When Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey was published last November, it not only made the text feel sprightly and alive in ways that connect with contemporary readers, it also turned some long-held notions upside down. Wilson is the first woman to translate the epic Homeric poem into English, and her version makes short work of the implicit misogyny of standard-issue Homer as we know it. In her Odyssey, goddesses aren’t simply pretty, but strong and wise. The women who serve Penelope and Telemachus in Odysseus’s home in Ithaca are not simply maids or servants; they are—as they would have been—slaves. Wilson doesn’t elide what’s ugly about Odysseus’s world, but she also restores the dignity of many of the characters maligned by past translations. The original poem did not contain abusive words, yet in the celebrated version by Robert Fagles the slave women are referred to as “sluts” and “whores,” while Richmond Lattimore dismisses them as “creatures.” Wilson counters that the original Greek is just a feminine definite article for “female ones.” There’s a world of difference between “female” and “slut.”
Wilson recently attended the Deep Water Literary Fest in Narrowsburg, NY, to launch a 14-hour marathon reading of The Odyssey that included the actors Mark Ruffalo and Tilda Swinton, and the Booker Prize winner Marlon James, among many others. As a prelude, Wilson was interviewed by Maria Dahvana Headley, the author of the upcoming novel, The Mere Wife, a contemporary telling of the old English epic, Beowulf, which Headley is currently translating. The following is extracted from that conversation.
Maria Dahvana Headley—I’m curious: What led you to translate The Odyssey? My editor keeps referring to Beowulf as this old, boring story. He wants to publish it, but he’s, like, ‘Why do you want to do it? What is the thing you want to do here?’ So, let me turn the question over to you.
Emily Wilson—I encountered The Odyssey first as a grade school student. We did an elementary school play of it when I was eight, and I got to be Athena, so that was really fun. But that was just about being the badass goddess, and also about encountering a story that seemed to be about being lost, and being alienated from all these different places. That was something I could relate to.
Dahvana Headley—How is a translator lost and alienated from all these places?
“Which is the whole history of literature: domesticity versus glory. And the way that that’s divided on bookshelves—the idea that a domestic story is not glorious, and that a war story is. The choice between glory and domestic happiness is so stark.”
Wilson—When the publisher W.W.Norton approached me to ask if I’d consider taking it on, I hesitated. I love the Greek poem, and I knew that I would love to spend five years being immersed in it, but there’s already almost 70 English translations of The Odyssey. There was no point in doing yet another one unless there was a way of bringing out something authentic about the original which wasn’t there in the others. So, then I did the exercise of reading a section of the original alongside ten or 12 different translations, and after doing that I realized that the world needs another one because in fact it’s made so much more boring than it is. People have a perception of The Odyssey as a superhero story, as a good guy who crushes monsters and gets back with the objectified wife. That’s not a very interesting story. But The Odyssey has so much more in it than that; it has so many different perspectives to it, so many more characters who feel fully alive. I also felt the rhythms of the original are so important, partly because of course it’s based on the oral tradition, which is partly why I’m so happy to be at this marathon reading (at the Deep Water Literary Festival in Narrowsburg), because I definitely wanted to create an English Homer that would feel like you have to read it out loud. And that’s partly a function of trying to create an English voice that would feel very speak-able, and very metrical, very rhythmical. Of course, it has to work on the page, too, because we live in a literate culture.
Dahvana Headley—There’s been lots of research into the way the memory stores songs versus the way the memory stores even just memories of your own life. So that some people with Alzheimer’s remember the songs of their youth and nothing else. And I think the way that this story has lasted so long is in part because of that—the sung memory. And your translation obviously embraces that.
Wilson—The original, of course, is not in iambic pentameter which is an English Anglophone rhythm. It’s in dactylic hexameter which is the standard rhythm for archaic Greek poetry. I didn’t want to replicate that rhythm in an alien linguistic culture, but instead to think about what is the equivalent. I don’t actually think I know of an English epic poem which is in hexameter that really works, so I wanted to create something which would be definitely metrical. That would feel like this is like Shakespeare, like Milton, but in a modern idiom, as well as being metrical within a long tradition of metrical Anglophone poetry.
Dahvana Headley—Is there a translation that you read in your giant survey of translations that you felt got at the elements that you wanted to get at?
