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Thread: The Odyssey: Prose VS Verse

  1. #1
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    The Odyssey: Prose VS Verse

    I was planning on reading The Odyssey again in preparation for Ulysses (I read it in verse form in high school) and figured I'd read the Samuel Butler prose translation this time. I was just curious, what are the pros and cons of reading it in prose vs. verse (aside from the obvious; that its original form is verse)? Just curious. Is the prose form basically rearrangement of the verse, or is there more drastic changes?

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    I posted this in general literature for a reason, hoping it would get more responses there, but whatever.

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    aspiring Arthurianist Wilde woman's Avatar
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    I personally dislike prose translations of verse epics. The genius in a lot of these epics is not so much in their plot but in the incredible style in which they're written, the strict meter (which gives them a very majestic rhythm), and the clever poetic devices the poets use to achieve their effect. I think translating them into prose is depriving them of an essential aspect (after all, it's the rhythmic meter which allowed them to be passed down in the oral tradition).

    I realize that translations from one language's verse into another's is not ideal either, because the same meters often do not work in different languages. I cannot imagine an English translation of the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter, but even those in iambic pentameter try to retain some of the original's rhythm.

    But the obvious pro in translating into prose is that the translator does not have to sacrifice accuracy of meaning for metrical purposes. So in reading a prose translation, you'll probably get a better sense of exactly what Homer was saying in the original Greek.

    Props, btw, on rereading the Odyssey before tackling Ulysses. Not many people take such care in their reading.

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    Thanks. I just read A Portrait of the Arist as a Young Man, also. After Ulysses I'm going to give my brain a break with some mindless fantasy, lol.

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    I think Wilde woman summed up the issues pretty well. Reading verse is very different than reading prose, and I think there is value in translating in verse even if the resulting verse is quite dissimilar to the original.

    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman View Post
    I cannot imagine an English translation of the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter, but even those in iambic pentameter try to retain some of the original's rhythm.
    I think very few modern verse translations are in iambic pentameter. Most seem to be in some kind of free verse, with varying metrical goals set by the translator. For example, Lattimore's translation aims merely to have six-beat lines. Lately, I've seen a number of translators of classical hexameter adopt a five to six beat line ending (most of the time) with a dactyl followed by a trochee/spondee (just like the line ends of the original). I find this to be a very effective approach because it allows for enough flexibility to render the semantics (fairly) accurately while (kind of) preserving one of the most important aspects of the meter.
    Optima dies ... prima fugit

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    Bibliophile JBI's Avatar
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    Read Fagles or Fitzgerald. Fagles is probably the best I can find, and used in many primer classics courses, though Fitzgerald seems a popular choice to (though he reverts back to archaic spellings of names).

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    Quote Originally Posted by Wilde woman View Post
    I personally dislike prose translations of verse epics. The genius in a lot of these epics is not so much in their plot but in the incredible style in which they're written, the strict meter (which gives them a very majestic rhythm), and the clever poetic devices the poets use to achieve their effect. I think translating them into prose is depriving them of an essential aspect (after all, it's the rhythmic meter which allowed them to be passed down in the oral tradition).

    I realize that translations from one language's verse into another's is not ideal either, because the same meters often do not work in different languages. I cannot imagine an English translation of the Odyssey in dactylic hexameter, but even those in iambic pentameter try to retain some of the original's rhythm.

    But the obvious pro in translating into prose is that the translator does not have to sacrifice accuracy of meaning for metrical purposes. So in reading a prose translation, you'll probably get a better sense of exactly what Homer was saying in the original Greek.

    Props, btw, on rereading the Odyssey before tackling Ulysses. Not many people take such care in their reading.
    Thanks for that Wilde woman. It pretty much sums it up for me. All I'd add is that prose translations make the Odyssey more accessable to the reader who does not have Greek or has never read epic verse in general, in any language. This is the main reason for them, it seems to me. Obviously, reading Homer in translation, verse or prose, is a far cry from reading him in the original Greek but the ideas are still there and this should be enough to understand the Homeric parrallels in Ulysess. If you are looking for a good verse translation of The Odyssey I'd recommend Fitzgerald's which is part translation and part interpretation. Don't worry about how close to the original it is, just enjoy it! Getting back to Joyce's Ulysess, remember that he only used the Odyssey as a structuring device, a kind of scaffolding. All you need to know is the general ideas and happenings of the Odyssey and then apply them to the relevant chapters of Ulysess. Don't try to fit it all together. And last of all, remember that you can read Ulysess without any knowledge of Homer at all - it's still a great book.

    Hope that was helpful.

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    I love this discussion. I personally really loved the Fagles translation. Prior to reading Fagles, I read a prose version (don't remember the translator's name) and thought I really didn't care much for The Odyssey. But then, when I read the Fagles version, I feel in love with the beauty of the language and enjoyed it much more. I had no trouble understanding what was going on. In fact, the way the language drew me in kept my interest much more and therefore helped me understand more.

    The high school I teach at (a charter school that focuses on filmmaking) is adapting The Odyssey into a science fiction space story this year so I've pulled out my Fagles translation once again and given it another read. I found myself loving the language EVEN more this time. As I read, I would periodically stop and read a few lines to my wife just so she and I could relish the beauty of the lines. I love it!

    So, in other words, I agree with the sentiments here that going with verse is a great choice. I also appreciated what David R said about putting the influence of Homer on Joyce's work in proper perspective when approaching Ulysess. And, as expressed by Wilde woman, props to you, Mutatis-Mutandi, for your reading habits.

    P.S. If anyone wants to check out what our high school is doing with our sci-fi adaptation of Homer, you can here: http://kck.st/Iiu5SM.

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    King of Dreams MorpheusSandman's Avatar
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    To me, Fagles seems like "Popcorn Homer" as one reviewer put it. He certainly emphasizes the drama, but too often at the expense of the poetry, grandeur, and dignity. Homer is not as linguistically complex as, say, Virgil, but he didn't write like Stephen King either, and I think Fagles comes close to turning him into something beneath the realms of epic poetry. Personally, I still think Lattimore's translation is unbeatable. Lattimore is, by a good distance, the most faithful to the Greek in terms of meaning and structure while still maintaining something approaching the same rhythm (with his free hexameters). The objection to Lattimore is frequently that he's too archaic, too faithful, too "textbookish," but really what I think people are objecting to isn't Lattimore but just the Homeric style. Homer didn't write like a Victorian and modern novelist, as much as the Fagles and Lombardo might like to turn him into. Fitzerald is a good bridge between the literalism of Lattimore and the readability of Fagles and Lombardo. I would also highly recommend Rodney Merrill's translation, which is from the Lattimore tradition but is more accessible.
    "As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light of meaning in the darkness of mere being." --Carl Gustav Jung

    "To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due." --Neil Gaiman; The Sandman Vol. 4: Season of Mists

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    Litterateur Anton Hermes's Avatar
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    I agree with joshwagner about the Fagles translation, which I find exciting and engaging. If you're a fan of modern poets like Pound and Geoffrey Hill, you won't have any trouble finding the poetry in the Fagles.

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