Research & Discussion
T.E. Lawrence and the translating of the Odyssey, 1928 - 1931
By Jeremy Wilson
It is no small thing to give to the world a great translation of one of its great books - Bruce Rogers
This article is based on an unused introduction written for the edition of Lawrence's Odyssey translation published by the Limited Editions Club in 1981. It was replaced in the edition by a shorter essay.
References to the text of the translation are to the text published by OUP, New York, in 1932 and issued in England after Lawrence's death in 1935. This typesetting has been reprinted many times.
T. E. Lawrence's translation of the
occupied much of his free time during four years. It was a task to
which he gave great care, sometimes taking an hour over the
rendering of a single line. References to the work are scattered
through his correspondence, but there has been no detailed
biographical study of the translation. Much of the correspondence
relating to the Odyssey
has not been published, or, like the letters to Bruce Rogers, was
formerly available only in costly limited editions (these letters
are now online in the
Collecting the references in letters makes it possible to piece together much of the story of Lawrence's Odyssey and to gain an insight into his work as translator. This is the basis for the account that follows. It consists largely of extracts from correspondence, with a commentary summarising other material and providing general background information.
T. E. Lawrence's career was twice deflected by abrupt change. He started out with the study of mediaeval history and military architecture, which led to work on Hittite archaeology in the Near East. Then in 1914 this scholarly life was swept aside by the First World War.
During 1916-17 he survived
numerous dangers and vicissitudes to become a successful guerrilla
leader in the Arab Revolt. This military role led in turn to work on
the post-war political settlement in the Near East. He served both at the Peace Conference in Paris and later in the
Colonial Office as an adviser on Arab affairs to Winston Churchill.
In 1922 there came a second break, when Lawrence enlisted in the ranks under an assumed name. He served from August that year until his discharge in February 1935. Eleven weeks after that, at the age of 46, he died of injuries received in a motor-cycle accident.
This fragmented career tends to obscure the continuity of interests and ambitions such as writing and fine printing. His talent for writing was evident as early as 1906, when he won first place in English in the Oxford Senior Local Examinations. Learning this result just after his eighteenth birthday, he wrote home: 'I wonder whether there is any profession in which a knowledge of one's own tongue is of the slightest use?'1
In the event, there was to be no period in Lawrence's life after 1908 when he was not planning or working on a literary project of some kind. Years after, when he was famous as 'Lawrence of Arabia' he wrote defiantly to a friend: '... in the distant future, if the distant f[uture] deigns to consider my insignificance, I shall be appraised rather as a man of letters than as a man of action.'2
Yet T. E. Lawrence was not a
novelist. His original writing is a combination of autobiographical
and critical work based on personal knowledge and experience. Its
vivid descriptions have their origins in
his study of architecture and archaeology. Its narration and
analysis owes much to his training as a historian.
During the First World War the Arab Revolt provided the kind of literary opportunity he had been looking for: an epic narrative in surroundings that gave marvellous scope for his descriptive talent.
After the war, seeking to improve the draft of Seven Pillars, he made an intensive study of style and technique. By the time Seven Pillars of Wisdom was complete he had developed an extraordinary descriptive power.
A continued writing career depended on finding suitable subject-matter. One reason given by Lawrence for his enlistment in 1922 was to collect material for a projected book about the RAF. For various reasons this second work never became the planned large-scale successor to Seven Pillars, but many critics have admired the fragment he completed - called The Mint - as writing.
When short of subject-matter, Lawrence enjoyed translating: 'I think it is the best way of learning to use words. Much harder than choosing one's own ideas, and clothing them'.3
'In translating you get all the craftsman's fuss of playing with words, without the artist's responsibility for their design and meaning. I could go on translating for ever: but for an original work there's not an idea in my head'.4
In 1923 he undertook pseudonymous translations of two minor French novels. He submitted only one for publication (The Forest Giant, by Adrien Le Corbeau). The publisher, Jonathan Cape, was impressed and suggested Mardrus' French version of The Thousand and One Nights, or Flaubert's Salammbo.
At the beginning of 1924, however, Lawrence set translating aside in order to prepare a subscription edition of Seven Pillars. This absorbed his off-duty time for three years. By the time it was finished, each copy had cost three times the sum paid by the subscribers. This extravagance had to be financed by publishing a popular abridgement, Revolt in the Desert, which appeared in March 1927.
Revolt in the Desert seemed likely to bring unwelcome publicity to Lawrence's presence in the ranks. In December 1926, therefore, he was posted to Karachi. There, as clerk in an engine maintenance depot, he logged the work carried out on each machine as it passed through. The working days were short, so for the first time in several years he had a large amount of free time. He found this idleness unpleasant.
'After fourteen days' consideration of this unwelcome leisure I've
sent for some Greek books. My Greek has nearly perished, and I will
sharpen it for six months. That may partly fill the void. After
German perhaps, or shall I try and translate another French novel
for Cape or Heinemann?'5
Lawrence had learned classical Greek at school; at the time it was a requirement for entrance to Oxford University. To judge by the Greek literature quoted and referred to in his early letters, he must have been a willing student. Greek remained important to him in archaeological work up to the beginning of the war, and during the Arab Revolt he read Aristophanes' comedies for relaxation. There were Greek texts in his library when he died.
It seems unlikely that he found much time for Greek literature while working on Seven Pillars, but at Karachi he took it up again, with Xenophon's Anabasis: 'I find it charming: so cunningly full of writing tricks, by an amateur soldier who had (like a recent fellow of my experience) obviously studied better men's books and copied them carefully. It is alive, and pretentiously simple. Till now I've read only forty or fifty pages. After Xenophon, who will last me for many weeks, I'll tackle Herodotus, and then the Odyssey, spending only a little time daily on them, using a dictionary for the doubtful words. Greek literature is so good, that it's almost the best second language for a reader.'6
During the summer of 1927, however, he had less time for reading Greek. He had decided to develop a book from the notes he had made during the RAF recruit's training course at Uxbridge in 1922. He spent several months drafting and redrafting The Mint.
Meanwhile, a few privileged people on both sides of the Atlantic were reading copies of the subscribers' Seven Pillars. Among them was Bruce Rogers, a leading American typographer and book designer. At the time he was considering a finely printed edition of the Odyssey, but had not found a suitable translation. Impressed by Seven Pillars, he wondered whether Lawrence might be persuaded to translate the Odyssey. Lawrence learned of this from an American acquaintance, Ralph Isham:
Bruce Rogers has been commissioned by a firm of publishers to arrange for a new translation of Homer's Odyssey and to design the book for them. In the course of dining with him the other night he spoke of this and we decided that we could think of no one by whom we would rather have the translation done than your good self - hence this letter. Can you and will you undertake it? If you will do so, the publishers will pay you a minimum of 800 and I believe I can get them to pay 1,000.
They want to get away from the old translation; they want this to be a free translation - rather a new interpretation of the Odyssey.
You will be glad to know that it is not your name they want but your translation. They are willing either to give the name you now use, as translator, or to give no name at all, whichever you wish. I do not know how you are at Greek but I thought this scheme might just fit into your present scheme of things and the honorarium of 800 is not to be grown on every tree in India.
There is no particular hurry about the translation itself but I should like to know soon if you are willing to undertake it.7
Lawrence replied on January 2nd, 1928:
When your letter came, I took the Odyssey down from the shelf, (it goes with me, always, to every camp, for I love it) and tried to see myself translating it, freely, into English. Honestly, it would be most difficult to do. I have the rhythm of the Greek so in my mind, that it would not come readily into straight English. Nor am I a scholar: I read it only for pleasure, and have to keep a dictionary within reach. I thought of the other translators, and agreed that there was not a first-rate one. Butcher & Lang.... too antique. Samuel Butler.... too little dignified, tho' better. Morris.... too literary. That only shows the job it is. Why should my doing be any better than these efforts of the bigger men?
Bruce Rogers' dressing of the book will make it glorious, so that even an inferior version would pass muster. You are fortunate to be able to dine with him. I have for years admired him from ground level, and have even been able at intervals to buy books of his production: of course I've never met him:- but you know, and he knows, that he's the ideal of all those who have tried to produce books. Or perhaps I should say, of all who have gone far enough in the direction of producing books, to know what a job it is. It would be an awful thing if my share in the Homer did not justify its setting, in my own judgement.
