Feature: The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English (NYT)

Feature: The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English


When I first read these lines early this summer in The Paris Review, which published an excerpt, I was floored. I’d never read an “Odyssey” that sounded like this. It had such directness, the lines feeling not as if they were being fed into iambic pentameter because of some strategic decision but because the meter was a natural mode for its speaker. The subtle sewing through of the fittingly wavelike W-words in the first half (“wandered … wrecked … where … worked”) and the stormy S-words that knit together the second half, marrying the waves to the storm in which this man will suffer, made the terse injunctions to the muse that frame this prologue to the poem (“Tell me about …” and “Find the beginning”) seem as if they might actually answer the puzzle posed by Homer’s polytropos and Odysseus’s complicated nature.

Complicated: the brilliance of Wilson’s choice is, in part, its seeming straightforwardness. But no less than that of polytropos, the etymology of “complicated” is revealing. From the Latin verb complicare, it means “to fold together.” No, we don’t think of that root when we call someone complicated, but it’s what we mean: that they’re compound, several things folded into one, difficult to unravel, pull apart, understand.

“It feels,” I told Wilson, “with your choice of ‘complicated,’ that you planted a flag.”

“It is a flag,” she said.

“It says, ‘Guess what?’ — ”

“ ‘ — this is different.’ ”

Although translation might seem a natural step for a scholar preoccupied by the connections between antiquity and later texts, Wilson was dissuaded from pursuing it. “My colleagues told me: ‘You really shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing before tenure. Before tenure you have to write, you know, the right kind of book’ ” — the right kind being one on a subject that your discipline has yet to exhaust. Wilson did write a range of books before tenure, most on canonical texts: her study of suffering and death in literature; a monograph on Socrates. But, not heeding her colleagues’ advice, she began to translate Greek and Roman tragedies. A selection of Seneca’s plays appeared in 2010; four plays by Euripides in 2016. Both projects were outgrowths of her old desire to “spend a little bit longer” with these authors.

I asked Wilson why translation isn’t valued in the academy.

“Because there is no perception that it’s serious intellectually. It’s imagined as a subset of outreach. That you’re going to be communicating with the masses, which is less important than being innovative within your field. And even though I think translation is a way of being innovative within your field, my colleagues don’t see it that way.”

One of Wilson’s copies of the “Odyssey.”

Geordie Wood for The New York Times

One way of talking about Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is to say that it makes a sustained campaign against that species of scholarly shortsightedness: finding equivalents in English that allow the terms she is choosing to do the same work as the original words, even if the English words are not, according to a Greek lexicon, “correct.”

“What gets us to ‘complicated,’ ” Wilson said, returning to her translation of polytropos, “is both that I think it has some hint of the original ambivalence and ambiguity, such that it’s both ‘Why is he complicated?’ ‘What experiences have formed him?’ which is a very modern kind of question — and hints at ‘There might be a problem with him.’ I wanted to make it a markedly modern term in a way that ‘much turning’ obviously doesn’t feel modern or like English. I wanted it to feel like an idiomatic thing that you might say about somebody: that he is complicated.”

I asked: “What about the commentator who says, ‘It does something that more than modernizes — it subverts the fundamental strangeness of the way Odysseus is characterized.’ I’m sure some classicists are going to say it’s flat out wrong, ‘Interesting, but wrong.’ ”

“You’re quite right,” she replied. “Reviewers will say that.”

How, I asked, would she address such a complaint from someone in her field?

“I struggle with this all the time,” Wilson said. “I struggled with this because there are those classicists. I partly just want to shake them and make them see that all translations are interpretations.” Most of the criticism Wilson expects, she says, will come from “a digging in of the heels: ‘That’s not what it says in the dictionary, and therefore it can’t be right!’ And if you put down anything other than what’s said in the dictionary, then, of course, you have to add a footnote explaining why, which means that pretty much every line has to have a footnote. …” Wilson paused. “That goes to what this translation is aiming to do in terms of an immersive reading experience and conveying a whole narrative. I don’t know what to say to those people, honestly.” Wilson laughed her buoyant laugh. “I need to have a better answer to them, because they will certainly review it, and they will certainly have a loud voice. They just seem to be coming from such a simple and fundamental misunderstanding.”

“Of what?”

“Of what any translation is doing.”

What a translation is doing — and what it should do — has been a source of vigorous debate since there were texts to translate. “I’m not a believer,” Wilson told me, “but I find that there is a sort of religious practice that goes along with translation. I’m trying to serve something.”

Emily Wilson in her Philadelphia home.

Geordie Wood for The New York Times.

