Award-Winning Author and Translator Daniel Mendelsohn

Berlin Family Lectures 2024

"Twisty Ways" Adventures in Translating the Odyssey

Homer begins the Odyssey by referring to its hero as a man of “twisty ways”—a description that suits both the wily Odysseus as well as the notoriously convoluted itinerary that brings him home from the Trojan War after 20 years of wandering. Daniel Mendelsohn appropriates Homer’s metaphor as a way of exploring the nature of translation and the role of the translator more generally. In his two Berlin lectures, he ponders what it means to “carry over” (the literal meaning of “translate”) Homer’s text—from the past to the present, from a distant land and civilization to our own, from “dead” language into a living one. Mendelsohn explains how he faced some of the uniquely complex and fascinating challenges posed by the Odyssey, both artistic and technical, in his own translation, to be published by the University of Chicago Press next year.

Lecture 1: “The Long and Winding Road: How the Odyssey Happened”

In his first lecture, Mendelsohn introduces his audience to the circuitous history of Homer’s text and its translations and adaptations—from their remote prehistory as oral compositions performed by illiterate bards to the first standard written text compiled at the Library of Alexandria—from its earliest translation into Latin, during the Roman Republic to its first appearance in English in 1616 and thence to the present. Through this history, he suggests answers to some of the larger questions that face translators: How does an awareness of these convoluted histories of the text and its earlier translations affect the modern-day translator? Should the contemporary reader need to “feel” those histories? Can too much “research” about a text and its original context prove to be a stumbling block to creating a fluent new version? And how do the successes and failures of earlier translations teach us to be better translators—and readers?

Introductory remarks by:

  • Deborah L. Nelson, Dean of the Division of the Humanities and the Helen B. and Frank L. Sulzberger Professor in the Department of English Language and Literature
  • Paul Alivisatos, President, University of Chicago

April 23, 2024, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. CDT

Friedman Hall, David Rubenstein Forum, 1201 E. 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637

Lecture 2: “What’s the Greek Word for ‘Picnic’?”: A Guided Tour of the Translator’s Task

Mendelsohn’s second lecture will bring the audience into the heart of the process of translating. Beginning with the dauntingly enigmatic adjective that Homer uses to describe his hero in the first line of the poem—polytropos, “of many turns,” about which no two translators have ever agreed—Mendelsohn will take the audience through a series of “case studies” in translation culled from his own experience during the past six years working on his Odyssey. In so doing, he allows the audience to watch the translator at work as he grapples with the distinctive technical challenges posed by Homer’s verse: its rhythms, diction, and tone, the poet’s use of line-breaks, alliteration, and assonance, and the real meaning of some of his most famous phrases, such as “gray-eyed Athena” and “winged words.” (Hint: they don’t have wings.)

Introductory remarks by:

  • Sarah Nooter, Professor in the Department of Classics and the College, University of Chicago

April 30, 2024, from 6 to 7:30 p.m. CDT

Friedman Hall, David Rubenstein Forum, 1201 E. 60th Street, Chicago, IL 60637

About Daniel Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn, Berlin Family Lecturer 2024, Photo by Matt Mendelsohn

Daniel Mendelsohn was born in New York in 1960 and educated at the University of Virginia, where he received his BA in Classics in 1982, and at Princeton, where he received his PhD in Classics in 1994. His 11 books include the international bestsellers An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (2017) and The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million (2006); a translation, with commentary, of the Modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (2009); and three collections of essays and criticism, most recently Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones (2018).

His most recent book, Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (2020), was a Kirkus Best Book of the Year, a Literary Hub Favorite Book of 2020, and was named Best Foreign Book of the Year in France. During the past 30 years, Mendelsohn has contributed more than 300 essays, reviews, articles, and translations to numerous publications, most frequently The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, and has been a columnist for The New York Times Book Review, New York magazine, and BBC Culture. His writing for mainstream publications covers a wide range of subjects, from Classical civilization to contemporary literature, as well as film, theater, opera, and television.

Mendelsohn’s honors include the National Jewish Book Award, the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award for Prose Style, the Society for Classical Studies Presidents’ Medal, Princeton University’s James Madison Medal, the Prix Médicis and Prix Méditerranée in France, and the Malaparte Prize in Italy, that country’s highest literary honor for foreign authors. In 2022, he was made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters by the Republic of France.

Daniel Mendelsohn, who is also Editor-at-Large of the New York Review of Books and Director of the Robert B. Silvers Foundation, a charitable trust promoting nonfiction writers, teaches literature at Bard College, and lives in the Hudson Valley of New York. His translation of Homer’s Odyssey will be published by the University of Chicago Press in spring 2025.

About the Berlin Family

Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin are Chicago philanthropists and longtime supporters of the University of Chicago. Randy Lamm Berlin, AM’77, is a former lecturer at the University of Chicago Law School and a member and past chairperson of the Division of the Humanities Council. Melvin R. Berlin (March 23, 1929–July 26, 2019) was Chairman Emeritus and founder of Berlin Packaging, LLC. The Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Family Lectures are named in honor of their gift to the Division of the Humanities.