The Odyssey in translation: a small translation detail

Recently I read Samuel Butler’s prose translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey. At one point I was struck by his rendition of line 351 in Book 8 of the Odyssey: “A bad man’s pledge is bad security.”

Good line! I wondered if Butler had simply translated it, or if he constructed this particular expression himself to approximate the sense of the meaning of the Greek expression, or if the aphorism in Butler had a prior but post-Homeric history. So I set off a-Googling.

Long story short, it’s his own translation. But what I found was that there is a history of disagreement as to the actual sense of the original statement.

First I came across this translation by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC, which has apparently also been published:

Johnston: It’s a nasty thing to accept a pledge made for a nasty rogue.

This was quite a different spin. You see, the context is that Poseidon is vouching for Ares, promising that Ares would pay the damages caused by his affair with Hephaistos’ wife Aphrodite. Hephaistos is incredulous; as Butler understood it, he responds to the effect of, “It would be stupid for me to trust him to pay me back.” If you read the next few lines, you’ll see why Butler’s translation makes some sense. Hephaistos asks Poseidon, “What if Ares runs away — how am I going to force mighty Poseidon to pay me in his stead?”

In Johnston’s version on the other hand, Hephaistos is not trying to communicate that it is simply foolhardy to rely on someone who is untrustworthy; rather, his point seems to be that getting involved with rogues in any capacity is somehow “nasty”, which I took to mean immoral, unethical, or otherwise repugnant. “Poseidon, why would you lower yourself like that?” That was such an interesting take that I knew I’d have to look further. His well received translation notwithstanding, Butler was not known as a Homeric scholar, so I began to wonder on that basis if his memorable phrase might actually be an inaccurate translation of this line.

So I looked elsewhere. Another somewhat esteemed translation is that of the poet Alexander Pope:

Pope: Will Neptune (Vulcan then) the faithless trust?
He suffers who gives surety for the unjust:

The idea is that there are negative consequences for anyone vouching for scoundrels, a somewhat ambiguous rendition that still implies the same understanding as Butler.

Finally I found the Homeric text itself and, being more of a Koine man, had to put a little effort into making sense of it. Here’s the text:

δειλαί τοι δειλῶν γε καὶ  ἐγγύαι ἐγγυάασθαι.

Worthless indeed are even the pledges pledged by the worthless.

If my translation is any good, it seems to indicate that Butler and Pope give a better sense for sense translation than does Johnston.

So I ask my learned readers: do you know of any linguistic/cultural reasons why Johnston, the only proper classical scholar among the bunch, might turn out to be right?

Tagged with:
Recent Posts:
  • Anonymous

    Sorry, I’m a Latin man myself, whose little Greek has mostly faded away. But I will give the recommendation of putting down the prose translation and picking up something that maintains some sort of rhythm that the original has. I myself can’t stand rhyming, so Pope will never work for me. Perhaps Fagle?

    One of my former professors mentioned in passing another interesting line from the Odyssey, from the Cyclops episode. When Odysseus blinds him, he “gropes” around to find the Greeks in his cave. That same word, which apparently is very rare, is used by Paul in his speech to the Athenians. (I can’t remember the exact verse, something like all men grope after God.) Could it be that Paul had read the Odyssey and was using it with an audience that was very familiar with it?

    • Hogue,
      Yeah, all I had available when I wrote this post were free online resources, although I do own a prose translation by Rouse that sides with Butler and Pope and renders the line something like “If you go bail for a cheat, you will be cheated out of your bail!” I agree, though, that Pope gets old after a while (which is partially why I read Butler’s Iliad and Odyssey instead).

      That’s an interesting note on the “grope” word. Thanks!