Until recently, it seemed we were living in an age of Iliads. Since 2007, the ancient Homeric epic has been translated into English at least seven times (including by Caroline Alexander, the first woman to do so). Yet the Iliad’s sequel, the Odyssey — about war’s aftermath, the home front and the difficult return to civilian life — is just as topical. And with its greater emphasis on female characters and different walks of life, it should appeal to a broader audience. Until now, it has not been translated into English by a woman. Does this make a difference? Emily Wilson, in the introduction to her sleek translation, argues that it does.
The poem’s cast of female characters — princesses, queens, slaves, goddesses — along with its vagueness on the technical details of sailing and war, led Samuel Butler to propose, in his brilliant if zany 1887 book The Authoress of the Odyssey, that the epic was written by a woman. It’s true all the women in the Odyssey are clever and accomplished, if sometimes witchy or inscrutable. Athena, central to the poem, is the goddess of wiles and wisdom. While no one now takes Butler’s theory of the poem’s female authorship very seriously, his gendered interpretation seems at once quaint and prescient. As Wilson remarks in her Translator’s Note:
The gendered metaphor of the ‘faithful’ translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of a male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of the Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.
Compare the macho stance of T.E. Lawrence, who began his translation in 1928 in modern-day Pakistan, regarding his unique qualifications:
I have... hunted wild boars and watched wild lions, sailed the Aegean (and sailed ships), bent bows, lived with pastoral peoples, woven textiles, built boats and killed many men.
Lawrence, who described the Odyssey as ‘the first novel’, accordingly turned it into prose.
Introductions to translations of Homer (Wilson’s is no exception) must at least mention Matthew Arnold’s touchstone 1860 lecture on the subject, ‘On Translating Homer’, where he sets out the essential Homeric qualities:
That he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas, and finally that he is eminently noble.
As Arnold suggests, a translator will often get one or two of these qualities, but almost never all four.
Wilson has Arnold’s rapidity and plainness in spades. This is one of the leanest Homers on record. Where Wilson sometimes misses Arnold’s mark is nobility — but she disputes Arnold’s assertion that this is an essential Homeric quality.
My Homer does not speak in your grandparents’ English, since that language is no closer to the wine-dark sea than your own. I have tried to keep to a register that is recognisably speakable and readable while skirting between the Charybdis of artifice and the Scylla of slang.
She hews to strict iambic pentameter (a fairly standard choice for translating the dactylic hexameter of epic), impressing upon the reader that this is a poem, it is in verse. (One might even wish for a bit more variation.) She eschews 19th-century fustian, but we do sometimes drift close to the Scylla of slang — Odysseus is off somewhere ‘drinking and having fun’, the suitors, ‘bullying’ and ‘mean’, are accused of ‘heedless partying’. Hermes is ‘at the cutest age’ and Odysseus on his raft has failed to keep up his ‘exercise routine’. While Wilson’s directness is refreshing, I did find the occasional appearance of this social-media register jarring. Yet Arnold would certainly nod at her remark that ‘stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric’.
The Odyssey proceeds by oppositions — good hosts (Nestor for instance) are juxtaposed with bad (the Cyclops eats his guests); faithful servants (the worthy swineherd Eumaeus) with treacherous ones (Melanthius); the perfectly matched (Odysseus and Penelope) with the tragically yoked (Agamemnon and Clytemnestra). It is the catastrophic homecoming of Agamemnon — murdered at table by his wife’s new lover — that hangs over the Odyssey from the beginning. Agamemnon’s shade disparages his own wife, but lauds Penelope:
How principled she was, that she remembered
her husband all those years! Her fame will live
forever, and the deathless gods will make
a poem to delight all those on earth
about intelligent Penelope.
The idea of a Penelopiad would seem to be as old as the poem; Margaret Atwood even published one in 2005. But I might argue that the Odyssey is already that poem. We tend to overlook how much space is given to the back-at-the-ranch story: for the first four books, we are in Ithaca with Penelope and Telemachus. Odysseus himself doesn’t show up in the poem (aside from the overture) until five books in, when we see him weeping homesick on Calypso’s beach.
We tend to think of the Odyssey in terms of fairy tales and monsters — the one-eyed Cyclops, men transmogrified into pigs, or Penelope’s ‘loom trick’, where she holds off her suitors by unravelling at night what she weaves during the day (and when the shroud is done, she swears she will choose one of them). But all of this has already happened, the stories told in flashback, often by Odysseus himself, the only survivor of his fleet and a man given to bending the truth like a bow to his purposes. For all of the tall tales, the Ithacan homecoming itself is marked with a closely observed realism. The Odyssey might even be considered a sort of ur-Western, with its prosperous homestead beset by greedy cattle ranchers, held together by the wits of a beautiful widow woman (a widow for all anyone knows anyway). This translation reminds us of the plot’s cinematic urgency, its cliff-hangers.
Wilson always has a weather eye on the Greek original, even if she dislikes the idea of a translator’s being held to a Penelopean ‘faithfulness’. But of course, Penelope is also tricky, and to ‘penelopise’ is to work and rework something, to tinker and revise. Wilson does this most often in the similes. Fascinatingly, similes in the Odyssey are often gender-bending, with Odysseus, say, likened to a weeping widow, or to mother animals, and Penelope to a shipwrecked sailor or to a judicious king. Wilson intervenes in this last example, so that Odysseus compares Penelope instead to the king’s daughter, one instance where the bold adjustment seems counterproductive.
One of the challenges of translating Homer is repeated epithets, such as ‘rosy-fingered dawn’. Wilson’s solution is to capture different facets: ‘Soon Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses,’ or ‘The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.’ Likewise, with the much-repeated ‘winged words,’ Wilson riffs: ‘let his words fly out to her’ or words are ‘light as a feather’ or ‘words flew fast’. She is playful. Women in Homer are euplokamos, that is, with intricately arranged hair (consider the fancy hairdos of the Erechtheion’s Caryatids); Wilson’s Demeter, goddess of the earth, has ‘cornrows’. Wilson’s Odyssey, for all its plainness, breaks into moments of lyrical beauty, as in this description of Calypso’s island:
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.
The Odyssey is what drew Wilson to classics in the first place. In elementary school, she was cast as Athena (in pigtails) in the school play. It is fitting, therefore, that this Odyssey is not only well suited to dramatic interpretation, but is ideal for students, with its simple language and syntax, its overview on topics such as slavery and colonialism from a contemporary viewpoint. This is certainly an Odyssey for our moment; it will be interesting to see how it ages. For timeless nobility and resounding phrases, readers will need to keep a Lattimore or a Fitzgerald or a Fagles on their shelves, yet they may find themselves increasingly drawn to this swift, unornamented text.
Samuel Butler thought that the resourceful Phaeacean princess Nausicaa was a self-portrait of the alleged authoress of the Odyssey. Fittingly, Wilson slips in a bit of self-portraiture as well. Athena, disguised as a little girl, guides Odysseus to the town of the Phaeaceans. In Wilson’s translation, the girl’s eyes ‘sparkle’, she addresses Odysseus with a cheeky ‘Mr Foreigne’, and she is ‘pigtailed Athena’. Surely the child version of Wilson herself has walked onto the stage, winking at us, as if she already knows, at eight, that she will be the first woman to bring the poem into English, and to speak (or sing) all the lines in her own voice.