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Post Road Magazine #35

Emily Wilson's Translation of The Odyssey

Kelly J. Ford
  1. Sky-Vue Drive-In. Fort Smith, Arkansas. Double feature. My brother and I were supposed to be asleep in the back seat of our Jeep during the second, less kid-friendly movie, but we snuck glances at Clash of the Titans when our parents weren’t looking and saw mesmerizing visuals of men in togas, virginal sacrifices, and–most impressive—a lady with snakes for hair.

After watching that movie, I became obsessed with Greek Gods and culture—

until MTV came along. Over the years, my obsession with the Gods declined but never disappeared.

  1. Modern oracle, Twitter, reveals that The Odyssey has been translated by a woman for the first time. One tweet image contained the first lines of this new translation:
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

Yes, please.

I met a charming classicist at a party shortly thereafter. I relayed my excitement about Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. When she asked my thoughts on previous translations vs. Wilson’s, my answer was somewhere in the realm of: Uh . . .

This is a thing you do at parties, right? You land on a topic—even when you know zilch about said topic—and pray your conversation partner will receive the baton and carry on without asking you to further elucidate your interest. I tried to recall whether my education included anything beyond the films Clash of the Titansand Xanadu.

Lucky for me, I had several smart English teachers in Arkansas whose life goal was wrangling rednecks into reading. Based on my aforementioned education, I approached my junior high reading of The Odysseywith excitement. Here was a great epic: A king and hero of the Trojan War sets out to return to his beloved Ithaca and queen, encountering obstacles along the way, including monsters, storms, violent and seductive gods and goddesses. What’s not to love? I dove in.

Odysseus sacks, kills, steals, and cheats. He whines, he boasts. Much of his—and his son’s—success is due to the goddess Athena, who guides and saves them like so many southern women I know and have known, holding down the fort despite their husbands’ expectation of Penelope-like devotion while they go out looking for trouble. And, well, it took Odysseus ten years to return home after Troy, and he lost all his men. Is he reallya hero?

Given my first-read experience, why approach The Odysseywith fervor?

My interest would not have been piqued by any old translation. By another dude. No offense, but you know. Neither would I be excited by a play about a founding father. But told from the perspective of a diverse cast of characters set against a hip-hop soundtrack, I cheered and queued for tickets, as many others did for Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. A new perspective doesn’t diminish historical facts but does provide a different viewpoint that is thrilling, especially when so many long to see themselves reflected in stories. Like Odysseus, I was drawn to this new text as he was drawn to the song of the Sirens.

I fell into the metered prose of this new translation that is—unlike the debated “complicated” from the first line—uncomplicated by the flowery language that annoyed me as a teenager, savoring each line in the way it might have been told in its original form, reminiscent of tall tales told around a fire.

The history nerd in me relished the introduction and translator’s note, especially the sections on word choice in previous translations, such as “savage” for the Cyclopes, and “to translate a domestic female slave, called in the original dmoe(‘female-house-slave’), as a ‘maid’ or ‘domestic servant’ would imply that she was free. . . . The original Greek does not label the slaves with any derogatory language.”

With this translation, Emily Wilson has removed the trappings of dated viewpoints for a more modern, yet still horrific, understanding of these women who did not have the agency to say no to the suitors. Though Wilson has not changed the plot, the translation allows new dimensions with which to engage the text.

Greek tragedies were meant to be enjoyed by lay people, average citizens of the Greek polis. It’s through modernization that the tale has been relegated to the halls of academia. I belong to the former, not the latter. I know nothing of Greek mythology or history. I’m an average citizen and reader, hoping to discover something fabulous among the stacks. That’s what I found.

And that’s what I told the classicist at the holiday party. That’s the greatest gift of this type of translation: it blows the dust off a school reading assignment and inspires a new generation of readers—and those who had bad teenage readings of it—to view this work as a spellbinding story about a deeply flawed king who longs to return home, a deeply flawed son who comes of age, and a faithful queen who outwits her enemies despite the confines of her role.

When I return to Arkansas, we sometimes pass the old Sky-Vue Drive-in. The ghost of the parking lot remains, but the screen and the speaker poles are gone. I recall the stars in the sky and those Titans of the screen, of being a young girl who got swept away by the story of the Gods, got lost on the way, and found her way back through a retelling.


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