The Odyssey is a work is one of the oldest works in the history of literature, and has inspired countless other works of art. It has been sung, performed, discussed, and read by millions and millions of people across the generations, across approximately three millennia. It has been in print in English since about 1615.
Oxford graduate and UPenn professor Emily Wilson (pictured above via Bustle) is the first woman to translate this ancient text into English, and the results are truly astounding. Not only does she bring a different perspective to the piece, but she highlights people, situations, and themes that no other translator has sought to do. And that emphasis can change the way we think about a work that has been with us, literally, for ages.
The Odyssey tells the story of Odysseus, a veteran of the Trojan Wars, who, in attempting to return home to his wife and son, offends the god Poseidon, and ends up being cast adrift. He and his crew wander to remote islands and caves, have liaisons with gods and fight sea creatures, and, eventually, find their way home to Ithaca. It is an adventure story. A story about overcoming odds, and beating the forces of fate.
At the same time, Odysseus’ wife Penelope is forced to fend of a legion of suitors for her hand, tolerating their advances and abuses, and putting up with her whining, generally unhelpful and sulky son, hopeful that her husband will return home. This story is one of silence, of undoing, and of endurance. And though many previous translators and scholars have attempted to frame Penelope’s portion of the story has heroic in its own way, the truth of the matter is that this is not a feminist text. And usually, translators overlook this in order to get back to the doing, the adventuring. Emily Wilson doesn’t.
Instead, she takes a new, closer look at Penelope, and the world of Odysseus’ home, bringing and understanding to these sections that is normally not present. She doesn’t try to transform Penelope into a hero/ine. Instead, she examines her life and her actions through the medium of words. As she explained in an essay at The Guardian, “Female translators often stand at a critical distance when approaching authors who are not only male, but also deeply embedded in a canon that has for many centuries been imagined as belonging to men.” She called translating Homer as a woman an experience of “intimate alienation.”
This kind of focus–the kind that allows us to see Penelope’s life in greater detail–also takes in other people who have been marginalized, not only in literature, but in real life, as well. Wilson calls the slaves who live and work in Odysseus’ house, “slaves”. Not ‘maidservants’, which implies they have a choice in the matter, or ‘whores’, as some male translators have done previously (emphasizing that they ‘sold themselves’ to men, rather than that, once again, they have no control over their own situation or bodies). Instead, as she explained in an interview with The New York Times:
Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men. Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined.
In its matter-of-fact language, [Wilson’s translation is] worlds different from Fagles’s “Sing to me of the man, Muse,” or Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending.” Wilson chose to use plain, relatively contemporary language in part to “invite readers to respond more actively with the text,” she writes in a translator’s note. “Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement.”
And, according to all reviews, she succeeds in stellar fashion. Her understanding of ancient Greek, in the power of language, and in the nuanced meanings of words, syntax, and phrasing, make this work more than just a “first” in literature. It makes it a really significant event in the history of translations.
We’ve talked here about the significance of translators to literature, the difficulty of the work of translation, and power that the translator has over the piece on which they work. Emily Wilson realizes all of these elements of her work, and she has been more than responsible in her duties. We are so eager to delve further into her work, and so very excited for this new era of The Odyssey!