Reading: The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson



Finished: January 15, 2018


In early November 2017 I read a New York Times article of a new translation of The Odyssey – the first English translation by a woman.(NY Times “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ into English” November 2) That got my attention – I never really thought about the fact that it has been a man’s world up to now. I was then grabbed by her account of struggling with the fifth word of the poem – “polytropos”. That word gets to the heart of describing the hero. It can be translated as either the ‘much turning’ or ‘much turned’ (NY Times November 2, 2017). “Much turning” reveals the wily side of Odysseus; the man who cleverly disguises himself and lies in order to prevail. “Much turned” describes his plight in being pursued and helped by the gods Poseidon and Athena. Wilson settles on

“Tell me about a complicated man” (1:1)

I had also heard that this translation is translated into a more modern meter to make sense to our modern ears. Even though I had read the Robert Fagles translation in 2010, I knew I’d have to read this one.

Emily Wilson is breaking new ground here; I love her unapologetic take on this work:

“It is traditional in statements like this Translator’s Note to bewail one’s own inadequacy when trying to be faithful to the original. Like many contemporary translation theorists, I believe that we need to rethink the terms in which we talk about translation. My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily, involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original” [p 86]

This thought struck me back in the 1970’s when I studied literature and could not figure why in the world Alexander Pope would translate it into rhyming couplets. That was definitely a reflection of the times when this form was considered the way to bring order and control to the world.

This is definitely a translation for our times – it is quick-paced and clear. That being said, I understand why so many people have terrible memories of reading The Odyssey in high school. The story is quite convoluted. We get many stories within stories. In fact, the scenes we are so familiar with – the cyclops, the Lotus Eaters, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, are short and not described in the normal sequence of events; but are told my Odysseus in hindsight. Because Odysseus has to carefully consider his words and actions in order to get home safely, we see him taking on other names and retelling parts of the story from that point of view. Wilson’s  translation helps break down some of those barriers.

Regardless, the pace is quick and I could see how it could be turned into a modern day action movie. When he throws off his last disguise to battle the suitors we get graphic descriptions of him shooting an arrow through one man’s throat and just above another man’s nipple. The violence is sometimes quite graphic. In describing the the cyclops killing his men we read:

“…, he reached his hands toward my men,
seized tow, and kocked them hard against the groiund
like puppies, and the floor was wet with brains.” [9: 288-290]

then later as the drunk monster slept

“… All-conquering sleep
took him. In drunken heaviness, he spewed
wine from his throat, and chunks of human flesh.” [9:372-374]

It totally sucks for Odysseus that Polyphemus is related to Poseidon who plagues the city-sacker for many years.

Even though Wilson does away with the repeated phrases describing people and gods (a method for oral reciters to keep the listeners in the loop) she does a great job showing us who he is.

“Odysseus, with careful calculation said” [p 215]

“Odysseus, the city-sacker” [p 220]

“the clever mastermind of many schemes” [p 236]

“Wily Odysseus, the lord of lies, …” [p240]

“Odysseus, adept survivor” [p 282]

“Unflappable Odysseus” [p 395]

“Odysseus, the master of every cunning scheme.” [p493]

“Lying Odysseus” [p 516]

Wilson has much more to say about the clash of cultures, the plight of slaves, women, and the like. Reading her introduction provides wonderful insight into the ancient culture and her and understanding her word choice. I’m no scholar; I suspect many experts of the Ancient Greek stories will take issue with Wilson. But I loved it.


[EDIT: January 22, 2018] Can you believe it? I got the author’s name wrong. It is Emily Wilson, not Emily Watson. Geesh! I apologize for the mistake

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