12/07/2018 Peter Durantine

The Challenge of Translating ‘The Odyssey’

That she is the first woman to translate “The Odyssey” into English holds little import to Emily Wilson, but what does is that she’s the first scholar in 400 years of translations to make the kinds of alterations that reveal the text in a new light.

“I’m going to talk today about my approach to creating a new verse translation of ‘The Odyssey,’ she said to a Franklin & Marshall College audience in Mayser Gym on Dec. 6. “Also try to explain a little bit about why we feel the English-speaking world might need yet another translation of ‘The Odyssey’ when there are already almost 70 translations out there.” 

Professor of classical studies and graduate chair of comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania, Wilson spoke about her 2017 translation at the semester’s final Common Hour, a community discussion conducted each week classes are in session. 

  • Wilson’s translation was published after she spent five years reading and comparing other translations and studying the ancient Greek language in which Homer wrote his epic. Wilson’s translation was published after she spent five years reading and comparing other translations and studying the ancient Greek language in which Homer wrote his epic. Image Credit: Deb Grove

Homer’s poem is considered around 3,000 years old and, according to a November 2017 New York Times Magazine piece about Wilson, the text has been translated at least 60 times, “half of them in the last 100 years and a dozen in the last two decades.”

Wilson’s translation, published after she spent five years reading and comparing other translations and studying the ancient Greek language in which Homer wrote his epic, excited academic literary circles and attracted the world’s media. 

In a December 2017 story by the United Kingdom newspaper, The Guardian, Wilson’s translation was called “a new cultural landmark. The first version of Homer’s groundbreaking work by a woman will change our understanding of it forever.” 

Other newspapers and magazines offered similar appraisals of what The Guardian described as a “crisp and musical” version of a poem about a Greek hero, Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, and his 10-year journey home after the fall of Troy. 

“My translation has been said to be very colloquial or ‘speakable,’” Wilson said. 

On F&M’s campus last week, the Department of Classics conducted a continued reading of Wilson’s new translation, a 13-hour immersive event that Associate Professor of Classics Gretchen Meyers called a “Homer-a-thon.” 

“Her translation of the poem veers away from the formal and lofty language of previous translations,” said Meyers, who introduced Wilson. “Those of us who read and those who listened were captivated by the story in a new way as the crisp language allowed the characters, gods and mortals alike, to vividly inhabit our spaces as one of us. We laughed; we sympathized; and most importantly, we related to the story.” 

Wilson, whose translation also examines less Odysseus and more the poem’s other characters – his wife, Penelope, for example – is intrigued that headline writers focused on her gender.

“Every headline had the word ‘woman, ’” she said, as her PowerPoint presentation flashing one headline after another across the screen. “I was grateful for the headlines that didn’t have ‘woman’ in them and there were a very tiny number of them.” 

Yet, Wilson said the media coverage “might open peoples’ eyes to the fact that classicists, translators, historians and poets aren’t necessarily old white men.” She said that slightly more than half the classics doctorates in the United States are awarded to women.

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