Emily Wilson talks on her new translation of The Odyssey at Common Hour

By Sarah Frazer || Staff Writer

Photos courtesy of news.harvard.edu

During this week’s Common Hour, Dr. Emily Wilson, who is a professor of Classical Studies and the Graduate Chair of Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke about the five years she spent translating The Odyssey. This presentation was preceded last week by a continuous reading, totalling 13 hours long, of Wilson’s translation.

Before delving into her translation and motive for writing it, Wilson discussed the kind of coverage and reception her new translation was getting. She noted that almost every headline about it “went on and on and on about how I’m the first woman to translate the Odyssey,” or had the word woman in it at least. Wilson took issue with this framing, as she explained that not all classicists are old white men. On the one hand, Wilson thinks it is good if the coverage has invited people to be more critical about how social identity matters for how one translate things, as she discussed later on. But on the other hand, Wilson said the coverage of her translation was misleading in three ways.

For one thing, Wilson clarified that she is not the only woman classicist, as the headlines seem to suggest. Indeed, there are plenty of female classicists who can read ancient greek. The real question is why haven’t they translated The Odyssey. Secondly, according to Wilson, a lack of female translations is “a problem that exists within the English-speaking world.” There have been Odyssey translations from non-English-speaking women. Lastly, Wilson pointed out that “Being a woman itself does not tell you whether or not someone is a feminist.” Furthermore, she says one cannot necessarily tell which translations are by women by simply reading them. “Most of us write as people in a patriarchal culture [whether or not we are women].” Wilson noted that men write as men with social identities too. Yet men are never asked about their male perspective. Wilson wants that to change, as she argued, “we should be asking ‘what is it about being a man that has informed your vision of the world?’”

Wilson spoke about how she approached the task of writing a new translation of Homer’s Odyssey. She addressed the question ‘why translate it again?’ when it already has so many translations. Wilson explained that she always loved the poem, The Odyssey, “which has an amazingly magical vision of the world.” According to Wilson, the poem “combines that sense of magicalness and the divine with a concrete practicalness,” which give it “rich and relevant symbols.” More translations of Homer’s epic poem have come out in recent years than did in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, Wilson said, so there is not a lack of number of translations. Ultimately, Wilson embarked on the task of translating The Odyssey another time because she thought she could do something with it that has not been done before.

One difference Wilson sought to make was that she wanted to emphasize that the original Odyssey is about the relationship between guests and hosts and also the relationships between strangers and not strangers. Wilson explained that she considered what it means as a translator to be a good host to this stranger, meaning the poem, from an alien culture. Wilson also thought about the different perceptions societies have about foreign cultures. For instance, she said that many Americans may think British people, like her, are obsessed with the royal family and know everything about them. When in reality that is not true. Wilson strived to “not put a foreign accent onto Homer,” so that The Odyssey has to be oldworld-y in its language or otherwise.

Translators have many aspects of a work to consider when writing a translation, including whether or not to make the work sound familiar or alien to its readers; another important consideration is the rhyme or meter of a poem. In this case, The Odyssey is composed in dactylic hexameter. The rhythm matters a great deal, Wilson said, since it is maintained all the way through the poem. Especially with a poem like The Odyssey, which has such a long oral tradition, part of the joy of reading it is not just that it is a gripping story, but also that the rhythm carries the reader along. In her translation, Wilson decided not to use hexameters because she thought that “hexameters in English tend to feel too long.” She went with iambic pentameter because it is the language of Shakespeare. Wilson argued that this aspect of translation is also crucial to consider: how will a meter or rhythm, or anything else for that matter, be interpreted by the audience of the day.

According to Wilson, “too many of [other translations] were looking at each other,” so she “made a deliberate choice at the start of [her] translation not to look at any other translations.” She noted the necessity of considering pace, emotion, repetition, length, and other literary aspects of a work. Moreover, Wilson argued that there is a tendency to think that the most clunky style of translation is the most truthful. But she disagrees. For example, if one takes a pretty poem and turns it into ugly English, that is not truthful to Wilson.

Some translations eliminate certain kinds of complexity as well. According to Wilson, there is a tendency to translate words that mean “slave” as “housekeeper” or “maid.” Some other translators use these euphemisms to make Odysseus look better. But that is not accurate to the original story. To make these distinctions between her translation and others even more clear, Wilson compared a few passages from hers and others’ translations side by side.

One difference she notes is that in many popular translations mortals and immortals are named side by side, which almost suggests that they are equal. Wilson worded her translation differently to make clear that mortals are not equal to immortals.

Wilson concluded by emphasizing again that “translators in general, not just for The Odyssey, have multiple different responsibilities.” They must pay attention to many things both from the original and also in terms of what a translation means in our own culture today. For Wilson, she hopes readers would use her translation to explore questions of social inequality and gendered violence.

Senior Sarah Frazer is a Staff Writer. Her email is sfrazer@fandm.edu.

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