Premature Evaluation: The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

In the first hundred pages of the book of her translation of The Odyssey, Emily Wilson introduces readers to this three thousand year old epic poem that is one of the foundations of Western literature. She opens doorways to the poem for readers not already well versed in Homer, but she also makes clear that what readers find through those doors will be a strange and different world, where people act differently because the things that matter to them are different from modern concerns. Wilson explores some of the long-lived questions surrounding the poem — Who was Homer? When was The Odyssey composed? — and some of the concepts that run through the poem that modern readers might want to know more about before sailing on Homer’s seas of verse: the Homeric world; gods; friends, strangers, guests; the roles of women; becoming a man; slaves; Odysseus’ choices; people in the poem who hate Odysseus; endings; how The Odyssey has been seen through the centuries. Before that, though, she bids readers welcome.

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

Modern connotations of the word “epic” are in some ways misleading when we turn to the Homeric poems, the texts that begin the Western epic tradition. The Greek word epos means simply “word” or “story” or “song.” It is related to a verb meaning “to say” or “to tell,” which is used (in a form with a prefix) in the first line of the poem. The narrator commands the Muse, “Tell me”: enn-epe. And epic poem is, at root, simply a tale that is told. (p. 1)

Odysseus, for anyone who would like a brief refresher, is one of the men who went off to fight in the Trojan War, a story told in The Iliad, the other Homeric epic (which I still have not read, despite several attempts). He left his wife Penelope and infant son Telemachus behind on their home island of Ithaca. This edition of The Odyssey provides several maps of the ancient Greek world, so readers need never feel lost, at least geographically. The war lasted ten years, and another ten years have passed since its end, and still Odysseus has not returned. The Odyssey tells the story of his attempts to return. It also tells the stories of the people left behind, and indeed the first several books of the epic follow his son, Telemachus, as he makes his own journey to try to find out what has happened to his father. Penelope has remained faithful to Odysseus, but she is beset by aggressive suitors, who want her to declare Odysseus dead and choose one of them to take his place. In the meantime, they are abusing Greek laws of hospitality and eating her out of house and home. Telemachus, though nearly grown, is not strong enough to battle the suitors alone.

The poem, Wilson writes, is accessible and told in a regular rhythm that would have been familiar to its audiences, but its language is also peculiar. “[I]ts vocabulary was not that used by ordinary Greeks in everyday speech, in any time or place. The language contains a strange mixture of words from different periods of times, and from Greek dialects associated with different regions. A handful of words in Homer were incomprehensible to Greeks of the classical period … The syntax is relatively simple, but the words and phrases, in these combinations, are unlike the way that anybody ever actually spoke.” (pp. 1–2) The language leads to a discussion of the oral tradition from which The Odyssey emerged, and one of the enduring questions of scholarship: who was Homer? In fact, Wilson relates for non-specialists, that is known as the Homeric Question. “The Question is given a capital Q, because scholars still disagree on some crucial issues even after a couple of centuries of discussion.” The Question, Wilson notes, is “really a whole cluster of questions about the composition of The Iliad and The Odyssey.” (p. 7)

How exactly did the Homeric poems as we have them emerge from the oral tradition that preceded them? Who was Homer? Was there a single author of The Odyssey, or several? Did the same person produce The Iliad and The Odyssey? When exactly did the poems get written down, and how? Can we trace earlier and later parts of the poems, or tie particular passages to different geographical locations? And to what extent do the poems reflect real historical events, cultures, and peoples …? More generally, how exactly did multiple people over hundreds of years across the Greek-speaking world work together to create this magnificent, challenging and coherent work of poetic storytelling? (pp. 7–8)

Wilson does not, obviously can not, answer these questions, but she sketches enough of the debates for a non-specialist reader to take an interest and see the outlines of various answers. Aspects of the Question also gained in complexity in the nineteenth century when Heinrich Schliemann discovered what are considered the ruins of Troy (I have pictures of bearded me there in 1993), and in the middle part of the twentieth century when Milman Parry and Albert Lord drew on field research among the bards of 1930s Yugoslavia to show the hallmarks of oral composition in the Homeric poems. (Patrick Leigh Fermor did something similar in a non-scholarly way.)

