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Classical Whines: Emily Wilson On Translation, The Core, And More

Cover of Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey by Homer

For this edition of Classical Whines, Editor in Chief and Bwog’s resident Classics major, Youngweon Lee, interviewed Emily Wilson, professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, whose translation of the Odyssey replaced Lattimore’s on the Literature Humanities syllabus this year.

Editor’s note: the interview has been lightly edited for formatting.

Homer is an integral part of the college experience for every student at Columbia College as a hefty part of the first semester LitHum syllabus. If you care as much about the Core as I do, or if you’re a freshman, you probably know that Emily Wilson’s recent translation of Homer’s Odyssey replaced Lattimore’s edition, which was a well-established part of the syllabus for many years.

This change doesn’t come without controversy. I’ve heard opinions from various people that the Lattimore is a good version to teach with, and that it is closer to the experience of reading the original Greek. I’m personally a big fan of the change because I think that Lattimore’s lines lumber on and drag out the poem a lot. I feel that his English sounds too convoluted and takes away from the dynamic action; I don’t like the reading experience. I read Fagles’ translation in high school, which I much prefer to Lattimore. Before this new change, I always thought that it should be Fagles’ translations on the syllabus, not Lattimore’s. Wilson’s lines are in iambic pentameter, mirroring the Homeric dactylic hexameter in an English meter. The syntax is also more straightforward; she explained these choices and more in a talk at Columbia on November 7th.

As she mentioned at the talk, Professor Wilson’s translation of the Iliad is also in the works, and it will be interesting to see if that will also replace Lattimore’s Iliad when it’s published. Until then, passage IDs on the LitHum exams will at least be slightly easier; it’s much easier to tell apart Lattimore’s Iliad and Wilson’s Odyssey than it is to tell apart Lattimore’s Iliad and Odyssey.

I had a chance to ask Professor Wilson a few questions for Classical Whines about Homer, translating, her opinion on Columbia’s core, and more. Read my questions and her thorough, informative answers below; I learned a lot, and hope that you will too.

Youngweon Lee: What are your thoughts on using written word as a medium for poems like the Odyssey that were performed and meant to be heard orally? How do you think this changes how the poem comes across to the reader, and how does that change the experience of the poem?

Emily Wilson: The Odyssey is itself a written poem, and has been since whenever it was composed, maybe in the seventh century BCE. I don’t know what the original composer’s or composers’ thoughts were on using the written word, but I’m really glad they went for it; without writing, obviously, we wouldn’t have an Odyssey. The poem is based on a long purely oral tradition, from the centuries before its composition when the Greek-speaking world was illiterate, but that isn’t the same as being an oral poem.

Presumably, rhapsodes who performed parts of Homer for festivals and entertainment in classical antiquity would have used written texts to learn by heart, just as actors use a script. The texts we have of the Odyssey and the Iliad are based on the work of the scholars of the Library of Alexandria in the C2-C3 BCE. They discussed and argued about how to establish the best readings for the poems, and they’re the basis for modern editions. Those scholars were working closely with written texts. It’s not as if modern scholars and modern readers are the first people to experience Homer on the page. I want to clarify that, because so often I see and hear non-Homerists talking about the Odyssey and Iliad as “oral poems.” They aren’t oral poems; if they were, the Odyssey of today would be quite different from the Odyssey of yesterday and tomorrow. They’re based on an oral tradition.

To get to the question: you’re absolutely right, the Homeric poems were performed and recited and sung throughout antiquity, and very frequently experienced orally/aurally, despite the existence of the texts. This oral heritage was of the main reasons why I wanted to use a regular meter (not free verse, like most modern translations, e.g. Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fagles, or prose, like Rieu and Butler or Dimock/Murray). The experience of performing and listening to regular metrical rhythmical language is quite different from that of listening to words that don’t have a regular meter.

I also wanted to invite readers to try reading out loud by using a fairly direct, straightforward linguistic register quite a lot of the time; the original poem is designed to be readily comprehensible by an illiterate listener. It uses simple syntax, and it doesn’t require a lot of stopping and re-reading to get it. At the same time, I wanted to make sure I brought out the range of different registers and moods, and the different voices and perspectives in the poem; it’s not ostentatiously difficult, but it’s also not at all simple, insofar as “simple” suggests one-layered; I use the word “complicated” programmatically, for the programmatic word “polytropos” in the original.