So let me make stiff terms, in the hope of being refused an honour which I feel too great for me to carry off successfully. I can not refuse so profitable an offer bluntly.
1. I should need two years in which to complete the translation, after I began work on it.
2. I do not feel capable of doing it as well as Homer would have liked; and shall feel unhappy if it turns out botched.
3. I could not sign it with any of my hitherto names. It must go out blank, or with a virgin name on it.
4. I would do the first book, within six months of having concluded the agreement with the publishers; and if they were not satisfied with it, I would agree to let the contract go, upon their paying me the fraction of 800 which the first book bears to the whole.
Notes on above
1. Because it is long, and difficult. Probably I'd write it twice or three times before it felt right. Also I can't begin right off. I must get several of the older translations by me, to compare with.
3. And they would have to promise to respect this privacy. I hope never again to be the victim of the press.
4. Six months, because the writing of the first ten pages or so fixes the style for all the rest, and is the hardest part. And I do not want to do it for nothing. Fifteen or twenty pounds would see me nicely through it.
My strongest advice to you is to get someone better, to do you a more certain performance: I am nothing like good enough for so great a work of art as the Odyssey. Nor, incidentally, to be printed by B.R.8
The six-month delay that Lawrence asked for was in part to allow time to complete
The Mint. This took him until mid-March 1928. Until then, he
could not begin the Odyssey.
Moreover, the effort of working on The Mint left him exhausted. When it was finished he felt 'suddenly empty'. A similar reaction had set in after writing Seven Pillars, and had lasted for some time. In mid-April he had still not touched the Odyssey. He felt 'pumpkin-witted. No pith in me at all. It will be months before I want to cross a road or turn a corner, out of my inner curiosity. Indeed just now I shirk my R.A.F. work, which is a sorry confession: for normally I am exact to do it well.'9
Both Isham and Bruce Rogers replied to Lawrence's letter, accepting his terms for tackling the translation. Rogers wrote at length, setting out his ideas for the edition and alternative schemes for publication:
Isham will write you about the plan for the Odyssey, but he said I might take up with you, directly, some of the features of the proposal. It was, as he probably told you, an idea that flashed over me while reading Seven Pillars last autumn - I am the proud possessor of the set of sheets you printed . . . from which the American edition was set . . .
I had had a commission from a publisher here to print for him any book I chose - so that it was important enough - and had about decided upon the Odyssey - I read neither Greek nor Latin - but it seemed to me that all the available translations were lacking in speed, primarily, however admirable they might be in other respects.
I had already written to Festing Jones and A.T. Bartholomew (both friends of mine, and Butler's literary executors) to see if it were possible to print Butler's text, when I came upon George Herbert Palmer's Odyssey - which at once seemed to me superior to Butler's while not quite so 'literary' as Leaf and Myers. Palmer, too, is an old acquaintance of mine, Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Harvard. But still his translation didn't march, and was pretty dull in spots - (I wonder if you know it - I will send you a copy of it, on the chance - as it's a cheap book.) Then it suddenly came to me that if the swing and go of your English in the Seven Pillars which held me to it when I was not specially interested in some of your expeditions, could be applied to the Odyssey, we would get a version that would out-distance any existing translation -. It is no small thing to give to the world a great translation of one of its great books - and all the doubts you express only convince me more firmly than ever that you, if anyone, can do it. Then I ran into Isham (over his Boswell papers, which I am probably to print) and when I found he knew you I urged him to write to you - which he did at once. So much for the inception of the plan.
All the terms of your proposals are quite acceptable to me - In the matter of time required they seem to me most reasonable. The most difficult one to carry out, however discreet the Publishers, will be to completely pursue your anonymity - It can be guaranteed for a limited, perhaps a considerable, time; but if the translation itself causes the stir in the scholastic and literary worlds that I think it will, the authorship is almost certain to leak out somehow, despite the best instructions all round. The secret would without doubt be kept long after the book is issued, and the reviewers would not bother you about it. Most of the books I have printed are reviewed very promptly and almost wholly (I am really a good deal ashamed of it) from the standpoint of typography. The modern conception of bookmaking always gets the cart before the horse - and frequently the contents of the cart are ignored altogether. We couldn't quite expect that in the case of a new Odyssey - but your part in it could, I am quite certain, be successfully suppressed until the reviewers had got through with it, at any rate.
The publishers I had in mind - Random House is the name of the firm, and an intimate friend of mine is one of the partners - naturally said that the withholding of your name would of course impede the sale of the book, and that at first, at least, it would have to sell on its merits as typography - I would really like to put it out entirely on its own merits - whatever they might be - and remain, myself, equally anonymous - But as that would still further increase the difficulties of advertising or selling it, and as the treatment I have in mind would inevitably give away my part in it, that is perhaps unfair to ask of them, and might be interpreted as placing too much importance upon the typography itself.
It is an unusually large sum to promise for a translation not yet made, and especially for an anonymous one, but as Isham will have written you they have authorised me to tell you to go ahead, on the basis you proposed . . .
Bruce Rogers went on to set out alternative plans for publication.
Instead of working with Random House, the edition might be financed
through a single wealthy patron, or perhaps by selling the
of Book I as a high-priced specimen 'proposal' for the edition as
a whole. He had already decided on the essential design of the book
and also on the print run: 'My idea is to print about 500 copies.
If any more are required I would issue another and less expensive
edition than the one I have in mind for the first
At the end of May 1928 Lawrence moved from Karachi to Miranshah, a remote RAF station in Waziristan near the Afghan border. There, he was clerk to a succession of small RAF detachments which served at the station for two months each. Miranshah was so quiet and isolated that he found it ideal for writing. He at last began translating the sample Book.
'If there is a spare hour it goes on the Odyssey, of which I have already rendered the first 50 lines into English which seems to me tolerable . . . I hope to finish the first book in two months from now. The first pages are the hardest, for I have to find my style. Butler has missed, I find, all the picturesque side: the bric-a-brac: and most of the poetry has evaporated with Homer's queer, archaic, dignity. He or she was not telling a contemporary story, any more than I am'.11
He managed to work at it for an hour or so daily, writing five drafts 'before I leave it, to rest till the whole Book I can be revised, the sixth time, for the States. It has not dashed my pleasure in Homer. I like doing it. Translating is an ingenious game, very exciting for a man who has no originalities of his own to express.'12
Service life at Miranshah was relatively informal and Lawrence, whose identity was not secret, worked in the station office when off-duty. It was 'a 15 foot square white washed cube, with cement floor. In the centre is the fan: underneath it the officer's table: against the far wall my table, covered with white American cloth, and carrying the typewriter, which I've taught to produce pages of Homer, as well as Daily Routine Orders!'13
By late June he had finished his fourth draft. 'Only once or twice more: and then it will be as good as I can get it. That is not much to say. I could have done better if Homer had given me his material, and a free hand with it: but then it wouldn't be paid for as Homer.'14
He completed Book I on 20 June, exactly six months after accepting the task. Sending it to Rogers, he wrote:
I see now (having done the first, sample, book, and posted it to Isham today) why there are no adequate translations of Homer. He is baffling. Not simple, in education; not primitive, socially. Rather a William Morris of his day, I fancy.
There's a queer naivety in every other line: and at our remove of thought and language we can't say if he is smiling or not. Samuel Butler thought he was: and Butler's version lacks dignity, therefore, as much as it lacks poetry, Palmer is altogether the best, I think.
My version runs to 5000 words of this first book. I have tried to squeeze out all the juice in the orange; or what I thought was the juice. I tried to take liberties with the Greek: but failed. Homer compels respect. I confess he has me beaten to my knees. Perhaps if I did much more I might be less faithful.
The work has been very difficult: though I'm in a Homeric sort of air; a mud-brick fort beset by the tribes of Waziristan, on a plain encircled by the hills of the Afghan border. It reeks of Alexander the Great, our European fore-runner: who also loved Homer.
But, as I say, it has been difficult. This which I have sent is the sixth copying-out: so I shall not be a whit sorry (except in pocket) if your backers cry off the project, at sight of the sample.15
The mail between India and the
United States was slow, so it would be several weeks before Lawrence
would know if the sample translation had
been accepted. The delay gave him a chance to think more generally
about Homer's text: 'You know, I don't call the poem really archaic.
