Author and "Odyssey" translator Daniel Mendelsohn to deliver Berlin Family Lectures, beginning April 23

Author and "Odyssey" translator Daniel Mendelsohn to deliver Berlin Family Lectures, beginning April 23

Daniel Mendelsohn, the Berlin Family Lecturer 2024

By Sara Patterson

Daniel Mendelsohn enjoys interpreting Homer’s Odyssey for modern readers. Drawn to the ancient tale since his teens, for six years he took on the challenge of translating and reanimating the book. His translation of Homer’s Odyssey is scheduled for release in the spring of 2025 by the University of Chicago Press.

On April 23 and 30, Mendelsohn will deliver lectures on the epic poem. Both lectures will be held at the Rubenstein Forum—in person—from 6 to 7:30 p.m. CDT. Registration for the series is free and open to the public.

Since 2014, the Berlin Family Lectures have featured speakers who are making significant contributions to the arts, humanities and humanistic social science. Past speakers have included Classics scholar Mary Beard, political theorist Danielle Allen, and Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa.

Previously, Mendelsohn probed the depths of the Odyssey in his award-winning and best-selling book, An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic (2017), a memoir about his travels around the Mediterranean with his late father, a scientist, while reading the epic. As a professor of the Humanities at Bard College, he regularly ponders the book, its complex hero and its myriad meanings with his students.

In his other literary works such as the Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones (2019) and Three Rings: A Tale of Exile, Narrative, and Fate (2020), he has often cross-pollinated the classics with contemporary pop culture to show their relevance for today.

In this edited Q&A, Mendelsohn discusses what he enjoys about giving a series of lectures, why he decided to write for a mainstream audience, and how Homer’s Odyssey has been foundational to his life and career.

Why did you accept the invitation to give the Berlin Family Lectures? Why does a multi-lecture format appeal to you?

The remarkable thing about a series of lectures is that it allows the presenter to develop a theme while cultivating a relationship with an audience. In that sense, it’s like teaching: you get to take the audience along with you as you explore a subject.

In this case, the two lectures are a one-two punch. In the first, I’ll lay out some of the large questions that hover over the history of the Odyssey, both its composition and its translations. In the second, I’ll invite the audience into the translator’s laboratory and show them what the nitty-gritty process of puzzling out how to render various elements of the text.

What made you decide to write for a mainstream audience?

I’d always wanted to be a writer more than anything. While still a graduate student at Princeton University I started writing reviews and essays for one of the school papers, and my editor (who later became my editor at the New York Times) said to me one day, “You know, people will pay you to do this.”

I remember being absolutely gob-smacked when she said that. So, I sent a few pieces in to a few places, and within a couple of months, I’d started writing for places like the Nation and the Village Voice.

Being published gave me a thrill that nothing else could compare to. By the time I earned my degree, in spring 1994, I had several regular writing gigs had decided that I wasn’t going to pursue a career as an academic classicist, which had been my original plan.

Instead, I moved to Manhattan the day after the graduation ceremony and started writing full-time for a living.

Why is Homer’s Odyssey so foundational for you?

I feel strongly that we find the texts we need, and the Odyssey has been with me since adolescence, when a shrewd high school teacher told me I should read it. Then, while an undergraduate at the University of Virginia, I was mentored by Jenny Strauss Clay, a great scholar of Homer, and that cemented things. In graduate school, I took a seminar on the epic with Froma Zeitlin, another great mentor, which was utterly transformative.

In the end, however, it’s less your influences—as great as they may be—than your core temperament that draws you to a text. The Odyssey speaks to me because it’s so preoccupied with themes that I have focused on in my own writing for so long: the nature of narrative and its relation to identity. Writers love the Odyssey because Odysseus is a kind of ur-writer: he’s a genius at massaging his narrative in order to manipulate what people think about him and, thereby, to get his way.

After writing your bestseller An Odyssey: A Father, a Son, and an Epic, why did you decide to translate Homer’s Odyssey?

Because I was asked to! Early in 2018, Susan Bielstein, who was then the Executive Editor of the University of Chicago Press, contacted me and said that she had liked the translated excerpts I’d done for An Odyssey and asked if I would be interested in doing a complete translation.

Honestly, it’s not something I had thought about. But as soon as she raised the question, the idea insinuated itself into my mind and the more I thought about it, the more I became intrigued. By that point I had written often about translations, some of them of classical works and I had translated the Modern Greek poet Constantine Cavafy (C. P. Cavafy: Complete Poems, Alfred A. Knopf, 2009). So, the question of translation and the challenges it presents has long been a gripping one for me.

You commented in another interview that a good translator of Homer’s Odyssey will not be a good translator of Homer’s Iliad. Why did you make this distinction among translators?

There’s an old saw in Classics that you’re either an Iliad person or an Odyssey person. Apart from their common origins and many similarities, they are—temperamentally, as it were—entirely different, and betray radically different worldviews. For starters, the Iliad is ultimately tragic, while the Odyssey is ultimately comic. And they feel different: the style, the diction, the tone—all quite different. I love the Iliad and teach it with great pleasure, but at the end of the day I’m not an “Iliad person.”

How have you decided on the topics you explore in your books that range so widely from ones based on the classics to the Holocaust to literary criticism?

 I just write about what’s interesting to me. I’ve had an active career as a critic from the start—the first thing I ever published was a book review, in 1991—and I never think of my criticism of books, movies, TV, and theater as a “day-job” or in any way ancillary. It’s a profoundly meaningful and creative activity for me. So, I don’t ever think I’ll stop.

As for the other books, if I myself were writing a critical essay about my work, I’d say that, although the subject-matter seems very varied—gay life and family identity in my first book, The Elusive Embrace (1999), the Holocaust in The Lost (2006), my experience of having my late father as a student in my Odyssey seminar in An Odyssey—all three functioned as vehicles for working out my interest in the relationship between storytelling and personal experience and truth.

Do you have a favorite book among those you have either written or translated?

Ha—a trick question! I always say that it’s like asking who one’s favorite child is. And I always answer the same way: “Of course you love all your children exactly the same, but you get better at parenting as you grow older…”



April 1, 2024