Odysseus Strings His Bow (A Translation) The Society January 9, 2019 Culture, Poetry, Translation 27 Comments The Odyssey, 21.388-22.125, translated with an eye on Homer’s instinctively cinematic style. by Mike Solot The cowherd, Philoetius, quickly but quietly slipped out To fasten the gates of the courtyard. He picked up a rope He had seen on the porch—a ship’s cable made of papyrus— And used it to lash down the bar, then went back inside To the stool he had left. He sat with his eyes on Odysseus, Now stroking the length of his bow, tapping it here, Squeezing it there, turning it over and over While feeling for holes in the horn—in case it was worm-eaten, Riddled by grubs in the years he was lost in his wandering. Some of the suitors were poking each other and saying, “Look at the expert!” — “A beggar who really knows bows!” — “I’ll bet you he’s hiding another one like it at home!” — “Maybe he thinks he can make one!” — “A sponger, a tramp, A master of misery, turning it this way and that!” Another one, even more insolent, yelled to Odysseus: “Bowmaking ought to be easy for someone like you— As easy as stringing that big one you have in your hands!” In spite of their jeering Odysseus gathered his wits As he eyed his bow closely and hefted it, getting the feel— Then quick, like a minstrel, a master of playing the lyre Who easily stretches his sheep-gut up over the crossbar And wraps it around in a fresh roll of oxhide to hold it, So did Odysseus string the great bow, with effortless ease. Shifting the grip to his right hand he tested the string With a pluck: it twanged, shrill, like a twittering swallow. The suitors fell silent, aghast, then their faces turned pale As the deafening boom of a thunderbolt sounded above them— Zeus, son of Crooked-Mind Cronus, was sending an omen To splendid, enduring Odysseus. He listened, smiled, And still sitting down, he picked up the one naked arrow Eumaeus had left on his table; the others lay quiet, Waiting, still in the quiver—but not for too long. The suitors would sample them soon. Resting the shaft At the grip of his bow he nocked it, drew back the string, And aiming it closely, he fired: the bronze-heavy arrow flew All the way through, clean, without even grazing The tips of the handles. He instantly called out, “Telemachus! Look! The stranger you welcomed to sit in your hall As a guest didn’t shame you. Did I have to struggle forever To string it? Did I miss my aim—by even a little? All those who mocked me were wrong. I still have my strength. But now it is time we were giving these suitors their supper— A supper in daylight. Why not? And then comes the fun: The music, the dancing—whatever adorns a great feast.” He signalled his son with a look and a squinch of his brows. Telemachus slung on his sword, then reached for his spear In the rack by his throne—a javelin headed with bronze, Its blade now aflame in the flickering light of the fire. The master of guile, Odysseus, ripped off his rags. Grabbing his bow and his quiver, chock-full of arrows, He leapt to the threshold and emptied the shafts at his feet— All were still pointed and fletched—then yelled to the suitors: “Now that we’ve settled that contest, once and for all, I’ll try something new, a target no archer has touched. Give me the glory, Apollo! Make my aim true!” He sighted the sharp stabbing point of a shaft at Antinoûs Just as the young man was lifting his elegant goblet, A two-handled drinking-cup made out of gold, and embossed; He nestled the bowl in his hands and was swirling the wine Before taking a sip, unaware of the slaughter to come. But why should he worry with so many feasters around him? Who would imagine that one man alone against many, No matter how brave, could dare to provoke such a fight— Dooming himself to the dark, to a horrible death? Odysseus picked out his spot at the base of the throat And fired, hitting him square: the point and the shaft Punched all the way through, leaving the feathers lodged deep In the soft hollow pit of his thrapple. Antinoûs, stricken, Pitched to the side as he let the cup fall from his hands, Then suddenly kicked out a leg, upending his table And spilling his dinner, his bread and his succulent meats, Fouling it all with his blood—the lifeblood now spurting In jets from his nostrils. As soon as they saw him tip over The suitors all jumped from their chairs with an echoing roar, Spinning around in a desperate search of the walls— But there were no shields, no mighty spears to be grabbed. Rage, and a fury of words—that’s all they had To hurl back at the stranger, with everyone screaming at once, “You dare draw a bow on a lord?” — “Now you are done for!” — “That shot was your last!” — “You cut down a prince, our best, The noblest man on the island!” — “Vultures will eat you!” So they supposed—the fools!