Early arguments about translation were over the Old Testament. One tale has it that an Egyptian king of the third-century B.C. wanted a Greek copy of the Pentateuch — the five books of Moses — for the Library of Alexandria. Some 70 Jewish elders said to be “skilled in the Scriptures and in both languages” were sent from Jerusalem. Each worked in a separate room to translate in isolation. When finished, they compared their work. The 70 translations? Identical, “in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end,” according to one account. The translation was, literally, faithful: God himself had moved their hands in unison, only one possible translation for his Word. Called “Septuagint” after its 70 translators, this Greek version became a foundational text, both for the early Christian church and for the impossible standard to which all subsequent translations are held: faithfulness. Later Bible translators failed to meet that mystical standard. The Catholic Church took 1,200 years to accept Jerome’s Latin version (“tainted with Judaism,” was the charge, as it relied on Hebrew sources). The first English Bible’s translator, John Wycliffe, was disinterred and his bones were burned for the heresy of translating into English, and his successor, William York Tyndale, was excommunicated, sentenced to death by strangulation and burned at the stake.

Although you can understand, if not condone, how murderous rage at a translator might arise if a believer supposed a sacred text to have been desecrated by a translator’s hand, it is somewhat surprising that similar vehemence can greet translations of secular canonical texts. Perhaps the most famous such expression is in Matthew Arnold’s “On Translating Homer,” his series of lectures in 1860 when he was Oxford professor of poetry. In them, he offered a takedown of existing translations of Homer and then asked “in what faithfulness exists”: “The translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities … that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble.”

Most every Homeric translation since has been scrutinized against his quartet of qualities. Wilson is not persuaded.

“These are not good criteria,” Wilson told me. “I think he was a terrible reader of poetry. It’s not like he ever translated Homer. I think he had a good ‘classics major’ undergraduate kind of Greek, but I think it’s all to do with a particular notion of aesthetics and class, the whole ‘plainness and nobility.’ It’s about noblesse oblige and you’re going to be the kind of gentleman who’s going to have gone to Rugby and that will be the kind of language that we speak: the classy kind of language. And projecting all of that back on to the classics. This is what ‘sweetness and light’ is. It’s describing a boys’ club. I think it’s very interesting that’s still with us. Those are the four? It’s just the boys’ club.”

“I do think that gender matters,” Wilson said later, “and I’m not going to not say it’s something I’m grappling with. I’m trying to take this task and this process of responding to this text and creating this text extremely seriously, with whatever I have, linguistically, sonically, emotionally.”

At the center of each of Homer’s epics is a warrior. In the “Iliad,” it is Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, a demigod almost invulnerable to death. Although the war is begun over a woman, Helen, stolen from her Greek husband by a Trojan, the “Iliad” is a poem about and presided over by men. Zeus is the poem’s prevailing god, and what men do, or are willing to do, in love and war and in the friendships that arise in war and its losses, are the poem’s preoccupations.

In the “Odyssey,” preoccupations shift, radically. Zeus is replaced by Athena as the dominant god of the tale; the poem begins not with Odysseus but with his wife, Penelope, who has been without him for 20 years, in a kingdom overrun by suitors for her hand, whom the conventions of hospitality ensure she cannot simply expel. The reader doesn’t even see Odysseus until the fifth of the poem’s 24 books, where we learn that he has been living on an island with Calypso, a goddess, for seven years; that, earlier, he was detained by another goddess, Circe, with whom he also shared a bed; that the Sirens, as he navigates, call to him, desiring him; that a young princess falls in love with him; that, on all sides, women are temptresses, and whereas he submits, we are to understand that Penelope, alone, assailed, remains faithful.

“In the second-wave feminist scholarship in classics,” Wilson told me, “people were very keen to try to read Penelope as, ‘Let’s find Penelope’s voice in the “Odyssey,” and let’s celebrate her, because look, here she is being the hero in an epic in ways we can somehow unpack.’ I find that’s a little simplistic. What happens to all the unelite women?”

In the episode that Wilson calls “one of the most horrible and haunting of the whole poem,” Odysseus returns home to find that his palace has been overrun by suitors for his wife’s hand. Though she has resisted them, the women in her palace have not. Odysseus, after slaying the suitors, tells his son, Telemachus, to kill the women. It is an interesting injunction from Odysseus, who himself, during his 10 years of wandering, was serially unfaithful. In Robert Fagles’s much-praised translation of the poem, Telemachus says, before he executes the palace women on his father’s command: No clean death for the likes of them, by god!/Not from me — they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too!/You sluts — the suitors’ whores!

But Wilson, in her introduction, reminds us that these palace women — “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — weren’t free. Rather, they were slaves, and if women, only barely. 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. Here is how Wilson renders their undoing:

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November 3, 2017 at 03:06AM

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