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Emily Wilson Talks Translation, Perspective, And More

The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson, whose translation of Homer’s Odyssey replaced Lattimore’s edition on the Literature Humanities syllabus this year, visited Columbia on Wednesday night for a lecture. Editor in Chief Youngweon Lee and Newsletter Editor Zoe Sottile attended. 

It’s become something of a trope of profiles on women artists/ leaders/people to comment on what they wear. Awareness of this trope is why we are reluctant to mention that Emily Wilson, professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey into English, showed up to last night’s event in Dodge 501 wearing shiny gold sneakers and an owl-emblazoned t-shirt (the owl is the sigil of Athena). But she did. And she looked so cool.

Wilson, whose translation of the Odyssey was recently added to Columbia College’s Literature Humanities syllabus, gave a fast and far-encompassing talk on literary translation, modern classicists, and the Greek epics. The drawing studio in Dodge 501, repurposed for the night, filled up fast: towards the end of the night, people were turned away as the room reached capacity. The event started with a general talk from Wilson about her translation, moved onto a PowerPoint presentation with which she went over some specific example passages, and ended with a Q&A.

She began the night, poignantly, with a criticism of her most frequent moniker: first woman to have translated the Odyssey into English. She pointed out that this is a uniquely English problem, as the Odyssey has been translated into other languages, like French or German, by women. Moreover, she noted that in interviews she is frequently reduced to her gender, often answering the same question of “how did your female perspective influence your translation?” over and over again. (When the question period rolled around later in the night, no one asked this.)

She then discussed many of the choices that make her translation unique: writing in iambic pentameter, matching Homer line for line, her use of relatively modern instead of archaic language, switching up his repetitive epithets. While Homer has been translated in verse before, her version’s closeness to the Homeric structure sets it apart.

She explained that her choice to use iambic pentameter came from the fact that it’s the meter of Shakespeare and Milton and thus would convey in English what Homer’s dactylic hexameter conveys in Greek. Wilson also mirrored the relatively simple and straightforward syntax of the Odyssey and explained that while Homer uses long sentences, they’re not complicated. She said during the Q&A session that she used fewer syllables to fit the shorter pentameter, but not fewer words, noting that this would be extremely difficult for, say, the Aeneid, as Latin (especially Vergilian) is a much denser language. As for the repetition that is very typical to Homer and to the oral tradition, she noted the difference between an oral culture and a literate one and explained that she chose to keep the repetitive lines, just not word-for-word. As an example of this, Wilson gave her variations of a line that described dawn bringing sunrise in her PowerPoint presentation.

Another major point of her talk was the importance of perspective in the Odyssey. She pointed out that while many translators highlight Odysseus’s perspective at the expense of other characters—in particular, his victims—the original Greek actually takes care to bring those characters to life. In many ways, she remarked, the Odyssey is about who gets to come home and who doesn’t. “Odysseus gets home,” she noted, “but he gets home through violence and enslavement.”

She brought up the passage of the hanging of the slavegirls (who had lain with the suitors after the slaughter in the great hall) as an example to support her point; while many translators use the word “slut” (Fagles, Fitzgerald, Lombardo), “whore” (Fagles), or “creatures” (Lattimore, whose translation was in the LitHum syllabus until last year) for how Telemachus refers to them, her translation opts to emphasize their tainted nature as remnants of the suitors rather than their promiscuity. In her eyes, they were just trying to get “home” as much as Odysseus was, even if that meant making concessions to the enemy to regain some semblance of normality. But while Odysseus gets his homecoming, their fate is far more grisly.

Another thing to note about this passage and other translators’ choice to add in “words of abuse,” as Wilson called them, is that they are not there in the Greek. Homer’s line reads “τάων, αἵ…” for the part translated as “sluts,” “whores,” etc., which is literally just two pronouns in the feminine plural in different cases. Wilson translates this as simply (and literally) “these girls.”

Odyssey via Owen Fitzgerald-Diaz

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  • anonymous says:

    @anonymous Count me as perhaps the world’s only non-fan of Emily Wilson’s translation. From the use of chapter titles (often ones that force an interpretation on the material, like “The Pirate and the Shepherd” for Book IX) to the dumbed-down language, to some outright (willful?) mistranslations, this is not a translation suitable for intelligent, grownup readers.

    1. Anonymous says:

      @Anonymous Fagles uses chapter titles, too. (“In The One-Eyed Giant’s Cave”)

      1. anonymous says:

        @anonymous Yes, I don’t care for him either!

    2. Youngweon Lee says:

      @Youngweon Lee A Twitter thread from her about chapter titles:

      I recommend checking out her Twitter. She explains her translation processes and decisions in threads such as this one that I find fascinating and informative. Even if you disagree with her choices, I think it will be interesting.

      1. anonymous says:

        @anonymous Absolutely agree. I have learned a great deal from reading her Twitter threads, and the introduction to her translation. She’s a thoughtful and extremely intelligent scholar, and no doubt a good human being. That said, I find the translation itself patronizing in the way it assumes readers won’t be able to work out, e.g., that Odysseus is a morally ambiguous character unless she carefully spells it out for them. Other translators, like Fitzgerald, bend over backwards to make Odysseus “heroic”; Wilson bends over backwards to make him the opposite–a “pirate,” someone who “abandoned” his men and his home. Both approaches distort the text and tell the reader what to think in a way I think Lattimore avoids.

  • Jeri says:

    @Jeri I’m teaching with it for the first time this semester (not at Columbia). I appreciate the forthrightness of some of the lines, and I think it made it easier or maybe just more fun and surprising (“modern”) for my students to follow. I was thrown off at first by the variation in formulaic lines, since one big point that I always try to make in any ancient lit class is about the type-scenes and formulaic language, going through Greek phrases to do so; but we dealt with it, somehow, and I think the idea still came through. Overall, I thought it was very poetic, in a quiet way. I guess I will continue to see how I and students react to it in future, but so far I like it.

    1. Jeri says:

      @Jeri I should add that I am a huge Lattimore fan, as well.

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