—for each one was thinking This man is no killer; he fired that shot by mistake! They couldn’t imagine that Death had them all by the throat. Odysseus narrowed his eyes down to slits as he shouted back “Dogs! You never believed it could happen—I’m home! You thought I was lost after Troy so you looted my wealth, You ravished my housemaids, dragging them into your beds, And you brazenly wooed my own wife—while I was alive!— As if you had nothing to fear from the gods or from men And their vengeance—already afoot, but stalking behind you Until it could strike. Now Death has you all by the throat!” Cold sweaty Terror came over the suitors. It grabbed them, Spinning them round once again—but now they were looking For any way out. Only Eurymachus dared to speak back: “If you are Odysseus, the Ithacan, finally home, Then all that you say is quite fair. There have been offences— Outrages, yes!—many right here in this hall And on your estates. But the culprit is already dead— Antinoûs—he was the one! He is to blame! He was the ringleader, egging on all of the others! But he didn’t lust for the marriage so much as the power— That’s what he wanted. He thought he could make himself king Over all of the island by killing your son in an ambush— But Zeus wouldn’t let him, and gave him the death he deserved. Spare us! We are your people! We’ll go round our districts And gather a levy of livestock and wine to repay you— In full—for whatever we’ve eaten and drunk in your house. And that isn’t all. We’ll make good the loss to your honor By giving you treasures in bronze and in gold of our own— Riches worth twenty good oxen from each man among us! Now wouldn’t that soften your temper? Of course, until then, We all understand, you have every right to be angry.” Odysseus, glaring out balefully, answered, “Eurymachus! Give me your riches, give me the wealth of your families, All of them, all that they have, throw in your treasures And taxes—not even then would I hold back my hands From the work of revenge, not till you’ve paid for your wrongs With your lives, every last one of you. Here is your choice: Face me and fight, or escape—but I don’t think you’ll make it. With Doom here already, Death can’t be too far behind.” Each of them instantly felt his heart thunk in his chest As he started to shake at the knees. Eurymachus shouted out “Friends! He’ll never let up with his murderous hands! The bow and the threshold are his, and he’ll fire those arrows Until we’re all dead! But think of the thrill of it—combat! I say we all draw our swords, pick up our tables To hold out as shields, and rush him together, at once, Driving him down off the threshold, away from the doors, So then we can run out and raise an alarm though the town. The sooner we do it the sooner he shoots his last arrow!” He drew his own sword, a finely honed, double-edged beauty, Waggled the weapon, screeched out a war cry, then leapt As he started to charge for the door—just at the moment Odysseus fired an arrow that stuck in his chest, Ripping down under his nipple and sinking its barbs In the meat of his liver. Eurymachus let the sword drop, Doubled, then crashed on his table, curling and writhing And scattering food on the floor. The goblet went too. His spasms of agony jerked him right over the edge And he fell to the ground, taking it full on his forehead. His legs were now twitching, both of them, kicking his chair And making it rock as a mist filled his darkening eyes. Now came Amphinomus, drawing his sword as he ran At Odysseus, hoping to drive him away from the door— But Telemachus got to him first with a spear in his back, Hitting him square at the shoulders: it sunk in between them And drove in so hard that the bronze came out bloody in front As he fell forward flat, thumping the ground with his face. Telemachus ran right around him, leaving his spear Where it was, in Amphinomus, swaying and casting its shadows; He was afraid if he bent down to wrench out the weapon A suitor would jump him and hack him to death with his sword. So he ran without stopping, sprinting as fast as he could, And when he was up on the threshold he let his words fly: “Father! I’ll bring you a shield and two spears right away— A helmet, all bronze, one that fits