The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

The first time I read The Odyssey, I was on a bit of an odyssey myself: from Budapest to Helsinki, and thence to DC via London. It didn’t take ten years, and I didn’t feel the need to plot a bunch of murders when I reached my new home. Nor did I lose my ship and all my men, nor did people who helped me get their ship turned to stone by an aggravated gods. I think I read Robert Fitzgerald’s verse translation, and I remember being enthralled, carrying it along on day hikes in the High Tatry so that I could get in a few pages any time I stopped. But that was more than a quarter century ago, and by the time I picked up Emily Wilson’s verse translation, I had forgotten all but the barest outlines of what happens to Odysseus, and more importantly, how it happens.

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson

Wilson’s introductory matter prepared me well for returning to The Odyssey, and I particularly appreciated her willingness to write about her personal relationship with the poem rather than pretend to some Olympian detachment from a work of art she was investing considerable time and energy into translating again. As with Karamazov, I am under no illusion that I have anything to add to the vast literature on The Odyssey, nor did I read the book with that in mind. As much as I had any particular reason for picking up this book now, I had three thoughts in mind. First, I enjoyed The Odyssey then, what would I think so many years later? Second, I had heard a radio interview with Wilson around the time her translation was published, and I thought she had interesting perspectives. (As indeed she did, which she spelled out in the introduction.) How did they work in practice? Third, and most ambitiously, I have long thought about a reading project on modern odysseys. I have a copy of Joyce, of course, but have never made a determined effort. I also have a copy of Kazantzakis’ The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel, whose English translation was published in 1958. The front matter of my copy says it’s the sixth paperback printing, from 1966. I bought it used not quite three decades later. There are marginalia in the introduction and the first two books of the poem, along with a business card (Bailey Employment Service of Norwalk [CT]) marking, presumably, the reader’s place at page 50. Finally, I have a copy of Omeros by Derek Walcott. It’s something of a Caribbean Odyssey in terza rima. Before undertaking any of the modern versions, I needed to renew my acquaintance with their progenitor. So.

I had quite forgotten that only half of The Odyssey concerns Odysseus’ fabled journey back to Ithaca. The other half details how he plans to kill the men who are trying to win the wife he has left on her own for twenty years, how he tests everyone around him for loyalty in his long absence, how he executes both plan and suitors, and what happens afterward. The proportion between journey and revenge is a reminder of the point Wilson made in her introduction, that Odysseus’ world will seem strange to contemporary readers because the people who fill the poem’s pages value different things. The fate of his ship and crew — and his indifference to both, or if not indifference, his heedlessness of the costs that others will bear for his choices — would not make him an exemplar of modern leadership. The poet tells the listener many times how great Odysseus is, beloved of the gods and paragon of many virtues, but at the risk of sounding like Yoda: losing ship and crew does not make one great. About midway through the voyage, one crewman does question Odysseus’ choices, saying his vanity is likely to work out badly for the rest of them; nobody listens to him. The one time the crew defies their captain — when they ward off starvation by eating the sun god’s cattle — is even worse. They’re fated to be NPCs in Odysseus’ adventure.

In her translation, Wilson chose to vary the Homeric epithets more than most predecessors. She explained her reasoning in her introduction, and I can’t say that I fault her, exactly, but I did miss hearing “rosy-fingered Dawn” each time a sunrise is mentioned in the story. I don’t know the poem well enough to say if there were fewer instances of “wine-dark sea” than in other translations, but I did note and appreciate the phrase when it appeared. I gather that there has been carping about other aspects of her translation, but that was bound to happen. Anytime someone who isn’t a straight-presenting white guy, preferably middle-aged, takes on a classic or an icon, they get a lot of extra scrutiny and pushback. I remember, for example, the complaints that Hamilton wasn’t historically accurate, versus the lack of same about 1776. So maybe Wilson’s Odyssey isn’t as familiar; it isn’t meant to be; it’s meant to show the poem in new light.

I fully agree with her choice to cast the poem into iambic pentameter. This is the meter of long narrative poetry in English, and its rhythm pulls the story constantly forward. Even the few passages that threaten to become tedious (there are some lists, and some family trees) pass quickly. Her choice of mostly simple and direct language makes the events of the epic immediate, and put me as a reader right into the middle of the action. As she said in her introduction, “stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric.” Seeing how she applied her principle, I think she was right to do so.

I’m still appalled at Odysseus’ choice to slaughter not only the suitors but also the serving women who had dared to act as human beings with their own desires and paired up with a suitor. It’s an era with very different values, and some of those values are terrible. Wilson’s directness does not mask the difference with high-flown language or loaded language about the women; she lets readers see what happens and draw their own conclusions.

I was very glad to renew my acquaintance with The Odyssey and to do it thanks to a lively and readable translation.

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