1. Exquisite Tweets from @EmilyRCWilson

    PreoccupationsCollected by Preoccupations

    Everyone knows the story of the Sirens from the Odyssey. They're the singers who tempt all those who sail past to listen to them forever, forgetful of their families. Odysseus, instructed by Circe, has himself bound to the mast so he can listen to their song.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    He also has his men bung up their ears with wax so they can't hear. In the modern popular imagination, the Sirens are tempting because they're sexy mermaid-ish ladies -- as in the scene in "O Brother Where Art Thou".

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    But the Homeric Sirens passage, in Book 12, is surprising in at least two ways. One is how short it is; the episode has become a much bigger part of the Odyssey in modern retellings than it is in the Homeric poem.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Secondly, the Sirens in Homer aren't sexy. e.g. we learn nothing even about their hair -- in contrast to other divine temptresses. The seduction they offer is cognitive: they claim to know everything about the war in Troy, and everything on earth. They tell the names of pain.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Today I wondered whether there's a tendency among translators to fight back against these disturbing facts about the original text, and sure enough, there is.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Here are two lines from the passage:

    οὐ γάρ πώ τις τᾖδε παρήλασε νηὶ μελαίνῃ,
    πρίν γ’ ἡμέων μελίγηρυν ἀπὸ στομάτων ὄπ’ άκοῦσαι,
    άλλ’ ὅ γε τερψάμενος νεῖται καὶ πλείονα εἰδώς.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Loeb : "For never yet has any man rowed past the island in his black ship until he has heard the sweet voice from our lips; instead, he has joy of it, and goes his way a wiser man". "tis", "someone", = "man"...

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    The Loeb (again, said to be the "literal" prose version) translates στομάτων as "lips". The word means "mouths". It does not mean "lips". It just doesn't. There's no reason I can think of to turn a mouth into lips, UNLESS you want to make sure the Sirens sound sexy.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Fagles: "Never has any sailor passed our shores in his black craft/ until he has heard the honeyed voices pouring from our lips, /and once he hears to his heart's content sails on, a wiser man". Again, a man. Again, lips. Knowledge becomes wisdom.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Fitzgerald: "Sweet coupled airs we sing. / No lonely seafarer/ Holds clear of entering /Our green mirror. Pleased by each purling note / Like honey twining / from her throat and my throat, who lies a-pining?" It goes on, longer than I can fit in tweet. VERY expansive.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Fitzgerald rises to fancy ballady rhyming stanzas, to make it less disappointing that the passage is short. Note the additions that make the Sirens seem more seductive in the traditional, feminine wiles ways: the throats, the "twining" honey, the "purling note".

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Lattimore: "For no one else has ever sailed past this place in his black ship/ until he has listened to the honey-sweet voice that issues/ from our lips; then goes on, well pleased, knowing more than ever / he did." Again, lips; again, "he". "Than ever he did" is added.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Lombardo: "No one has ever sailed / his black ship past here/ without listening to the honeyed / sound from our lips./ He journeys on delighted / and knows more than before".

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Lombardo has, yet again, lips. He does the same trick as Fitz, with less metrical skill: he off-sets the song and changes the line length, to make the Sirens episode a bit less disappointing to the modern reader. "Than before" is kinda flat, and is added by Lombardo.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Wilson:

    "Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
    All those who pass this way hear honeyed song
    poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
    and they go on their way with greater knowledge".

    I don't change my regular iambic pentameter.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    I wanted the Sirens to sound seductive, but in aural and cognitive ways. I tried to echo some of the alliterating sibilants in the original -- a bit like Kaa in Jungle Book, "Trust in Me". NB: it's the mouth, not the lips, that matters in most of Odysseus' troubles at sea.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Mouths (of giants, whirlpools, cyclopses and men) keep eating the wrong things, and mouths (of goddesses, men, witches, singers and shades) speak and sing to enable or thwart the onward journey. Not lips, which can be pretty and kissable. Mouths are powerful and dangerous.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Maybe the kissable Sirens are a specifically modern reading. Pope, 1725, makes them offer quasi-spiritual enlightenment:
    "Blest is the man ordain'd our voice to hear,
    The song instructs the soul, and charms the ear."

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    Chapman, 1614-16: no lips, also cognitive ravishment not the other kind: Sirens tell Ulysses to "that song hear /That none past ever but it bent his ear, /But left him ravish'd, and instructed more /By us, than any ever heard before."

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson

    The modern visual iconography of Sirens is very different from the ancient. Ancient depictions (vases, mosaics etc.) make them bird-women-poets; they often have musical instruments, the lyre and/or the aulos (double pipe). They offer a poetic/ aesthetic/ epistemic temptation.

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    EmilyRCWilson

    Emily Wilson