|Historically, men translated the Odyssey. Here’s what happened when a woman took the job. |
“Tell me about a complicated man.” So begins Emily Wilson’s new translation, which reveals how the ancient story is relevant today.
Updated by Anna North Nov 20, 2017, 12:50pm EST
The Odyssey is about a man. It says so right at the beginning — in Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation, for example, the poem opens with the line, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.”
In the course of the poem, that man plots his return home after fighting the Trojan War, slaughters the suitors vying to marry his wife Penelope, and reestablishes himself as the head of his household.
But the Odyssey is also about other people: Penelope, the nymph Calypso, the witch Circe, the princess Nausicaa; Odysseus’s many shipmates who died before they could make it home; the countless slaves in Odysseus’s house, many of whom are never named.
Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, is as concerned with these surrounding characters as she is with Odysseus himself. Written in plain, contemporary language and released earlier this month to much fanfare, her translation lays bare some of the inequalities between characters that other translations have elided. It offers not just a new version of the poem, but a new way of thinking about it in the context of gender and power relationships today. As Wilson puts it, “the question of who matters is actually central to what the text is about.”
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Part of the way Wilson challenges previous readings of the Odyssey is with style. Her translation made a splash months before it was published, when an excerpt ran in the summer 2017 issue of the Paris Review. I and other Odyssey fans were excited by Wilson’s opening line: “Tell me about a complicated man.” In its matter-of-fact language, it’s 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.”
“There’s an idea that Homer has to sound heroic and ancient,” Wilson told me, but that idea comes with a value system attached, one that includes “endorsing this very hierarchical kind of society as if that’s what heroism is.” Telling the story in plainer language allows readers to see Odysseus and his society in another light.
There are flashes of beauty in Wilson’s Odyssey. “The early Dawn was born,” she writes in Book 2; “her fingers bloomed.” Of the forest on Calypso’s island, where many birds nest, she writes, “It was full of wings.” But throughout the book, there’s a frankness to Wilson’s language around work and the people who do it. Of Eurymedusa, a slave in the house of princess Nausicaa, she writes, “She used to babysit young Nausicaa / and now she lit her fire and cooked her meal.”
The slaves in older translations of the Odyssey do not “babysit” — often, they’re not identified as slaves at all. Fagles, for instance, calls Eurymedusa a “chambermaid.” Fitzgerald calls her a “nurse.” “It sort of stuns me when I look at other translations,” Wilson said, “how much work seems to go into making slavery invisible.”
Wilson, by contrast, uses the word “slave” for Eurymedusa and many other enslaved characters, even when the original uses a more specific term. The Homeric Greek dmoe, or “female-house-slave,” Wilson writes in her translator’s note, could be translated as “maid” or “domestic servant,” but those terms would imply that the woman was free. “The need to acknowledge the fact and the horror of slavery,” she writes, “and to mark the fact that the idealized society depicted in the poem is one where slavery is shockingly taken for granted, seems to me to outweigh the need to specify, in every instance, the type of slave.”
Wilson does not give Penelope more agency or power than she has in the original poem, but she also does not take any of the queen’s original power away by making descriptions of her conform to modern gender stereotypes.
“Part of fighting misogyny in the current world is having a really clear sense of what the structures of thought and the structures of society are that have enabled androcentrism in different cultures, including our own,” Wilson said, and the Odyssey, looked at in the right way, can help readers understand those structures more clearly. The poem offers a “defense of a male dominant society, a defense of its own hero and his triumph over everybody else,” she said, “but it also seems to provide these avenues for realizing what’s so horrible about this narrative, what’s missing about this narrative.”
Recent events have led to a widespread debate over how audiences should consume the work of people we know to be abusers of women. This is intertwined with the question of how we should consume art that has racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted elements. Often elided from this conversation is the fact that people of color and women of all races have been consuming racist and sexist art in America for generations (in many classes on Western literature, for instance, they have had little choice), and developing their own responses to it, responses that are often deeply nuanced.
Conservative talk of “special snowflakes” demanding trigger warnings ignores the fact that people marginalized in the Western canon have long read literature from it in exactly the way Wilson describes: both as an endorsement of its author’s values, and as evidence of how horrible those values can be, and whom they leave out.
Wilson’s translation, then, is not a feminist version of the Odyssey. It is a version of the Odyssey that lays bare the morals of its time and place, and invites us to consider how different they are from our own, and how similar.
on Anna North:
I cover gender issues: reproductive rights, workplace discrimination, LGBTQ rights, masculinity, femininity, and more. I came to Vox from the New York Times, where I held several positions, including member of the editorial board. I'm also the author of two novels, America Pacifica (2011) and The Life and Death of Sophie Stark (2015).