‘The Odyssey’ is one of the core texts of the Western canon. But what happens when it’s translated by a woman?

Emily Wilson's translation strips the classic of years of compounding sexism and bias, breathing in new life and nuance

Kazi Najmus Sakib
Published : 12 Nov 2023, 01:33 PM
Updated : 12 Nov 2023, 01:33 PM

Translation is rarely the focus of literary discussion. Which is a bit strange. After all, how many of the most essential works of world literature are usually read in translation rather than in their original language?

And translation can change the very nature of a text. Colombia’s Gabriel Garcia Marquez considered Gregory Rabassa’s translation of One Hundred Years of Solitude as a distinct work of art in his own right. Translator Jay Rubin says, “When you’re reading Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five percent of the time.”

So what happens when we bring this same consideration to The Odyssey, one of the central pillars of the Western literary canon?

Homer’s tale of Odysseus - the famous Greek hero who masterminded the downfall of Troy - and his perilous, years-long journey back to his home of Ithaca, is a staple of classical literature.

And Emily Wilson is the first and, till now, only woman to translate this epic.

This change in perspective may seem small, but ends up making a distinct difference.

Before the inevitable complaints of political correctness crop up, it should be noted that Wilson is a professor of Classical Studies with a PhD in Classics and Comparative Literature.

She has translated Sophocles, Euripides, and Seneca and her scholarly credentials for such an undertaking are well established.

It is fair to say that previous translators of The Odyssey, from Lombardo to Lattimore, Fagles to Fitzgerald, viewed an already deeply misogynistic work through their own male gaze. To some, this could seem justifiable. After all, the world of ancient Greece millennia ago was not an egalitarian society, but instead dominated by men politically and socially. But what the previous translators have done, perhaps unknowingly, is reproduce the text through their own cultural biases.

Consider the very first line of Wilson’s version - “Tell me about a complicated man.”

Unlike other translations, Odysseus is not wise, or stoic, versatile or resourceful. He is complex. He is both mighty hero and duplicitous liar. He contains multitudes. It’s an interpretation that is true to the broad canvas it depicts.

Through these small but substantial changes, Wilson’s Odyssey breathes fresh life into one of humanity’s oldest stories while remaining authentic to its essential nature.

This extends to Wilson’s choice of style as well. Though the term ‘epic’ might conjure a sense of grandiosity, Homer’s verses aren’t always grand. Instead, as Wilson says, they are often straightforward and rhythmic. To capture this, her translation is simple, but sublime.

Contrast her version with Fagle’s take from 1996: “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.”

Interesting, surely, but also a bit overwrought.

To keep to the spirit of the original text, Wilson took on the challenge of matching Homer line for line, keeping her version of the poem of the same length as the original, with exactly the same number of lines. Such rigorous fidelity posed myriad constraints, but what the translation gains is matching the stride and pace of, as Wilson calls it, Homer’s nimble gallop.

She takes over twelve thousand Greek six-footed lines, dactylic hexameters—the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse - then renders them in English in iambic pentameter, the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse. The result is a distinct and arresting array of compelling verses that is a tremendously successful evocation of the Homeric epic in the English language.

Still, the translation does have certain choices that will make many readers shudder and squint. Most prominent is the anachronistic use of the term 'tote bag' to describe a gift from Athena to Odysseus in Book 13. It’s an odd choice that sits uncomfortably in a tale of gods and mortals, feeling too contemporary to feel at home with the text.

And, I must confess, I still retain a fondness for the Fitzgerald translations I read and re-read while growing up. There is a nostalgic air about their grand scope and scale. But, to be fair, my teenage self would probably have been happier with Wilson’s remarkably readable and instantly intelligible version.

There are, of course, those who turn up their noses at Wilson’s approach. Some decry her for straying from their own view on Homer’s seminal work. But, when classical scholars argue over the very existence of the blind bard and question the accuracy of a written version of an oral tradition, what is the true value of constricting ourselves in this way? After all, what most of us want is to savour the timeless themes of love, loyalty, munificence, xenophobia, honour, war, betrayal and sacrifice of these ancient tales.

In the very first book of The Odyssey, the narrator asks the Muse to tell an old story for our modern times. That is exactly what Wilson has done. That should be enough to satisfy Calliope herself.

The Odyssey
By Homer
Translated by Emily Wilson
582 pages.

WW Norton & Company.

This article is part of Stripe, bdnews24.com's special publication focusing on culture and society from a youth perspective.