The Odyssey—the ancient Greek epic attributed to Homer—has been translated into English at least 60 times since the seventeenth century. But only one of those translations is by a woman. Her name is Emily Wilson (photo credit: Imogen Roth), and she’s a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her brilliant new translation hit shelves in November. In this interview, we discuss how her identity as a woman—and a cis-gendered feminist—informs her translation work, how her Odyssey translation honors both ancient traditions and contemporary reading practices, and what Homer meant when he called Dawn, repeatedly, “rosy-fingered.” This interview has been edited slightly for length.
In your recent review of Barry Powell’s translation of ‘The Poems of Hesiod’ in the New York Review of Books, you critique the translator’s “gender bias.” What does it mean to have a gender bias when translating literature, and how do you avoid it in your own translation work?
I critiqued his unexamined gender bias. I don’t think anybody can avoid having biases, preferences, histories, interests, identities, thoughts, judgments, preferences. My point isn’t that translators could or should be “objective,” if that means that there’s just one way to do things that counts as the right way. I’m suspicious of that idea: it tends to bolster the idea that the “objectively right” way is the way that the elite have always done it.
Translation, like any work of reporting or reading or interpreting or narrating, isn’t like that. I think we should aim not to be “unbiased,” but to be responsible, and that involves being as conscious as possible about our biases and preferences, as well as being informed as possible about the material at hand (which includes our society and the English language, as well as the Greek text). It’s been unsurprising that many people have asked me about how my gender identity (as a cis-gendered woman) affects my translation of the Odyssey. It’s also unsurprising, but highly problematic, that hardly anyone (except me, so far!) seems to ask male classical translators how their gender affects their work. As I show in that piece on Hesiod, unexamined biases can lead to some seriously problematic and questionable choices (such as, in that instance, translating rape as if it were the same as consensual sex).
Translators get away with that kind of thing all the time, because there’s an assumption that male translators don’t need to worry about gender, and that a clunky English style guarantees an “authentic,” “accurate” or “unbiased” translation. It’s not OK and it’s not true. In my work on my translation of the Odyssey, I didn’t want to be in any way untruthful or irresponsible about what the original text is saying or doing. I tried to think, as much as I could, about how my own identities and histories might affect my interestedness in the poem: as a woman and as a gender-aware feminist (which isn’t necessarily implied by the first), and as an immigrant, a mother, a writer/poet, and so on. I thought and wrote a lot on the side about all the many ways I felt the Odyssey mapping onto elements of my own life.
Intimate engagement with an imaginative text is about far more than just gender, though gender definitely matters. But in fact, since I wasn’t looking at any other translations while I worked on the Greek and my own version, I didn’t really know whether (or if so, how exactly) the text I was creating was different from those created by men. It was only at the end, once I was done with my version and had to explain to the general public what was distinctive about it, that I went and looked closely at various scenes in other translations—and realized that there are some very significant differences that do have to do with gender. For instance, as I’ve discussed before, I don’t import misogynistic language (like “sluts” and “whores”) where the original doesn’t have it, but—as I was shocked to discover—many translations by men indeed do this, even those which are touted for being “faithful.” I also, for example, don’t make the goddess Calypso seem ridiculous—but I discovered that most male translators work very hard to present her as a hysterical, absurd “nymph” whose frustrated sexual desire is essentially laughable. The Greek doesn’t do this, and nor do I. I didn’t know it was even a thing to avoid, until I looked at the other translations.
Your translation uses less repetition than others I’ve read. Can you discuss this choice?
Translations vary about how much they replicate the repetitiveness of Homeric verse. Richmond Lattimore is very repetitive; Stanley Lombardo probably repeats even less than me (and certainly reproduces fewer of the epithets—e.g. his Dawn is sometimes not even a goddess). Repetition, in a primarily or largely oral culture (like that from which this poem emerged) serves a particular function. It tells you, “This is important: listen and remember it.” Repetition, in a very literate culture like ours, means something totally different. It means, “This is unimportant and cliché, you can skip.” I very much wanted to convey the repetitiveness of Homeric type scenes and formulae, but mostly without using exact verbal repetition, since that seems like a surefire way to send the reader to sleep.
I wanted to create a similar effect by different rhetorical means (because using the same means would have produced a totally different effect). So I made rosy fingered Dawn appear just as often as she does in the original, always with roses or flowers or pink, always with fingers or touching, always early or new-born or early-born, but I created multiple variations on how those repeated elements appear, to make sure that the metaphors and the imagery always feel alive to the reader—even if they appear ten or twenty times over. I hope readers can experience that things in Homer happen in a particular order, whenever a guest is welcomed, or a person gets dressed, or a meal is eaten; but there are always little variations within the pattern, to make sure it can touch you every time. I don’t want Dawn’s fingers just to be there in the sky like lumps: I need the reader to feel them touching her.
The description of Dawn as “rosy-fingered” has perplexed me since I first encountered the Odyssey in high school. I now hold a PhD in English, and I’m still guessing. What does that phrase mean?
