An interview with Emily Wilson, translator of Homer’s Odyssey – Part 2

An interview with Emily Wilson, translator of Homer’s Odyssey – Part 2

Part 2 of the interview. Read Part 1 here.


You are – famously by now – the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English. Your reviewers have tended to focus on that, either to praise your reading of the Odyssey which ‘exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem’, or to single out places where, as they see it, you have imposed female touches. How do you feel about the focus on gender politics? How do you answer the critics when they take against your female viewpoint?

It’s a complicated issue.  I was truly thrilled by the reviews that did NOT treat my gender as the most interesting element in my work — such as Gregory Hayes in the NYT, or Edith Hall in the Telegraph, or Madeline Miller in the Washington Post.  It was lovely to see that at least some readers are willing to see me as a translator/ scholar/ writer/ poet, who happens to be female, rather than as a Woman, who happens to have done some translating on the side.

I know that the “First Woman” headline triggers some people to hostile response, even though the headline really has nothing to do with me.  There are two kinds of triggers, which I might as well take the opportunity to address.  One: students of dead languages often say that they are learning to “translate” Ancient Greek or Latin, whereas students of French rarely claim that they are “translating” Camus or Proust; they say they’re reading these authors, because we have a whole different set of expectations about what’s possible in terms of understanding living languages.   Latin and ancient Greek are hard languages to learn, because of the lack of a living spoken tradition, and the pedagogy tends to rely heavily on “translation” as a tool that stands in for comprehension.  If we take the word “translate” in this specialized way, then I’m not the first woman to “translate” the Odyssey; every female person who has taken an Intermediate Ancient Greek class has probably struggled through the creation of a clunky “translation” of some little chunk of the poem for homework or in class.  I know that very well, I’ve taught many of these women myself, and I was one of them back in high school.  I mean no disrespect to all their/ our hard work.  It’s also at least possible that there is some complete translation of the Odyssey in some English-speaking woman’s desk drawer.   I have been asking around about it for a good 7-8 years, among librarians and archivists as well as the general public, and not found one, so I think it is somewhat unlikely; but it might exist somewhere.  It is a hard headline to fact-check, unless the phrase includes the crucial word “published”.   Some people seem to get particularly enraged about it, for reasons which may have to do with the second trigger: that some people are upset by any “first woman” headline, whether it’s the Odyssey or circumnavigating the globe in a canoe, because to some, it smacks of female whining.  I don’t have much to say about that, beyond the obvious.   I know that response is out there, and these people are lurking, ready to express their rage whenever possible.  I don’t think it has anything to do with me.

