/SIGH-rən/ /ˈsaɪərən/ noun. A seductive sea nymph; a woman of dangerous allure; a device for emitting a wailing signal or warning.
In John Keats’ poem "On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer," he writes of his awe at re-discovering Homer’s epic works in the form of George Chapman’s translations:
Yet did I never breathe its pure serene
Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:
Then felt I like some watcher of the skies
When a new planet swims into his ken
Though Homer’s work had been translated many times in the 200 years between Chapman’s long labors and Keats’ discovery of them, including highly-esteemed versions by Alexander Pope and John Dryden, Keats saw in Chapman’s work the spirit and inventiveness which Algernon Charles Swinburne, no slouch as a poet, playwright and critic himself, characterized as "barbaric grandeur."
Emily Wilson has done something I would have guessed impossible: created a work of intense scholarship and fidelity that still gave me, beneficiary (and occasionally victim) of at least a dozen of the more than fifty English translations since Chapman’s, a taste of what Keats felt like experiencing The Odyssey anew.
There are many remarkable things about Wilson’s Odyssey, from the simple, revealing fact that it’s the first English translation by a woman, to how Wilson rises to the challenge of rendering a driven, spare but somehow lyrical, narrative in iambic pentameter that matches the Greek line for line (all 12,100 of them). And there are many scenes and characters in Wilson’s version of the epic poem that benefit from being seen in a new light, unencumbered by the influence of earlier translations and enhanced by the perspective of an exceptional writer who is also a woman.
Consider the infamous Sirens, who intrigued me from the first time I encountered them as a teenage reader and have continued to do so, though for evolving and (I hope) more sophisticated reasons. Odysseus must travel past the Sirens to get home and, warned of the danger of their song, stops his sailors’ ears with wax and has them lash him to the mast so he can safely hear them sing. When I first read the Odyssey in the mid-80s I was already steeped in the pop-culture version of the Sirens as voluptuous mermaids who transfixed their rugged male victims as much with their bodies as with their songs. If not the first definition in every dictionary, all of them prominently feature a definition of siren as a deceptive, dangerously alluring, insidious temptress—the classic femme fatale.
The word siren does come from the Greek Seirēnes, the name of the mythical creatures who lured sailors to the rocks, but that’s pretty much where the popular depiction’s resemblance to the etymological term—and the true history of the word and myth—stops. There is some speculation that the name is based on the Greek words seirá (rope) and/or eírō (to tie or fasten), but there’s no evidence for that theory beyond guesswork and a certain resonance with the myth of Odysseus bound to the mast.
More importantly, the popular vision of the Sirens—and the literary interpretations that informed and were deformed by it—is inaccurate, or at least incomplete, in significant respects: Sirens were originally male and female, they were commonly depicted as bird people not mer-people, and their seduction had little to do with their sensuality or even the beauty of their song, but instead relied on the bewitchment of the infinite knowledge they promise.
Like "the entertainment" at the center of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest the danger of the Siren’s song is material, its content overwhelming to any mortal who would be consumed by it and perish for practical reasons.
Here is the Siren song as translated by Wilson:
‘Odysseus! Come here! You are well-known
from many stories! Glory of the Greeks!
Now stop your ship and listen to our voices.
All those who pass this way hear honeyed song,
poured from our mouths. The music brings them joy,
and they go on their way with greater knowledge,
since we know everything the Greeks and Trojans
suffered in Troy, by gods’ will; and we know
whatever happens anywhere on earth.’
What the Sirens promise is knowledge—news!—of everything, and particularly of the great war in Troy, something sure to appeal to the ego of a "manly man" and epic warrior like Odysseus.
In a great example that social media isn’t all bewildering memes and bad politics, Emily Wilson has taken to Twitter to elaborate on many of her decisions as a translator. In a thread on the topic of the Sirens, Wilson remarks on how short the Sirens song, indeed the whole interlude with them, actually is, given the episode’s cultural prominence…and how translators have played games to expand that section well beyond the original text..and further, she notes that
"the Sirens in Homer aren’t sexy. e.g. we learn nothing even about their hair — in contrast to other divine temptresses. The seduction they offer is cognitive: they claim to know everything about the war in Troy, and everything on earth. They tell the names of pain."
Wilson also shares the kind of tiny detail that makes all the difference in translation, and perception, when she points out that the Loeb translation of the Odyssey, generally considered the most literal—and most of those that follow—depicts the Siren song as coming from the Sirens "lips," and that’s simply incorrect. The correct translation of the word in question is "mouth" and, as Wilson says,
"There’s no reason I can think of to turn a mouth into lips, UNLESS you want to make sure the Sirens sound sexy."
Interestingly, the earliest translators of the Odyssey got this right, including the Chapman versions that so entranced Keats that he wrote his own practically immortal poem about the experience. It was only later that translators took to embellishing the episode for reasons Wilson is right to question.
The image of the siren as seductress obviously has appeal and has become common enough that it is unremarkable in fictions and entertainments highbrow and low. But I find the prospect of knowledge so broad and deep that it gives one a chance at practically being a god, and the Sirens that promise it, much more beguiling and thus much more tempting, even knowing that it would likely consume me.