“Cracks and Fissures”: Emily Wilson’s Translation of the Odyssey

Emily Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey, one of the most famous works of Western literature, begins with this line: “Tell me about a complicated man” (l.1). This sounds considerably different from other translations of the work in both style and substance. George Chapman’s famous translation presents the line as follows: “The man, O Muse, inform, that many a way / Wound with his wisdom to his wished stay” (ll. 1-2). And yet another translation, by Richmond Lattimore (1965), translates it thus: “Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven /far journeys, after he had sacked Troy’s sacred citadels” (ll. 1-2).

The difference among these translations, first and foremost, should remind us that translation is an art and that translation changes a piece even as it makes it accessible. There are whole fields of study dedicated to the complexities of translation theory. Consequently, rather than glossing over translators, we should give them the credit they’re due. Today, I doff my cap to Emily Wilson, the first woman to ever publish an English translation of the Odyssey. The Odyssey is, after all, an epic poem that qualifies as speculative (insofar as it deals with gods, monsters, and magic) and has had an enormous impact on the speculative work of others.

As the first female translator of the epic, