The Odyssey is about a man. It says so right at the beginning — in Robert Fagles’s 1996 translation, for example, the poem opens with the line, “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns.”
In the course of the poem, that man plots his return home after fighting the Trojan War, slaughters the suitors vying to marry his wife Penelope, and reestablishes himself as the head of his household.
But the Odyssey is also about other people: Penelope, the nymph Calypso, the witch Circe, the princess Nausicaa; Odysseus’s many shipmates who died before they could make it home; the countless slaves in Odysseus’s house, many of whom are never named.
Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, is as concerned with these surrounding characters as she is with Odysseus himself. Written in plain, contemporary language and released earlier this month to much fanfare, her translation lays bare some of the inequalities between characters that other translations have elided. It offers not just a new version of the poem, but a new way of thinking about it in the context of gender and power relationships today. As Wilson puts it, “the question of who matters is actually central to what the text is about.”
Why it matters for a woman to translate the Odyssey
Composed around the 8th century BC, the Odyssey is one of the oldest works of literature typically read by an American audience; for comparison, it’s almost 2,000 years older than Beowulf. While the Iliad tells the story of the Trojan War, the Odyssey picks up after the war is over, when Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, is trying to make his way home.
Both poems are traditionally attributed to the Greek poet Homer, but since they almost certainly originated as oral performances and not written texts, it’s hard to tell whether a single person composed them, or whether they are the result of many different creators and performers refining and contributing to a story over a period of time. (The introduction to Wilson’s translation includes a longer discussion of the question of who “Homer” was.)
Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has also translated plays by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides and the Roman philosopher Seneca. Her translation of the Odyssey is one of many in English (though the others have been by men), including versions by Fagles, Robert Fitzgerald, Richmond Lattimore, and more. Translating the long-dead language Homer used — a variant of ancient Greek called Homeric Greek — into contemporary English is no easy task, and translators bring their own skills, opinions, and stylistic sensibilities to the text. The result is that every translation is different, almost a new poem in itself.
A battlefield epic, the Iliad has very few major female characters. The Odyssey, however, devotes significant time to the life (and even the dreams) of Penelope. Circe, Calypso, and the goddess Athena all play important roles. This was one of the reasons I was drawn to the Odyssey as a teenager, and why I’ve returned to it many times over the years.
But the Odyssey is hardly a feminist text. Odysseus may have trouble getting home, but at least he gets to travel the world and have sex with beautiful women like Calypso and Circe. Penelope, meanwhile, has to wait around while boorish suitors drink and carouse in her family’s home, pressuring her to marry one of them. To buy time, she says she can’t marry until she finishes weaving a funeral shroud for her father-in-law, but every night she undoes the day’s work, making the task last as long as she can. “His work always gets him somewhere,” Wilson told me. “Her work is all about undoing. It’s all about hiding herself, hiding her desires, and creating something whose only purpose is to get nowhere.”
Some feminist readings of the Odyssey have tried to cast Penelope as heroic in her own way, sometimes by comparing her to Odysseus. “I think there’s so many things wrong with that,” Wilson said. “She’s constantly still being judged by, is she like him.” What’s more, the heroic-Penelope reading focuses on a wealthy woman at the expense of the many enslaved women in the poem, some of whom meet an untimely and brutal end. When Odysseus returns home and kills all the suitors, he also tells his son Telemachus to kill the slave women who had sex with (or were raped by) the suitors. “Hack at them with long swords, eradicate / all life from them,” Odysseus says in Wilson’s translation. “They will forget the things / the suitors made them do with them in secret.”
As a woman, Wilson believes she comes to the Odyssey with a different perspective than translators who have gone before her. “Female translators often stand at a critical distance when approaching authors who are not only male, but also deeply embedded in a canon that has for many centuries been imagined as belonging to men,” she wrote in a recent essay at the Guardian. She called translating Homer as a woman an experience of “intimate alienation.”
“Earlier translators are not as uncomfortable with the text as I am,” she explained to me, “and I like that I’m uncomfortable.” Part of her goal with the translation was to make readers uncomfortable too — with the fact that Odysseus owns slaves, and with the inequities in his marriage to Penelope. Making these aspects of the poem visible, rather than glossing over them, “makes it a more interesting text,” she said.
Wilson’s translation is different from its predecessors in subtle — and not so subtle — ways
Part of the way Wilson challenges previous readings of the Odyssey is with style. Her translation made a splash months before it was published, when an excerpt ran in the summer 2017 issue of the Paris Review. I and other Odyssey fans were excited by Wilson’s opening line: “Tell me about a complicated man.” In its matter-of-fact language, it’s worlds different from Fagles’s “Sing to me of the man, Muse,” or Robert Fitzgerald’s 1961 version, “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story / of that man skilled in all ways of contending.” Wilson chose to use plain, relatively contemporary language in part to “invite readers to respond more actively with the text,” she writes in a translator’s note. “Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement.”