I think it is an essay in the primitive, like Sigurd, or
The Well at the World's End. And it is really prose: metrical
prose... I've tried to keep the flavour of an archaistic tale: one
whose modern bones keep on showing through the Wardour Street fleshings.
'I can't write verse: or at least, I've never tried, and couldn't begin on the Odyssey.'16
He had also sent his Book I translation to Charlotte Shaw, inviting comments. She rebuked him for a slangy idiom. His reply shows something of the approach he took: 'That "free, gratis and for nothing" in the Odyssey shocked myself. But Telemachus' speech, that in which it comes, is roaring farce, all out of key with the rather pompous correctitude of what had come before. So I wanted to make the page sit up, just about there.'17 He nevertheless modified the passage to read 'scot-free and for nothing' (p. 12 line 2).
The publishers' response to the sample finally reached him on 11 September. Isham wrote: 'I am very enthusiastic over your translation as are also the publishers and I am afraid that there is little chance of your getting out of this job of work through any hope that you may have entertained that the answer would be "no".'18
There was also another long letter from Bruce Rogers, written from England. He shared Isham's feelings about the text: 'It is in just the vein I had hoped for and I am most enthusiastic over it'.19 He had now decided that the finely printed edition of the Odyssey should be produced in England. His plan was:
to arrange with Emery Walker's firm . . . for the printing and publishing the edition; and they have drawn up the proposal of which a copy is enclosed with this . . .
Walker is my oldest friend in England and you may know that we printed a book for the Grolier Club, together, in 1917. As they are not professional publishers . . . the best chance of preserving anonymity lay with them. They have acted as publishers for several books (chiefly on art) and are of course well-known as engravers and printers, all over the world. Both Walker and Merton are as enthusiastic as I about the prospect of doing the book here. The greatest difficulties seem to lie in the protraction of time necessary to make the translation - and, in view of your present location and occupation, of the chance of the translation's being interrupted half-way through. They have not a large or particularly prosperous business and their letter is designed to protect themselves from possibly being left with a partial translation on their hands.
I am not much of a business man (or, as you say, I should have been a millionaire in America, ere this) but their proposal seems to me a fair one all round, and I hope you will think it so. There is no one I had rather work with than Walker and Merton and they will leave the book-making entirely in my hands. Walker is now over 75 (though almost as vigorous as ever) and it would be a great pleasure to him to have his name on one more important book, before he stops printing for good - and in my eyes this will be the most important, except perhaps the Doves Bible - no, I won't except even that.
If you agree to Walker's proposal to pay you in instalments, my plan is roughly this:- I would have to return to America early in November, to close up private affairs there and bring my grandson back to establish a temporary residence here. The Monotype Co. are cutting my Centaur type, in which I propose to set the book - (I shall have a trial page to send you in a few days, I hope.) As Walker's plant is small we would set up your copy as fast as received and send you proofs for correction and revise . . . The illustrations, or rather, decorations, (whatever they are to be) could go on simultaneously - as, of course, they need only fit the incidents of the respective Books - it is much easier than printing a new or unknown story.
I shall have much better assistance here, in every line, than I would have in New York. . .'20
In London Bruce Rogers had discussed the proposed edition confidentially with J.G. Wilson, manager of Bumpus, booksellers to the King. Wilson knew Lawrence, having helped gather subscribers for Seven Pillars.
Wilson wanted me to warn you that it would be almost a superhuman task to prevent all leakage of your authorship - for a very long period - He is quite safe, I am confident, and Walker and Merton are entirely to be relied upon. But we can only guarantee that no announcement or hint of your connection with the book will be given before or after its publication - by anyone concerned with the making or marketing it - i.e. Walker, Merton and myself - None of the workmen need know what they are engaged upon.
And here arises another point. You are very much mistaken, I think, in assuming that no one will be interested in the text, as translation instead of, or in addition to, the book-making. Wilson says it would not be pirated by any reputable publisher here, but would most likely be in America. So it seems to me necessary to copyright it there and print at least a few copies there to secure copyright. I feel sure that your version is going to be of far more general interest than you think, and my idea is to submit it to the Camb. University Press for publication in - say - 8 shilling form and at the same time to some University Press in the U.S. for publication there - either Harvard, of which I am official Printing Advisor, or Yale, where they gave me an Honorary M.A. in June. In either case I would not divulge the authorship to anyone connected with the press . . .
I am not surprised at what you say of the difficulties of the job - it is probably the most difficult thing in the world to translate - you literally have to build the book over with Homer as raw material - but your opening book - or at least what I have by me - doesn't show the labour, and that to me is the main thing. It reads as though it were a new tale - fresh and unstudied. "The greatest art" etc, you know - You put me on my mettle - I shan't be able to give it a treatment as fresh as the text, I'm afraid. So there are two of us afraid. . .
Wilson prophesies that it will not take you anything like two years to do the Odyssey, unless, he says, you insist on writing it all over, five or six times - I hope you won't. I'd rather have a bit of crudeness or roughness than to lose an atom of freshness and "go". I haven't Palmer by me to compare with, as to your accuracy of your text - (his is, I believe, one of the closest) but I read a bit of Butler's after seeing your opening pages - and it almost disgusted me with its commonplaceness - not a bit of beauty anywhere.21
Lawrence replied, formally accepting the terms offered by Emery
Walker Limited. He asked them among other things to have his rendering
checked: 'I am not a scholar. If I read Greek, it is for pleasure. I fear
my version will inevitably try harder to convey my pleasure, than
to be an exact mould of the Greek. Yet accuracy is a good thing, in
its way. Will you try to find a hide-bound scholar, and ask him to
snout through the sample chapter for literal errors? I'd like to
Despite J.G. Wilson's optimism, Lawrence warned Bruce Rogers that 'it will probably take me the best part of two years to do the Odyssey. Your sample took me just over 100 hours and it is not yet properly finished. Agreed that later books will go easier. The finding a style is hard, and it is not yet fully found. But remember that it is done after I have done the usual day's work of an airman in workshop or office; and that on days when the R.A.F. give me overtime to do I shall not be able to touch the Greek. It is a common tale that no fellow in the Service works:- but I think it is not true. We go to bed very tired, as a rule.'23
He was now committed to the Odyssey, rejecting the other projects urged upon him by English literary friends. Jonathan Cape offered a translation of Rousseau's Confessions; David Garnett suggested writing a fairy tale. E. M. Forster, who was satisfied after The Mint that Lawrence's talent was not confined to descriptions of Arabia, suggested a study of women. There can be little doubt that The Mint would have been followed by another literary project if Lawrence had not translated the Odyssey.
Soon he began to discover what he had taken on: 'Book II is harder
than Book I. I have done 300 lines this month: only 3 lines per
hour! And those aren't finished. It is so hard to sail between Butler's
familiarity, and Wardour Street. Butler has too much humour. The
tale is very dignified: told for chiefs, and the masters of households,
to pass dark evenings. Butler is too parlour-like. Morris wanted to
avoid the idea of translation. His version is neither free enough
nor bound enough. He does not help me: for I want to keep the
mediaeval city-state feeling out of it. The thing is Greek
island, I feel sure.'24
As he had foreseen, it was not always easy to find time for Homer as well as his RAF duties. For nearly three weeks between 7 and 27 November the translation lay untouched. Lawrence described the following week in two words: 'Work and Odyssey. It has been the end of the month, when I always prepare many "returns" for the powers: accounts of how much we have eaten, and burnt, and fired, and used, and flown, and driven, and worn, and on top of that I have done all the 3rd book for the first time of writing. Forty-five hours, it took: 490 lines: six minutes per line. There remain the second third and fourth times of writing'.25
In December he promised the manuscript of his translation to Charlotte Shaw. This was the final draft, from which Emery Walker's text was typed. Charlotte Shaw bequeathed it with her other Lawrence papers to the library of the British Museum, now the British Library. Unlike most of Lawrence's literary friends, Charlotte approved of the Odyssey project. His letters to her often mentioned it, and are the source for many of the passages quoted here.