over your temples. I’ll shoulder my arms on the run and outfit the herdsmen With all that they need. We’ve got to be ready to fight!” Odysseus, his wits always working, answered him, “Run! Go! Get back while I still have some arrows to shoot! I can’t hold this doorway without them—alone and unarmed!” Obeying his father, Telemachus dashed to the storeroom, The one where the armor was kept. He took out four shields, Eight mighty spears, and four helmets—the helmets were bronze And tasselled with horsehair—and ran back as fast as he could To his father, still on the threshold, then put on his helmet And shouldered his shield. Both of the herdsmen armed too. All three took their stand by the cunning and deadly Odysseus Who kept up his shower of arrows, aiming and firing As long as they lasted, steadily picking off suitors; One by one they went down, falling and dying On top of each other, until all the arrows were gone. Odysseus rested his bow in a nook by the doorjamb And picked up his shield—a heavy one, four layers thick— Slinging it over his shoulder. He pulled on his helmet And tested the fit, shaking his powerful head, Whipping the horsehair around with a terrible menace While fisting a pair of his mighty, bronze-bladed spears. Mike Solot was born in Tucson, Arizona, where he now lives. His translation of the Odyssey is nearly completed. Related Post ‘A Love Sonnet’ by Jan Darling after the style of Petrarch The aching of your leave clings sadly, still And pangs of emptiness I lone endure But slowly I ascend towards love pure... Tell the world:FacebookTwitterTumblrPinterestRedditLinkedInEmail 27 Responses Tonya Ann McQuade January 9, 2019 I really like the way you capture the action! Great choice of verbs! I’ve been teaching Robert Fagles’s translation of “The Odyssey” for many years to my high school freshmen, but I like the dramatic flair yours adds. Great work! Reply Mike Solot January 9, 2019 Ms. McQuade, I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. Homer is indeed dramatic, often electrifyingly so, and it has been my object to try to recreate as much of that vividness as I can, in English. Thank you for your kind comments. Reply J. Simon Harris January 9, 2019 I love it, I love it, I love it! Such an action-packed translation, with great word choices and a strong forward rhythm. The loose anapestic pentameter works very well for what you are doing (although the language is so natural that you hardly notice the meter in a conscious way; rather, you just get swept up in it). Homer is difficult to translate in a way that maintains the thrill of the original; I think you’ve got it. Have you done any other translations, or is this your first? Also, please let us know when you publish the full translation; I would like to get a copy. Reply Mike Solot January 10, 2019 Mr. Harris, Thank your for your generous comments. “Loose anapestic pentameter”: I never thought of that, but I believe you’re quite right, with emphasis on “loose,” because I pay no mind to the difference between dactyls here or anapests there. The object is a propulsive rhythm, not scannable verse. “You hardly notice the meter in a conscious way”: thank you especially for that, since you have described precisely the effect I’m aiming for. This is how the original seems to me: a perfectly consistent and reliable metrical frame through which the story is driven forward at every instant, but which, because Homer varies it so cunningly across his sentences, eventually seems to disappear–rather like the poet himself. I wonder if you, as a fellow translator of Homer, agree. This is my first translation. Regarding publication, I will certainly let the Society know if and when I am able to see that through. Reply James Sale January 9, 2019 Very powerful writing; once you start reading this, you can’t stop – so that’s how good it is. Well done. Reply Mike Solot January 10, 2019 Mr. Sale, Thank you for taking the time to comment, and for commenting so generously. It means a lot. Reply Alan Sugar January 9, 2019 Lights, camera, action! A classic worth screening again and again. Homer meets Spielberg and DeMille. Storytelling at its best and a joy to read aloud. Reply Mike Solot January 10, 2019 T. E. Lawrence, in the preface to his translation of the Odyssey, wrote, “Obviously the tale was the thing.” He took that as a mark of its inferiority (compared to the Iliad, I suppose), but I, like you, find nothing more compelling than Homer’s ability to structure a story and make it exciting (and often quite