For bringing out the range and multiplicity of Homer, I found it helpful to think in terms of oral performance, to be aware of how necessary it is, in a long dramatic reading or show, to have a range of different voices. It was helpful that I’d translated quite a lot of verse drama before the Odyssey, so I was already used to thinking hard about voice and performability, and to incorporating a lot of reading out loud of the original and my drafts in progress, and thinking about speakability. Homer’s style is quite different from any author I’d translated before, but the habit of thinking about dramatic performance was useful.

YL: You often use Twitter to share your translation choices and processes, and I always find your threads very interesting and informative. At the same time, I wonder if people are more eager to criticize because of the accessibility and the casual nature of Twitter’s platform. Considering this, do you find that Twitter is an effective method of communication?

EW: Twitter in general has lots of carping and meanness, as well as a lot of timewasting trivia and political wrangling and handwringing. I avoided Twitter entirely until last year, for sanity. Then I realized it could be an effective medium for writing very brief but dense little comparisons of different translations, and little thoughts about translation theory and praxis, as well as announcing when/where I’m doing talks. I have been delighted by the response to my Twitter; I think it has totally worked for what it is.

I’m not the only person hungry for Twitter to have different content. People seem very much open to the kind of things I discuss in those threads, and I feel encouraged that there’s a real appetite for what I do there, which is try to teach close reading, detailed literary analysis, and some translation-theory-101, interspersed with a few cat pictures. I find it very effective for what I do. I’ve had quite a lot of people tell me they learn more from my Twitter threads than they ever learnt in grad school, which I truly hope is not true. But it feels good to take a medium that can be trivializing and use it for purposes that are genuinely intellectual and pedagogical.

For at least a good number of people, it has been enlightening. It allows me to reach and talk to people I would never communicate with otherwise. Lots of people will never have time to read 20 books of translation theory plus ten different translations of Homer plus the original Greek poem and commentaries thereon, but I can use Twitter to share a kernel of what I’ve learnt from having read all those things. It’s fun for me to write in different media. I’m used to spending a great deal of time, as a poetic translator and essayist and poet, thinking about how to convey as much meaning as possible in as few words as possible, and Twitter draws on those skills.

YL: What aspects of the Greek do you prioritize when translating? (ex. literal meaning vs. idiomatic meaning, how the line sounds in English, rhetorical devices…)

EW: As you’ll have gathered from my Twitter version of translation-theory-101, “literal meaning” is a pretty problematic concept. Theorists have come up with various variants, such as “dynamic equivalence” versus “semantic equivalence,” as ways of wrestling with the very difficult question of how we individuate different aspects of meaning, and even whether we can do so.

Literary translation is difficult because of course, you have to think about a very very long list of essential elements in the original, in the awareness that you can’t reproduce everything. There are many ways translation can go wrong. Is it worse if a translator doesn’t fully understand the original, or if she can’t write good English? Those are both terrible options, and there are plenty of Homer translations in each category. Many things are absolutely necessary. I don’t really think in terms of prioritizing. I have three daughters, and I love all of them: when they’re all screaming for attention at once, what do I do? I do my best to respond with judgment in the moment, and translation is like that.

I was glad to meet the MFA students at Columbia, and I like the way that program treats translation as a subset of a writing program. It is just as important for a translator to be an excellent writer as it is to be an excellent reader. Of course, on some level, “literal meaning” is the sine qua non: you have to convey what the original says and does, as accurately as possible—or at the very least, you have to avoid misrepresenting it. But there are an awful lot of things any literary text says and does.

There’s a strange blindness in how many people think and talk about translation, when we imagine that “literal” translations that entirely ignore elements like sound and rhythm and emotional effect in the original can still convey everything that matters—as if it stood to reason that the meter and emotional and aesthetic qualities of a poetic text were irrelevant fripperies. I don’t think I can really answer this question in the abstract. There’s for me a constant struggle to balance priorities, to listen to all my daughters at once, all the time, especially when it’s impossible. For examples, you can read my Twitter!