The gift was well earned. Charlotte wrote to Lawrence almost every week, sending him books, press-cuttings, gramophone records, and food hampers for festive occasions. His preoccupation with the Odyssey affected both the frequency and quality of his replies: 'There's a prophetic letter from you this week, saying that you were getting very jealous of Homer', Lawrence commented, 'Homer isn't a mountain ready to fall: that would be exciting. I'm a man buried 125,000 words deep in the ground, who's got to scrape his way to daylight and the sunny face of the earth. Through this thick covering you won't hear any sharp or distinct noises till I'm almost through: and when I'm through (April 1930) it will be in so tired a state that I'll just moon about, happy to have open eyes and a shut head.'26
On Christmas Day 1928 Lawrence sent the first three books of his translation to Emery Walker. As things had turned out, the first book was little changed from the sample he had drafted six months earlier.
I have spent 500 hours over these 14,000 words, and have reached a sort of finality - arriving at that negation of improvement, when after a cycle of alternatives one returns to the original word.
The Odyssey is very difficult. It is clever, in the real sense, which held no derogatory meaning. A very skilful literary performance, not simple, not primitive: very, very artful and artificial. It's full of tags out of the Iliad, but is not epic at all. It's a narrative, and all its persons have character. That in itself would save it from epic, for the persons of an epic should be on the stupid scale and the grandeur of it come from a relentless march of events.
Nor is there much poetry about the story, so far as it has gone. The author writes in metre, as that was the consecrated form of the early novel, or chanson de geste. He was a poet - oh yes, a great poet, I fancy; but this was a story he was telling.
He was also an antiquarian, and filled in his background with lots of quaint furniture, to give it the antique feel. Quite Wardour Street, as I said before, with the modern bones showing through the fancy fleshings.
His naivety is sham too: he laughs in his sleeve at his puppets. Line after line is ironical, as if he wasn't sure if it should be Sir Topas or not. Perhaps the first part of Don Quixote is a nearer parallel. I said Sigurd before: only Morris was more of a man than this writer: and Morris didn't snigger, as the Odyssey does. Also Sigurd sings. Orlando giocondo, perhaps.
I think my version is richer, on the whole, than the original: as Samuel Butler's version is balder. Butler was the realist, telling a tale. Thereby I think he did the Odyssey too much honour. The author was picking flowers, on the way, also.
He or she? Honestly I don't care. No great sexualist, either way: no great lover of mankind. Could have been written by a snipped great ape. A marvellous crafty tale, mixed just to the right point with all the ingredients which would mix in. The translators aren't catholic, like their master. Each of us leans towards his private fancy.'27
Lawrence soon heard again from Bruce Rogers, who was showing the sample Book I to potential publishers of a trade edition.
I took it up to Cambridge the other day and let Roberts, the Secretary of the Syndics [of the Cambridge University Press] read it. He said he hardly thought the Syndics would care to publish it anonymously, as that somehow savoured of recent publishers' dodges in regard to novels, etc. He, Roberts, took it as the work of an American. Said it read speedily and forcefully but he felt it was too great a mixture of the classic (or literary) style and the modern narrative one. On going over it again, after his criticism, I saw what he meant, but I'm not sure that is an objection to it. You wrote in one of your letters that you were not certain whether Homer was not - in places - laughing up his sleeve (or something to that effect) and it seems to me that the occasional somewhat pompous passages bear out this feeling. I had not, hitherto, contemplated even a short introductory note - but if there is to be one at all I think something like what your letter contained would be the very best preface possible. However, there is plenty of time to decide upon that.
I will find someone - not a pedant or even a great scholar - to go over the M.S. and make suggestions, or corrections if necessary - but it must be someone who is sympathetic to the idea of a new translation and not wrapped up in those already given to us. They will find one for me at the B[ritish] M[useum] where I have many friends.'28
At this point Lawrence had to
Journalists, short of sensational news, were writing preposterous stories
that he was on a secret mission to Afghanistan disguised as a native
'holy man'. The myth snowballed before it could be disproved. To
avoid a diplomatic scandal, the
RAF had to return Lawrence to England as quickly as possible.
He sailed from Bombay on 12 January 1929, on board the S.S. Rajputana, a 16,000-ton P&O passenger liner. The Rajputana was much pleasanter than the troopship on which he had sailed out to India. 'Second-class is comfortable. I have a cabin to myself, as the ship is nearly empty: and pass the whole day in it, working at that Greek book. Since we left Bombay I have done three sections of it - just as much as I did at Miranshah, all the while I was there. So you see things have moved. They are not finished, these sections: they will need fair-copying and typing out in London, during my month's leave: but they represent a good two months of Miranshah production, done in two weeks. Voyages are binding things, and I'm lucky to have had this job to keep me busy.'29
Lawrence was next posted to the RAF Flying-Boat station at Cattewater in Plymouth. He knew and liked the Commanding Officer, Sydney Smith, whom he had first met years before. Their friendship proved valuable in many ways, but especially because Sydney Smith was able to harness Lawrence's talents to important work, despite the problem of his low rank. At Plymouth Lawrence became happier than he had been since his time as an archaeologist before the First World War.
Soon he had the opportunity to meet Bruce Rogers in London, an occasion which Rogers described to a friend: 'he came to see me last Thursday. For two hours we both talked as hard as we could . . . Lawrence isn't at all a disappointment - quite the reverse. He is small and quiet and self-contained and extremely modest. His letters were so interesting that I own I was almost regretful when I heard he was coming back to London - but he's a great success personally.
'You already know about the Odyssey so I can write of it to you (sub rosa). Lawrence has four books done and they are in my hands - a whacking translation, I think - the best ever. He has two more books pretty well roughed out, but he goes over it and re-writes 6 or 8 times . . . He's coming in again on Thursday and hopes to be in civilian clothes so that he can lunch with me'.30
At Cattewater, Lawrence was posted to the Marine and Workshop section. He had an attic office of his own above the workshops. However, there was much less time for translating than in India. The airmen worked longer hours, and many of the tasks were physically tiring.
He roughed out Books VII and VIII during March and April 1929, and hoped to get them to Emery Walker by the end of the month. But they suddenly came to a standstill when the magazine John Bull, which often featured literary gossip, disclosed that 'Lawrence of Arabia' was translating the Odyssey.
This publicity left him 'not able to touch the Odyssey. I must think out what to do about it now. The sensible thing would be to give it up: the next-best thing to sign it T. E. Shaw. Either move is difficult.'31 On 1 May he put the problem to Bruce Rogers: 'Today I had meant to send you Book VII and VIII: instead of which I must tell you of my worries. It's been published (in John Bull, of all the world's press!) that I'm doing an Odyssey: and since that day I haven't done a stroke. Up till then I'd been trying to get on with it. Seven is complete, all but the last look-over. Eight is having its third revise. Nine is started: but that was all March work: and since, as I say, there has been nothing. . .
'I had not expected this trouble, before publication: After, yes: but somehow that didn't matter. You'll realise, I hope, that I can't carry on as it is.
'Will you see Walker and Merton, and present them the difficulties as they stand? I want to be as reasonable and helpful as possible, and only hope that their more sober experiences may find a road out of what seems, to me, rather a deep hole.'32
Anonymity had been important to Lawrence because he believed that most publishers were more attracted by the publicity value of his name than by the quality of his writing. This conviction had been reinforced when he had tried without success to submit anonymous articles to motor-cycling magazines.
Yet he himself had done little to maintain the Odyssey secret. His letters from India announced the work openly to many friends in the English literary world, and disclosure was inevitable for that reason alone. Bruce Rogers, who had repeatedly warned of this danger, was not impressed by Lawrence's dilemma of conscience. He wrote 'a typically wise and sensible letter (all wrong of course!) holding me to my contract, which of course I must keep, if they insist upon it.'33
The revelation contributed to a
delay of some months before Lawrence resumed work on the translation, but there were other causes as well. In 1929
Sydney Smith was heavily involved in the organisation of an international seaplane contest. Throughout the summer he kept
Lawrence occupied with the preparations. At the end of July Lawrence
confessed to Rogers that 'I've had a long immersion in Schneider Cup
Race details - I'm one of the R.A.F. clerks for that - but
am in a lull: all preparations made, on paper. Next month we start
doing the things, and will be frantically busy till mid-September: and then I want to get some leave, and break the back of the
Odyssey. . .