“There’s an idea that Homer has to sound heroic and ancient,” Wilson told me, but that idea comes with a value system attached, one that includes “endorsing this very hierarchical kind of society as if that’s what heroism is.” Telling the story in plainer language allows readers to see Odysseus and his society in another light.
There are flashes of beauty in Wilson’s Odyssey. “The early Dawn was born,” she writes in Book 2; “her fingers bloomed.” Of the forest on Calypso’s island, where many birds nest, she writes, “It was full of wings.” But throughout the book, there’s a frankness to Wilson’s language around work and the people who do it. Of Eurymedusa, a slave in the house of princess Nausicaa, she writes, “She used to babysit young Nausicaa / and now she lit her fire and cooked her meal.”
The slaves in older translations of the Odyssey do not “babysit” — often, they’re not identified as slaves at all. Fagles, for instance, calls Eurymedusa a “chambermaid.” Fitzgerald calls her a “nurse.” “It sort of stuns me when I look at other translations,” Wilson said, “how much work seems to go into making slavery invisible.”
Wilson, by contrast, uses the word “slave” for Eurymedusa and many other enslaved characters, even when the original uses a more specific term. The Homeric Greek dmoe, or “female-house-slave,” Wilson writes in her translator’s note, could be translated as “maid” or “domestic servant,” but those terms would imply that the woman was free. “The need to acknowledge the fact and the horror of slavery,” she writes, “and to mark the fact that the idealized society depicted in the poem is one where slavery is shockingly taken for granted, seems to me to outweigh the need to specify, in every instance, the type of slave.”
While Wilson’s language is often plain, it’s also carefully chosen. She told Wyatt Mason at the New York Times magazine she could have begun the poem with the line “Tell me about a straying husband,” an even more radical choice that would still have been “a viable translation.” But, she said, “it would give an entirely different perspective and an entirely different setup for the poem.” She spoke, Mason noted, with “the firmness of someone making hard choices she believes in.”
Those choices show up clearly in her treatment of Penelope. Penelope is a frustrating character — it’s not entirely clear why she doesn’t simply send the suitors away or marry one of them, and the poem offers limited access to her thoughts and feelings. Wilson didn’t try to make Penelope easier to understand — “the opacity of Penelope,” as she puts it, is one of the aspects of the poem she wants to trouble readers and make them uncomfortable.
But small details can tell us something about even the most frustrating of characters. At one point in Book 21, Penelope unlocks the storeroom where Odysseus keeps his weapons — as Wilson writes in her translator’s note, this act sets in motion the slaughter of the suitors and the resolution of the poem. As she picks up the key, Homer describes her hand as pachus, or “thick.” “There is a problem here,” Wilson writes, “since in our culture, women are not supposed to have big, thick, or fat hands.” Translators have usually solved the problem by skipping the adjective, or putting in something more traditional — Fagles mentions Penelope’s “steady hand.” Wilson, however, renders the moment this way: “Her muscular, firm hand/ picked up the ivory handle of the key.”
“Weaving does in fact make a person’s hands more muscular,” she writes. “I wanted to ensure that my translation, like the original, underlines Penelope’s physical competence, which marks her as a character who plays a crucial part in the action — whether or not she knows what she is doing.”
Wilson does not give Penelope more agency or power than she has in the original poem, but she also does not take any of the queen’s original power away by making descriptions of her conform to modern gender stereotypes.
“Part of fighting misogyny in the current world is having a really clear sense of what the structures of thought and the structures of society are that have enabled androcentrism in different cultures, including our own,” Wilson said, and the Odyssey, looked at in the right way, can help readers understand those structures more clearly. The poem offers a “defense of a male dominant society, a defense of its own hero and his triumph over everybody else,” she said, “but it also seems to provide these avenues for realizing what’s so horrible about this narrative, what’s missing about this narrative.”
Recent events have led to a widespread debate over how audiences should consume the work of people we know to be abusers of women. This is intertwined with the question of how we should consume art that has racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted elements. Often elided from this conversation is the fact that people of color and women of all races have been consuming racist and sexist art in America for generations (in many classes on Western literature, for instance, they have had little choice), and developing their own responses to it, responses that are often deeply nuanced.
Conservative talk of “special snowflakes” demanding trigger warnings ignores the fact that people marginalized in the Western canon have long read literature from it in exactly the way Wilson describes: both as an endorsement of its author’s values, and as evidence of how horrible those values can be, and whom they leave out.
Wilson’s translation, then, is not a feminist version of the Odyssey. It is a version of the Odyssey that lays bare the morals of its time and place, and invites us to consider how different they are from our own, and how similar.