Emily Wilson on translating the Odyssey

Emily Wilson, Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, speaks on bringing a female perspective to the Odyssey

This piece is from our coverage of Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. To check out the rest, click here.

“One shouldn’t think of their own epithet,” said Emily Wilson, on Sunday night.

It was the last day of the Sydney Writer’s Festival, and Professor Wilson’s talk on her translation of the second oldest text in the Western literary canon, the Odyssey, was drawing to a close. When a journalist asked her to give the media a new way to refer to her – something that didn’t involve the words  ‘first female translator of the Odyssey’ – Wilson gave this neat, sidestepping answer.

While her gender is an important fact, given that only one of the 70-odd English versions available was translated by a woman, in Wilson’s words: “That happened to be the case, but that’s not why I did it.”

Wilson’s translation is groundbreaking in more ways than just her gender. The text is punchy and clear, owing to her purposefully translating it with the same number of lines as the original. Her translation choices also diverge from more commonly accepted wording.

There is a scene near the end of the text, where a group of women who work in the home of the hero Odysseus are hung for sleeping with the suitors who had occupied it in his absence. It does not matter that they are doing this in collusion with Penelope, Odysseus’ wife and put-upon mistress of the house: they are seen to transgress, and so they are killed.

English translations often tiptoe around the fact that these women are slaves. “It is interesting,” Wilson said, “how consistently slavery is erased.” She put this up to modern translators wanting Odysseus to be read heroically: “Odysseus is a good guy, so he can’t be a slave owner.”

However, Odysseus is not a hero in the modern sense – not according the Greek it is translated from. “The Greek term just means he’s a warrior, or a guy from back in the days of Troy,” Wilson explained, “it doesn’t mean a nice person or someone who rescues babies or cats from trees.”

Her translation of Odysseus’ actions is consistently ambiguous to fit this. While the highly regarded translation by Robert Fagles, for example, states that Odysseus “could not save his men from disaster”, Wilson reframes it, saying instead, “He failed to keep his men safe.” As Odysseus’ responsibility to the men who have followed him through war and across the oceans is highlighted, his heroism becomes more uncertain.

Returning to the slave women, the words that are used to describe them are also telling about the role more modern translators have given them. Fagles describes them as “sluts” and “whores”, with other translators using similarly derogatory terms. In fact, Wilson’s translation aligns much more closely with the original Greek: they are women; they are, simply, “girls”.

Wilson expressed her anger at how long it has taken for this idea to be circulated in English. “This is the foundation of Western civilisation,” she said, as though addressing an imaginary class. “The culmination of it is that the sluts get hanged.”

When her interviewer, Jennifer Byrne, asked her whether her translation was a purposeful reaction against these earlier choices, Wilson confessed that this was all retrospective analysis. She had not read any other translations while doing her own.

“You didn’t do your homework?” Byrne joked, to which Wilson replied, “That’s cheating, not homework!”

Byrne asked her whether we should try and get rid of all the misogyny in the text, to which Wilson also responded in the negative. Whether misogyny in the original Greek or in modern translation choices, Wilson viewed it as an opportunity to reflect.

“I don’t think we should root it out,” she said, “I think we should be absolutely clear about it.”