YL: Can you recall any funny ancient idioms that you have had to translate? How do you go about translating them, and carrying over their often untranslatable humor and meaning into English?

EW: I’m not sure if I’m understanding the question. There are some very funny moments in the Euripides plays I’ve translated, but it wasn’t at all difficult to make them funny in English too. I’m thinking, for instance, of the great moment in Trojan Women when Hecuba warns Menelaus not to take his wife Helen back home on his boat (because, Hecuba thinks, she’s responsible for the last ten years of war, and can’t be trusted); Menelaus, who is not the brightest, misunderstands and asks, “Why not? Has she put on too much weight?”

There’s a hilarious scene in Euripides’ Electra when the Old Man suggests that, as in Aeschylus, Electra could prove that the marks at their father’s tomb have been left by her brother Orestes; Electra responds with some wonderful and funny common sense, pointing out that in fact, Aeschylus’ whole recognition scene in Libation Bearers is really silly: “people who aren’t related/ often have matching hair color. You know that.” I didn’t have to work very hard to make those scenes funny.

In the Odyssey, too, there are lots of funny moments, and it wasn’t hard to make sure the humor comes out. For instance, Calypso’s wonderful insistence that Odysseus is an idiot to want to go back to Penelope is both moving and very funny: I love her combination of relatable vulnerability and self-assertion when she says, “And anyway, I know my body is / better than hers is. I am taller too.” You tell it, Calypso!

YL: Your translation generally mirrors Homer’s original syntax and structure a lot more closely than other English translations, many of which even add in words that aren’t there in the Greek. Why do you think these other translators made these additions (or changes in meaning), and why did you choose not to?

EW: All the words, in my translation and in all the others, are not in the Greek! I know this is a pedantic thing to say, but it really interests me how difficult it is to talk truthfully about what translation is, and how fast we resort to metaphors or statements that are literally false, even if one knows what they mean. The process of thinking even in one language is hard to understand. The process of thinking between two languages is even harder, and even harder to find words for.

I don’t mirror Homer’s syntax all that closely sometimes; often not at all. This isn’t peculiar to me; it’s a normal part of translation practice. I wanted to honor this great poem by writing as well as I could, and very often that involved moving around the word order or changing up the syntax. For instance, after many many drafts, I shifted the relative clause of the second line of the poem to turn it into an indirect question (“tell me how” rather than “who…”). I couldn’t get the energy of the original unless I used a different syntactical construction. Languages are whole tool-kits; you can’t just scoop up the idioms of one and plonk them into the system of another.

Of course, translations are always interpretative, and of course, one can disagree with specific interpretations, or feel that a translator has strayed too far in one direction or another. But that’s not at all the same as imagining that there could be an interpretation-free translation, or that you can avoid “changes in meaning.”

Take, for example, the depiction of Calypso. As I read the text, she’s depicted with great sympathy; she’s funny, but also powerful, articulate, and we can take her anger and frustration seriously. Some translators call her, repeatedly, a nymph, which is a false friend linguistically: a Greek “nymphe” is a goddess, not an English “nymph” (a woman whose sexual desire is viewed as ridiculous). Failure to “change the word” can be a debatable thing to do in terms of interpretation.

I’ve talked before about the example of the scene in book 22 in which Telemachus hangs the slave women, partly because it’s a very important scene in the poem, and very important also for thinking through the imaginary and psychology of violence against women, and also because I’ve looked closely at a few other English translations, which of course isn’t true for most of the poem. I talked about this in my talk that you came to, but I can summarize here.

Many translators seem to read the scene as if Telemachus were motivated in the murders of those women by a desire to punish them for having made bad sexual choices, in sleeping with the suitors (even though, according to Odysseus, they were raped), or as if he sees them as non-human. Lattimore, for example, has him use the word “creatures” to describe them, which clearly dehumanizes, and Fagles/Lombardo/Fitzgerald, presumably echoing one another rather than thinking independently about the Greek, all add in variants on “You sluts” in what Telemachus says. There’s no equivalent to any of these words in the Greek (creatures/ sluts etc).

