book review: The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

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THE ODYSSEY by Homer
★★★☆☆
★★★★★ translation
WW Norton, 2017
originally composed in the 8th century BCE

 

It usually surprises people who know how much I love the Iliad and the Aeneid that I’m not half as passionate about the Odyssey. There isn’t necessarily one overwhelming reason, but it mostly boils down to the fact that as a reader, I am much more compelled by characters and internal struggles than I am by plot, and consequently, the Iliad and the Aeneid are more thematically compelling to me than the Odyssey is. I don’t meant to imply that Odysseus isn’t a complex character in his own right, because he is, of course, but I’m much less interested in his straightforward desire to reclaim his home from the threat of the suitors than I am in Achilles’ conflict of choosing not to fight because his honor was insulted, or Aeneas’ debate of whether he should continue on his fated journey to found Rome, when he has short-term happiness at his fingertips in Carthage. There’s some fun and excitement in the Odyssey, but ultimately I struggle to stay invested from start to finish.  It’s just not my favorite of the classics, and this re-read didn’t do much to change that.

What I did want to talk about though is Emily Wilson’s brilliant translation. This is only my second time reading the Odyssey – the first time I read Robert Fagles’ translation, which I’m also fond of, but Emily Wilson just raised the bar. Here are just a few of my favorite things about it:

  • Wilson translated the ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ line differently every time. If you’ve read the Odyssey, you know just how frequently this line appears. What a feat.  The effect I think honors the repetition of the original, but the poetic license serves to enliven the reader’s reaction to it.  (I know the last time I read the Odyssey my eyes started to glaze over this phrase after a while, failing to take it in.)
  • It’s both readable and lyrical from start to finish.  Wilson doesn’t dress up her translation in showy vocabulary that obscures the meaning of the text.  It’s honest, direct, and concise, but still written beautifully.  Here are the opening lines:

    Tell me about a complicated man.
    Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
    when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
    and where he went, and who he met, the pain
    he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
    he worked to save his life and bring his men
    back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
    they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
    kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
    tell the old story for our modern times.
    Find the beginning.

    Gorgeous.

  • This entire translation is written in iambic pentameter. While that was not the meter of the original, dactylic hexameter isn’t a commonly used meter in the English language, so instead Wilson chose to render the poem in iambic pentameter, to lend it rhythm and musicality.
  • Wilson eradicated a lot of the misogynistic language that has been used up until now by contemporary male translators, but which was not present in the original Greek. (e.g., referring to the slave girls in Penelope’s household as ‘whores.’)

Also, I just wanted to share this excerpt from Wilson’s Translator’s Note, which almost made me cry, reading it as a woman with such a huge vested interest in the classics and translation:

It is traditional in statements like this Translator’s Note to bewail’s one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original. Like many contemporary translation theorists, I believe that we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation. My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. The gendered metaphor of the “faithful” translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of The Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.

This meant a lot.  Female translators, scholars, and classicists all deserve to have their voices heard.  I’m hopeful that the recent publications of Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey are just the start of a bigger trend of making way for women in such a male-dominated field.

If you haven’t read the Odyssey, this is the translation you should read, and if you have, it’s worth revisiting to experience Wilson’s skill and artistry.