Emily Wilson Is the First Woman to Translate Homer’s Odyssey into English: The New Translation Is Out Today

The list of Eng­lish trans­la­tors of Homer’s Odyssey includes an illus­tri­ous bunch of names every stu­dent of lit­er­a­ture knows: Thomas Hobbes, Alexan­der Pope, William Cow­per, Samuel But­ler, T.E. Lawrence, Robert Fitzger­ald, Robert Fagles…. Should you look fur­ther into the his­to­ry of Home­r­ic trans­la­tion, you might notice one thing imme­di­ate­ly. All of Homer’s trans­la­tors, to a man, have been men. None have, pre­sum­ably, approached the text from a woman’s point of view.

But what would that entail? Per­haps a cer­tain crit­i­cal dis­tance, sus­pi­cion even—an unwill­ing­ness to read­i­ly iden­ti­fy with or admire the hero or cred­it the tales of his exploits at their sup­posed val­ue. As Mar­garet Atwood writes in the intro­duc­tion to The Penelop­i­ad—her reimag­in­ing of the tale from Penelope’s perspective—“The sto­ry as told in The Odyssey doesn’t hold water: there are too many incon­sis­ten­cies.”

Atwood is not a trans­la­tor. Pro­lif­ic poet and schol­ar Anne Car­son, on the oth­er hand, has pub­lished acclaimed trans­la­tions of Sap­pho, Euripi­des, and Aeschy­lus. Of the art, she writes, “Silence is as impor­tant as words in the prac­tice and study of trans­la­tion.” Though Car­son calls the obser­va­tion “cliché,” the expe­ri­ence of anoth­er rare female clas­sics trans­la­tor in a field over­crowd­ed with men bears out the impor­tance of silence in a per­son­al way.

Clas­si­cist Emi­ly Wil­son has made the first trans­la­tion of The Odyssey by a woman. Her ver­sion, writes Wyatt Mason at The New York Times, approach­es the text afresh, apart from the chat­ter­ing con­ver­sa­tions between hun­dreds of years of pre­vi­ous attempts. “Wil­son has made small but, it turns out, rad­i­cal changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are pre­sent­ed,” notes Mason. This trans­la­tion is a cor­rec­tive, she believes, of a text that “has through trans­la­tion accu­mu­lat­ed dis­tor­tions that affect the way even schol­ars who read Greek dis­cuss the orig­i­nal.”

Con­fronting silence is a theme of Wilson’s inter­view with Mason about her new trans­la­tion. From a fam­i­ly of accom­plished schol­ars, most notably her father, nov­el­ist and crit­ic A.N. Wil­son, she remem­bers her child­hood as “a lot of silence… As a kid I was just aware of unhap­pi­ness, and aware of these things that weren’t ever being artic­u­lat­ed.” She grav­i­tat­ed toward clas­sics because of shy­ness and fear of mis­pro­nounc­ing liv­ing lan­guages. “You don’t have to have beau­ti­ful Latin pro­nun­ci­a­tion,” she says. “It took away a whole lev­el of shame.”

Greek tragedy appealed to Wil­son because of its tumul­tuous irrup­tion into the silence and shame of repressed emo­tion: “I had a child­hood where it was very hard to name feel­ings, and just the fact that tragedy as a genre is very good at nam­ing feel­ings. It’s all going to be talked out. I love that about it.” Her atten­tion to emo­tion­al nuance as much as to action, con­cept, and image in part inspires her care­ful, inde­pen­dent approach to the lan­guage of the text. As a salient exam­ple, Wil­son dis­cuss­es the word poly­tro­pos, used as the first descrip­tion we get of the poem’s hero.

The pre­fix poly… means “many” or “mul­ti­ple.” Tro­pos means “turn.” “Many” or “mul­ti­ple” could sug­gest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the sit­u­a­tion of hav­ing been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and god­dess­es and mon­sters turn­ing him off the straight course that, ide­al­ly, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrust­wor­thy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any sit­u­a­tion by turn­ing it to his advan­tage. It could be that he’s the turn­er.

Mason sur­veys the many ren­der­ings of the word by some of Wilson’s “60 some pre­de­ces­sors.” Though these trans­la­tions dis­play “quite a range,” they also tend toward sim­i­lar­ly flat­ter­ing inter­pre­ta­tions of Odysseus as “the turn­er.” He’s “pru­dent,” “for wisdom’s var­i­ous arts renown’d,” “for shrewd­ness famed/And genius ver­sa­tile,” “crafty,” “much-versed,” “deep,” “saga­cious,” “inge­nious,” “so wary and wise,” “clever,” and—in Stan­ley Lombardo’s trans­la­tion—“cun­ning.”

