danaoi, because people always praise more whatever song comes round its listeners as the newest."

The only translator I know who produced an Odyssey radically different from his Iliad was the first. Robert Chapman's Iliad (1598-1611) is cast in massy, 14-syllable lines; his Odyssey (1614) is in much smoother, 10- syllable lines:

Nor is this man to blame that the repaires/ The Greeks make homeward sings, for his fresh Muse/ Men still most celebrate that sings most newes.

The word-order may be strained; but applying the potato test, I love the sense of a prolific vegetable never tasted before, straight from Sir Walter Raleigh's sea chest. The two Restoration versions by John Ogilby and Thomas "Leviathan" Hobbes were eclipsed by the scintillating Iliad of Pope (1715-20) - as Steiner rightly says, "Pope's main detractors have been those who have not read him". But Pope's Odyssey (1725) is a pot-boiler, and our sample caught him (or one of his assistants) on a bad day:

Nor blame severe his choice,/ Warbling the Grecian woes with harp and voice:/ For novel lays attract our ravish'd ears;/ But old, the mind with inattention hears.

As well as the warbling harp, the inattentive line is mere padding to fill out the couplet. This dish may be served in the shape of a swan, but in fact it is made of old mash.

William Cowper produced his translation "into English Blank Verse" (1791) in reaction against the inventive artifice of Pope. Like a wholemeal bread advert, Cowper claims "I have omitted nothing; I have invented nothing":

No fault is his, if the disastrous fate/ He sing of the Achaians, for the song/ Wins ever from the hearers most applause/ That has been least in use.

That last, lame phrase is baked spud with no butter.

The 19th century, supposed to be the great age of classical education in Britain, produced no great Homers (though William Morris's Odyssey is not bad). The most telling turn was the highly popular Odyssey of Butcher and Lang (1879) and the Iliad of Lang, Leaf and Myers (1882 - note the roll-call surnames). These are in the prose of the Authorised Version; Homer becomes an honorary member of the Established Church.

The reactions against this style in the first half of the 20th century were nearly all translations into plain adventure-novel prose: WHD Rouse, IA Richards, TE Shaw (manly initials, now).

All of these are, in their different ways, British institutional cooking, whether clerical, military, parliamentary or academic, boiled until all the flavour is gone. The culmination is the best-selling Penguins of EV Rieu (1946-50), which now read like a contribution to the post-war ration-book economy: "We cannot blame Phemius if he chooses to sing of the Danaans' tragic fate, for it is always the latest song that an audience applauds the most."

Something worthy came, at last, from the US in the third quarter of the century. In the contest between the long, careful lines of Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald's pungent blank verse, many would agree with Steiner that Lattimore wins for the Iliad, which he translated first, while Fitzgerald's Odyssey (also done first) is triumphant. Lattimore has a certain lilt, like a touch of mint:

There is nothing wrong in his singing the sad return of the Danaans./ People, surely, always give more applause to that song/ which is the latest to circulate among the listeners.

But Fitzgerald is unbeatably crisp and vivid:

Here is no reason for reproof: to sing the news of the Danaans! Men like best a song that rings like morning on the air.

Lightly sauteed in fine olive oil, but with a truffle garnish. The morning simile is added, and is more Irish, perhaps, than Homeric.

Robert Fagles is from the same school as Lattimore and Fitzgerald - an Ivy-League professor who is also a poet. I think he is consciously concerned to be more easy-going than Lattimore, but more conscientious than Fitzgerald:

Why fault the bard if he sings of the Argives' harsh fate?/ It's always the latest song, the one that echoes last/ in the listeners' ears, that people praise the most.

It's good. Making Telemachus's reproach into a question works well. It is the kind of stylistic turn that Fagles likes: the most obvious is his use of repetition, as in "others, so many others, died there too", a few lines after this passage.

The colloquialisms, such as "it's" and "people" are no problem to my ear, though "the latest song" may be a bit close to the cliche of "the latest hit". Pulling in the other direction are the slightly quaint touches such as "bard" or the plural "ears". And "that echoes last" is unhappily ambiguous. The metre is fluent and speakable, but tends to boil down to blank verse with the odd extra syllable to make it hop. Golden, crispy, low-fat fries?

So, perfectly good though it is, I am not clear that Fagles is my "best buy" rather than Walter Shewring, published in Oxford's Worlds Classics series in 1980. One reason why this translation has attracted less attention than it should is that it is printed as crowded prose on small pages with poor paper. Prose would seem to be a fundamental betrayal of Homer, but Shewring's is a crafted, musical, lustrous prose. Suppose that it came on fine paper and arranged in lines, like this:

If Phemius sings of the sorrows of the Danaans,/ that is in no way blameworthy for men/ will applaud most eagerly whatever song/ falls freshest on the listening ear.

The turns of phrase are deft: "sings of the sorrows", "applaud most eagerly", and, above all, "whatever song falls freshest" - so much more dewy than "the one that echoes last". I would give Shewring to the freshest of Homer's readers.

Fagles' translation puts me in mind of an executive jogging in Central Park. It is fit, fluent, confident, urbane - and routine. In the era of Harrison, Heaney and Walcott, I yearn for an Odyssey that paces - and sometimes runs - along an unspoilt sea shore by "the curled brow of the surf".