Ulysses, revisited: translation, myth and echoes

By: Olga Sánchez Guevara

The recurrence of myths in universal literature is indebted to the mediation of the teaching work. What would have been Oedipus or Antigone, Achilles or Medea, Aeneas and Dido, if they had been confined to the Greek or Latin sphere? It was by translation that they all found new defeats over time and through dissimilar cultures, on the pages of books, on theatrical, opera and ballet stages, and more recently on screens of cinemas, television and video players.
A cipherial example of this recurrence of the myth is Odysseus/Ulysses, personification of the returning traveler, whose journeys have led him from the Greek epic to even a Franco-Japanese cartoon series, Ulysses 31 (1981), in which the story referred to in the Odyssey is transferred to the distant future (xxxi century).
Ulysses, king of Ithaca, begins his literary existence in the Lyaada, then stars in the second great homopeya homérica, to which he gives his name in Greek. Like almost all founding texts in the history of literature, the Lyaada has been translated into numerous languages, and remains so since it was composed – back in the second half of the 8th century a. C., date accepted by most scholars. Maybe it’s happened with the Odyssey. Among the many translators of these works is the Cuban Laura Mestre (1867-1944), whose birth was 150 years old in 2017. To his memory I dedicate this modest foray into land that was so his; I hope that their versions of both homoric epics, so far preserved as manuscripts at the Institute of Literature and Linguistics of Cuba, will be published sooner anytime soon.
But back to Ulysses: two millennia later, he does not cease his journey on the paths of poetry, fostered, as we pointed out, by the literary translation that has renewed and recreated the myth assimilating it to diverse cultures. Let us see several poems that address different facets of the mythical character, taking it to new space-time contexts, sometimes in a reflective tone, as in “After Homer”, by the Swiss Klaus Merz (Aarau, 1945), which recreates the domestic and simple reverse of the adventure, waiting for the absentee:

After Homer
In the rumring room
the cat. Outside
a homeless dog.
In the window is
a woman, she hopes:
and there’s no one to write it down.

For her part, the Austrian Annemarie Moser (Wiener Neustadt, 1941) looks at the hero’s return in a humorous tone, satisfying the patriarchal vision of the wife who must wait patiently and faithful to the warrior returning from battles:

Late return
Hero odysseus, do you really believe
when after twenty wandering years
you go home
you’ll find her full of suitors
the ones you’re going to slaughter?
Your wife has aged like you.
only a few friends visit her
the most important thing:
Penelope gave you up for dead
to get a widow’s pension
Old hero odysseus
forget your youthful pride
you’ll have to fight hard
to be believed
you’re alive

Another aspect of the epic, the experience of the trip, is the most important thing in the book of the Portuguese Luís Filipe Castro Mendes (Idanha-a-Nova, 1950): Another Ulysses returns home (2016), which takes the title of the initial poem, where the author unleashes dreams and longings related to distant and exotic places:

Another Ulysses returns home
Cities I never crossed, names
that resonate from childhood,
Samarkand, Trebisonda, cities I never saw,
promises to be fulfilled by a browsed atlas in childhood,
in another century, in some other century.
Cities like undone houses,
drawers open on the ground, drawers to be emptied,
books that are always left over.
It’s easy to sum up a life.
What will remain of her, we don’t know.
But certainly nothing.
Words found in an old atlas remain:
Samarkand, Trebisonda.
One day. One day I’ll be there.

The Portuguese also Eugénio de Andrade (Póvoa de Atalaia, 1923) talks with Ulysses wondering, from his book The Weight of shadow:

What morning did you still want
or silk over your mouth
before entering Ithaca?

And we close this brief journey of Ulysses by the poetry of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries with the beautiful poem “Itaca”, by the Cuban Nancy Morejón (Havana, 1944), which contemplates in rich images the traveler who finally returns to his beloved land:

After blows all over the body
and the wind swirling behind the ears,
here comes Odysseus, dropping drops of water for every pore,
minnows hanging from every drop,
a silver hume running away between his feet.
Odysseus returns to Ithaca.
He wanted to go back to Ithaca,
to the place that, to the prodigal site
where his mouth becomes sweet
despite the proximity of the sea.
It’s worth stopping and watching the scene.
Someone came to dry their moisture
and braid his hair
and to bring you dry, warm clothes,
like the Peloponnese sun at this hour.
They serve you the table with few local dishes
but on the white thread tablecloth
there are unspeakable embroidery
and, mainly, a high bottle
that once housed,
fine spirits.
From that same bottle
escaped alcohols as surprised
by the rumors of the millennial night.
In the hollow of the bottle,
covering up the reminiscence of those old alcohols,
wildflowers of fixed transparency.
After I’ve eaten,
sirens invite Odysseus
to listen to the music of cítaras.
They were two musicians.
or, rather,
two sons of silence
who had expressly come to Ithaca
to play him music on his return.
However, only now
you hear the silence
freshly cut fruits:
to the swing of the leaves under the branches.
But Odysseus’ throat
is mute, still and mute,
like a ship still in the middle of the storm.
And the miracle was done:
a bird flies
from his heart
to the center of
Ithaca that’s all the light
in the midst of a motionless zenith. Ω

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