W. W. Norton & Company
November 7, 2017
Hospitality is a funny thing–its nuances shifting from culture to culture, from home to home. In Homer’s native Greece, hospitality was exercised by both host and invitee, social norms dictating the proper behaviour for a meaningful visit for both parties. Approach with care and consideration and the hours will pass pleasantly for all.
The idea of invitation and comfort was never far from mind as I read through Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Odyssey, marking the first time the full epic poem has been translated into English by a woman. It is a story of a man on a journey, perhaps one of the first truly epic journeys of our time, but so too is it a story of a woman fighting to keep her home, as well as a story of what home and journeying mean for those we leave behind in our travels. Wilson unspools those stories and their connecting threads in her own venture towards inviting readers to come, sit, listen.
For many readers, The Odyssey may have been an intimidating and yes, boring requirement in their education. Having read a few different English translations over the years, I must admit that my deep affection for the story at hand has probably carried me through my own struggles with some versions of the text. We bring our own experiences and prejudices towards anything we read, but if done well, a text can also give us something to take away with us as we close the book.
Wilson seems to understand that, having spent most of her own life loving and studying the Greek and Latin classics. Her choice to use iambic pentameter, simple and clean and familiar, may not surprise anyone, but the way she uses it is sharp, evoking the modern nature of this translation. Wilson further holds herself and her translation to another rule: one line of English to one line of Greek, closing the door on the longer lines favoured by past translators. What emerges is a poem that is direct, but never plain. Consider the first stanza of Book I:
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.
In my memory, I can’t recall having read a translation so clear, precise in language and tone. The final words–“find the beginning”–comprise one of my favourite lines in the entire book, an invitation, a call to action not just to the Muse, but to us, the readers. We may have been lost along the way, but still, Wilson seems to say, we can find the beginning “for our modern times.” Where those familiar descriptive epithets seemed to drive older translations, Wilson chooses to rewrite them into new phrases, jogging readers’ imaginations and keeping them engaged in the tale.
Interestingly, Wilson does not set out to erase the misogyny or classism contained within The Odyssey, but her choices do grapple with them more clearly than in previous translations. Here, “housemaid” is “slave,” a more accurate rendering of what these people were to certain households. The disapproving undertones of Nausicaa’s scenes in other translations have dissipated in Wilson’s–she allows the character of Nausicaa to exist sans judgment from the translator. The women that Telemachus orders to be hanged are no longer “sluts and whores,” but women of the household, as they have always been in Homer’s original poem, sans the verbal insults displayed towards them in other translations. Their actions do not make them less human, and Wilson gives them that dignity. It’s a choice that, once again, buoys the same invitation extended in the first lines of the poem.
Some readers may not want to accept the invitation to enter Odysseus’s world once more, and that’s okay. For others, Emily Wilson’s translation may be the first foothold they find into the world of classical literature, a foothold that is sturdy and steady, the lines delineating a passage through which to see something new where there has only ever been the familiar. Today, a woman leads the way.