funny) in the telling. Thank you for your kind comments. Reply Joseph S. Salemi January 9, 2019 I have always believed that the Odyssey is the work of a female author, ever since I read Samuel Butler’s powerful work of scholarship on that question. The only thing that might make me hesitate in my opinion is this scene of the killing of the suitors — it’s so rip-roaringly masculine and warlike that only a battle-hardened Amazon could have pulled it off. But that’s neither here nor there — this is an excellent translation of Homer’s Greek text, and much superior to Fagles, whom I have never liked much, and who is overrated. Like Richmond Lattimore, Solot captures the high energy of this revenge scenario. Blood, guts, brains, gore, spears, arrows… what a triumph of vindication! One exults triumphantly in the death of every suitor. I’d love to read Solot’s version of the strangling of the guilty serving-girls on a clothesline by Telemachus. That’s another great scene of justice served in full. Reply Mike Solot January 10, 2019 I don’t know about Homer’s sex; I do know he (or she) was one person, however, and not a committee, as is sometimes alleged. The strangulation of the faithless slavegirls is indeed a remarkable scene–remarkable above all for the prince’s utterly gratuitous sadism. Those young ladies had evidently gotten under his skin in a bad way. But immediately afterwards, in the final act of revenge, even he is outdone by the two herdsmen, Eumaeus and Philoetius, who hack apart the body of their arch-enemy Melanthius, the disloyal goatherd whom they and previously tortured to death. There is nothing in all the unrelenting violence of the Iliad that comes close to the savagery of these two acts. Thank you for your kind comments. Reply Joseph S. Salemi January 10, 2019 Yes, the torture and dismemberment of Melanthius is gruesome, but can be attributed to the fact that the perpetrators are socially low-level animal herders. On the other hand, I have always felt that the strangulation of the sexually errant serving-girls is one more hint of a female author — the more typical adult male response to these unchaste young women would have been to give them a terrifying tongue-lashing, and then sent them to bed weeping with remorseful fear. But a very proud and respectable upper-class Greek matron, jealous of family honor and resentful of sexually loose females, could easily have thought up a pitiless strangulation on a clothesline. Butler argues that the authoress of the Odyssey was an aristocratic Graeco-Siculan lady of high (and very rigid) moral standards. She’d have no compunction about strangling sluts. The gratifying thing about the ending of the Odyssey is all of this wonderful and savage catharsis. C.B. Anderson January 9, 2019 Yes, it was utterly gripping for all the reasons stated above. I felt as if I were SEEING the action as it was taking place in the narrative. Reply Joseph Tessitore January 9, 2019 I’m with the rest of them – it grabs you from the start and doesn’t let go! So very well done! Reply Mike Solot January 10, 2019 Mr. Tessitore, Thanks very much for your kind comments. Mike Solot January 10, 2019 Mr. (or Ms.) Anderson, I’m delighted to hear that you found the translation to be visually strong. Homer is exceptionally vivid that way; his poetry is all about planting images in the minds of his listeners. That’s a big part of what I mean by his “cinematic” style. Thank you for taking the time to comment so generously. Reply Amy Foreman January 9, 2019 What an electrifying and satisfying narrative, Mike! This is wonderful, just wonderful. Reply Mike Solot January 10, 2019 Ms. Foreman, I appreciate your enthusiasm more than I can say. Reply David Watt January 10, 2019 What a thrilling translation this is! I really became caught up in the action. I would like to see more of your work, as this piece grips and refuses to let go. Reply Mike Solot January 10, 2019 Mr. Watt, I’m happy to hear that you found the translation so gripping. There could be no higher praise than that. Reply James A. Tweedie January 10, 2019 Mr. Solot, Let me add a belated “Amen!” to the previous comments. I would also use the word “gripping” as well as “compelling” to describe your fine effort. A translator has only so many English-equivalent words to work with and will usually consult previous translations to see what others have done so they can reuse what strikes them as “true” and avoid duplication so as to be as creative, fresh, and original as possible. I’m curious as to which