Wednesday 12 March 2014

The Odyssey and the Female Voice

I had been rereading The Odyssey for the latest Classics Club spin, when I came across the article below by Mary Beard (thanks to Lee Anne at Lily Oak Books).

I had had no idea who she was, but by coincidence, the night before I had been reading my copy of The Quarterly Essay #50 from June last year titled Unfinished Business: Sex, Freedom and Misogyny by Anna Goldsworthy.

In her article, Goldsworthy mentioned some of the very personal abuse that Beard had endured in the public arena over the last year in the UK.  

I was naturally curious when her name crossed my path again the very next day.

This is what Mary Beard had to say on the public voice of women.

"I want to start very near the beginning of the tradition of Western literature, and its first recorded example of a man telling a woman to ‘shut up’; telling her that her voice was not to be heard in public. I’m thinking of a moment immortalised at the start of the Odyssey 
The process starts in the first book with Penelope coming down from her private quarters into the great hall, to find a bard performing to throngs of her suitors; he’s singing about the difficulties the Greek heroes are having in reaching home. She isn’t amused, and in front of everyone she asks him to choose another, happier number. At which point young Telemachus intervenes: ‘Mother,’ he says, ‘go back up into your quarters, and take up your own work, the loom and the distaff … speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power in this household.’ And off she goes, back upstairs.

But it’s a nice demonstration that right where written evidence for Western culture starts, women’s voices are not being heard in the public sphere; more than that, as Homer has it, an integral part of growing up, as a man, is learning to take control of public utterance and to silence the female of the species. The actual words Telemachus uses are significant too. When he says ‘speech’ is ‘men’s business’, the word is muthos – not in the sense that it has come down to us of ‘myth’. In Homeric Greek it signals authoritative public speech (not the kind of chatting, prattling or gossip that anyone – women included, or especially women – could do).

There were too many connections and coincidences crossing my path...I had to explore.

After reading the article through, I decided to hunt down some of the various translations of The Odyssey to see how this particular section of the story was treated by different translators at different times. (Check out this website for some other comparisons).

George Chapman 1616
Go you then in, and take your work in hand, Your web, and distaff; and your maids command To ply their fit work. Words to men are due, And those reproving counsels you pursue, And most to me of all men, since I bear The rule of all things that are managed here.
Alexander Pope 1726
Your widow'd hours, apart, with female toil And various labours of the loom beguile; There rule, from palace-cares remote and free; That care to man belongs, and most to me.
 Samuel Butler 1898
Go, then, within the house and busy yourself with your daily duties, your loom, your distaff, and the ordering of your servants; for is man's matter, and mine above all others- for it is I who am master here.

AT Murray 1919
Nay, go to thy chamber, and busy thyself with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaff, and bid thy handmaids ply their tasks; but shall be for men, for all, but most of all for me; since mine is the authority in the house.”
TE Lawrence 1932
Wherefore I bid you get back to your part of the house, and be busied in your proper sphere, with the loom and the spindle, and in overseeing your maids at these, their tasks. Speech shall be the men's care: and principally my care: for mine is the mastery in this house."
WHD Rouse 1937
Nay, go to thy chamber, and busy thyself
with thine own tasks, the loom and the distaft and
bid thy handmaids ply their tasks; but speech shall
be for men, for all, but most of all for me; since
mine is the authority in the house.

EV Rieu 1946
So go to your quarters now and attend to your own work, the loom and the spindle, and tell the servants to get on with theirs.Talking must be the men's concern, and mine in particular; for I am master in this house.
Robert Fagles 1996
So, mother,
go back to your quarters. Tend to your tasks,
the distaff and the loom, and keep the women
working hard as well. As for giving orders,
men will see to that, but I most of all:
I hold the reins of power in this house.

DW Myatt
You should go to your chambers to manage your own work Of weaving and spinning, and also command your attendants To occupy themselves with their work. That mythos is of interest to all men -
And to me most of all because the dignity of this family now depends upon me.
I was curious to see that two of the more recent translations have moved away from using 'speech', 'talking' or 'words' when translating the word muthos.

Wikipedia has μῦθος (muthos)
something said: word, speech, conversation
  1. public speech
  2. (mostly in plural) talk, conversation
  3. advice, counsel, command, order, promise
  4. the subject of a speech or talk
  5. a resolve, purpose, design, plan
  6. saying, proverb
  7. the talk of men, rumor, report, message
  8. I feel that this says all sorts of interesting things about books in translation & changing times. When reading in translation, we read a book quite different from what the author intended, but also different to previous translations. A translation reflects as much of the translator (& the times he or she lives in) as of the original author to the reader.