Wilson—No. I wouldn’t have done it if I’d felt that. Of course, there are other verse translations, most of them much older. So, the first translation in English is by George Chapman who was a dramatist in the early 17th century. He published it in installments and its rhyming couplets but pentameter. And I think it’s very successful, but it’s very successful as early 17th century verse. And he has his own particular agenda. And of course, the cultural context for an English gentleman in 1614 is quite significantly different. I’m also an academic, so I teach undergrads The Odyssey. If I give them Chapman it’s not going to go well. It just isn’t. Also, I’d have to introduce them to the context of England in 1614, as well as the context in 8th century Greece. And those are way different contexts.
Dahvana Headley—So, what is the context of Emily Wilson in the period you were translating this?
Wilson—It’s sort of hard to tell what your own cultural contexts are in a totalizing way, and certainly at the time I took on the project I wasn’t thinking, ‘This poem is really going to resonate with the Trump era and with power dynamics that are operating right now. There’s going to be all these issues immigration and refugees when the translation comes out.’ I wasn’t thinking that because it hadn’t happened yet. But, of course, the buildup to all of that certainly informed the way that I was working on it in the last stages, and the way I was thinking about the poem. In some ways, the best way of responding creatively to your own culture isn’t necessarily to do it absolutely consciously. I’m not going to read Odysseus as XYC public figure, but I was certainly aware that this poem resonates with all these questions about power, gender, foreigners, being in your own place, how do you keep people out, or let people in. Those questions are so powerful right now.
Dahvana Headley—So deeply in our culture, and all cultures always.
Wilson—But also in particular ways. I’m also thinking about how in most translations that I’ve looked at, including ones published after mine, there’s a real erasure of slavery. I think there have been two translations published this year, both of which use words like “servant” for words which definitely don’t mean servant. I think it’s also being open to speaking to the text if it describes radical power imbalances, such as one person is the slave and another person is the owner. I think my wanting to speak to that comes from who I am, and what my culture is, as well as from our moment. But it’s also interesting to notice that there are other people alive in our time who don’t want to do that, who want to put it in a certain box and say this is not a slave owning society because that would bother us.
Dahvana Headley—That’s not allowed for a heroic story. Victorian translations of Beowulf, specifically, consistently present Grendel’s mother as a monster and in the original she is probably not a monster—she is probably human, and a warrior, a soldier, which makes sense for the time in which that text was created. But in our culture, it’s threatening, and in the Victorian era it was threatening. It’s the same dynamic with witches.
Wilson—And very similar to the depiction of goddesses in The Odyssey. There were so many very, very powerful goddesses. I’m thinking particularly of Circe and Calypso, with whom Odysseus spends significant amounts of time.
Dahvana Headley—Seven years…
Wilson—Seven years with Calypso, one year with Circe. I think the way those scenes are very often depicted is that Circe is a witch, not a goddess. Which is a very different terminology. And of course, that’s a much later idea—of the bad women who’s in touch with nature in a bad way. As opposed to a goddess who has particular kinds of power over the natural world because she’s divine.
Dahvana Headley—And who deserves worship, as well.
Wilson—And similarly, also “Nymph,” which of course means particular things in our culture. So, if you translate as “Nymph,” you always bring in, “Is she actually a nympho?” Which I think feeds into the way other translations that I’ve looked at treat Calypso in Book five. In the original she’s called “númphē,” which suggests a nature goddesses. She lives in a particular cave—there were supposed to be female deities that give the spirit of divinity to caves or to natural landscape. Maybe there are lots of nymphs around right now.
Dahvana Headley—So the way these texts are interpreted becomes a way of disempowering certain characters.
Wilson—It’s not just about what male translators get wrong about goddesses. I’m thinking about Polyphemus the cyclops and how, of course, he eventually starts eating Odysseus’s men, so that’s not good. But it’s also the case that in the original he’s not depicted as inhumane, he’s described explicitly as Anthropos—he’s a human being. The way that we want to depict him as absolutely other, absolutely not a human, feeds into later, colonial narratives: What are the natives going to be like? They’re cannibals! So of course, it’s okay to march in there, take all their stuff, maim them, blind them, humiliate them.
Dahvana Headley—They have no human rights.
