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Unweaving the Odyssey: Barbara Köhler's Niemands Frau by Rebecca May Johnson

Reviewed by Holly Ranger, Institute of Classical Studies

Unweaving The Odyssey: Barbara Köhler’s Niemands Frau, Rebecca May Johnson. London: University of London Press, 2019. £20.00. ISBN: 9780854572700.


Barbara Köhler’s Niemands Frau (2007) is a multimedia translation of Homer’s epic poem, the Odyssey, into text, audio, and video. It is also an assemblage of materials, voices, and allusions—a ‘woven’ (58) text whose warp and woof threads interweave the texts of antiquity with scientific papers, The Waste Land, and internet forums. By engaging with this assemblage, Rebecca May Johnson’s Unweaving the Odyssey (2019) reveals that Niemands Frau (Nobody’s Wife/Woman) is not so much a translation of Homer’s text as it is a critical engagement with the Nachleben (‘afterlife’) of the Odyssey in German intellectual history and culture. Johnson argues that Köhler’s ‘radical’ translation practice does not simply produce a Barbara Godard-ian ‘intervention’ into Homer’s patriarchal text, but effects a poetic and epistemological feminist ‘unweaving’ of the systems and discourses of rational patriarchal thought Homer’s text inaugurated.

            In a move which mirrors Köhler’s non-linear, non-narrative dismantling of Homer’s text, Johnson offers a series of thematically linked explorations of Niemands Frau rather than ‘one overriding argument’ (30). The introduction establishes the cultural context of Niemands Frau’s production, sketching a history of German readings of the Odyssey from the eighteenth-century philhellenists to the ‘classical turn’ in post-reunification German language writing, and addresses the form and content (material and poetic) of Köhler’s tapestry.

            Chapter 1, ‘Niemands Frau as a “minor” translation of the Odyssey from “er” to “sie”’, is the most explicitly theoretical chapter and situates Köhler’s radical text as a ‘minor’ translation of its Homeric source text. Over the course of the chapter, Köhler’s ‘radical’ translation practice emerges as one characterised by foreignisation, antiequivalence, lexical polysemy, irregular syntax and lack of capitalisation, and grammatical and orthographical play. Johnson shows how Köhler’s translatorial and discursive shift of the Odyssey from major to minor is focalised around the pronoun sie, ‘a form of “possibility”’ (43) that can be singular or plural, subject or object, and a referent whose ambivalence Köhler identifies metaphorically with the multivalent possibilities of a particle-wave function. Köhler’s quantum mechanics of translation is shown to figure the translator as an observer, who, in Niels Bohr’s use of the term, changes the system/text/tradition by her act of observation, and enacts a shift from the ‘objective, measurable reality of Newtonian physics’ to ‘the plural, co-existing possibilities of quantum physics’ (31). Johnson also reveals how Köhler’s radical translation enacts a critique of the scholarly exegesis of the Odyssey via paratextual features, including explanatory notes, prefaces, and afterwords, in previous German translations. Such critical apparatus, Köhler’s text implies, has been ‘insufficient to communicate the semantic flexibility of the Ancient Greek and […] privileged a patriarchal, nationalist perspective to the exclusion of other, notably female perspectives’ (35). In contrast, Köhler’s own paratexts are formally ambiguous and self-reflexively metaleptic, ‘creating simultaneous internal-external narrative positions’ (52) which work to problematise the notion that there is an ‘external’ space from which to comment on language; Kohler rejects the convention in which paratexts have the final word on the text at hand. The most significant, and at the same time, the most challenging aspect of Köhler’s radical translation practice is its participatory ethos, under which, ‘from the outset the reader is left to work at meaning and to insert him- or herself into the logic of its creation’ (47). In Niemands Frau ‘the onus to interpret language actively’, dynamically, and generatively moves from a character within the story via the translator to the reader (48). The implication of Köhler’s participatory ethos for translations and commentaries which conventionally telescope meaning—in any discipline—is a reconceptualisation of hermeneutic authority and responsibility.

            In Chapters 2 to 6, Johnson structures her analysis around four Homeric figures central to Köhler’s text (Penelope, Helen, Tiresias, and Odysseus), each of whom is revealed to function as a network of thematic and structural associations rather than as a character in a narrative. Each chapter begins with a survey of the literary and critical reception traditions of each of the Homeric characters, both to orient the student of German without training in ancient literature and to contextualise Köhler’s densely allusive text for the philological analysis that comprises the greater part of each chapter.

