In which I get bratty about language

So, yesterday a friend reported to me with some pride that she’s been thinking recently about the importance of words. This is the context of data and the words we use to describe them.

My friend is not alone in thinking about words these days: apropos of Trump’s inciting his goons to violence with words, it appears to be dawning on folks that the means we use to communicate every day are actually important. Is that derision you’re detecting here? It is. I mean, I’ve spent my life making this argument, as have countless writers and thinkers going back centuries. Is valuing language the province of writers and academics, thus relieving everyone else of having to care? Well, I’m no biologist, but I still get the life-changing importance of the opposable thumb. And yet here we are.

Consider Parul Sehgal, who recently reviewed George Saunders’s new book, in which Saunders reads with us seven Russian short stories and extrapolates from their example a whole lot of ideas about reading and writing fiction. Sehgal, who knows Saunders is a genius, treads carefully, chiefly accusing Saunders of being too happy and, in essence, too bullish on the power of literature to save lives. Quoting Saunders, Sehgal asks: “Can racism be described as an ‘anti-literary impulse’?” For me the answer is: Yes, of course. Obviously. Literature is no more than words arranged in a particular order to elicit a particular response that has to do with stimulating empathy—for better or worse. Obviously racism isn’t only anti-literary, but it certainly is anti-literary, assuming you accept that words and what they can do matter to such an extent that the world can be changed forever by a phrase or two, for instance: “…you’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong.”

Which brings me, intuitively or not, to the Odyssey. I’ve been reading Emily Wilson’s translation. I was told it was clean and compact and that it made excellent use of the vernacular. It also seemed delightful to have a female translator from the Greek to English—at last—and a version of this epic that a) isn’t entirely misogynist, b) doesn’t give Odysseus a pass, or c) outright ignores his catastrophic ego. Which is all to say: I was excited to read it. Until I started reading it. Now, it’s true that Wilson’s interpretation is radical for its rethinking of womanhood in the Odyssey and its undoing of all the hatred foisted on women that was so alive in earlier translations (there really IS a difference between “woman” and “whore,” who knew?). Problem is, Wilson’s translation is also, well, it’s ugly. This is how it begins:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his life and bring his men back home.
He failed, and for their own mistakes, they died.
They are the Sun God's cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning. 

The first line is controversial, and there’s been no shortage of ink shed on the word “complicated”—why Wilson chose it, the maddening ambiguity of its antecedent in Greek. There’s also a lot going on here in terms of what matters more for a translator: fidelity to the original or concessions to the context in which the original will now be received. I’m gonna sidestep all of that. Instead, I will just quote Robert Fagles’s version of the same opening lines:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns ...  driven time and again off course, once he had plundered  the hallowed heights of Troy.  Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,  many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,  fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.  But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove —  the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,  the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun  and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.  Launch out on his story. Muse, daughter of Zeus,  start from where you will — sing for our time too. 

“Tell me about a complicated man” vs “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.”

“Tell me” vs “Sing to me.”

“Tell” vs “Sing.”

For this reader, fidelity be damned, “the man of twists and turns” is glorious. “A complicated man” is not. Being “complicated” is one of those catch-alls that pretty much means nothing. “It’s complicated.” Oh, you know, she’s “crazy.” He’s “difficult.” There’s no precision here. No nuance. There’s only obfuscation. I wrote an essay a few years ago that was all kinds of controversial about grammar and fascism, so I won’t get into that here. But I will say that the power of language is also to stoke feeling. It’s the difference, for instance, between tell me and sing to me. Between being a complicated man and a man of twists and turns. Between denouncing what you think is unfair and rousing people to commit treason.

Don’t get me wrong: It’s great that folks like Brene Brown are speaking out about language and its power to dehumanize and great that she is encouraging all of us to be held accountable for how we use words. And it’s possible I have just spent my entire evening crafting a newsletter whose message is little more than: duh. But—but nothing.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.