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T. E. Lawrence to Ralph Isham



Dear Isham,

Forgive the office typewriter, and my botching of its keys. It's in case I need a copy of what I say to answer your letter about Homer's Odyssey. It has knocked me out temporarily. Why should you be so much better to me than I am to myself? The money suggested is wonderful, but that only shows how well they expect it to be done: and I have no trust whatever in my writing. Agreed the reviewers spoke highly of it, when Revolt came out: but they speak as well of seventy percent of the books they notice, so one discounts that: and in my case they were astonished that a practical man could write at all. 'So clever of him, my dear, to be able to sit up' - as they'd say of a toy dog.

When your letter came I took the Odyssey down front 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 and 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 judgment.

So let me make stiff terms, in the hope of being refused an honour which I feel too great 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 one 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 a fraction of the fee 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 of all the rest, and it 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

Your kindness remains overwhelming. Do realise that I have no confidence in myself, and what I'd like is some little job, unquestioningly within my strength and my leisure hours in the R.A.F.

Yours ever

T. E. Shaw

Source: BR1 [9-12]
Checked: jw/
Last revised: 5 July 2006

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