Emily Wilson Discusses Her "Odyssey"

February 7, 2019

Emily Wilson, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, visited Princeton’s campus on the evening of Monday, February 4th, to deliver a lecture on her experiences producing a translation of the Odyssey (Norton, 2017). The talk, which was co-sponsored by the Department of Classics, the Princeton Public Library, the Program in Translation, and the Women*s Center, was eagerly attended, as was to be expected given the considerable praise garnered by Wilson’s trailblazing rendition of the poem, the first published in English by a woman.

Professor Barbara Graziosi introduced Professor Wilson and highlighted her distinguished career in scholarship before she undertook this translation project. Professor Wilson began her talk with a dramatic reading from her translation of the passage from book XIII in which Odysseus departs from the island of Scheria. A few quotations from the passage she read will give a good sense of her rendering and what is distinctive about it. For the sake of comparison, both a Greek text and the corresponding translation from A.T. Murray’s Loeb edition are included:

καὶ τῷ νήδυμος ὕπνος ἐπὶ βλεφάροισιν ἔπιπτε,

νήγρετος, ἥδιστος, θανάτῳ ἄγχιστα ἐοικώς

(13.79–80)

“Sweet sleep fell upon his eyelids, an unawakening sleep, most sweet, and most like to death.” (Loeb)

“A sound sweet sleep fell on his eyes, like death; / He did not stir.” (Wilson)

κῦμα δ᾿ ὄπισθε

πορφύρεον μέγα θῦε πολυφλοίσβοιο θαλάσσης.

ἡ δὲ μάλ᾿ ἀσφαλέως θέεν ἔμπεδον.

(13.84–86)

“In her wake the gleaming wave of the loud-sounding sea foamed mightily, and she sped safely and surely on her way.” (Loeb)

“The seething waves / of sounding purple sea rushed round the stern / as she sped straight ahead.” (Wilson)

As Wilson went on to explain, she chose iambic pentameter for her translation and restricted herself to the same number of lines Homer uses. Since English tends to take more syllables to express a given idea than Homeric Greek does, and since a line of pentameter contains fewer syllables than a line of Homer’s dactylic hexameter does, this stricture poses a great challenge to the translator. The examples above give a picture of how Wilson deals with this issue and the compression and occasional expansion it requires. In the first passage, where Homer uses two words for “sweet,” Wilson uses one; conversely, where Homer uses only an epithet of sleep, νήγρετος (“unstirring”), Wilson both calls the sleep “sound” and introduces a declarative sentence not found in the Greek: “he did not stir.” Likewise, in the second example, Homer’s μάλ’ ἀσφαλέως θέεν ἔμπεδον (“sped safely and surely”) is efficiently rendered “sped straight ahead.”

Professor Wilson stated that one of her ambitions was to produce a translation that would represent the poetic texture of the original, while avoiding the prosaic and quotidian. This is evinced not only by her commitment to metrical form but also her use of sonic devices such as alliteration and occasional internal rhyme. She also expressed her desire for her work not to be overly informal but to be comprehensible when read aloud. Behind her comments one could hear echoes of Matthew Arnold’s four famous prescriptions for translators of Homer: “Homer is rapid in his movement, Homer is plain in his words and style, Homer is simple in his ideas, Homer is noble in his manner.” Nonetheless, Wilson highlighted some of her bolder diction and alluded to her desire to recreate the sense of Homer’s language as a literary amalgam reflecting the forms of several regional dialects in the Ancient Greek world by including occasional archaic or regional terms. She also explained her treatment of repeated formulae, a bugbear of translators preparing texts forged by oral poetics for a literate audience, explaining that she renders the formulaic lines each time they appear but introduces variations to bring out different aspects of the Greek.

Having dealt with the distinctive literary qualities of her translation, Professor Wilson sought to situate her version of the Odyssey in the history of classical translation, which, as she points out, remains to this day primarily the province of white men who are either unaffiliated with an institution, or emeritus. Pondering the dominating maleness and whiteness of this practice, and its undervalued status in the academy, Wilson suggested that this may have to do with the distinctive status of “translation” in the discipline of Classics. Since translation remains the primary means of assessment in the pedagogy of Latin and Greek, Wilson posits that classicists have internalized a notion of a translation as being either simply right or simply wrong, and have clung to false binaries between what sounds beautiful and what is actually “correct.” Wilson points out that translation is never simply an accurate reporting of “what it says,” but always involves decisions, decisions which can reflect the translator’s identity and ideology. She argues that translation is not an inert assessment of competence or a hobby for the retired, but a crucial act of criticism which needs to be engaged with and taken seriously by academics.

This contextualization led Wilson to two reflections on gender and translation. Her first point was to explore the ways in which supposedly “literal” renderings produced primarily by economically privileged male translators can reflect the biases of their gender and socioeconomic position. Wilson stressed that she did not consult existing translations as she was working on her own, and shared her discovery upon comparison of a number of striking ways in which she had unknowingly departed from the practice of most major male translators. Prominent examples would be the tendency of many previous translators to sanitize the social world of the poem by translating “slave” as “servant” or “attendant,” and the widespread trend of inserting gendered terms of abuse into passages in which they are not paralleled in the Greek.

Professor Wilson’s second point about gender was at least partially a response to a simplistic reading of her first. She turned to the media reception of her publication and how it focused almost exclusively, and at times reductively, on her gender. Wilson welcomes the recognition, hinted at in her critique of many male translators, that translation involves ideological decisions and that these are to be connected to the social identity of the translator. She also recognizes that her translation comes along at a cultural moment when women’s voices are being sought out and recognized. However, she cautions against an overly simple, deterministic link between identity and intellectual activity. In other words, she reminds us that no one can look at any passage of her translation and say that she made a certain decision because she is a woman, as though she could conceive of no other option. If her experiences as a woman have given her some insight that has helped her to see the poem in a new way, it is not the case that we can safely generalize about how women translate. Her Homer is not simply a “ladies’ Homer,” but a fresh, fully engaged, scholarly consideration of the poem. She wondered why we rarely pose questions to men about how their identity affects their translations, and suggests that the bigger story is not that she is a woman, but that the field of classical translation continues to be so male-dominated well into this century.

The talk was greeted with a lively and engaging question and answer session, a testament to the thought-provoking intervention into the field of Classical studies which Professor Wilson’s talk, her translation, and her scholarship represent.

The author of this article is William Dingee, a PhD candidate in Classics at Princeton.

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