On the positive side: I am thrilled that the publication of my translation, and the ensuing media focus on the “First Woman!” headline, may do something to encourage more young women and other non-male people, and maybe other minorities, in the fields of classics, translation, history and poetry.  It’s also excellent that it has helped make more people more aware of a fact that translators (like writers in any interpretative field: journalists, historians, literary critics or social scientists) always make interpretative choices, and those choices are often likely to be affected, though not pre-determined, by the life experience and social identities of the interpreter, including gender among many other factors. I’m also delighted that the media response to my translation may be doing something to wake people up to the fact that the vast majority of translations of all Ancient Greek and Latin texts are by men, despite the fact that there are plenty of female classicists out there.  Why don’t more publishing editors hire more women to do this kind of work?  And why do reviewers comment on gender only when the author/ translator is a woman?  The real headline, in my opinion, should be about that dismal state of affairs, rather than about my being a woman.  The idea that I’ve “imposed female touches” or that I have a “female viewpoint”, is clearly pretty silly.  We need to remember what ought to be obvious: that not all women are alike, and that being female doesn’t predetermine everything you do.  Women have translated the “Odyssey” into plenty of other languages (French, Italian, Dutch, Turkish etc.), and as far as I can tell, most of those translations are not in any obvious way “female”, and certainly have no obvious similarities with my own work.  Caroline Alexander was the first woman to publish a translation of the Iliad into English, and her translation couldn’t be more different in style than mine.  Hers is quite similar to the translation by Richmond Lattimore, who was, er, a man.  With a sample size of one, or two if we count both Alexander and me, there isn’t really a lot of evidence to survey how women in general translate Homer into English.  Whether it’s done in the celebratory or denigratory way, the coverage of me as a woman first, and scholar/ translator second, always tends to reinforce the problematic idea that women’s writing and women’s work is different from the work of normal human beings, i.e. men.  It’s a way of keeping women shut safely away in a little box.  I wish reviewers of translations by men would, just sometimes, just occasionally, comment on their gender identity.  As far as I can tell, no reviewer of any previous translation of the “Odyssey” has ever mentioned the translator’s gender, even when it might have been relevant. No interviewer ever asked a male translator of the Odyssey to comment on his special affinity for the male characters, or asked questions that had to do exclusively with his unique male perspective.  From the interviews I’ve read with Robert Fagles, for example, there are quite a lot of details in his account of heroism and marriage that could be framed in terms of a masculine perspective; but the translator’s gender never comes up, unless she’s a woman.  A further fact to note is that when earlier English translators have added in misogynistic language that definitely doesn’t correspond to the Greek, reviewers have never ever, as far as I can tell, called them out on it.  For instance, when Telemachus, in Book 22, says that he will hang the women “who slept with the suitors”, Richmond Lattimore uses the word “creatures”; Robert Fitzgerald uses the word “sluts”, as does Stanley Lombardo; Stephen Mitchell has him say they “whored” with the suitors; Robert Fagles, an expansive translator, has “sluts” and “whores” both.  I can imagine a justification for this escalation of verbal abuse in the translation, over the original.  Maybe these translators would say it fits better with English idiom, for Telemachus to express his rage in terms of misogyny, even when the Greek Telemachus expresses it differently.  Maybe they’d have some other good explanation.  Or maybe it wasn’t a fully conscious decision.  Either way, the presence of extra doses of misogyny doesn’t mean these translations are without value; of course they have many virtues, and of course their authors are and were, in all likelihood, very lovely people, who behave(d) impeccably towards the women they know.  We also need to note that the addition of misogynistic language is by no means inevitable, if the translator happens to be male.  Men can choose not to do this.  But I do think it’s notable that no reviewer seemed to think it even deserved a mention, and it’s interesting that this kind of thing is not described as a “male viewpoint”, at least not in most current press coverage of male writers.   All that needs to start changing, right about yesterday or the day before.

It’s also interesting that I’m seen as the only translator of the Odyssey who has a gender identity.  It’s equally interesting that I’m seen as the only translator with any kind of political or ethical interests or beliefs.  I’ve been accused of being a “Social Justice Warrior”, a term which I don’t really understand, because I don’t know why fighting for justice would be seen as a bad thing, and I also don’t really understand why I would be perceived as a particularly politicized person.  I care, above all, about language, poetics, narrative and sentence structure. But of course those things can also have a political valence.  It’s as if some people have not noticed, before reading my translation, that  the Odyssey is in fact a poem about society and social values, and therefore, in a broad sense, it is a political poem, however it’s translated or interpreted.  If my translation, in the clarity and complexity with which I render relationships in the poem, has helped to make that basic fact about the Odyssey more visible, then that’s a good thing.  If my translation has also helped invite questions about the idea that the Odyssey celebrates something like modern conservative family values, idealized masculinity, and a prototype of modern white nationalism, then that’s also a good thing, because those are not very good readings of the poem.  I certainly don’t think the Odyssey is going to tell you how to vote, and I’m not using it to grind any particular political axe.  I wanted, for example, to be clear about the fact that the slaves are slaves, rather than call them “servants”, as most translators do; it’s interesting that philological accuracy is sometimes read as an aggressive political gesture.  I wanted to show the social and ethical complexity of the poem, against the heroizing and euphemizing that seemed to me common in popular conceptions and readings of Homer.

In terms of specifics: a couple of reviewers seem to have thought my depiction of Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, not “heroic” enough.  I’d like to point out that in Book 2 of the poem, Telemachus summons a council of the suitors and other men of Ithaca, gives a speech in which he expresses frustration and acknowledges his powerlessness, saying he is not a man like his father, and bursts into tears.  Whatever translation one creates or reads, this characters is presented as deeply fragile and vulnerable, a boy on the cusp of manhood who has spent his whole childhood surrounded by bullies, with no father or benevolent male guidance.  I hope the deep pathos of his brittle rage and vulnerability and need and self-doubt comes through vividly in my translation, and maybe it’s more clearly visible because my language isn’t hedged around with bombast or archaism or unidiomatic language, in the ways that have become the modern norm.  Similarly, I hope I’ve managed to convey something of the many layers in the character of Odysseus, and allow the reader to question and feel uncomfortable about him at times — as ancient readers certainly did. 