Providing a date for the poem’s composition offers similar challenges, and Wilson uses that discussion as a segue into a more general discussion of Homer’s, world including attempts to pair locations in The Odyssey with real places, an awareness during the Homeric era of previous fallen civilizations in the Aegean basin, and relations between people who speak Greek and people who do not. From there, Wilson springs to a discussion of key roles within The Odyssey — first “Friends, Strangers, Guests” and then later some of the roles available to women, “Goddesses, Wives, Princesses, and Slave Girls.” In between, her section on gods discusses what prudent mortals do to avoid offending the Olympians as well as the particular interests and caprices of several of the gods mentioned in the poem. She closes her introduction with a discussion of some of the oddities of the poem’s ending, and it reception through the many centuries down to the present day.

The Translator’s Note that Wilson provides brings some of the more academic concerns from the Introduction to life:

When I was eight years old, my primary school put on a production of a (much-shortened) Odyssey, complete with costumes, song, and dance. The play starred the cute troublemaker in my class as Odysseus, the headmaster of the school as Polyphemus (the one-eyed monster outwitted by his tiny opponent), and me in pigtails as the goddess Athena. (p. 81)

Readers will not be surprised to learn that the play changed her life, and she relates the story charmingly. As she adds, “The Odyssey has always been with me.” (p. 81) In embarking on her own translation, she set herself two challenging strictures. First, her version is an actual poem, set throughout in a regular meter. “The original is in six-footed lines … the conventional meter for archaic Greek narrative verse. I used iambic pentameter, because it is the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse—the rhythm of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Byron, Keats, and plenty of more recent anglophone poets.” (p. 82) Second, Wilson’s Odyssey has exactly the same number of lines as the original. “I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translation without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.”

Wilson aims for directness and simplicity in the language of her translation. She dispenses with old-fashioned ideas of how to approach Homer. “The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope. It is past time, I believe to reject this assumption. Homer’s language is markedly rhythmical, but it is not difficult or ostentatious.” Further, “[S]tylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric.” (p. 83) And while she does not shy away from poetic language, she takes care to say that she chooses contemporary poetic language. “Mild stylistic archaism is often accepted without question in translations of ancient texts and can be presented as if it were a mark of authenticity.” Wilson is having none of it. “But of course, the English of the nineteenth or early twentieth century is no closer to Homeric Greek than the language of today. … My Homer does not speak in your grandparents’ English, since that language is no closer to the wine-dark sea than your own.” (p. 87)

Her note also discusses how she addresses some difficult topics within Homer’s epic. “For example, The Odyssey may seem to normalize or valorize the treatment of non-Western people as monsters.” (p. 88) There is also the question of non-free persons within many of the households depicted in the poem. The original, she says, has many different terms for types of enslaved persons. She mostly chooses the directness of “slave” because she wants “to mark the fact that the idealized society depicted in the poem is one where slavery is shockingly taken for granted.” (p. 89) I am not sure that the slavery of antiquity is the same as the industrialized, commoditized, racialized slavery of the mid-1800s, but I am not sure that I have an alternative set of words to propose either. Certainly “serf,” another non-free condition that pertained for many centuries, would be a poor fit. Wilson also devotes several pages of her introduction to slaves within The Odyssey, noting that “people of any rank might be enslaved” (p. 54) through war or raids, and showing the contrasts between “good” and “bad” slaves within the poem. At any rate, Wilson’s discussion reminds readers that commonalities as well as differences across the millennia will play a role in every translation. As she says about another important issue, “I try to avoid importing contemporary types of sexism into this ancient poem, instead shining a clear light on the particular forms of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text, which are only partly familiar from our world.” (p. 89)

In the end, “The Odyssey” is a very ancient and very foreign text, although its long-standing prominence in Anglo-American and European cultures may mask its strangeness. … I hope my translation will enable contemporary readers to welcome and host this foreign poem, with all the right degrees of warmth, curiosity, openness, and suspicion.” (p. 91) How well does Wilson meet her goals? Lives up to its billing so far; more later.


In the meantime, here’s a complementary modern approach to another epic translation.

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