'It is wonderful to see how much work the R.A.F. give me here. Of course I like doing their work, and would be quite happy doing it, if I hadn't agreed to do the Odyssey for you, at the same time. In India there were heaps of leisure hours. Here too few: but after September it will be easier. I have told my officer that I must have my winter evenings free.'
Emery Walker had now begun to typeset the text: 'I'm very much afraid you are going to beat me, now that you have started. You will be clamouring at the hut door for copy: and I'll be inside polishing boots, or otherwise being unhelpful. I'll do my best, as soon as this flurry of R.A.F. work passes.'34
But by the beginning of December there was still little progress: 'Two books, since I returned. I want to do six, and then send the batch to Bruce Rogers: February or March, perhaps, if I am left alone. I am so bored with the resourceful Odysseus: yet these two books (VII and VIII) have been better done than any of the earlier ones. With nine we get over the chit-chat and begin the adventures of Odysseus, as he tells them, I am trying to increase the rapidity of the style, here and there, to feel like a narration. Homer-Odyssey is worse than Borrow, as described by Sidney Webb. He (or she) does describe every cup of wine, every man, every wave, of the world. Intolerably slow, and yet so delicate, so subtle, so sophisticated, so civilised. Hoots.'35
There were also specific problems. He told Rogers: 'The variability of tense, in the description of the palace of Alcinous [Book VII, pp. 96-7], I put down to a convention. The poet got wrought up and embarked on the "historic present". Many bad writers (and some good) do.'36
'As for the epithets, you take a load off my mind, and I have slaughtered them freely. From now on we will put in only enough to remind ourselves of a bad business.'37
By mid-December he had finished Book IX and started Book X: 'Not a favourite book'38. He worked at Homer in his attic office until 10 p.m. when the keys had to be handed in: 'what a set of worms the ancient Greeks paint themselves to be. In my version I underline all strong words, and fade away the weakness, so that my translation will be not so much a copy as an intensification, dramatically. I try to make the poor yarn take up its bric-a-brac and walk. Vainly, I think: but that is meeter than Butler, who threw all the muck out of the window before he began to English it.
'I have got into a rhythm in the work. The fair copy represents the fourth writing, and is the fourteenth revision; by and large I do five lines an hour, if you take the length of a book, and the total hours I have spent before the fair copy is ended. Books VII and VIII are at Emery Walker's, being typed. Book IX is waiting to be copied out, just before Christmas, or in Christmas week, when the camp is as good as closed for five days, and I have only the pretence of work - duty boat - to do. There will be very few runs for the duty boat that week, and I am hoping to do very much Odyssey in the five days. During the last three or four working weeks I have got in forty hours each week on Odyssey, and done my forty-eight R.A.F. hours too: and I feel as though I had not had a moment off: yet that leaves 80 hours unallotted. Say 56 for sleep:- I've wasted 24 somehow, frittered on feeding and dressing and washing myself. Absurd how much time goes to waste, even when we are trying to work hard.'39
Lawrence's judgements of his own writing were usually disparaging. That was perhaps because he really was unsure about its merit - but perhaps also because he needed constant reassurance that it was good, and hoped that others would contradict his self-criticism. Often he dismissed the Odyssey translation as a pot boiler, undertaken simply for a high translation fee. That cannot be reconciled with the trouble he took over it, and his manifest pride in doing the work well.
He was undoubtedly defensive towards those of his literary friends who thought the Odyssey translation a waste of talent. E.M. Forster for instance refused to take it seriously: 'Yes, you told me you were translating the Odyssey, but I keep on forgetting. If the original is in Wardour Street you will not do it very well . . .'40 A month later, Forster wrote, 'I trust that the Odyssey, to which I feel unreasonably frivolous, nears completion. I see no reason you shouldn't do a novel.'41
Lawrence was certainly not sparing pains over the work. In January 1930 he told Charlotte Shaw, 'I think it is a long time since I wrote - yet it might have been yesterday. I've been since then wrestling with about four lines of Anticlea's speech in Book XI: behind some wall or curtain in my mind I know there is the perfect English for these words: and I cannot get in to feel and drag it out. If I didn't know of these, there are fifty other words that would do as well: I have a sheet of them here on my table all written down under the other: but the real ones will not come. Sometimes it is like that, and I can't account for it: I am no more tired than usual, no stupider than usual, not ill or distracted or lazy: it is just like a knot in the grain of wood: a nuisance to the carpenter.'42
Book XI, describing the underworld, proved extremely taxing: 'This should be a very good book, and I feel that I can't get it to go well. I've struggled with it till I am sick. The original is not great stuff: or that is the sad feeling I have: yet I'd like mine to be first rate.'43
He sent this troublesome book to Charlotte in an early draft, for comment. It was the first time he had asked for criticism during the process of translation: 'thanks for reading that XIth book. I am afraid it is very difficult. I have been over it three or four times since it came back, and have managed about 100 minor alterations. That is for the good. I changed, so far as I could, all the places you have marked. It is very difficult.
'What you say about it is about what I feel: a sense of effort, of hard work: of course there must be this. I never wrote (for printing) an easy line in my life. All my stuff is tenth-thoughts or twentieth-thoughts, before it gets out . . . "Don't" you say "Work too hard at it, all at once." Why it has to be finished this year! I am at Book XII, only half-way, and the R.A.F. interests me too much to think of doing Odyssey in duty hours: so I've got to work on it every minute of my spare time, if it is to go through in time. Did Bruce Rogers give you any idea how long he can wait for the rest? He is pressing for Books VII - XII and I hope to send them him about Jan. 25th, Books XIII - XXIV are not yet even begun. You see, the Schneider took up all my last summer: and it is so slow and so hard. Last night I spent five hours doing five lines - not doing them, for they were already on paper, but re-grouping and re-tensing and re-mooding them, to make them stand up: it's deadly hard. There cannot be any of my own exciting little adjectives or words: for I am translating Homer, most word-for-wordly, and Homer has been too long the possession of the educated world for any surprise to remain in him.'
In the same letter, however, he concedes that the results were sometimes satisfying: 'Book IX, the Cyclops book, is V.G. Even I say that. V.G. compared to Butler, or Lang or Palmer.'44
The Odyssey text was typed at Emery Walker's office by Miss Edith Saunders, and then sent for technical criticism to 'W', the scholar chosen by Bruce Rogers to check the translation. 'W' stood for 'Walters', possibly H. B. Walters, Keeper of Greek and Roman antiquities at the British Museum.
By the end of January Lawrence had reached the half-way point:- 'Here are IX, X, XI, XII for Miss Saunders' oppression. I am afraid she will find it rather too much to face in-a-lump; this will be all for some months, as my stock in draft is nearly exhausted. I could finish off XIII for you, in a little while, but would rather keep it by me while I rough out a few more books, and then do a chunk of them together. It is difficult, frankly, to do: the Greek feels so dead under my fingers. I'm always trying to underline, to score heavier, to put in little bits, to try and lift the thing to life. Also the archaisms bother me.
'I have cut out of the fair copy most of the recurring tags, as W- suggested, leaving only a few to convey as much as modern man can endure of the Homeric atmosphere. After all, this is essentially a translation. I give myself freedom with moods and tenses, and in arrangement: and sometimes I transpose adjectives: but it often astonished me, reading a back passage, to see how the bones of the Greek show through in every sentence.
'The Cyclops' cave in this Book IX is worth translating, and Book XI has been done with twice the effort and care of any of the earlier books. I do not know whether it is yet good enough. The underworld is the only place, if there, where the Odyssey becomes great. Everywhere it seems to prefer grace and smoothness and subtlety and skill to largeness. The Italian word terribilita:- that is the main lack of this particular Homer: whereas the owner of the Iliad had it almost in excess. . .
'I find my MS and galley hard for reference. Is there any chance of a page-proof being pulled, which I could keep filed by me? The author keeps on recurring to his pet phrases, and I want to suggest my former versions only, without dead-copying them: and my memory has considered and rejected so many versions of each, before finally approving one, that it is seldom that I can remember what I actually wrote.'45
The typescript of each section was returned to Lawrence, with comments from Walters and Bruce Rogers. Lawrence did not always agree with criticisms:
'Here are IX and X back, with after-thoughts and corrections by myself. W. hasn't got all his notions through, this time. I find him a bit matter-of-fact, sometimes. However he lets pass many things which a good scholar would utterly despise - so clearly we must praise him in the balance sheets. You are a better (literary) critic.