I tried to think my way inside each of the characters, male and female both, as I think the original poem does; they’re all so vividly alive.  I love how Homer shows us how differently each character sees the world, and allows us access to so many different perspectives.  I was pleased that the NYT reviewer commented that — in contrast to many earlier English translations — my rendering of the scene between Calypso and Odysseus allows the reader to sympathize with both parties: the person who feels angry and abandoned, and the person who feels trapped.  It’s a universal experience. I’m sure most readers have experienced both sides, as I certainly have.  The same reviewer, I think, also commented on how empathetically I show both sides in the central relationship between Odysseus and Penelope: as in the great scene when the husband, still in disguise, hides, conceals, withholds, hints, manipulates, and the wife disintegrates in response: “She cried a long, long time”, as my translation has it.  I don’t see it as a “female touch” to make sure the reader truly cares about Penelope as well as about Odysseus; I see it as a gesture of humanity. The original poem allows us to feel deeply for male and female both, and it’s a shame that some translations have limited Homer’s broad and deep sympathies. 

There was one reviewer who complained that I wasn’t giving “patriarchy” its correct “moral weight”.  That was a funny comment, funny ha-ha as well as funny-odd, which would likely not have been leveled at a male translator.  Homer’s depiction of ethics and values, including the ethics of agenorie (“excessive masculinity”), is complex; male aggression in Homer is both valorized and questioned. As I read the Greek poems, there is quite a lot of narrative distance in the representation of masculine violence, either in warfare or, as in the Odyssey, in domestic spaces. But my desire to be sensitive and well-attuned to Homer’s complex narrative mode and complex representation of ethics is not pre-determined by the fact that I’m a woman.  In fact, women readers and scholars are capable of over-simplifying too.  Women are also quite capable of misogyny.  Conversely, there are plenty of male Homerists who are aware of Homer’s narrative and ethical complexity.  

We should also remember that most of the people who write these reviews are not classicists, let alone Homerists.  Their perceptions are often shaped by things other than the Greek text.  That’s OK; their responses are still worth taking seriously, and I don’t mean to be dismissive at all.  But we need not to give them a kind of authority that they don’t necessarily have.

When reviewers claim to be complaining about “female touches”, I think they’re really complaining that I have, as far as I could, tried to make sure Homer’s characters, male and female both, come alive in my English, as I believe they do in Homer’s Greek.  The fundamental observation is less about this or that detail of characterization, but about the fact that my version of Homer contains characterization at all.  We’ve become so accustomed to the idea that Homeric characters must be stiffly, grandly heroic, in a cardboard cutout, stereotypical mode, that it can be a shock to realize how well drawn they are as human beings; how alive they can be. I don’t think this is something I made up. I think it’s something I found in this great original poem.  

In your personal translator’s note you tell us that the Odyssey has been with you since you were 8. That is going to be a rare situation for most people in future. But various programmes of action aim to introduce people to the classics later in their education, and to fast forward their learning of the original languages, Latin and Greek. Do you have views on the best ways to do this? Do translations such as yours have a key part to play?

I actually think the 8 year olds of today are not necessarily less aware of the Odyssey than the 8 year olds of forty years ago.  At 8, I wasn’t learning Greek; I was reading kids retellings of classical myths.  There are far more of those out there now than there were when I was that age, in movies and in books and on TV.  Think of the whole Percy Jackson franchise!  My own eight year old daughter reads lots of books on myth that weren’t around in my childhood, including graphic novel tellings of the Odyssey, as well as graphic novels about the Greek gods and goddesses.  They’re the original superheroes, and superheroes are more popular now than ever before.  It’s an age of strongmen and strongwomen; people feel powerless, so we like to fantasize about ultimate, fantastical forms of power.  It’s also an age of rapid change and cultural confusion, and myth gives us something to grasp onto in the quest for meaning.