Wilson—They have no human rights. Exactly. The narrative in Book nine of The Odyssey is already, of course, a post-colonial narrative. The Greek speakers were already colonizing different areas around the Mediterranean. It’s a text which is meditating on that process. And Odysseus does say that the cyclops island is ripe for colonization. But it’s also giving you some element of the other side. The native inhabitant, Polyphemus, is living his pastoral life, and making a lot of cheese, before Odysseus gets there. He seems to eat much less meat than anyone else does, and he’s so peaceful, and he takes really nice care of his animals, and it’s only once he has this encounter with the colonial pirate invader that things go horribly wrong. And of course, we’ve also shown repeatedly in The Odyssey, that xenia—the Greek concept of hospitality—really matters. It’s all about the tropes by which, if a stranger shows up at your door there are ways that the guests should behave, there are ways the hosts should behave. And it also constantly shows you how that pattern can be broken, how things can go wrong. So when Odysseus shows up at Ploythemus’s home he doesn’t behave like a good guest. He starts eating all the food without asking. That’s exactly what the suitors do later on, and we’re not supposed to like the suitors. So, there’s all this complexity about who is the good guy… maybe there isn’t a good guy. Maybe there’s some sense that almost everybody is doing some pretty dubious things and that they’re rounded characters.
Dahvana Headley—Which is such a much more interesting story. Your translation obviously gets at complexity, at ‘Oh it’s a fucking mess to be a person in the world.’ You break the rules, and bad things happen to you, and then you try to walk it back and say, ‘I didn’t break the rules, it’s fine.’ The “Hero” actually does all the same things the monster does.
Wilson—Right, and then it comes under a different framework.
Dahvana Headley—So many of these stories are about both about happiness and about status.
Wilson—And also about status in terms of: Does status happen only accrue on the battlefield? Because so much of this is also a narrative about a veteran coming home from a war. Almost the first thing we learn about Odysseus, beyond that he’s complicated, is that he’s sacked a holy city. And so, the poem is bookended by Odysseus sacking a holy city, and then the last thing we see at the end is him swooping down like an eagle, trying to slaughter all the people of Ithaca. So, he’s on the path towards replicating what he’s had a pattern of doing. But it’s also this whole question about: can you get status in some different environment? Or do you have to be a different kind of person, acquire different kinds of personality, transform into something else? If you defined yourself as the warrior who gets glory because people say it’s so great that you’ve killed so many people, do you then have to redefine yourself when you encounter people who are not actually warriors? Like goddesses, for instance.
Dahvana Headley—Who have power over you.
“The poem depicts him as noble Eumaeus—the ideal, and if only all these slaves would stop being disobedient and having the idea that they could be people, then it would be much easier to be a slave owner. My desire was to make that very, very visible.”
Wilson—Who have power over you. So, the starting point of The Odyssey is, weirdly, not actually the beginning. The starting point of The Odyssey quest is in Book five, when Odysseus is stuck on the island of Calypso and he makes the very odd choice, you might think, to leave the wonderful life he’s been having for last seven years, with the beautiful goddess who is not just gorgeous, but who has promised to make him immortal. In some ways, it’s the same choice that Achilles has in The Iliad: should I stay at Troy, and if I do that, I know I will be dead soon, but I will have glory, and I’ll be in this epic poem, where boys keep dying and killing each other. Or should I go home? And I can seem my old father again, I can spend some time with my family, live a longer life, it’ll be okay. But that’s not an epic poem. So, Odysseus has a similar problem. ‘If I stay here with this goddess there’s no story.’
Dahvana Headley—Which is the whole history of literature: domesticity versus glory. And the way that that’s divided on bookshelves—the idea that a domestic story is not glorious, and that a war story is. The choice between glory and domestic happiness is so stark.
Wilson—Part of what interested me about The Odyssey is how it muddles that distinction. Because Odysseus, chooses to go home, so that might seem like he’s choosing the domestic space. He’s choosing to be a lovely husband, and take care of his family instead of killing people. But instead, in fact, he transforms the domestic space into exactly what it was back in Troy.
Dahvana Headley—He makes a little warzone.