'"Gurling" is a first rate word, and the derivation seems clear. Let us have it. I should leave "same" and the dash, too, and let the pedants go hang. I suppose "dompter" is mostly French: but the XVIth Century English used it.
'I have not cut out many epithets, in these books. Some of them have value. The author wrote them deliberately, as part of the epic tradition, and the text loses if they all disappear. Loses dignity, I should say . . .'46
Delivering Books VII-XII relieved some of the pressure. A month later he was still revising Book XIII '... in a leisurely way as though Homer were short, or life long. Bruce Rogers has told me not to hurry. Do you know, I think his former S.O.S. to me was to try and find if I had thrown the job up, or not!'47
Soon he was grappling with the passage in Book XIII which describes the cave of the Naiads. Charlotte Shaw, who relished speculative philosophy, had sent him some relevant extracts from Thomas Taylor's edition of Porphyry. Lawrence's reply stressed the danger of personal views, when translating another author's text.
'You will be disappointed at my cave of the nymphs: but that is the way of things. I do not like these humanistic interpretations of poetry. Shakespeare suffers similarly at German hands. Did you ever read Gervinus? It is lawful, for our own pleasure, to read into texts anything we please: but a translator must be honest and objective. Now Homer writes of the delight of a great shadowy cool cave by a hot creek in his island. On the flat sea-meadow beside it, at the head of the water, is a leafy olive. The cave is in the cliff-side, and inside it are great hollowed rocks, like food-bowls and mortars, and store cupboards in the walls, in which the bees have laid their honey; the bees drone in and out of the cave, making a murmur like presences passing. There is a stream running into the cave from its hidden end: a mere trickle of water; this runs down the rocky floor and joins the salt sea in the cave's mouth. Great reefs and shards of marble lie under the edge of the tide, and there the anemones and sea-flowers have grown, and these wave backward and forward in the wash of the water, looking like a marvellous web of tyrian purple . . .
'That's the cave: and there is a certain awesomeness in caves, so that it is easy to believe that the further end was indeed a passage way for the immortal gods, from the under-world to ours. Why not? And of course men do not come in that way. They come in from the sunlight, not from the darkness.
'You will be repelled at the philistinism of all this, the naturalism: just as I reject the under-tones and over-tones of Porphyry and his friends. Embroideries can be put on any honest cloth: but the cloth comes first. Call my Odyssey home-spun, and I shall be flattered.'48
Lawrence's graphic picture of the cave is worth comparing with the version in the Odyssey [pp. 184-5]. The author of Seven Pillars must indeed have felt cramped by the spareness of some of Homer's descriptions: 'As for the cave: of course one can see it, behind and between Homer's lines: but it is not in the Greek. Bother the man: he missed enough good opportunities of loveliness to break his 25 English prose translators' hearts: as for the 25th translator, he is quite out of patience with the man. A young girl forsooth! No girl could have been such an ass. It is a man's work.'49
During the summer of 1930 the translation inched slowly forward. In August, when thanking a friend for a parcel of chocolates, Lawrence wrote: 'All the workshop shared in the fancy box and pronounced it "the goods". The plain masses I have laid aside for Homer's use:- or Homer's translator, perhaps. He finds the evenings from 4 (our last meal) till 10 a hungry time, if he works hard through them: and fortifies himself by nibbling chocolate like a mouse.'50
By the beginning of September he was well into Book XVI, with two thirds of the Odyssey done. He hoped to finish it that winter, but there were constant distractions. Two months later he had only reached Book XVII : 'By the way, in Book XVII, where Telemachus for whole pages tells Penelope of his visit to Menelaus, I have abridged - by about 20 per cent., I think. I hope you will agree, when you read it.'51
By contrast 'I think the sea-pieces in the Odyssey, while not written by a sea-dog, are vivid and studied things by someone who had been on the sea enough to know what he was saying. They strike me as about the best things in the book. I may have heightened them...'52
In an earlier letter he had written 'I deliberately help out the sea-pieces a little, by using just enough technical terms to carry verisimilitude. In the original they are a bit amateurish: though nobody ever wandered about Greece and remained land-lubberly.'53
On 21 November he wrote that he was working on Book XVIII, and by 5 December he had reached Book XX. On 29 December he sent the final text of Books XVIII-XX. His publishers were impatient to see the work complete, and so were his friends. In December he received still another plea, this time from Peter Davies, urging him to return to original writing: 'It is also a horrible scandal that you should waste yourself in translating, even from Homer.'54
Despite his optimism, 1931 proved to be a difficult year. At the end of January he was still working on Book XXI (of 24), and his projected finishing date had slid from March to April.
With the text
so far advanced, Lawrence's Odyssey was generating interest
in the publishing trade. Jonathan Cape, who had published Revolt in the Desert,
wrote to ask about a cheap trade edition for the British market. In
America, Bruce Rogers was planning an inexpensive edition with
Oxford University Press. But talk of cheap issues was unwelcome to
Emery Walker, who was anxious about British and American sales of
his luxury edition. Lawrence supported him, refusing to countenance
a cheap issue in England. But he agreed to the New York edition, and
it would carry his name as translator.
Lawrence's disagreements with Walters sometimes arose from personal experience. Few people who have lived in a foreign country long enough to appreciate subtle differences of culture would accept that a translator without experience of both countries could bring out the full meaning of a foreign text. Lawrence, who had lived in France and translated from French, and who had shared the life of nomadic Arab tribesmen, was sensitive to the difficulties of translating a work written in ancient Greece.
'I return XVIII-XX, with some minor changes and the necessary embodying of the W-corrections. Only I have refused to accept his championing of the ancient theory of hollow-bladed axes. The metaphor from ship-building seems as clear as daylight. [Book XXII pp. 282-3]
'You may have thought me cavalier in preferring my own way to W-'s professional suggestions, sometimes: not his verbal suggestions, but his archaeology. Yet, actually, I'm in as strong a position vis-a-vis Homer as most of his translators. For years we were digging up a city of roughly the Odysseus period. I have handled the weapons, armour, utensils of those times, explored their houses, planned their cities. I have hunted wild boars and watched wild lions, sailed the Aegean (and sailed ships), bent bows, lived with pastoral peoples, woven textiles, built boats and killed many men. So I have odd knowledges that qualify me to understand the Odyssey, and odd experiences that interpret it to me. Therefore a certain headiness in rejecting help.'55
In late February Lawrence told Rogers:
I have yet a confession of delay to make. First, a delay in London, then a visit of some people to Plymouth; then another business trip to London: then a crash of a Flying Boat, followed by its Court of Enquiry and an Inquest: and tomorrow a detachment to Near Southampton for ten days to test a new fast motor boat for the R.A.F.
The upshot of all this is no more Odyssey. I am still working on Book XXI and it will be the end of April before I finish, if all goes well after this ten days. I am sorry again . . .
Yes, I know the Butcher and Lang view of the axes trial. All other scholars have followed them, more or less. I have found copper axe-heads with openings in them like that
Nobody could have shot through one of them at twenty yards, much less 12: and if he did, the merit would have lain with the placer of the axes, and not with the archer. Whereas the text shows that they were not put up with plumb-line and spirit-level. Only stamped firmly into a trench scratched by Telemachus into the earth floor of the hall. And Telemachus had not set out axes before. They must have been in only a rough line.
If the axes were about 4 feet long, and 6 inches be taken off for what was put into the ground, then a 5 foot 6 inch man standing 20 yards off could easily shoot through an alley of them: no difficulty of trajectory would arise: and the spectators sitting at their tables could see the arrow pass through:
Whereas with your suggestion of shooting through the ears of 12 axes so, it would require a slow-motion cinema to prove that his arrow passed so and no higher: and the trajectory and angle-of-stance would both complicate the point.
I suspect we make too much of the shooting test. Nobody seems to have been struck with astonishment at it. Stringing the bow seems to have been the more difficult job.