For people over the age of 8 who actually want to learn Latin and Greek properly, there are plenty of avenues nowadays.  In the US, there are a number of “postbac” programs, for people who want to spend a year or two after their BA, studying Latin and Greek to a level such that they can apply for Ph.D. programs; postbacs are great because they’re usually much cheaper than an MA, so they’re a more inclusive path to classicist-competence.  We have the oldest such program here at Penn.  MA’s and second BA’s and intensive summer courses often serve similar purposes, both in the UK and the US.  On some level, there isn’t really a fast-track; you have to put in a certain, very large, number of hours learning these languages, or any language, in order to be fully competent in it.  But it’s great that there are now more paths by which people who haven’t gone to fancy expensive schools or colleges can become classicists, either gaining just a sprinkling of the languages, or going the whole hog.  It’s much better for the profession as a whole if classicists aren’t all the same as each other demographically; the more voices we have around the table as we try to make sense of the complexities of the ancient world, the better.

I also think it’s OK that not everybody in the world is going to learn Ancient Greek and Latin.  I do really hope that at least some minority of those who read my translation WILL be inspired to learn the original language, and do their own work on the original poem one day.  But the majority of readers of this translation are presumably not going to be in that category.  There’s also a huge value for non-classicists in having some vivid awareness of ancient/ archaic Greece and its literature, and my translation can provide that.  We live in a present-ist age, and our whole culture benefits if there’s wider and deeper knowledge of the alien cultures and literatures of antiquity, including archaic Greece.

The Odyssey and Iliad were originally performed aloud, at the Panathenaia festival instituted by Peisistratus. Do we know how long that habit of oral performance lasted? Was it overtaken gradually by the habit of reading? Or will the owners of the many copies of Homer found at Oxyrhynchus still have been reading aloud, perhaps to family and friends – like today’s “book groups”?

Rhapsodes performed Homer well into the time of the Roman Empire, though from what I’ve read, it seems likely that actual competitive performances were limited to mainland Greece. I don’t know exactly how people would have been experiencing Homer in Egypt.  It’s a myth that nobody in antiquity ever read silently, and there’s quite a lot of evidence to the contrary.  It seems perfectly possible that people even in classical times would sometimes have read a scroll of Homer silently, in their heads, even though there were also oral performances.   I like the idea of the book groups of Oxyrhynchus, but I don’t know of evidence for that.

Do you think most people will read your book and inwardly digest it, or are you hoping they will read it out loud (or have it read to them)? 

I’ve heard of many people reading it out loud, either to themselves, in a group over wine, to their spouses, to a dying partner, to friends, or to helpless newborn children and the unborn.  I very much hope there will soon be an audio-book version, so people can listen in their cars, while jogging, or while doing appropriately Homeric household tasks, like weaving or ship-building or butchering pigs. I also know that many people have read it silently.  Either way is fine, all ways are fine.  I do hope that the silent readers will activate whatever part of the brain it is that can hear rhythm and meter, because it seems a pity to miss that element in what the text is.  Also the meter should help you pronounce the names, which I know can be a challenge to non-classicists.  But you can get the rhythm even with silent reading, if you’re tuned in — like reading a musical score silently.  Many people read Shakespeare and Milton silently, too, and it can be fine as long as your inner ears are active as well as your eyes.

You obviously hope that your fresh translation will attract new readers to the Odyssey. Has the Odyssey been given similar 21st century treatment in other modern languages? Might your translation be attractive to readers other than those whose first language is English?

I gather that there’s a relatively new iambic pentameter translation in Dutch.  I don’t know the full history of translation in every language in the world…My translation has had quite a lot of press coverage in other languages, including reviews and/or articles in Italian, French, Dutch, Greek and German, and at least one essay in the Indian press, too. Of course most of the coverage has included discussion of the “First Woman in English” headline.  But some of the European/ non-anglophone coverage has actually been more appropriately nuanced, since of course there are translations by women into a number of other languages.  I certainly hope that readers in non-English-speaking countries may be interested, and it’s been great to see the interest e.g. in Germany. Most of the reasons why the Odyssey is so relevant culturally right now are to do with global issues, not issues specific to the anglophone world: issues such as migration, immigration, home, identity, violence, terrorism, cultural difference, colonization, war and its aftermath, time, conservatism, gender and power all resonate deeply in many countries across the world right now.  Of course different countries have different histories of relationship with Homer as well as with translating Homer (and those are different histories).  I’ve been invited to go talk about my translation in Greece next year.  Greece is a country which of course has a particularly fraught relationship with the ancient past.  I’m very much looking forward to learning more about Greek responses to my translation and to Homer when I visit.

After the Odyssey, what next for you? Might there be an Iliad?

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