Wilson—He makes a warzone right there in the home space. So, I think it’s also fighting that binary between the war and home. In fact, they get muddled up. It’s a whole question of, ‘Is he a warrior or is he a husband? Or is he actually a mix of several different things?’ He’s always pretending to be one thing, and he’s something else. Whenever you think you’ve got him pinned down, he’s going tell you some other blarney. I talked about xenia, but the other key concept in Greek that you have to know for the Odyssey is nostos [the hero’s return]. So, it’s a story of homecoming. And it raises all these questions about what is a nostos? And when does it happen? When do you actually get home? When is Odysseus back home? Because halfway through the poem he’s back home, geographically—he’s back in Ithaca. But that’s not the end of the poem. So then, how does the homecoming continue to happen even when there’s no more geography to tread over. If it’s not about space, it’s about relationships, it’s about what exactly he’s creating of himself and of his social roles in Ithaca. So, the model of The Odyssey, in which it’s about a Greek hero wandering around and killing some monsters, and then he’s home, pumps up the very middle of the poem, and doesn’t actually take seriously what most of poem is, which is these difficult questions about relationships. And about who he is, how his identity is defined by all these other people who see his story differently from the way he sees it
Dahvana Headley—You’ve talked about feminist translation—I know there’s a longing [among many] to call it that. And I understand that longing, but I also understand the desire not to do so. Because that’s not what it is—it’s a fucking better translation.
Wilson—I’d be fine with saying it’s feminist, if we’d describe all the others as meninist. That would be totally cool, totally fine. But, if it’s that all the others are normal, but yours has biased point of view because you’re a girl, then I’m not okay with that. Because I’m trying to tell the truth of how I read the Greek text. And I worked really hard to figure out exactly what the Greek text is doing, and how I can be more truthful to it.
Dahvana Headley—Do you sometimes think, ‘What if I just rattled it and shook it and shoved my own shit into it, as so many of the other translators did. Actually, you just got it wrong and Penelope is going to be quite different than you remember.’ Is that a temptation for you at all, or do you have a yearning that goes more towards the ‘right real’?
Wilson—I had some moments of that. I didn’t actually have it about Penelope, because I actually find the depiction of Penelope in the Greek really moving, and the way she’s presented as so, so, so boxed in, both by her life circumstances and her husband going on all these journeys, and she can go upstairs, downstairs, maybe upstairs again. And the way that she’s so veiled—she’s always wearing veils and her psyche is veiled even to herself. I find that very moving, and I think it’s so truthful to so many women’s experiences. In our society, as well. What I struggled with was the way the slave Eumaeus is presented as somebody who has been trafficked as a little child, who’s had this terrible life, and yet despite having lived his entire life in slavery, adores his owners. All he wants is for his old owner to come back; he doesn’t want to go back to his birth family. He’s not bitter about being a slave, whatsoever. It’s lovely to be a slave, as long as you’re a good person. And I find that obnoxious. The poem depicts him as noble Eumaeus—the ideal, and if only all these slaves would stop being disobedient and having the idea that they could be people, then it would be much easier to be a slave owner. My desire was to make that very, very visible. I know some people seem to be able read the Greek without being uncomfortable, and I don’t want that to be possible. I want it to be at least close to impossible, not to have some level of discomfort. So, I’m not sure if that’s something I put into it, but I feel it probably comes through that I want to ironize the idea of the good slave who’s good because he’s owned and who is okay with being owned. And on some level, I think the text shows you where the gaps in that idea are.
Dahvana Headley—These texts have been passed down, and they change, all the time, in order to do different things. What do you think about the adoption of these narratives to justify bad business?
Wilson—That’s clearly a thing, especially with old epics, and with classical antiquity in particular. There’s a whole way of reading these narratives in very simplistic terms that involves making them not complex portrayals of masculinity and power, but instead celebrations of masculinity and abusive power
Dahvana Headley—Your translation is easier to read, in some ways, than some translations I’ve read. But it’s harder on the received idea that there is an easy answer, that you can do this series of things and you are a good man because of it.
Wilson—Exactly. I wanted it to be ethically and psychologically very complex, because that’s the whole point of it. I was aiming for something that’s going to affect you very deeply, and confuse you very deeply. That’s really important.
Dahvana Headley—It’s not a ladder of morality. It’s man went on a long journey and he did some bad shit.
Wilson—And also: He did some complicated stuff. I don’t want it to be that I’m presenting Odysseus as this absolute villain and everything he does is bad. Because in fact he’s a very charming character. I personally feel very deeply connected to him in certain ways. It’s not that I can only relate to the female characters, I can certainly relate to Odysseus on a lot of different levels, as a translator and as a storyteller, because of course, he’s always telling stories which are not always compatible with each other, but also as someone who is both public and shy. There’s all these different ways in which he’s out there and inside at the same time. Which I find deeply relatable.