            Chapter 2, ‘Penelope’s Web, or, “the Voice[s] of the Shuttle”’, examines Köhler’s use of weaving as a metaphor for the construction of her poetic text and her re-imagination of Homeric narratives. Johnson shows how the domestic labour of weaving is not simply a metaphor for the feminist act of (re)writing the canon but is the fundamental structural principle for Köhler’s text. Weaving offers a paradigm for narrative construction, that is, a quantum, ‘“Penelopean” poetics’ (75), characterised by the ‘processual’, multiplicitous movement (76) of Penelope’s unweaving of Laertes’s shroud, providing an alternative to Odysseus’s teleological, monological journey home.

            Chapter 3, ‘Helen of Troy: the Image, Power and the Impoverishment of Life’ reveals how Köhler uses Homer’s figure of Helen to reflect critically on the relationship between the image and the ‘woman’ in Western culture, from antiquity to Greta Garbo. In this chapter, Johnson shows how reading Homer through Köhler recovers Helen’s description of herself as ‘dog-faced’ (Iliad 3.180 and Odyssey 4.145) as a radical act, an anti-Platonic insistence on an embodied subjectivity ‘outside a sexually sanitized and politically problematic ideal of “beauty”’ (123). Chapters 4 and 5 extend Johnson’s analysis of Köhler’s philosophical interest in embodied subjectivity. ‘The Possibility of Recognizing and Loving “Niemand”’ examines Köhler’s reimagination of the relationship between Odysseus and an ageing Penelope. Here, Johnson also shows how Köhler’s graphically unstable text enacts ‘a performative meditation on Penelope’s struggle to recognize Odysseus in which Köhler challenges the reader’s ability to recognize printed signs as words with referents’ (125). ‘Tiresias, Turing, and Dystopian Transformations’ discusses Köhler’s casting of Alan Turing as a queer seer and a contemporary Tiresias and takes this as a jumping-off point for an exploration of the threatened effacement of the embodied queer subject in a homogenous technocapitalist future (155).

            Chapter 6, ‘The Genealogy and Operation of Patriarchal Power in Niemands Frau’ finally turns to Odysseus and analyses the Homeric figure’s relation to patriarchal power structures, both in his own narrative and over the extent of the classical tradition. Johnson argues that Köhler attempts to recover Odysseus from his history of representation, ‘a system he cannot control’ (223), and she suggests that ‘in the regrets that Köhler attributes to him lie the beginning of a way out of violent patriarchy’ (226).

            Throughout her book, Johnson’s exegesis and analysis remain alert to the polysemy of Köhler’s text and never attempt to foreclose meaning. Johnson also pays careful attention to some central paradoxes of Köhler’s text and draws out the ways in which these paradoxes limit the radical possibilities of Köhler’s feminist project: how amassing the critical apparatus necessary to understand the text’s networks of allusions is a ‘durational experience’ (225) that undermines the text’s aspirations towards democratisation; how Köhler’s critique of binary patriarchal epistemologies is expressed by normatively gendered subjects and so ultimately fails to offer a more radically envisioned subject (32); how the text fails to recover the enslaved figures of Homer’s texts, for all its focus on embodiment (229); and how Niemands Frau is impossible to fully comprehend without recourse to Google’s search engine, despite its critique of bluescreen hellscapes (225). Johnson concludes by intimating that, in choosing the canonical Homer as the source text for her radical translation, Köhler’s project was compromised from the moment of its genesis, for ‘by doing so she must share literary territory with those she criticises […] refusing to obliterate the past while projecting a changed future’ (229).

            The form and function of Johnson’s book works to undo the paradoxes of Köhler’s text, providing as it does an accessible commentary and an excavation of the queer epistemologies and genealogies which Köhler’s text gestures towards. While the central argument of Unweaving the Odyssey may have benefitted from an exploration of the ways in which the ‘minor’ female characters of Köhler’s/Homer’s text (Nausicaa, Circe, Leukothea) modulate the privileged ‘major’ voices of the central female speakers, this omission was likely a practical issue; given the complexity of Niemands Frau, the necessary exegesis would have doubled the length of Johnson’s book. Despite Köhler’s engagement with Homeric figures in Niemands Frau, Unweaving the Odyssey is the first study to analyse these figures in any extended form, and the book provides an essential ‘reader’ for any student of radical translation or contemporary German poetry seeking to unpack the allusive structure of Köhler’s text.