Of Epithets and Mr Men

2024-01-29 ☼ blog

Readers (and the internet) made much of Wilson’s translation of polutropos, the epithet given to Odysseus in the first line of the Odyssey, with the relatively pedestrian complicated.” (The adjective literally means of many turns,” in the sense of versatility and wiliness.) In the Iliad her use of cataclysmic” for oulomenē, which describes Achilles’ wrath, is likewise provocative. Oulomenē is a word that usually describes someone or something that is hated and cursed by the speaker, while cataclysmic” is more suggestive of an unstoppable force of nature—a cataclysmic earthquake or flood. The comparison of Achilles’ wrath to a natural disaster is fitting. On the other hand, cataclysmic” amounts to a more objective-sounding, and elevated, epithet for a turn of events that the narrator reviles.

—Johanna Hanink, Slate

Homer’s recurring epithets are metrically convenient phrases” that are often used even when they make no sense”, according to Adam Nicholson. They do not bend according to circumstances (“The heavens are starry’ in the middle of the day”) because they identify a definitional characteristic that transcends context. Epithets, says Daniel Mendelssohn, reflect a philosophical faith in the underlying consistency of nature and people and objects, whatever the distortions of history and violence and time—a belief in such constancy being of particular importance in this poem, whose characters are striving to recognize one another after decades of separation and trauma.” They establish a consistency, a stable property that defines a character no matter what he might be doing at any given moment in time. Epithets, I once confidently told my students, are not unlike the names of the Mr. Men. Odysseus? Might as well call him Mr. Long-Suffering.

The evocative characters names of Charles Dickens achieve a similar effect to epithets, condemning the likes of Mr. Bumble and Mr. Gradgrind to a static one-dimensionality that they will never be able to escape. Apposite character names push the limits of fictional credibility, shading the imaginary world with nominative determinism. But so do all character names, to some degree, because they always act as a reminder of artifice: each was selected by an author who decided it represented an appropriate label for a certain bundle of personality traits. Fictional names, David Lodge writes in The Art of Fiction, always signify”. Communicating that significance is a recurring challenge for the translator, who has to figure out what to do with a name that doesn’t quite mean something, but definitely doesn’t mean nothing.1

The thing is, once I became a father and actually read some Mr. Men books, I realised that a significant number of them tell the story of how the titular character manages to lose the attribute that gives him his name. SPOILER ALERT: By the end of Mr. Messy, Mr. Messy is messy no more. Which means that the Mr. Men are not like the legendary Greek heroes and their epithets, because their defining characteristic is detachable. The conceptual stability of Homer’s reality is not mirrored in the Mr. Men’s world of flux.

On the other hand, messiness defines Mr. Messy’s personality even when he becomes not-messy. In Surfaces and Essences, Hofstadter and Sander point out that conceptual opposites (messy and tidy) are not as far apart as we typically imagine: at a higher level of abstraction (order, rather than messy or tidy), oppositeness, which naïvely makes one think of a maximal distance, is actually a type of conceptual nearness”. If Odysseus’ personality is a single point, fixed in place, Mr. Messy’s is a short, flat line — not an arc.

  1. Something I wrote about in my translator’s note on Cherries on a Pomegranate Tree.↩︎