Emily Wilson’s Odyssey is a delight to read. The style is limpid, the iambic pentameter rhythm appealing, and the narrative is fast-paced and enchanting. The introductory material and notes are excellent. Every discussion of Emily Wilson’s Odyssey is prefaced with the fact that hers is the first English translation of the poem by a woman, but it’s worth noting that Caroline Alexander’s Iliad (Ecco 2015) was also published three years ago as the first English translation by a woman to much less hoopla (to say nothing of Sarah Ruden’s Aeneid, Yale University Press 2009). Whether due to the translators’ different personalities, the publishers’ different marketing styles, or the growing interest in women’s voices in the #metoo era, suddenly Emily Wilson and her Odyssey are everywhere: The New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, and, last but not least, Twitter. This is a good thing and we can only wish that all new translations of ancient works were greeted with such interest.
Compared with her predecessors’, Wilson’s Odyssey feels more readable, more alive: the diction, with some exceptions discussed below, is straightforward, and the lines are short. The effect is to turn the Odyssey into a quick-paced page turner, an experience I’d never had reading the poem in translation. For the sake of comparison, here is a passage in Fagles’, Lombardo’s, and Wilson’s translations:
But now the goddess Athena with her glinting eyes
inspired Penelope, Icarius’ daughter, wary, poised,
to display herself to the suitors, fan their hearts,
inflame them more, and make her even more esteemed
by her husband and her son than she had been before.
Forcing a laugh, she called her maid. “Eurynome,
my spirit longs—though it never did till now—
to appear before my suitors, loathe them as I do. (Fagles 18.181-8)
And now the Grey-eyed-One put into the heart
Of Penelope, Icarius’ wise daughter,
A notion to show herself to the suitors.
All of a sudden she wanted to make their blood pound—
And to make herself more worthy than ever
In the eyes of her son, and of her husband.
With a whimsical laugh she said to the housekeeper:
“Eurynome, my heart longs, though it never has before,
To show myself to the suitors, hateful as they are. (Lombardo 18.167-75)
Athena, with her gray eyes glinting, gave
thoughtful Penelope a new idea:
to let the suitors see her, so desire
would open up inside them like a sail,
and so her son and husband would respect her.
Mysteriously, she laughed, and told her slave,
“Eurynome, I have a new desire:
to let the suitors see me, though I hate them.” (Wilson 18.160-7)
Wilson’s version is the most succinct of the three, matching the original line per line (the same number of lines as Fagles in this case, but her lines are shorter). Wilson is less literal than the other two: she adds “a new idea,” omits “Icarius’ daughter,” turns the passive τιμήεσσα γένοιτο into the active “so her son and husband would respect her,” includes the Greek οὔ τι πάρος γε in the formulation “I have a new desire,” and makes the passive ἀπεχθομένοισί περ ἔμπης into the active “though I hate them.” Wilson avoids the awkward piling up of adjectives and verbs in Fagles. All three translators add an addressee in line 163, and Fagles and Lombardo both resort to euphemisms for slave. Wilson alone of the three conveys the metaphorical register of πετάννυμι, which has to do with opening up, with her striking image of desire opening “like a sail.” She also has the best translation of ἀχρεῖος, a difficult adjective discussed at length by scholars who do not know what to do with it, as “mysterious.” This short example gives a good sense of Wilson’s skill: her syntax strays from the Greek more than that of her competitors, but she conveys the sense better. Of the three versions, Wilson’s is also the most vivid: it flows, it sounds like real language, and one wants to keep on reading.
I loved reading Wilson’s translation, but that is not to say that I find all Wilson’s decisions equally felicitous. Because Wilson has discussed many of her choices on Twitter and in interviews, hers is also a translation that invites dialogue about translation. As a result, my comments below are as much a response to Wilson’s writing about her own translation as a direct response to the work. That is not a bad thing: Wilson’s ubiquity in the media reminds us that we are dealing with one person’s version of the Odyssey.
