Emily Wilson talks about translating ‘The Odyssey’


‘I hope people can be reminded that Homer can actually be fun to read,’ Emily Wilson told Kathimerini following a tour to promote her English translation of the epic poem.

TAGS: Interview, Literature, Books

“It is so good to be home. This is a picture of my nostos,” tweeted University of Pennsylvania classical studies professor Emily Wilson on May 13, attaching a photographs of her two daughters. She had clearly missed her family during her lengthy tour of Great Britain and Australia to promote her critically acclaimed translation of Homer’s “Odyssey.”

If not an odyssey itself, the translation of the classic epic was at least a grand adventure. When she started on the project, Wilson had no clue of how long it would take or the myriad complex challenges that she was undertaking. In fact, it was not until she started on the gargantuan task that she realized she was also breaking new ground as the first woman to ever translate the saga into English: There have been 60 such translations since 1615, all by men.

Kathimerini interviewed Wilson by email following her successful tour.

You didn’t set out to become the first woman to translate “The Odyssey.” Why do you think women hadn’t touched this poem before?

Women have certainly “touched” this poem a lot! Women have been reading “The Odyssey” in Greek for many, many centuries, all the way back to ancient times. In recent decades, there are plenty of female classicists, including female Homerists, from many of whom, as well as my male colleagues, I’ve learnt a great deal. There are some great female Homer scholars and I want to give them all possible due credit. There are, of course, a gazillion times more women who have read all or part of the poem in the original than the tiny number of humans, male and female, who have created literary translations of it into modern languages.

I also want to give due to the many women who have translated “The Odyssey” into other languages, such as French or Italian or Dutch or Turkish. English is the problem, and specifically, the English-speaking classics world of the past few decades. It’s hard to explain it because of course there are many female people who could in theory have translated this poem before me; it’s not that I’m uniquely qualified – though I think I have certain relatively unusual qualifications that have nothing at all to do with my gender, but which have to do with my interest in English metrical poetry as well as in Homer. Presumably there are many reasons for the specific gender disparities in translations of Ancient Greek and Latin texts into English that aren’t matched by the gender distribution of classical scholars in general, or translators in general (there are of course plenty of female Russian/Arabic/French literary translators out there, far more than for Ancient Greek). I think it can be hard for people outside the academy to realize how much, within the academy, and within the classics field in particular, literary translation is seen as a fringe activity. Most translators of Ancient Greek and Latin texts, in the English-speaking world, are not academics. They’re often retired (male) academics, or freelance writers. One set of issues has to do with the devaluing of translation in the academy, such that it doesn’t get you tenure or promotion and might count against you (it shows you’re a dilettante or someone who does “outreach,” not serious scholarship; a total misrepresentation but one that is commonly believed). In a world where very few classicists are interested in this kind of writing anyway, where few academics are aspiring poets, and where women may struggle with more glass ceilings than men anyway for tenure and promotion, along with more administrative and childcare duties – you can see why the tiny number of qualified women who might potentially want to do this work wouldn’t feel encouraged to do so. Another set of issues is the fact that translation of dead languages is often seen in much more simplistic, instrumentalist ways than translation of living languages; students who are in second year Ancient Greek may be encouraged to think of what they’re doing as learning “to translate,” as opposed to learning to understand. The original text is seen as a problem to which a clunky “literal” translation is a solution; as if there were a “right answer” to what it means, and it’s something ugly in English, even if the original is beautiful. This false thinking isn’t encouraged in the same way for living languages. This set of misunderstandings also encourages a blindness about the social issues; if translators just write “what it means,” and that’s easy, then it doesn’t matter who does it. A further issue is that publishers/editors aren’t likely to have a young or non-white or non-male person in mind when they look around for who might be a good classicist to do a new translation. Women, I suspect, don’t get approached for this work as often as men do, though it’s hard to compile the data on that.

Were you intimidated by the huge task ahead of you? How much time did you dedicate to “The Odyssey”?

It took me five years of solid work. It was a big, epic task. I got stuck often. I didn’t feel daunted or intimidated, since I had a clear notion of what I wanted to do, and I’ve done verse translations before; I knew I could do it. But it was a very big job.

What was the passage that first rung the sexist bell? How many misogynist or sexist terms did you discover in the older translations?

