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Emily Wilson @EmilyRCWilson
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I know this is a downer but... for #IWD2018 I am thinking about violence against women. About how violence is enabled & perpetuated. About how gender inequality intersects with other forms of social injustice, like class, race and wealth. About recognition, stories and change.
I am thinking today, as often, about the slave women in the Odyssey, the ones who sleep with the suitors, who have been claimed by the wrong owners, who have the wrong memories. For Odysseus to claim back all power over his household, they need to be eliminated.
O. instructs his son Telemachus to hack the life of them with long swords. Telemachus adjusts the weapon: he insists they are too metaphorically dirty to touch with his sword (sic), so he hangs them instead.
The rope round the throat. What better way to stop a woman's most threatening orifice, her mouth?
Many translations import misogynistic language when it isn't there in the Greek. In Fagles' best-selling version, "You sluts -- the suitors' whores!" Lombardo: "Sluts". Lattimore: "Creatures". Fitzgerald: "Sluts". Pope's is the best: "nightly prostitutes to shame".
Let's look at the simile that describes these women's death. They are like birds, trying to fly, who are trapped in a net.
ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἂν ἢ κίχλαι τανυσίπτεροι ἠὲ πέλειαι
ἕρκει ἐνιπλήξωσι, τό θ᾽ ἑστήκῃ ἐνὶ θάμνῳ,
αὖλιν ἐσιέμεναι, στυγερὸς δ᾽ ὑπεδέξατο κοῖτος,
ὣς αἵ γ᾽ ἑξείης κεφαλὰς ἔχον, ἀμφὶ δὲ πάσαις
δειρῇσι βρόχοι ἦσαν, ὅπως οἴκτιστα θάνοιεν.
Many translations -- by men, and some by women, e.g. Anne Dacier -- blame the victims. It's their own fault they die, because they're "disobedient". Or because they're "sluts". It's normal, like killing a chicken. It's taking out the human trash. No empathy.
Loeb: "as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their roosting place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid."
"Held their heads" suggests that they are willingly submitting to this natural process; the verb echon could suggest either "hold" or "have", but the translators choose to make the victims collude with their death.
Fagles: "Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings
against some snare rigged up in thickets -- flying in
for a cozy nest but a grisly bed receives them --
so the women's heads were trapped in a line
nooses yanking their necks up, one by one
The childish half-rhyme, "cozy... grisly", encourages us not to take any of this too seriously. Fagles reads these "whores" or "sluts" (his words) as girls who have partied too hard, hung "in a line", like chorus girls or clubbers on a night out. Fun times!
Long-winged thrushes, or doves, making their way
to their roosts, fall into a snare set in a thicket,
and the bed that receives them is far from welcome.
So too these women, their heads hanging in a row,
Lombardo makes the birds' home definitely non-human, and uses similar ironic/ sneering distance ("far from welcome"). The archaism "piteous" creates distance: from afar, we can observe that something painful is happening to someone else, but we don't need to feel it ourselves.
They would be hung like doves
or larks in springès triggered in a thicket,
where the birds think to rest -- a cruel nesting.
So now in turn each woman thrust her head
into a noose and swung, yanked high in air
Fitzgerald uses literary allusion: "springès"recalls Polonius warning Ophelia not to let Hamlet take her virginity. "Thrust her head" suggests Fitzgerald's women are definitely gagging for it. There's nothing they like more than a good hanging.
As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap --
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony
I hope my version of the violence is not fun or normalizing or sensationalized. These birds want the same thing that Odysseus himself wants: to go home to bed. The nostos/homecoming of Odysseus means that many, many other people will never get to go back home.
These slave women are a poetic construct, imagined not real. But they stand in for millions of real silenced, abused and murdered women, in history and now, who never get to complete their journey.
I read Fagles' text this way partly because it seems to be reinforced by how he does the last line: "they kicked up heels for a while, but not for long". It is a disturbing passage, and differently disturbing than the Greek. "Kicked up heels" is a notable idiom to add.
Here and in my other comparative threads: I'm not trying to be a hater. I am sure that all these earlier translators are or were lovely people. I'm not trying to pretend that my own version is somehow perfect. Like all translations, mine is totally different from the original.
My main goal is simply to draw attention to the fact that translations are, always, texts, available for close reading like any other text; and that these texts are, always, the result of a series of writerly choices, tiny as well as large, conscious as well as unconscious.
At issue is whether or not Telemachus (as distinct from the narrator) thinks of these slaves as “sluts”, ie people who made “bad” sexual choices. I don’t read it that way. He is ashamed and disgusted by the existence of women whose bodies have been claimed by other men.
The poem is smart, usefully smart, about the psychological underpinnings of sexual violence. Having T call them “sluts” muddles the root of his actions, which is his own shame.
Why do so many translators and scholars, male and female, go for this questionable reading? Maybe it’s easier to imagine murderers motivated by righteous rage, not shame; killers “should” be strong, not weak. Also entropy: once one version has ‘sluts’, others follow.
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