My reservations fall into two categories. First, there are occasional false notes in word choices, which may seem like nitpicking when dealing with a poem of some 12,000 lines that are for the most part delightfully rendered. But all word choices are important, and are also connected to a second issue, what seems a missed opportunity in terms of the translation’s overall effect. Translation is always an act of interpretation, as Wilson often reminds us, and the very forcefulness of her interpretation threatens to obscure an important aspect of a poem that is itself very much concerned with ambiguity and issues of understanding.
Two choices in particular interrupted the poem’s flow for me. The first one is the translation of εἴδατα as “canapés” at 4.55. My reaction may be muddled because my native language is French and it registered in my mind as both a French word and a certain kind of object. Was I overreacting because the word has a more specialized meaning in French than in English, where it apparently can refer to any finger food? I had to look it up because in my thirty-three years living in the United States I had never heard or seen the word. It turns out that this is “the most controversial word choice” in the translation, and Wilson discusses it at some length in a Twitter post where she also announces that she will keep it for the paperback edition, mustering two arguments for its inclusion: Homeric Greek is a stylized language made up of a mix of dialects from different ages and so the translation has to include “a few unexpected moments;” and it is not “the translator's or writer's duty never to take anyone out of her comfort zone, or shake up linguistic or cultural prejudices” (here). Wilson defends her choice forcefully, but it is not the word’s unexpectedness that I found jarring, but rather the surprise at finding a food connected with French aristocracy and Viennese cafes carried by a “humble slave girl” in Menelaus’ palace. And while I’m all for a writer or translator shaking up linguistic or cultural prejudices, what exactly are the “linguistic or cultural prejudices” involved in being skeptical that canapés is the best translation for εἴδατα?
The word “mavericks” describing the Cyclopes in Book 9.108 similarly left me scratching my head. Like canapés, it has a kind of cuteness—and unexpectedness, to be sure—but it also comes with its own history that goes against the meaning of the straightforward Greek word ἀθέμιστος. Wilson explains in her introduction that she could not describe the Cyclopes as “savage” because she wants to avoid words “which carry with them the legacy of early modern and modern forms of colonialism—a legacy that is, of course, anachronistic in the world of The Odyssey” (88). But the notion of a maverick is deeply tied to a nostalgic view of the Western frontier as a place where independently- minded characters—or their unbranded cattle—define themselves against the rules they scorn, and the word sticks out on Polyphemos’ island, one of whose distinctive features is that it has no laws at all. The problem with canapés and mavericks is not their unexpectedness as words; it is that they awkwardly anchor the text in our time and place and evoke images (caterers’ trays and Republican senators) that break the spell of Wilson’s narrative (in the same way that Lombardo’s “shock and awe” sits uneasily on the shield of Aeneas).
There is thus a tension between Wilson’s desire to avoid imposing anachronistic values on the world of the Odyssey, and her choice of using unexpected idioms as a way of replicating the effect of Homeric Greek. But my bafflement at “canapés” and “mavericks” also arises out of my admiration of the poem as a whole. When Wilson succeeds, which is most of the time, the effect is wonderful. The startling “ossifrage” used to describe Athena’s transformation into a sea bird (φήνη) at 3.372 is perfect in that context, echoing the astonishment that seizes all who see it. There are many such moments of brilliance. And Wilson also excels at using straightforward idioms to great effect. Her solution to the notoriously difficult-to-translate formula (χειρὶ παχείῃ, 21.6) gives Penelope a “muscular, firm hand” (more striking than Lattimore’s “solid” or Fagles’ “steady” hand; Lombardo avoids the problem by not mentioning Penelope’s hand at all).