The Greek is rhododaktylos. It’s an image, a metaphor, so who knows what it means! There isn’t a predetermined answer. But here’s how I see it. At dawn, the sky sometimes looks as if it has pink or red streaks across it; what if those streaks were the fingers of the goddess? Are they her fingers, or the marks of her touch? Or—and this is how Dawn is often depicted in C18 art—what if the goddess Dawn always holds roses in her hands, maybe because (being always “new-born”) she has a particular love for earliness, including the early part of summertime and the flowers of the season?
Or: the Greeks imagined the rhythm of the dactylic hexameter, the rhythm of Homer, as a sequence of six “fingers” (dactyls): a finger has a long, then two short parts, like a dactyl in meter. So maybe Dawn is the first poet; maybe her fingers of roses challenge or complement the fingers of the singer’s lines. Dawn, with her rosy fingers and her golden throne, appears far more often in the Odyssey than in the Iliad. Dawn marks the fact that this is a poem about time, especially circular and iterative time. Dawn marks the time of survival and continuity: there’s a time to leave behind (Dawn leaves behind her bed and her lover Tithonus), and a time to rule and work (she rides her golden throne to bring the light)—it’s always a good time for a journey, in the Odyssey. Dawn also keeps reminding us of the ways this is a poem about the relationships of a mortal man (Odysseus/ Tithonus) with a sequence of goddesses (Athena, Calypso and Circe).
That was a long way of saying: I love the Dawns of the Odyssey, and I loved getting to try out slightly different ways to say the same thing for each of them. I hope Dawn feels just as alive in my translation as any other character. I hope each Dawn is vivid, bright, many-fingered and new-born.
Why do we need another English translation of the Odyssey?
The first driving reason, for me, was that none of the most-read contemporary English versions are in a regular meter. The original is regular, metrical and beautifully musical. It felt to me an enormous loss to read the Odyssey in non-metrical free verse, which has become entirely the norm: all the commonly-read versions (by Lattimore, Fagles, Lombardo, Fitzgerald) are, to different degrees, lacking in metrical regularity. I also felt it was a problem that almost all contemporary (and older) translations are significantly longer than the original, which dilutes the quick narrative pace; I decided to keep mine the same number of lines as the original, rather than expanding (as the vast majority of translators do).
There were also stylistic motives. Some contemporary or sort-of contemporary translations of Homer try to disguise their status as contemporary English by using deliberately odd, clunky, “foreignizing” English, as if to replicate the experience of the struggling student in introductory Greek class. Others use a particularly grandiose, sometimes bombastic style, as if to make the doings of Homeric characters unquestionably important, big, grand and cartoonishly simple—to evoke a world of superheroes and supervillains. I felt that both these moves were false to my own experience of reading Homeric Greek, which is an artificial, multi-dialect poetic language, but which is not difficult syntactically, and which often has a wonderfully fluid and straightforward feel. So I wanted to produce a translation that wouldn’t do that: that would avoid being too slangy and would be markedly poetic, markedly artificial and musical and varied and sometimes weird, but that wouldn’t be pompous or foreignizing. And finally—perhaps the most important thing, but they are all important—I have often noticed a tendency in many versions to simplify the text’s ethical and narrative complexities.
Book 9, for example, allows us to consider whether Odysseus is a reliable narrator. The Greek allows us to see the contradictions between Odysseus’ claim that the Cyclopes are “lawless” or “lacking norms,” and his acknowledgment that Polyphemus does everything in a regular order. The Greek also, at moments, focalizes the narrative through characters who are not Odysseus, such that, for example, we can see how Polyphemus feels, in his rage and pain after the blinding; or feel the shock and pain of the slave women who are hanged by Telemachus; or share Penelope’s sense of confusion, abandonment, curiosity and grief. I felt that many translators had indulged the impulse to simplify the ethics of this poem, by presenting Odysseus as if he were not only a warrior and a protagonist, but a “hero” in the modern sense—someone to admire—and reducing or removing the possibility of narrative sympathy for other characters—including the slave characters, whom most translations, again shockingly, label as if they were free (“maids”, “herders”, “housekeepers” etc.)
The Greek text is much better, as literature and as ethics, for not limiting its narrative focus to Odysseus, and for not presenting him as a model for unquestioning adulation, and I hated the fact that so many English versions seemed to want to dumb it down in these ways. I love the Odyssey for its multiplicity, and I wanted a translation that was truthful to that; I could see that that translation didn’t exist, so I needed to create it.
The Odyssey by Homer
Translated by Emily Wilson
W. W. Norton & Company
November 7, 2017
Emily Wilson is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English. She holds a PhD from Yale University and is the author of Mocked with Death: Tragic Overliving from Sophocles to Milton and The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint. She has translated numerous ancient Greek texts into English. She lives in Philadelphia.
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Amy Brady is the Editor-in-Chief of the Chicago Review of Books and Deputy Publisher of Guernica Magazine. Her writing has appeared in Oprah, The Village Voice, Pacific Standard, The New Republic, McSweeney's, and elsewhere. Follow her on Twitter at @ingredient_x.