"Through" leaves the problem open. I should prefer it, therefore.
Personally, as archaeologist and archer, I like my own notion of two rows of axes, six-a-side: and nothing else fits all the Greek and yet remains a possible feat. I admit that possibility is not what the public prefer. They feed poor Elisha by ravens, rather than by Arabs, which the text could equally read: only I feel that the Odyssey should, so far as possible, make sense. If you leave standing my "alley of bilge-blocks" and the word "through" as now amended, then both parties are served: which is a good compromise.
Homer can't have meant only axe-heads - to shoot through the handle-holes: for then he would not have plainly called the bilge-blocks of oak. Besides bilge-blocks are man-high, nearly: and always in pairs.
There wasn't a platform to shoot from: only off the bench on the floor: and most ancient archers with these short bows shot kneeling. It would not be a standing-man's height. I think a 4-foot axe-handle would be ample: and most battle axes are four-and-a-half to five feet tall.
These re-curved bows (I was handling one yesterday) are most cunning things built up of sinew and birch bark and wood and horn. Relaxed they are an oval about 30 inches by 18: strung they are 4 to 5 feet long. One strings them usually half-sitting, putting the one end between the thighs and pulling on the other horn, while pressing down the centre-grip. When it is bent right out and over the other side one slips the string up the blade and notches it.
As for the pun, by all means soften it. They are out of our fashion. Only put a comma after "destroy". The Greek does not use the word destroy nor suggest destruction. I only looked for an English word with the syllable "troy" in it. Read "An ill-season took Odysseus in his hollow ship to destroy or des-troy - or des Troy (comma) that cursed place I will not name"; it's not to destroy-the-place: but to a place called destroy: or "no-troy" perhaps.
Palmer translated Odyssamenos (the pun-word) as "odious". I think there is no other English word which preserves even the shadow of a pun. The Greek word means grieved, angered, disgusted, peeved. Odious is not very close: it refers to the other men and women, and not to Autoclycus; he was fed up with them, not they with him: at least he thought so. I have no doubt the disgust was mutual, myself: and so odious is rather good. But it does stretch things. Palmer says "since I come hither odious to many men and women . . . therefore Odysseus be his name". I should have said "let his name be Odysseus, for their odiousness". Or better still "for the odiousness" or "in odiousness" (this is really pretty good).56
For much of the spring of 1931 Lawrence's
Odyssey was at a standstill. He had become absorbed in important
work developing high-speed motor boats for the RAF. With Sydney
Smith, his Commanding Officer, he believed that the new planing-hull
designs would be far better than traditional designs for seaplane
tenders and rescue work. He put pressure on the Air Ministry through
well-argued reports and through friends in high places. Acquaintance
with newspaper editors helped him get
articles in the press.
In April he wrote: 'My two-year war with the Air Ministry over the type of motor boats suited to attend seaplanes is bearing results now, and experimental boats are being offered by contractors. I've become a marine expert, and test the things for them, acquiring incidentally and by degrees quite a knowledge of the S.W. coast of England! A minor consequence is extensive absence from home, and a major (secondary and indirect) consequence is the paralysis of my Odyssey translation. It is stuck at Book XXI, and I begin to despair of finishing it. Motor-boat-testing is an all-time job, and leaves one too exhausted to write.'57
Meanwhile Bruce Rogers, feeling that publication was in sight, had begun work on a prospectus for Emery Walker's edition. He asked Lawrence to put down some thoughts about the Odyssey. Lawrence replied in mid-April: 'Here are my notes on translating the Odyssey, copied from the back of the book, over the fly-leaves of which I scribbled my comments as I worked at it. I wonder if you will find they mean anything? Use anything you like, and extract anything there is in former letters - though I should like to see such items before they gain the dignity of print. One writes freely, sometimes!'58
Rogers found the notes more interesting than he had expected. Sending them to a friend, he wrote: 'I enclose a draft for a possible Preface to the Odyssey, made, as he went along, by Lawrence. I had asked for material for possible use in the Prospectus - but this, with some touching up, is I think too fine a piece of both writing and criticism to print only in a circular. I hadn't contemplated a Preface at all - but don't you think this is worthy of being made a permanent addition to the volume? At any rate it expresses my own feeling about Homer, accurately.'59
By the end of April it was obvious that the only way Lawrence could finish the translation would be to take some leave. Even in free evenings he was now too tired to work. Testing fast motor boats was physically exhausting and the salt spray left his eyes smarting.
Yet he knew that the boat work was important. Apart from writing and book production, this was the first activity to which he had given so much commitment since the Middle Eastern settlement nine years before.
Rogers and Emery Walker were disconcerted by the delay, and pressed for a finished text by the end of August. Late in July, therefore, Lawrence went to London, telling almost no-one where he was spending his leave. He completed the translation in three weeks at 14 Barton Street, the friend's house where he had drafted Seven Pillars.
He found himself under
increasing pressure because the end of his leave was unexpectedly
cancelled. On 15 August, the day before his 42nd birthday, he at last reached the end
Odyssey, 'upon which I have spent almost as long as Odysseus
and travelled further . . . which has furnished me with luxuries for
five years and so wholly occupied my hours off duty that I have had
no leisure to enjoy them '.60 He inscribed the final sheet of the
manuscript to his partners in the project: Emery Walker, Wilfred Merton, and
Miss Saunders. To them, 'This last page . . . is affectionately,
kindly, gratefully, gladly and with enormous relief and glee
Completing the manuscript was, in fact, only the beginning of the end. There remained the typing, criticisms and final revisions. A few days later Lawrence was still grappling with the literary problems of the closing pages:-
Thank you for sending XXI. I checked over your changes and W's, and sent it on to Miss Saunders, with a few very minor alterations of my own. You will be able to pass upon these when the proof reaches you. However I had to leave "go gay" which W. called American slang (you properly dissenting - it is good Queen Anne colloquial [for immoral living]), as nothing else in my head fitted the sentence.
Some weeks ago I sent Miss Saunders the text of XXII. When I read Book XXI on its coming from you, I felt it had movement, and suspense: it was like a prelude to catastrophe: and XXII has done its best to be grim and bloody: or at least to be grimmer and bloodier than Homer. In parts the Greek is poor melodrama, and stinks of unreality: and I am hoping that you (and others) may find my version more credible, as tragedy.
Just before my leave ended I finished off XXIII and XXIV and sent them to London last Saturday. They have been confronting me in the rough, as you know, for months: and are very difficult books. After the slaughter of XXII some quiet finish was artistically necessary: and there were all manner of loose strings flapping from the poem. So Homer (Odyssey-Homer, should we say?) started out to tidy everything: and hopelessly lost his way. These 'little' artists, to use little as a term of sheltering affection, find a theme so hard to end. His last movement drools on and on like one of Schubert's, everybody (author included) dying to end it, but mellifluously unable.
I've been wrestling with it intermittently for all these months, trying to get shape into it, in my mind: for if I could have seen it in one piece, then shape would have somehow marvellously appeared. And it did improve: though it will remain a failure, always. You can help, in XXIV, by leaving a space where the scene shifts between hell, earth and heaven too suddenly. The author's cunning deserted him, or he tried his skill too high. At any rate he failed to darn over his gaps and transitions.
Mind you, these books are authentic stuff. It will not do, as they said in Alexandria, to end the Odyssey where he and Penelope get into bed. This is not a comic opera: but I fancy that poor O-Homer threw his hand in at the end, rather as I did, after trying very hard. He has lavished on these two books some of his loveliest intimacies - only the need was for one or two big things, and he couldn't write big.
Eurycleia stumbling upstairs; the entry of Penelope upon Odysseus; her comment upon his death-story; the funeral of Achilles, where Thetis comes; Agamemnon's praise of the Odyssey; Laertes in his garden; the babbling childhood of Odysseus amid the trees; the welcome of Dolius; the wrangle upon valour between O., Telemachus and Laertes - all these are in the best manner, perfect touches which only imperfectly conceal the need for good construction. It is most true and genuine O-Homer. Even another comic lion, another shipwreck, and more birds arrive, worked in unhandily to cover climaxes he couldn't deal with, straightly.