This brings me to the episode often discussed by Wilson, the killing of the slaves in Odyssey 22. Wilson has put gender at the center of her interpretation of the poem, arguing that she avoids falling into the misogynistic traps that ensnared earlier male translators, who were unwilling or unable to showcase Odysseus’ ambiguous traits or to check their own disdain of female characters, in particular the female slaves slaughtered by Telemachus. She thus presents herself as a different kind of translator, one who not only engages with the Greek text, but who also corrects the misconceptions and prejudices of her predecessors, and she often presents her choices in moral terms: “in my version of the hanging of the slave women, I aim to invite genuine empathy rather than an objectifying thrill; while other translators call their death “piteous” or “pitiful,” in my version we glimpse their pain, not the feeling of a spectator: it is “an agony” (86). Wilson translates ὅπως οἴκτιστα θάνοιεν (literally “so they would die in the most pitiful way,” 22.473) with “to make their death an agony.” Wilson implies that other translators objectified the women with their word choices, but the superlative adverb οἴκτιστα does mean “most pitifully.” The word is used just a few times in the poem, always to describe deaths that are horrifying. This is how Agamemnon describes his own murder (ὣς θάνον οἰκτίστῳ θανάτῳ 11.413; repeated by Achilles describing Agamemnon’s death at 24.35), and Odysseus remembers watching his men being grabbed by Scylla as “the most pitiful thing” his eyes ever looked on 12.258-9. Wilson captures that moment beautifully with “the most heartrending sight I saw / in all the time I suffered on the sea” (Eurylochus also describes death by starvation as “most pitiful” at 12.343, while Eurykleia invites Penelope to kill her with a “most pitiful” death at 23.80). After reading Wilson’s eloquent case for naming slaves slaves, I was also surprised to see the word “girls” repeated seven times in the space of thirty-five lines or so where the Greek text describes them as women (γυναῖκες) twice and slaves (δμῳαί) three times. Is “girls” also meant to make the women more sympathetic by emphasizing their youth? Wilson captures the “agony” of the killing of the slaves, but in the process she loses the thread that connects the deaths of the women to those of Odysseus’ men and Agamemnon, a series of deaths that invite questions about those responsible for them and the role of pity in what is often a pitiless poem.
Many have commented on Wilson’s now well-known move to translate the epithet πολύτροπος in the first line of the poem with the adjective “complicated.” Like “lord of lies” for πολύμητις, Odysseus’ other common epithet, “complicated” zooms in on the potentially negative aspect of the word. This is useful in accentuating the hero’s ambiguity, something that is deeply imbedded in the Greek language, and so crucial to the proem. But there is also a danger in losing that very ambiguity: the cleverly alliterative “lord of lies” works well at the beginning of Odyssey 9, reminding us of Odysseus’ skill at deceiving just before Odysseus starts recounting his adventures, but metis cannot be equated only with skill at lying: like polytropos, polymetis implies a kind of complexity that contains both negative and positive elements. Wilson brings out the potentially negative aspects of these epithets (and the hero), but in so doing, she also does some of the interpretative work that the original—along with some translations—lets its audience do for themselves.
Similarly, Wilson’s avoidance of repetitions makes the narrative sound more modern and flow more smoothly, but also alters the relationship between the poem and its readers. The Odyssey often plays with repetition and formulaic elements to point out the difficulty of interpreting words and stories. The poem also delights in the notion of signs (σήματα) and the necessity of interpreting them: it often does not tell its audience what to think or how to feel but requires them to make sense of its mysteries for themselves.
Wilson hopes that the Homeric poem grows “inside” her translation “like Athena’s olive tree inside the bed made by Odysseus, “with delicate long leaves, full-grown and green, / as sturdy as a pillar”” (87). She imposes her own reading of the poem so forcefully that her Odyssey ends up being sturdier than the original: a bit less open-ended, less polytropic, less complicated…. Yet it is also an amazing achievement, a thrill to read, and the best English translation. Hers is the Odyssey my students will read from now on. It is a brisk, lively, often magical, version of the ancient epic that captures its enduring appeal and urgency.