Though I dearly wish I could have taken Mr. Bird’s class last year, I am in a humanities class now by way of being in the honors program (bless that). For the second paper of the semester, Dr. Johnson offered us the prompt of, in a nutshell, “Talk about translation.” Naturally I leaped for it. I wanted to put my paper up here so I don’t forget it, and because I love it and I love language and I love how I finally found a way to say what language means to me in all its cosmic glory.
What Could Be
Language is an interesting, complex, wild thing. Since its first use it has been allowed to evolve ever more so, becoming the perplexing yet indispensable tool it is now. There is no limit to what human beings can say, no parameter. Though math and science reach for the stars, language explores the darkest corners of the universe, finds the subtlest of meanings hidden between galaxies and discovers new words flowering in burning supernovas. Its very universality reflects a similar universality in human expression. We can say anything. There are infinite possibilities. It is this which makes language so complex, and translating so difficult. The very business of translating is not a science, but an art, and thus there are more exceptions than rules. Many words are impossible to translate from one language to another. Many more are translatable, but mean nothing colloquially to the speakers of the second language. Still more may have multiple meanings in some cultures, yet not in others. All are fluid, and can never quite be interpreted accurately even within the same language. This, then, is the mark of the best literary translators – how they say that which cannot be said.
John B. Vlahos explores this very topic in his 2007 article “Penelope’s Bed,” which appeared in College Literature and discusses the debate of “early recognition,” the scholarly argument that Penelope recognizes Odysseus during Book 19 of the Odyssey instead of later. In trying to understand the nuances given us by Robert Fagles’ translation of the Odyssey, Vlahos must also try to understand the nuances left us by Homer. On page 6, he raises a seemingly small but very important point in the early recognition debate – a point of translation. The debate comes down to line 535 of Book 19, wherein Penelope requests the ‘beggar’ (Odysseus) to “come, this dream of mine interpret then listen,” according to the literal translation from the Greek. Early Homeric scholars, including Eustathius as Vlahos mentions, flipped the commands for each other – listen, then interpret, they reasoned, is how most people do it. They were not wrong. But good translators have to be open to the absolute insanity, the wild impossibility of language, expression and meaning. It is entirely possible that Homer made no mistake, but knew exactly what he meant to say. As Vlahos points out, whether Penelope asked Odysseus to “listen” first or to “interpret” makes a significant difference as to whether or not she has recognized him in Book 19. Vlahos writes, “When Penelope says ‘interpret then listen,’ she intends a succession of acts…culminating with the announcement of the contest with the bow…she wants to know: ‘do you plan to confront the suitors?’” (Vlahos 13).
This drastically alters our picture of Penelope at this point. In Eustathius’ translation, described on page 6, she is a loyal, intelligent woman who spends years weaving and unweaving her husband’s death shroud, craftily evading her suitors, but who also, as soon as her husband comes home, cedes all control over the situation to him, disappearing into the shadows. However, using the original translation, she does not drop the reins even for a second. She is still very much involved in what is going on. Eustathius does not do her justice. In a 12th-century mindset it is forgivable for him to think that she cannot possibly have devised a plan, not with her husband there to supersede any ideas she may have. But still he does not consider the possibility that she is capable of anything. By trying to conform language to what makes sense to him, he has significantly changed the legacy of one of Greece’s greatest mortal heroines.
Later on, at the final reunion scene in Book 23, when Penelope comes down to the megaron or great hall where her husband and son are waiting for her, we come to another issue of translation, one of those glorious words which cannot be translated exactly. Minutes pass before Odysseus and Penelope finally speak to each other instead of using Telemachus as the go-between. When Odysseus finally speaks to his wife, he says this:
Strange lady! To thee beyond all women have the dwellers on Olympus given a heart that cannot be softened. No other woman would harden her heart as thou dost, and stand aloof from her husband who after many grievous toils had come to her in the twentieth year to his native land. Nay, come, nurse, strew me a couch, that all alone I may lay me down, for verily the heart in her breast is of iron. (Odyssey 23.186-92)
In the original Greek, the word used for “strange lady” is daimonie, which according to Vlahos might well be translated modernly as “What’s gotten into you?” (Vlahos 16-17).
How one single word with sinister roots translates to a nagging four-word phrase spoken by shrewish housewives is befuddling. Yet there it is – translation at its weirdest and possibly its best. The translator, whoever he or she may have been, is an artist. It is not what is said that is important in this instance. What is vital is what is meant. Vlahos writes, “According to [Barry] Cunliffe, it can mean, ‘under superhuman influence, possessed, [one] whose actions are unaccountable or ill-omened” (Vlahos 16). Any one of these words or phrases may be what Odysseus actually meant. The translator’s job is to take them all into account, to embrace every potential meaning in the universe. Cunliffe lists a few possibilities. Fagles and others categorize it into the epithet “strange lady,” perhaps thinking to allude to the mental distance that must arise between Penelope and Odysseus after their long physical separation. But by opening it to the question “What’s gotten into you?” the translator has now opened the reader’s eyes to all the things that may or may not have “gotten into” Penelope. The possibilities are limitless. The language that describes them must also be.
Penelope’s reply is equally interesting, and shows imagination in translation in a less successful moment. In Fagles’ translation she answers her husband with “Strange man…I’m not so proud, so scornful, nor am I overwhelmed by your quick change…You look – how well I know – the way he looked, setting sail from Ithaca years ago.” What is interesting about this retort (besides her devilish use of the same term daimoni in its masculine form), is that the second sentence, “You look – how well I know – the way he looked,” is not anything like how it appears in the Greek manuscript. The literal translation of line 175 is “moreover, I know what manner of person you were.” The difference between the two is the use of “you” versus “he.” Is Penelope addressing her husband, or is she remaining ambiguous? Does she or does she not know who stands before her? Again, the early recognition debate rests on the head of a pin – on two tiny words in the translator’s hands. Which is accurate – which depicts the scope of Penelope’s knowledge at that moment? Which widens the scope of the reader’s imagination to all the situations that had a chance to be realized at that moment? And which interpretation is better – definite yes or no, or infinite maybe?
Translators deal with the biggest question in the universe. Every word they encounter holds an incredible amount of potential, and when each word encounters each other around it the possibility is multiplied exponentially. A sentence is a series of chain reactions – a page is a volcano – a book is a supernova. Language is a black hole, and to translate it is to go through. There is absolutely no knowing what is on the other side. That is the question that translators, linguists, and anyone who ever speaks all struggle with: what could be?
Many scientists have speculated that there are infinite universes containing infinite possibilities – an exhilarating possibility in itself. And even science contains infinite possibility. But translation is an art, not a science. Scientists guess, but never quite prove anything for certain. This is what distinguishes translation as an art – sometimes the words simply ring true. Translators do not guess, nor do they prove. They only think of everything that could speak to their readers. Artists do not need to guess – not because they know, but because they do not need to know. They must say that which cannot be said, and to say that they could use anythingThey know only that anything is possible, that anything could speak to their readers, that anything in the entire cosmos might be what they are trying to say. They only know that anything could be.