I began my last post with Aristotle and, despite the gap in time, I have not shaken my classical mood.
This time I want to compare three famous translations of Homer’s Odyssey, focusing on whether the meaning changes as the words do.
Lattimore Translation: "Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel."
Fagles Translation: "Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy."
Wilson Translation: "Tell me about a complicated man, Muse, Tell me how he wandered and was lost when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy."
On the accessibility scale, the prize goes to Emily Wilson, whose translation has been praised for its readability (when reviewers move past the excitement of her being the first woman to translate the poem).
In such a review, Corrine Pache writes
Compared with her predecessors’, Wilson’s Odyssey feels more readable, more alive: the diction, with some exceptions[…]is straightforward, and the lines are short. The effect is to turn The Odyssey into a quick-paced page turner, an experience I’d never had reading the poem in translation.
This is evident in the above comparison. With Lattimore, you need to parse out the meaning of “the man of many ways” and “driven by journeys”. With Fagles, you get “the man of twists and turns” and “hallowed heights”. Wilson gets straight to the point: Odysseus is a “complicated man”. He “wandered and was lost”. Troy was a “holy town”. For our average English reader, Wilson gives the clearer picture.
I recommended Wilson’s translation to someone wanting to read the poem. He came back with the comparison of Wilson and Fagles, saying that he preferred the “opulent” (read: poetic) Fagles to Wilson’s straightforwardness. “The man of twists and turns’ just sounds better than “a complicated man”. Of course, I don’t criticize anyone’s preference, and the Fagles translation is the one that made me fall in love with the poem, so I have a soft spot for it. I bring this up to launch into the smaller question that will hopefully answer the big one.
How do seemingly small shifts in wording affect meaning?
Let’s look again at how Odysseus is described. “The man of many ways” and “the man of twists and turns” both evoke the wily, trickster figure that has become Odysseus’s defining features. “A complicated man” seems both more neutral and more critical of our hero. Complicated does not inherently lead to wily, but it does evoke the idea that he has both “good” and “bad” qualities. Meanwhile, complicated is a term free of poetic device and therefore easier to understand.
Finally, let’s bring in Lombardo: another translator whose work has been recognized for its accessibility.
Lombardo Translation: "Linger, Muse, tell of the man of many wiles, who wandered full many ways after he sacked the holy citadel of Troy."
I wouldn’t call “full many ways” accessible, but certainly the “man of many wiles” takes Lattimore’s and Fagles’s sentiments and translates it to plain English. Lombardo’s Odysseus is not complicated, he’s seductive. Or maybe I’m led to this conclusion because of the off-putting “linger, Muse”. Linger? How do we get from “Sing to me” or “tell me”—which can be read as commanding but is often read as pleading—to the more dominating “linger”? I haven’t read Lombardo’s translation, and I may be making unfair assumptions.
What I hope to show here is that all it takes is one word, or step away from poetic and towards accessible, and the meaning has changed. Or, our perceptions have changed.
At What Point is Plain Language a Tool of Control
Let’s shift from ancient lit. to contemporary Canadian politics.
In September 2022, the National Post ran the headline, “Pierre Poilievre to Require Use of Plain Language in Government if Elected Prime Minister”. Catherine Lévesque writes that leader of the Conservative Party and PM-hopeful would
"pass the law to require government publications use the “fewest and simplest words needed” to state information but also require legal drafters to write laws as simply as possible.”
He wants the government to be more accessible. He also called for “simple not simpler”, which is a nice line.
And, as expected in our current political climate, he was accused of advocating Newspeak.
(Poilievre was also accused of unnecessarily stirring the pot as he is wont to do, as Plain Language guidelines have been part of the Canadian government style guide for some time now—but this is irrelevant to the topic at hand.)
What is Newspeak?
Newspeak is part of the world of Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four: the book people like to reference more than read. In that spirit--
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
According to the critics, Poilievre called for the use of plain language in government writing in order to “limit the range of thought” of Canadians and to keep the government from engaging in the complex issues that cannot be expressed in plain language.
The Daily Signal, a right-leaning paper in the US, took a less-subtle approach when Obama introduced plain writing laws (in government documents) in 2011. Leutheuser writes,
The active voice should always be used, except when “the law” is the actor. In that case, use of the passive voice will keep citizens from misdirecting their frustration toward the government.
Obama called for active voice in government documents because active voice is easier to read. Apparently, active voice opens the door for people to question the government—which is a fascinating rhetorical argument in its own right.
Whether left or right, any attempts to “control” how government documents are written is a political move to either restrict freedom or insight sedition.
It seems absurd on the surface. Attempts to make government documentation more accessible should be seen as a good thing. Opening access to information to more people should be seen as a good thing. But we cynical beings look for traps everywhere, from the translation of an ancient poem to an inter-office memo on Parliament Hill
What Plain Language Actually Is
According to the International Plain Language Federation,
A communication is in plain language if its wording, structure, and design are so clear that the intended audience can easily find what they need, understand what they find, and use that information.
Plain language is not an ideology.
Plain language is an accessibility tool, like a ramp for wheelchair users. And like the ramp, it is not exclusively beneficial for wheelchair users. Plain language asks the writer to consider audience and purpose, structure, design, expression, and word choice. Considering these aspects will improve any piece of writing for any audience, not simply a universal one.
Why is Plain Language Demonized?
Beyond the above example of government control, plain language is criticized for the same reason that accessibility is criticized.
Argument 1: the Dumbening.
Why should The Odyssey be brought down from its poetic mountain just so people don’t have to “work” in order to read it? Why should government documents be simplified to appease Poilievre’s anti-intellectual base? These are the criticisms, mostly unfounded, hurled by those who fear the collective “we” are losing our thirst for knowledge, and are resigning ourselves to ignorant illiteracy.
Argument 2: Equity Destroys Identity
The critics say that equity is brining everyone down to the same level, and that downward trend stifles the identity of the individual. If, in schools, equity is forced upon students and those at the “top” must be on the same level as those at the “bottom”, the “top” loses opportunities. In the cultural sphere, if we are “forced to accept that we are all the same”, we again lose our sense of individual thought. Apply this to accessible tools such as plain language and we see that, for this group, plain language censors individual speech.
It's an argument that is hard to hold on to, and one that relies on people not understanding the difference between “equity” and “equality”.
Accessibility is about allowing everyone the easiest path to access (x). Accessibility requires intentional decisions on the part of those designing (x). On a large scale, those designing for accessibility are not the ones needing it. Humans have selfish motives. Ergo, a large-scale tool cannot exist solely to better the lives of those who require more specific access to (x).
Writing a book is inherently a political act. Translating a book is akin to writing a book. Ergo, translators use words with political intent. Ergo, Wilson, the first female translator of The Odyssey will be more critical of the male hero in order to push a feminist agenda.
These are the arguments that arise when accessibility is brought into the larger sphere.
And this is why it is important to bring accessibility into the public sphere, but not intermix the concept.
Plain language opens doors, but for those who wish to scale walls, there will always be rope.
Sometimes a tool is just a tool.
If this is obvious to you—congratulations.
If you are new to the conversation, welcome, and as always.
Thanks for reading.