translations you found to be most helpful. Although your version is metrical and uses well-chosen distinctive phrases (such as “waggled his weapon”), your narrative seems to reflect Samuel Butler’s prose translation more than others I have read. As I said, I’m curious. Reply Mike Solot January 14, 2019 Mr. Tweedie, I thank you for your generous comments. On my desk I have the versions of Alexander Pope (almost never consulted), T. E. Lawrence, Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore (rarely consulted), Walter Shewring, Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo. I also have the very useful compendium by George Steiner, Homer in English. I have not read Butler’s version. I did, however, read his lecture “On the Humour of Homer” with great profit. That humor is something I’ve tried to bring out as much as possible. The only hint we have of it in this excerpt is our hero’s little pleasantry following the exhibition shot, “now it is time we were giving these suitors their supper.” This is exactly the kind of joke Odysseus prefers, one made strictly for his own (and in this case, his son’s) amusement, since it goes right by his antagonists unnoticed. After working on the Odyssey for many years it is my firm belief that if we could time-travel back to the days of Homer and watch an audience as it listened to the epic, the first thing we’d notice, the thing that would surprise us the most, would be how often and how lustily they laughed. Reply Charles Southerland January 10, 2019 I am fascinated with your translation. Does imagination play a part in the construction of the translation? Fine work. Reply Mike Solot January 14, 2019 Mr. Southerland, I’m not quite sure how to answer your question about imagination. My object is to make my version as visually rich as I am able. I don’t believe I need to imagine that visual texture because I find it all in front of me, in the original. Homer is an exceptionally clear writer (or composer, if you prefer) and his visual clarity is what I seek to carry over into English above all. There are times, however, when adherence to that text leads not to clarity but to its opposite, confusion, and confusion I avoid at all costs. Possibly this is where imagination comes in. Such situations arise for a variety of reasons. Sometimes Homer is too compressed. When Odysseus builds the boat that will take him from Calypso’s island to Phaeacia, for example, the text moves from tree-falling to finished planks in just two verses; in my translation I give it three and a half lines in the course of which I take the liberty to name some of the intervening steps–limbing, hewing, and splitting–so as to make this preparatory phase of the construction more comprehensible. Perhaps that qualifies as “imagination,” I’m not sure. Quite often Homer’s listeners have knowledge that modern readers do not. In this excerpt, for example, Homer illustrates the ease with which Odysseus strings his bow by comparing it with the ease of a minstrel replacing a “kollops” on his lyre. (κολλοψ is usually, if not always, mistranslated as “peg.”) Homer’s listeners knew what the kollops was, a strip of fatty neck hide, and what its purpose was, to hold and tune each string of the lyre on its crossbar, so he needed a mere four words to make his picture perfectly clear. My readers know nothing about any of that, so I take two lines to make this operation as clear as I can. I had to “imagine” the minstrel doing this bit of business, again in the interest of clarity. A third sort of situation that calls for the use of the imagination may also be found in this excerpt, when Odysseus fires his first deadly arrow, into the throat of Antinous. The text tells us that the point of the arrow passed all the way through, but it does not tell us how far; i.e., there is nothing in the text that corresponds to my phrase, “leaving the feathers lodged deep.” In this case I have imagined a specific detail in order to present a more vivid picture, a detail that also leads in naturally to the money-phrase, “the soft hollow pit of his thrapple.” But when I read Homer that’s exactly where I see the feathers, which is why I hesitate to use the word “imagination.” (Notice how the second deadly arrow, shot into the greater thickness of the torso, stops in the liver; thus Homer calibrates the penetrating power of the great bow. Such a bow, it seems to me, would have driven an arrow almost all the way through the throat, “leaving the feathers lodged deep.”) I wonder if any of this has answered your question adequately. In any case I wish to thank you for your comment and for prompting me to give a bit of thought to this matter. Reply Acwiles Berude January 11, 2019 1. Unlike Mr. Salemi, I have never thought that the man Homer was not the major, final force behind both the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey”, despite writers, like Butler and Graves; however, I do not believe Homer wrote the epics entire; yet I aggressively agree with Mr. Salemi, when he calls this section “rip-roaringly masculine”: Book 21, L401: “ὑπερηνορεόντων”. 