Homer’s “Odyssey” consists of 12,000 lines of ancient Greek poetry and Richard Whitaker has translated them into English.
Many other translators have done the same but few translations follow the original line by line and, until now, none has rendered the Odyssey into South African English. Richard Whitaker deserves congratulations for his achievement.
Translating Homer by using some of the five thousand words that make up South African English is not a marketing gimmick. Whitaker makes a solid argument in his introduction for the superior appropriateness of some South African terms compared to the Standard English that appears in most translations.
Paying in cattle for a bride, for example, is a practice common to both the Homeric world and South Africa; using lobola, the Xhosa and Zulu word for the dowry paid to the bride’s father, is not only perfectly acceptable but a helpful reminder that the world of the Odyssey need not always be read from a Eurocentric perspective.
The ancient Greek word basileus is usually translated as ‘king’ but in this respect the Homeric world overlaps more tellingly with small-scale African communities than with European monarchies, making ‘chief’ a more suitable and meaningful translation.
Whitaker provides a glossary at the back of the book for words than will be unfamiliar to non-South Africans but which have a natural place in Homer’s narrative – for example: assegai (spear), braai (a barbecue), imbongi (praise poet).
The oldest of the narrative blocks that constitute the biblical Genesis tells the story of Jacob and is thought to have been composed around the late eight century B.C.E. Scholars give a similar date for the composition of Homer’s “Odyssey”.
Both stories tell of treks (an Afrikaan word from Dutch) by a trickster hero who struggles and learns through suffering. The themes are ancient ones, common to Hebrew and ancient Greek societies, and the challenge for a translator is to render the tales in ways that stir the minds and imaginations of today’s readers.
Those who produced the King James version of the Old Testament have yet to be bettered when it comes to “Genesis”.
The “Odyssey” has been successfully translated a number of times and last year alone saw the publication of especially good ones by Emily Wilson and Peter Green. Whitaker’s version earns its place alongside these and his lengthy introduction provides a resource for readers coming to the great epic for the first time:
Tell me, Muse, of that resourceful man who trekked
far and wide, when he’d sacked Troy’s holy place;
he saw many towns of men and came to know
their minds, his spirit suffering on the sea
as he strove to bring his comrades home alive;
he failed, much though he longed to save them,
for their own blind folly cut them down
–fools, who ate the oxen of Hyperion
The sun-god, who took away their homecoming.
Daughter of Zeus, tell us the tale from there…
“The Odyssey of Homer: A Southern African translation”, by Richard Whitaker, is published by African Sun Press