I looked closely at a few passages in multiple translations after finishing my translation, not while I was doing it. I’d say that actual misogynistic language is relatively rare, compared to all the other words in an epic poem… In English, Robert Fagles’s translations have been very influential, and they have quite a lot of such terms, so I think that had an impact on subsequent versions. But I don’t think counting insult terms is the way to go here. I’m really more interested in the more subtle kinds of choices that translators make that impact gender roles and other social roles. For instance, even beyond whether the translator makes Telemachus call the slave women “sluts” or not, there are real questions about whether the narrative allows us to sympathize with the victims of the murder or not. I think the Greek text allows a lot more sympathy here, and a lot more multivocality in general, a lot more narrative complexity, than many translations seem to do. This has to do with far more than just gender, though of course gender tends to be the headline. The real story is about narrative perspective and literary as well as ethical complexity.

Are women, being more “aware” of gender, ultimately more sensitive and precise in translating gender-sensitive texts like “The Odyssey”?

No of course not, not necessarily. I haven’t read every translation by a woman in all other languages, but from the few I've dipped into – eg [Anne] Dacier in French and [Rosa Calzecchi] Onesti in Italian – I honestly don’t see a lot more gender sensitivity by female translators. It really depends on what the particular individual, whether female, male or non-binary/other, decides to do. I’ve been told that a recent translation into Dutch by a man is more sensitive and precise about gender terms than the previous Dutch translation by a woman. I can believe it. These things are complex and not predetermined. Some women, yes. Some men, too, in theory, could be more sensitive, and it’s a shame that in this case, so far, English-speaking men haven’t been. Maybe now, after all the media coverage of my work, interviewers might finally start asking cisgender men about how gender impacts their work. It would be about time.

There is a whole discussion on how political correctness is affecting the arts. Do you think some of the other translators would have avoided some of the sexist terms in our times?

I’m confused by this. There have been at least two translations of “The Odyssey” by men since mine, published 2018, and I don’t see that either of them are noticeably more careful about avoiding modern forms of misogyny. For instance, another very common issue, even beyond Homer, is how to translate terms for “mortal” or “human,” like “anthropos” or “brotos.” Many translators, including those of “The Odyssey” from this year, 2018, use “man” for these terms, such that they’re interpreted to refer to only half the human race.

I’m honestly irritated by the term “political correctness” – it seems really unhelpful and negative. I’d prefer to say that some people in our times / our cultures have more awareness about specific ethical and social issues than a generation or two ago; but that doesn’t at all mean that everything is fixed. Of course it isn’t. One of the markers of how little is fixed is that anyone who uses a term like “gender” or “misogyny,” even in a much bigger and nuanced discussion, will instantly be labeled as “politically correct.” Another marker is that only women ever get asked questions about gender, even though for many of us (including me), gender is actually quite low down on the list of things we care about.

I’m not interested in neutralizing the problematic ethics of ancient texts, or denying what’s there. But I do think that the particular vantage point we’re at now can offer a clearer vision of certain aspects of ancient texts, such as the depiction of slavery as well as the complex depictions of gender in Homer. Every culture can see different things in every other alien culture. That’s part of the point of studying and re-examining the ancient world.

Do you think your translation will also affect the interpretation of Homer’s poem by the Greeks? Can you explain how that works?

I hope that pieces like this will help enliven a new interest in Homer among Greeks. I know there can be a sense of burden about the Ancient Greek canon for Greeks who are forced through texts like “The Odyssey” in high school, in translation. I hope the buzz about my translation in the media might do something to remind people, in Greece and elsewhere, that this poem is a classic not because it’s a duty to read it, but because it really does have something to say to us now: about migrants and the relationship of foreigners and immigrants and poor people and the rich; about gender; about power; about identity and homecoming; about time; about home; about violence; about honor; about what changes and what stays the same. Also, I hope, about the power of metrical poetry, and how vivid and compelling storytelling can speak across time.

Thousands of people will get to discover Homer through your work, your eyes. It doesn’t get more epic than that! How does that thought make you feel?

It’s exciting! I hope people can be reminded that Homer can actually be fun to read! It’s a thrilling story with so many great characters, male and female, divine and human, slave and free, rich and poor, native and foreigner. It’s a wonderful read, and I’m just piggybacking on Homer’s greatness.