Con­trast these many superla­tives with Wilson’s open­ing lines (many more of which you can read at the Paris Review):

Tell me about a com­pli­cat­ed man.
Muse, tell me how he wan­dered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suf­fered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cat­tle, and the god
kept them from home. Now god­dess, child of Zeus,
tell the old sto­ry for our mod­ern times.
Find the begin­ning.

The silence in Wilson’s approach here is of the “meta­phys­i­cal” variety—as Car­son puts it—where “inten­tions are hard­er to define.” It is a refusal to make hasty appraisals or assume sin­gu­lar design or agency. “What gets us to ‘com­pli­cat­ed,’” she says, “is both that I think it has some hint of the orig­i­nal ambiva­lence and ambi­gu­i­ty… and hints at ‘There might be a prob­lem with him.’” We will learn about his turn­ing and his being turned, and we must make up our own minds about what sort of per­son he is. The word also res­onates strong­ly with con­tem­po­rary usage. “I want­ed it to feel like an idiomat­ic thing,” says Wil­son, “that you might say about some­body: that he is com­pli­cat­ed.” It is, she admits, “a flag. It says, ‘Guess what?—this is dif­fer­ent.’ ”

Com­pli­cat­ed: from a cer­tain point of view, we might say this about every­body, which adds a mod­ern lay­er of anx­ious, and very human, uni­ver­sal­ism to the descrip­tion of the poem’s hero, so often cast as a hero­ic trick­ster arche­type. Wil­son expects push­back for her refusal to adhere to what she calls the “boys’ club” of clas­si­cal trans­la­tion shib­bo­leths, many passed down from Matthew Arnold’s cri­te­ria in his 1860 lec­tures “On Trans­lat­ing Homer.” These cri­te­ria, she says, are about “noblesse oblige… you’re going to be the kind of gen­tle­men who’s going to have gone to Rug­by and that will be the kind of lan­guage that we speak… It’s describ­ing a boys’ club.”

Her obser­va­tions turn the gaze back upon the lin­eage of male trans­la­tors, exam­in­ing how gen­der, as well as class and nation­al­i­ty, fea­tures in the way they used lan­guage. “I do think that gen­der mat­ters,” she says, “and I’m not going to not say it’s some­thing I’m grap­pling with.” But gen­der is only one part of the com­pli­cat­ed iden­ti­ty of any trans­la­tor. Wil­son describes her approach as “try­ing to take this task and this process of respond­ing to this text and cre­at­ing this text extreme­ly seri­ous­ly, with what­ev­er I have, lin­guis­ti­cal­ly, son­i­cal­ly, emo­tion­al­ly.” You may appre­ci­ate the results yourself—either enjoy­ing them afresh or com­par­ing them to pre­vi­ous trans­la­tions you’ve loved, liked, or loathed—by pur­chas­ing a copy Wilson’s Odyssey start­ing today.

via The New York Times

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Hear What Homer’s Odyssey Sound­ed Like When Sung in the Orig­i­nal Ancient Greek

An Inter­ac­tive Map of Odysseus’ 10-Year Jour­ney in Homer’s Odyssey

Greek Myth Comix Presents Homer’s Ili­ad & Odyssey Using Stick-Man Draw­ings

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (5) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (5)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Tom says:

    Jesus christ — it’s a trans­la­tion. There’s no ‘wom­an’s per­spec­tive’ on such things. You might as well say ‘such and such was the first woman to write that 2 + 2 = 4, bring­ing a whole new fem­i­nine inter­pre­ta­tion of basic math­e­mat­ics’…

  • Deborah says:

    Tom, well said.

  • Jim says:

    You get it right in the first para­graph, but every time you say “the first trans­la­tion of The Odyssey by a woman” you need to say “into Eng­lish.” There are oth­er lan­guages, and some of them have had women do trans­la­tions of the Odyssey.

  • Jim says:

    So you think trans­lat­ing from ancient Greek into Eng­lish is like adding 2 + 2? It’s not.

  • Tom says:

    Sigh. No, I think that when the gen­der of a per­son makes no dif­fer­ence to the work they’re doing that ‘the first woman to…’ or ‘the first man to…’ is an irrel­e­vance. The anal­o­gy was not about the dif­fi­cul­ty of the task, it was about it being a gen­der­less task.

    Plus, who real­ly gives a toss about a new trans­la­tion of The Odyssey? If she’d writ­ten a new ver­sion of the sto­ry, with a female cen­tral char­ac­ter and some stuff that was rel­e­vant to women today, then that might be wor­thy of note. In fact, that would be quite inter­est­ing and provoca­tive.

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.