Emily Wilson’s Odyssey

The first translation of the Odyssey by a woman has several tricks up its sleeve.

Homer’s Odyssey is perhaps the best known poem ever written. Even today, Classicists learn ancient Greek in order to read the poem in its original language, although at least 70 English translations have been created since Chapman’s Whole Works of Homer was released in 1616. With each translation, The Odyssey becomes more accessible to the general reader, while the potential for future translators is barely diminished.

The latest translation, by Professor Emily Wilson of the University of Pennsylvania, has a few tricks up its sleeve. Wilson points out that one line of ancient Greek could be translated several different ways into English, but Homer’s poem is more epic than that. Many translators have neglected even to keep the poetical structure, and used prose instead. Others have used blank verse, which maintains the appearance of poetry, but loses the rhythm. Rhythm is important because scholars almost universally agree Homer never wrote The Odyssey – it was a performance.

Wilson’s solution has been a mammoth task: to translate The Odyssey into iambic pentameter. If you have ever studied English Literature, you will be familiar with iambic pentameter: it is the hallmark of poets such as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser and John Milton. Triumphing over the idea that only prose is accessible, Wilson has succeeded in both retaining complex structure and rhythm, and making the poem accessible to English readers. In my opinion, this Odyssey feels much more natural, more harmonious.

One of Wilson’s focuses has been on highlighting the role of gender in The Odyssey. This is a topic that has interested Classicists at least since 1897, when Samuel Butler (another translator) revealed he was certain the author of The Odyssey was a woman. He believed this because of the deep exploration of female characters such as Penelope and Nausicaa, as well as the important role of household scenes. This was controversial, and Emily Wilson disagrees – to her, the characters and scenes Butler uses to justify his argument actually point to an attempt by ancient men to defend the misogynist status quo of their society.

Towards this effort, Wilson’s translation refuses to use the misogynist insults which appear in more archaic editions, and portrays Odysseus and his son Telemachus in much more complex ways than the stereotypically masculine profiles that can often be inferred. I find that this adds a touch of believability to the characters – it used to be difficult to picture Odysseus as the perfect example of virility even while he was being held captive by Calypso, wallowing in self-pity and fretting after his wife at the very beginning. The first line says it all: Odysseus is a ‘complicated’ man.

What Others Say

“The first English translation of ‘The Odyssey’ by a woman was worth the wait”

– Madeline Miller, The Washington Post

“Wilson’s translation … is not a feminist version of the Odyssey. It … lays bare the morals of its time and place, and invites us to consider how different they are from our own, and how similar.”

– Anna North, vox.com

“This is a translation that will be studied for centuries.”

– Edith Hall

Thanks for reading!

:: I had the pleasure of meeting Emily Wilson when she gave a talk at King’s College London on 21st November 2017 ::

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