So when you are disappointed with these two books, blame O-Homer as well as me. I have worked on them till I went blind and stupid. All the revision in the world will not save a bad first-draft: for the architecture of the thing comes, or fails to come, in the conception, and revision only affects the detail and ornament, alas!62
Two months later Lawrence was 'still
working on Book XXII, the battle and murder book, trying to speed up its
bloodthirstiness. There is a note by you on page 8, saying that it is a
disappointment. That I feel, and felt, before it went to you. I have tried my best
to bring it up to something, and cannot. I incline to blame Homer.
It has now been by me for another fortnight, and I have bettered it,
but only in negligible detail . . .
'You will find XXIII and XXIV equal failures with XXII. The Odyssey goes to pieces now. It is not that I have been careless or fatigued. They have cost me more pains than anything after Book I. I think that XXII is probably the worst writing of all, for O-Homer's skill lay in the domestic touches, and the battle gave no scope for that. He has lavished tiny detail on XXIII and XXIV, to try and pull them together - vainly . . .
'I hope you may get XXIII and XXIV soon, and know that the worst is really over. That will hearten you to finish the drawings, and then the job is done. I am looking forward very much to handling the complete book. It's going to be a visual pleasure.'63
Lawrence's translation of the Odyssey was published in England in November 1932 in an edition of 530 copies. Emery Walker had planned this costly edition in 1928, before the great depression. It sold slowly.
In the same month Oxford University Press published a trade edition in New York. This too was designed by Rogers, who wrote to Lawrence that 'up to the minute of publishing Cumberlege said he couldn't tell whether it would be a hit or a flop. Well, he sold out the first printing of 3,500 copies in four days, and we are now rushing a second one of 2,700 through the press...'64
More than 12,000 copies of the American edition were sold in the first year alone, and the translation, which became a popular classic, has remained continuously in print for three-quarters of a century.
Since 1932 the English language has evolved. For new generations, Homer may be more accessible through renderings in the latest idiom - and over time these versions too will begin to date.
Yet Lawrence's Odyssey will remain important. It was the first English translation that attempted to offer both the spirit and the narrative of the Greek original in a language accessible to ordinary people. Its achievement is a tribute to the vision of Bruce Rogers: 'Here, at last, was a man who could make Homer live again - a man of action who was also a scholar and who could write swift and graphic English.'65
Copyright Jeremy Wilson, 1994, 2006
1. T. E. Lawrence to his mother, 24 August 24 1906, HL p.31.
2. T. E. Lawrence to Edward Garnett, 23 December 1927, Texas Quarterly Vol. V, No. 3, Autumn 1962, p.54.
3. T. E. Lawrence to David Garnett, 14 June 1928, DG p.613.
4. T. E. Lawrence to E. M. Forster, 28 August 1928, DG p.625.
5. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 28 January 1927, Letters II pp.11-12.
6. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 16 March 1927, Letters II p.41
7. Ralph Isham to T. E. Lawrence, 6 December 1927, copy, TEL papers.
8. T. E. Lawrence to Ralph Isham, 2 January 1928 TES-BR1.
9. T. E. Lawrence to R. V. Buxton, 14 April 1928, Jesus College, Oxford.
10. Bruce Rogers to T. E. Lawrence, 4 March 198, TEL papers.
11. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 4 June 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904.
12. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 15 June 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904.
13. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 25 June 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904.
15. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 30 June 1928, TES-BR1.
16. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 17 July 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904. Sigurd the Volsung and The Well at the World's End were two works by William Morris which Lawrence had admired since childhood. The reference to 'Wardour Street' is a usage now obsolete, dating from the time when Wardour Street was synonymous with London's imitation-antique furniture trade.
17. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 28 August 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904.
18. Ralph Isham to T. E. Lawrence, 11 August 1928, copy, TEL papers.
19. Bruce Rogers to T. E. Lawrence, 3 August 1928, TEL papers.
22. T.E.Lawrence to Wilfred Merton and Emery Walker, 10 October 1928, TES-BR1.
23. T. E .Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 10 October 1928, TES-BR1.
24. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 30 October 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904.
25. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 4 December 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904.
26. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 18 December 1928, BL, Add MS 45,904.
27. T. E. Lawrence to Emery Walker, 25 December 1928, copy, TEL papers.
28. Bruce Rogers to T. E. Lawrence, 7 November 1928, copy, TEL papers.
29. T. E. Lawrence to H.G. Hayter, 22 January 1929, DG p.640.
30. Bruce Rogers to Henry Watson Kent, 12 February 1929, Printing and Graphic Arts Vol. 3, No. 3, September 1955 p.68.
31. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 27 April 1929, BL, Add Ms 45,904,
32. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 1 May 1929, TES-BR1.
33. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 16 May 1929, BL, Add MS 45,904.
34. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 30 July 1929, TES-BR1.
35. T.E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 4 December 1929, BL, Add MS 45,904.
36. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 8 January 1930, TES-BR1.
37. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 20 January 1930, TES-BR1.
38. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 15 December 1929, BL, Add MS 45,904.
40. E. M. Forster to T. E. Lawrence, 4 January 1929, LTEL p.71.
41. E. M. Forster to T. E. Lawrence, 16 December 1929, LTEL pp.72-3.
42. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 2 January 1930, BL, Add MS 45,904.
43. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 4 January 1930, BL, Add MS 45,904.
44. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 19 January 1930, BL, Add MS 45,904.
45. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 29 January 1930, TES-BR1.
46. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 3 March 1930, TES-BR1.
47. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 25 February 1930, BL, Add MS 45,904.
48. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw,
10 March 1930, BL, Add
49. T. E. Lawrence to Charlotte Shaw, 21 March 1930, BL, Add MS 45,904.
50. T. E. Lawrence to Miss L.M.P. Black, 15 August 1930, copy, TEL papers.
51. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 1 November 1930, TES-BR1.
52. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 2 December 1930, TES-BR1.
53. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 30 April 1930, Letters to BR.
54. Peter Davies to T. E. Lawrence, 8 December 1930, copy, TEL papers.
55. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 31 January 1931, TES-BR1; DG pp.709-710.
56. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 25 February 1931, TES-BR1; DG pp.710-712.
57. T. E. Lawrence to B.H.Liddell Hart, 13 April 1931 B:LH p.42.
58. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 16 April 1931, TES-BR1.
59. Bruce Rogers to Henry Watson Kent, 24 April 1931, Printing and Graphic Arts Vol. 4, No. 2, May 1956, p.49.
60. Final page from the manuscript of Lawrence's Odyssey translation, 15 August 1931. Facsimile published in A Prince of our Disorder: The Life of T. E. Lawrence (Boston, Little, Brown, 1976) plates between pp.421/422.
62. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 20 August 1931, TES-BR1.
63. T. E. Lawrence to Bruce Rogers, 30 October 1931, TES-BR1.
64. Bruce Rogers to T. E. Lawrence, 4 December 1932, copy, TEL papers.
65. Bruce Rogers, TES-BR1, prefatory note, 1933.
T. E. Lawrence chronology
1888 16 August: born at Tremadoc, Wales
1896-1907: City of Oxford High School for Boys
1907-9: Jesus College, Oxford, B.A., 1st Class Hons, 1909
1910-14: Magdalen College, Oxford (Senior Demy), while working at the British Museum's excavations at Carchemish
1915-16: Military Intelligence Dept, Cairo
1916-18: Liaison Officer with the Arab Revolt
1919: Attended the Paris Peace Conference
1919-22: wrote Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1921-2: Adviser on Arab Affairs to Winston Churchill at the Colonial Office
1922 August: Enlisted in the Ranks of the RAF
1923 January: discharged from the RAF
1923 March: enlisted in the Tank Corps
1923: translated a French novel, The Forest Giant
1924-6: prepared the subscribers' abridgement of Seven Pillars of Wisdom
1927-8: stationed at Karachi, then Miranshah
1927 March: Revolt in the Desert, an abridgement of Seven Pillars, published
1928: completed The Mint, began translating Homer's Odyssey
1929-33: stationed at Plymouth
1931: started working on RAF boats
1932: his translation of the Odyssey published
1933-5: attached to MAEE, Felixstowe
1935 February: retired from the RAF
1935 19 May: died from injuries received in a motor-cycle crash on 13 May
1935 21 May: buried at Moreton, Dorset