Surely, in modern times, though, women's voices are now being heard loud and clear and equally? Surely, we are no longer being told to go back to our quarters and be quiet and let the men do the real business of discussing the important stuff?

Not so, according to Goldsworthy.

She quotes the VIDA:Women in Literary Arts statistics that highlight the "damning" discrepancy in books reviewed by women and men. 
These statistics have provoked a great deal of commentary, including the suggestion that women - by writing about "smaller" topics such as friendship, motherhood and domesticity - ghettoise themselves from a male readership. Similar criticisms have rarely been made about the male writer, lovingly documenting his midlife crisis. The assumption is that women, as the more accommodating sex, are better prepared to read across gender." 
(Please click on the link above to view the stats & graphs yourself. The London Review of Books was particularly depressing.)

Finally, it would seem that it all still comes back to Virginia Woolf and having a room of one's own.
Carrie Tiffany, the winner of the inaugural Stella Prize for women, said in her acceptance speech last year,
To write - to take the work of reading and writing seriously - you must spend a great deal of time alone in a room....For women to spend time alone in a room, to look rather than be looked at, means rejecting some of this pressure. It means doing something with your mind rather than your body."
The story continues....


  1. Anonymous13/3/14

    Really interesting post. Thanks!

  2. Fascinating, Brona: yet another reminder that we must all speak up all the time.

  3. Thanks Laura & Vicki - it's nice to know I'm not ranting into a vacuum :-)

  4. Someone in another group of mine brought up Beard's comments and we had a lively discussion about them. Now I'm not saying women have never been discriminated against, demeaned or silenced, but I did take issue with Beard's article. The example she used from the Odyssey, in the book is used as a device to show the transformation of Telemachos as he enters manhood. He needed to show control and initiative in that particular situation and Penelope was the recipient to demonstrate this change, yet it could have been anyone. I don't think you can take Telemachos' words literally. Later on in the book, his mother scolds him for not showing proper hospitality to strangers and he is very deferential to her and apologizes. So Beard's example is very weak. She also used examples from Ovid's Metamorphises, which really made me shake my head ……… it is much like arguing that children should not go near gingerbread houses ……… So while I think her subject was valid, many of the examples were out of context just for her to prove her point, which was a little disappointing; good topic, poor execution.

    How are you doing with your spin read, Brona? Are you making any progress?

  5. Thanks for joining in the discussion Cleo.
    I started off this post enraged by feminist issues, but finished up fascinated by translation dilemmas.
    My working knowledge of The Odyssey is pure layman's, so I love that you, with your deeper understanding of the text have added more food for thought into this debate.
    When you see all the possible ways to translate this one small section, I have come to doubt the validity of using a translated text to prove any point!

    And - WAHOO - I finished The Odyssey and have my post ready to publish in April :-)
    How are you progressing?

    1. Perhaps it was good that you were distracted and finished with "the translation conundrum"! ;-) You are so right that the translation reflects the translator as much as the original author. If I'm going to read a book once, I'm rather choosy about translators but if I think I'll read it more than once, I'm not so picky and will try to read a few different ones.

      Congratulations for finishing The Odyssey! I would give you a Greek literature medal, if I could! I finished a couple of days ago. I'm so glad that I read it for a second time. It came alive for me this time (the first time I read it right after The Iliad, so perhaps I was a little burnt out) and it will go back again on my TBR list!

      I'm reading Candide at the moment and even Voltaire makes a comment about translation: "Cacambo explained his witty remarks to Candide, and they seemed witty even in translation. Of all the things that amazed Candide, this was by no means the least amazing." Candide has experienced numerous astounding things already so Voltaire's point is quite obvious. I had to laugh when I read it.

      What I so ungraciously neglected to mention in my first comment is that I really enjoyed your research and thoughts about translated material. It's a subject that is so interesting to me and your posts really get me thinking!

    2. I love how our diverse (& seemingly unrelated) reading experiences often throw up connections.

      I've been spotting feminist issues in all the stories I've been reading lately. The Invention of Wings were easy to spot. Today was an old childhood favourite - Flambards - the roles of women were clearly defined (as well as that of the paid staff & second sons!) I seem to recall though that the next 2 books turn some of these ideas on their head as WW1 changed societies expectations.

      Thank you for appreciating my research too. I love doing it (& may get a little obsessive about at times!) & I love knowing that someone is reading it and getting something out of it as well :-)

  6. I found some statistics for Australian book reviews thanks to the Stella website here


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