2. From just looking at the first lines, I did miss some of Homer’s epithets in the translation, and some of the repeated phrases, like “ἔνθα καὶ ἔνθα” repeated in the English. Repetition is very important in poetry, and certainly, in Homer in particular. 3. To translate Homer, I think one must be incredibly brave, or simply mad. I am glad Mr. Solot is taking the challenge. It is very exciting for us here in the New Millennium that he has done this. I remember translating some of these very lines into alternating, rhymed iambic hexameters; but though they worked through some of my poetic stances, they are not at all as good as Mr. Solot’s. 4. As Mr. Solot must be aware, all translations are failures. And yet, they are varied successes as well. I would have loved to have thought of these lines in my earlier years, when I maybe could have done something with all the possibilities Mr. Solot suggests for English poetry. Mr. Harris, at his young age, is right to be as excited as he is. 5. Mr. Harris has correctly identified the meter, as “loose anapestic pentametre”. And this is, to use the worn cliche, where the rubber meets the road poetically. Homer used dactylic hexametres, long and short syllables. He was scanable. What are we to make of the difference? Mr. Solot desires a propulsive rhythm. I like that; but what of the artistry? I particularly like Mr. Solot’s description of Homer’s “cinematic style”. That is something worthy of striving for in our own writing. 6. I like that T. E. Lawrence preferred the “Iliad” to the “Odyssey”. 7. The diction is exciting, and indicates, as I have always felt, the high technical level of Greece at the time of Homer. 8. The diction is also exciting in another way. By a remarkable process, Mr. Solot has kept it, in the main, from being too contemporary, and has made his language here universal. 9. I like how the spoken words are so clearly delineated. I wonder if the speeches could be done without quotation marks. 10. It is almost as if, when the meter is awkward, the trochees, or spondees, seem spondaic. A great poet could do something with such possibilities; but he would have to have so much behind him to even achieve working through, at that level, purposeful poetic lines. Reply Mike Solot January 14, 2019 Mr. Berude, Thank you for your kind comments. I especially appreciate what you have to say about diction, the true tightrope of translating Homer. I would like to respond to your second point, on repetition, and the corollary matter of epithets. These are of course crucial problems. I deal with them on a case-by-case basis, following no rule but my own taste and my answer to the question, does the repetition add something for the reader, or will it merely impose a burden on his patience and attention? The well-known verse announcing the arrival of Dawn, for example, I have made uniform throughout, in all twenty-one instances. Why? Because it seems to me important to carry over the idea that the Homeric dawn, as a physical event, is in fact always exactly the same. So it was for the poet and his listeners, and so it ought to be for us too. Others vary the line. Some of the epithets I likewise repeat as much as Homer does himself (e.g., the phrase “splendid, enduring Odysseus” in this excerpt), others I vary, still others I routinely ignore. In the specific case you mention, the ενθα και ενθα, I didn’t see what would be gained by translating it with the same words in two places separated by only seven lines. But as I say such decisions always boil down to a matter of taste. Reply Jared Carter January 16, 2019 A marvelous translation of the passage. Congratulations, and thank you. Reply Mike Solot January 17, 2019 Thank you, Mr. Carter. Reply Leave a Reply Cancel Reply Your email address will not be published.CommentName* Email* Website Notify me of follow-up comments by email. Notify me of new posts by email. This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.