Emily Wilson: The Classicist Who Translated a New Cultural Landmark (Part Two)

This is Part Two of our interview with Emily Wilson. Read Part One 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 Two... 

Professor Emily Wilson

Professor Emily Wilson

Do you think gender plays a role in translation, either consciously, subconsciously, or both?

This again is a huge question which I've written about at some length already, and it's hard to sum up but I'll try. Yes, gender and other social identities matter for all interpretative work, including translation. Gender identity matters whether we think about it or not, and there can be negative consequences when translators fail to think through their own prejudices; I've written before about how translators sometimes impose their own misogynistic assumptions onto ancient texts, for instance by translating neutral terms for women with "sluts" or "whores", or by translating words for rape as if they were consensual sex. This is, of course, something men translators do more often than non-male translators. But women translators sometimes, in fact pretty often, do these things too. Women don't necessarily work/ read/ interpret/ translate with any more gender awareness, or any less misogyny, than men do.

And even beyond that, we need to avoid the over-simplifications of thinking that all women must be translating/ working/ reading from a "female" perspective. There are, for example, translations of the Odyssey by women in a number of different modern languages (including Italian, French and Dutch), and they're very different in stylistic and interpretative terms both from each other and from mine. Caroline Alexander's translation of the Iliad is totally different from my translation of the Odyssey. Women aren't all alike. That doesn't make gender irrelevant, but it means we need a complex and nuanced account of how it might make a difference.

I feel that quite a lot of the press response to my translation failed to make this kind of distinction, and that's a problem. I think everybody, men and women, should approach any interpretative task (including journalism and reportage as well as historical & literary scholarship and translation) with an awareness that we bring something to our work from our own life experiences. For my work on the Odyssey, for example, that includes things like my experiences as an immigrant and as a parent, as well as my gender. It also includes all my experiences as a reader -- of English as well as Greek and Roman poetry, for example. I would have approached this task completely differently if I hadn't spent years being immersed in Shakespeare, Milton and C19 poetry.

Buy your copy of  The Odyssey   here

Buy your copy of The Odyssey here

It also includes the whole life experiences of all the other translators of Homer: I'm not the first one to have a gender that's relevant for my work, though nobody in the universe ever thought to ask Robert Fagles or Richmond Lattimore what it's like to be a male translator of Homer, or pressed them on their particular affinity for the male characters. The goal isn't neutrality or objectivity (which is impossible), but responsibility to as many different aspects of our work as possible, and that includes thinking hard about gender, both in the text/ in the work, and in our own lives.

Who is your favorite character in The Odyssey, and why?

I don't really have a favorite like that. I tried to think and feel my way inside each of the characters, and understand and empathize with each, in a quasi-novelistic way. In the process of creating my translation, the characters I got more interested in than I had been before were the slaves. I wouldn't say any of them are "favorites", because I don't honestly read like that, in the fangirl way; and "favorite" implies an uncomplicated joy, which isn't what I feel. But I'm fascinated by the representation of the "bad" slaves, Melantho and Melanthius -- the "black flowers", the ones who willingly choose to belong to the "wrong" new owners -- and the way they contrast with the "good" slaves, Eumaeus and Eurycleia, who are the locus for memory and continuity of the original owners in Ithaca, and who deliberately subsume their own identities, as people who have been trafficked and sold from a quite different household, in order to identify as part of the house of Odysseus.

I find all that really disturbing and thought-provoking and important to think with and about. The history of slavery is still absolutely present and haunting to contemporary US society, and I think it's potentially useful to get perspective on what is and isn't distinctive about this particular legacy, by juxtaposing it with other slave-owning societies, such as that of this poem. Actual slavery is still a huge issue around the world: there are terrifying, horrifying numbers of victims of human trafficking and sweatshop workers. And even beyond literal slavery, I think the representation of these slave characters in the Odyssey resonates powerfully with questions of collusion, power and agency that seem to be part of pretty much every news story right now, and that are part of what all of us are probably wrestling with in our daily lives, thinking about the gap between lives of privilege and the 99%.

The Odyssey begins with an invocation of the Muse, something that we’re particularly happy to point out. Who is a female muse in your life?

I don't like the post-Homeric way of imagining the Muse as the passive female idol who inspires the male author / poet. As a translator of the Odyssey, I am Odysseus, disguising myself and telling elaborate stories in the dress of someone else. I'm complicated, much-turned and much-turning, and you never know if it's really me. I am always disguising myself and always displaying myself; I'm nobody and I'm many, I contain multitudes. I find a solution to the most impossible linguistic and poetic problems. I take the long journey from Troy and back. I sack Homer's city and claim my own home. I bring back the treasure. I claim the power in the house. But I'm also the Muse. I find the beginning. I tell the story.

What is it like being a woman in the classics field?

I’m encouraged by the fact that I think there’s a lot more awareness of gender issues and gender inequality in my field than there was even ten or twenty years ago, but that certainly doesn’t mean that everything is fixed.

Ugh, I don't know how to answer this either. What's it like being a man? I can imagine, but I don't know. I suspect that it might be different, depending on the man. I have no way to compare. I need to become Tiresias and spend a few years in each gender identity, plus maybe a few years being non-binary & a few more being trans, to give you a real answer.

Just for now, until I do that: I'd say, as I said above, there are plenty of female classicists; I have female colleagues, and in my department, among tenured classics professors, we're not at 50%, but we're close. In classics at large, slightly more women than men get PhD's in the discipline in the US now. We're not nearly as much of a minority as, say, women in Wall Street, though there are definitely still glass ceiling issues: not every well-trained woman classicist ends up with a tenured professorship, and there's gender inequality there.

Of course the discipline was historically very male dominated. That legacy is still there, and its tentacles are still clutching on in certain sub-fields of classics, such as translation (where there are still far more men than women, as discussed above). Some sub-disciplines and some colleges and universities are much worse than others; I know that many women, and/or people of color, feel discouraged or unwelcome in classics in some places, though that's not true everywhere.

Oxford twenty years ago, where I did my BA, felt back then far more male-dominated than Penn does now, but that's not comparing like with like; it's a rotten ancient banana next to a nice fresh kiwi fruit. I'm encouraged by the fact that I think there's a lot more awareness of gender issues and gender inequality in my field than there was even ten or twenty years ago, but that certainly doesn't mean that everything is fixed.