These translators also obscure the fact that the women are slaves, which helps enable a reading in which rape victims can reasonably be blamed. So I’m guessing that’s what you mean by “adding words.” But I don’t think that’s the right way to put it. of course, if you believe that interpretation, in which this is why Telemachus hangs the girls, you could justify adding these terms in; you could say these translations bring out more vividly in English what is implicit in the Greek. Translators do that kind of thing all the time; it’s part of the job, and it’s legitimate.

I don’t read the Greek that way; I think Telemachus is expressing his sense of shame at the continued existence of women whose bodies have been claimed by other men. That doesn’t necessarily dehumanize them, and doesn’t imply they did anything wrong. My reading, I think, makes much better sense of the Greek text than the other ways. I think shaping the scene in terms of rage at the slaves as bad sexual agents, and in terms of male violence against female sexuality, is extremely distorting, and makes it hard for a reader of those translations to see the central importance of shame in Telemachus’ motivation, and harder, too, to read the ways that the narrator isn’t necessarily on Telemachus’ side. But of course, that’s not the same as pretending that my version is the same as the original. Obviously it isn’t! It’s a different interpretation.

YL: Did you have a favorite translation of the Odyssey before you translated it yourself? If so, what did it offer that others didn’t?

EW: Not really. I’ve read it a lot in Greek, very little in translation. I never studied it in translation, in school or college, only in the original. I’ve read, and I really like, the Chapman version, which I like for his attention to dramatic detail, and in his awareness that there’s an awful lot at stake, ethically, in the Odyssey. He has some good lines too. I like the Pope, though that’s also millions of miles from the original; it’s fun to read.

YL: What do you think about Columbia’s choice to require every student in the college, interested in all sorts of disciplines, to spend at least some time with the texts that Columbia considers the “western canon” through the core curriculum?

EW: We don’t have a Core at Penn, as you may know. I think there are always pros and cons. A big pro is the existence of a shared set of knowledge and experience among the students; it builds community. It also gives you a pretty good foundation for a lot of other fields and areas.

Of course, big cons include the implication that there’s something better or more important about the texts on the Core syllabus than any other text, including non-western texts. Maybe one day, Columbia will switch to a more World Lit oriented Core. Even if not, I suspect that a lot of the value and danger of the Core comes from how it’s taught. You can present the western canon, including the Odyssey, in ways that silence debate and criticism and implicitly (or explicitly) invite students to be indoctrinated in uncritical acceptance of xenophobia and toxic masculinity and the supposed superiority of socio-economic elites over other human beings.

Or you can teach these texts in a way that invites more debate, both within the classroom and with the text, and in a way that explores how the Odyssey, for instance, questions and contradicts its own central values and narratives. The inclusion of a compulsory canon, even if it means everyone reading western texts produced by and for elite western men, doesn’t necessarily have to mean that students are being taught to value the perspectives of elite western men above all others. Before we can destroy the patriarchy, we need to understand it.

YL: I feel that the kind of fanfare and attention that accompany translations of Homer is unparalleled for translations of any other work, ancient or modern, and that the names of the translators aren’t attached to those works nearly as much as the names of the translators of Homer. Do you feel that this is true? If so, why do you think that this is the case?

EW: Yes. I wish translators in general got a lot more credit than they do. There are so many great literary translators working now, and it would be great to have more attention paid to translation as a field more broadly, rather than just a very few.

I should also note that not every translation from classical texts gets fanfare, either. There have been dozens of translations of Homer over the past couple of decades, and they didn’t all get equal fanfare. Plenty of translations have sunk without trace, sometimes deservedly, sometimes undeservedly. Fame is fickle.

It’s a good thing that there are more and more prizes and awards for literary translators; that is at least an attempt to get more recognition for people in this essential field — without which, vast numbers of people in the Anglophone world would never get access to other literatures. Lawrence Venuti, famous translation theorist, is very good on the ways the cultural and economic hegemony of Anglophone culture encourages blindness to translators on the part of readers, and invisibility on the part of translators.


The wine recommendation for this Classical Whines comes from all of us at Bwog: sangria from Symposium. Even if you’ve never been inside, you’ve probably seen this Greek restaurant in passing on 113th between Broadway and Amsterdam. Share a pitcher of sangria with some Greek comfort food with your favorite people.

Odyssey via Bwog Archives

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