The Odyssey. Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York and London, 2017. 582p. Pr. $56.95. Hb.
The Odyssey has been translated many times. The first English translation was by George Chapman in 1615. There have been many others; over sixty in fact. Among the best known translations are by Samuel Butler, Alexander Pope, Butcher and Lang, Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore; the last two being the most recent. This translation is the first English translation of the Odyssey by a woman. For this reason it is put under the spotlight. Much is anticipated. Much is expected, and she does not disappoint.
While the Odyssey is ostensibly about the prime journey of the hero Odysseus, the epic itself also has a strong feminine presence. This presence is represented in the females who are otherworldly, dangerous, clever and or faithful who are woven into the fabric of Odysseus’ return journey. Wilson acknowledges this. Her introduction has a focus on gender which addresses a range of issues including the complex character of Penelope, the matriarchy argument specifically with regard to the status of Penelope and Arete, sexual fidelity, and the famous suggestion by Samuel Butler that the epic must have been written by a woman. In this Wilson demonstrates her awareness of the complexity of femininity in the epic.
Other than translating from the Greek, the other concern for an English translator of Homer has been what to do about the metre. Homer is set in dactylic hexameter, and this does not read well in English. Previous solutions have been to set it to iambic pentameter, or as Chapman did – to rhyming couplets. Fagles used five beats per line, and Lattimore used an English version of the long dactylic line. Butcher and Lang made an important contribution, as theirs was the first English translation into prose. Wilson made the decision to translate into verse, which is admirable as this is reflective of the original. She uses iambic pentameter, and it is quite concentrated in its effect in that it fits one line of English to one line of Greek. Her work as a result is very focussed.
Each book of the Odyssey is titled. Book one for example, is titled ‘The Boy and the Goddess.’ This gives the reader a sense of what is the main focus for each book. In the opening line of the epic, Wilson translates polutropos as ‘complicated.’ The line reads, ‘Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me…’ The adjective polutropos literally means ‘many turns.’ This is a departure from Lattimore’s translation of ‘many ways’ and Fagles’ ‘twists and turns.’ Wilson’s translation of this frequent epithet of Odysseus’ is apt in that the word resonates not only with the multi-layered character of Odysseus, but also with the focus of the epic – that of journey, and that of the mind. For the much analysed, discussed and debated word kunopis literally translated as ‘dog faced,’ which is uniquely applied by Helen in a self- referencing manner, Wilson translates kunopidos at book iv line 145 as ‘the face that hounded…’ (for further discussion on the word kunopis see Blondell, R. “Bitch that I am. Self- blame and Self Assertion in the Iliad” TAPA Vol.140. No.1. 2010.pp.1-32.) In contrast, Fagles translates it as ‘shameless whore,’ and Lattimore as ‘shameless.’ This subtle change in translation shifts the focus from Helen blaming herself, which has been the tradition and the source of much semantic, psychological and feminist literary analysis, and puts the emphasis on how the men viewed and reacted to her. The blame is shifted to the men, and she discusses this choice in detail in the introduction. (p.44.) This in itself is a significant change in translation, as it alters our understanding of the text.
Another change is Wilson’s decision to not have repeated Homeric epithets. They are dispensed with because the Odyssey is not to be listened to as it was in antiquity, but in the present time it is read. Therefore, to Wilson’s mind, repetition is not needed. For example the epithet ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ is given other variations – ‘Dawn was born, her fingers bloomed’, and ‘Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses.’ In contrast, Butcher and Lang’s translation, though in prose, keeps the Homeric formulae of the repeated epithets. Though Wilson’s reason for this variation is understandable, it does detract from the essence of the epic; the oral tradition.
Another modernisation of the text is found in book iv, when Menelaus offers ‘canapés’ to Telemachus and the other guests. (Od.iv.55. eidata is the word translates as canapés.) In a similar vein the suitors are described in book ii as ‘bullying’ and ‘mean,’ (Od.ii.268) and Nausicaa in book vi addresses her father saying, ‘Dear daddy, would you please set up the wagon with the big smooth wheels for me…’ (Od.vi.56-7). Wilson means to modernise the language and make the text relatable. For all the directness of some of Wilson’s modern choices, which one may find buffeting at times, her description of Calypso’s island captures the beauty of the Greek.
The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
and weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
a luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
and scented cypress. It was full of wings.
Birds nested there but hunted out at sea:
The owls, the hawks, the gulls with gaping beaks.
A ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes,
Was stretched to coil around her cave… (Od.v.60-69.)
The Odyssey brings out the depth of life; the complexities of human interactions. This Wilson demonstrates in specific highlighted areas of the epic. Though her tone is not level, largely due to the modernised choices, the areas that are smooth, capture the beauty and depth of Homer. At the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope her translation is sensitive and at ease.
‘Now you have told the story of our bed,
the secret that no other mortal knows,
except yourself and me, and just one slave,
Actoris, whom my father gave to me<
when I came here, who used to guard our room.
You made my stubborn heart believe in you.’
This made him want to cry. He held his love,
his faithful wife, and wept. (Od.xxiii.227-34.)
Wilson particularly here, captures the essence of humanity and the depth and fragility of love. Wilson’s translation comes at a time when two other canonical verse texts have been recently translated by women; the Aeneid by Sarah Ruden (YUP) in 2008 and the Iliad by Caroline Alexander (Ecco) in 2016. It will hopefully pave the way for more women, particularly those outside North America to contribute their own translations of Greek and for that matter Latin texts.
Emily Wilson is Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her other works include translations of four tragedies of Euripides, in The Greek Plays, Modern Library: Bacchae, Helen, Electra and Trojan Women (2016, Random House), Six Tragedies of Seneca with introduction and notes (2010,Oxford World’s Classics) and The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint. (2007 Harvard UP). She is currently working on a new verse translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos.
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