Emily Wilson: The Classicist Who Translated a New Cultural Landmark (Part One)
This is Part One of our interview with Emily Wilson. Read Part Two here
You've probably read The Odyssey at some point in your life. Unless you've read it in the past year, however, you haven't read it translated by a woman. That's because last year Emily Wilson, a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first woman to translate this storied text into English. Since publication, her translation has been praised as "a staggeringly superior translation" (Richard F. Thomas, Harvard University) and "a vital Odyssey for the twenty-first century that brings into rhythmic English the power, dignity, variety, and immediacy of this great poem" (Laura Slatkin, New York University).
Professor Wilson's answers from our interview are long, profound, and beautiful, and they offer a new piece of food for thought in just about every other line. We found it hard to cut almost anything in the editing process, so instead, we'll be publishing her interview in two parts in order to keep as much as possible.
Here's Part One...
Why did you choose The Odyssey to translate?
I translated the Odyssey because I was asked to consider doing it, by my wonderful editor at Norton, Pete Simon.
Creating a literary translation of a foreign-language is an entirely different enterprise from reading or studying that same text; I'd been studying and re-reading the Greek poem for many years, and I might well have incorporated my thoughts about it into future literary critical writing, but I would never have taken on the very difficult and time-consuming writerly project of trying to create an English version that would feel fully alive in its own way, while being deeply and authentically responsive to the original, if I hadn't had a contract and a publisher lined up. I am a single mother of three with a full time job and a mortgage to pay on my own. There's no way I could have taken on this enormously challenging work just as an amateur pursuit, to keep in the desk drawer. I do this work because I love it and am endlessly fascinated by the ancient world, ancient literature, and because I get obsessed with the impossible thrilling process of trying to create the best English verse I can, out of non-English verse. But I couldn't do it without a structure that supports my work.
This is important, because it's relevant for the further question: why haven't English-speaking women translated the Odyssey before? There are plenty of female anglophone Homerists as well as other female classicists.
Of course most classicists, male and female both, don't have any interest in the specific poetic and writerly challenges of translation. You usually don't do a PhD. in classics because you're an aspiring anglophone poet and/or translator; it's a different set of aspirations which usually don't overlap. So it's a pretty small pool of potential translators. But I betcha there are more out there who don't quite fit the mold of the classicist as old white-haired white guy, who haven't yet been hired for that reason. I don't know how many women before me have been approached by publishers to see if they could try to create a convincing proposal for how to do a new translation of the Odyssey (or one of the other big Graeco-Roman authors who haven't commonly been translated by women in the anglophone world, such as Thucydides). But I suspect there's a big gender disparity there. I dream of the day when there will be just as many mediocre and terrible translations of classical texts out there by women as there already are by men.
Beyond that: when I was asked to consider offering a proposal for an Odyssey translation, I was happy because I love the original poem so much and was thrilled at the idea of spending more years intimately in its company. But I wouldn't have wanted to create a new translation unless I'd felt there was an actual need for one. There really isn't any point in reinventing the wheel, even if someone pays you to do it. Just say no.
When Pete Simon asked me, I went and looked closely at a single book of the poem in some other modern English translations, most of which I hadn't read before, and that process convinced me that the world did indeed need a new one. One thing that drove me from the start was my frustration that ALL the commonly read translations into contemporary English of this beautifully regular, metrical, musical poem are in non-metrical English -- either prose or non-metrical verse. I hated that and I wanted to do it differently.
I also felt frustrated by the contorted, archaic, pompous, euphemizing, heroizing or foreignized style of many translations, which again felt to me totally false to the original poem. I also felt that the ethical and narrative complexity of the original, the diversity of its voices, wasn't getting through at all well in most translations. There's a tendency to simplify, to present it as a poem about an unproblematically heroic hero, who achieves "justice" by escaping and/or mutilating some monstrous foreigners, slaughtering a lot more people, and then getting back with the objectified wife & slaves and possessions, and all that is presented as if it were a Disneyfied happy ending. Yuck. I think it's a much better and more complex poem than that, and I wanted to make clear the ways that it is, and should be, a disturbing and multi-layered as well as fascinating and beautiful poetic narrative. All those things made me feel driven to try to create my own version, which I hoped would be more truthful to the poem as I read it, and more deeply engaging for a new generation of readers.
Why is it that an ancient text like The Odyssey is still so relevant today?
The question implies things that are false. The Odyssey isn't "still" relevant, because there's no continuous line of reception and reading of this poem all the way from the eighth century BCE to now. For many centuries, Homer wasn't read in the west at all, because of lack of knowledge of ancient Greek. Moreover, the relevance of Homer, and of antiquity in general, was very very different for the early modern period than for us. There isn't just one relevance.
Moreover, the relevance of the Odyssey is not the same as the relevance of all ancient texts. Moreover, the relevance of this poem is different for different modern cultures, and different modern peoples. I know I sound like the most annoying pedant in the world for saying this, but I don't think it's avoidable and I'm willing to take that risk. We don't get to the truth about things that really really matter -- like the relationship of our own culture to alien cultures -- if we lump everything together. Truth is very important, now more than ever, and we don't get to truth unless we're willing to take the time to untangle some knots in the conceptual wool. Slow down and push for better questions and better answers...As citizens in this troubled democracy, as intellectuals, as writers, as scholars or as journalists or as readers, we need to work a lot harder to get to truth. We need to go high.
All that said: I think the Odyssey, specifically, has a particular resonance and resonance now, specifically, in the United States and the UK and Europe (I don't feel competent to judge about the wider world), because it speaks to questions we're wrestling with particularly intensely.
It's about identity, home and belonging, and whether we can find a place of belonging only by excluding or slaughtering or enabling the death or subjugation of other people. It's about proto-globalization and the encounter with people who are unlike us, culturally and in other ways. It's about migration, diaspora, travel and war; it resonates with the refugee and migrant and immigration crises, in its positing of a model of hospitality (xenia), a proper way to treat the stranger in need -- and also in its positing of how that model can go horribly wrong.
It's about conservatism, as a political and psychological fantasy: the idea that we can go back to the past, and recreate a culture frozen in time -- as Odysseus wants to go back to the home and the self he was twenty years before. It's about gender, and it teases out not only sexual double standards (the different criteria for male and female forms of fidelity or loyalty or truth), but also gender fluidity (Athena is male as well as female), and gaps between what gender means for different classes and ages: being female as a goddess or a slave is not the same as being an elite wife, and not the same for young and older women. It's about agency and precariousness, about whether we always have the choice to do or be whatever we want, about who gets to choose and who doesn't; who gets to escape from history, and who doesn't.
I think there's an important resonance for our time, in this #MeToo moment, not only for thinking about the constraints put on women in an androcentric society, but also for seeing how misogyny can be perpetuated by female as well as male agents: Penelope and Athena are part of the system of oppression too, not just victims of it. It's also a poem about war and its aftermath, and about the impact of big wars not only on those on the ground, but also on those far away --- the home-coming veterans, and the families and local neighborhoods. It's about a massive public shooting in a domestic space, perpetrated by a veteran. It's about poverty and elites and community.
And also, of course this is a poem about lies, big and small, about idiocy and whether idiots deserve to be murdered, about bullies, about collusion, about leaders and responsibility, about conflicts between about truth, heroism and fake news; about how to make Ithaca great again, and at what cost. This great poem's relevance to US society was different a hundred years ago, and its relevance twenty years from now is going to be different again. I think it will still feel relevant, but differently. That's part of what being a classic means.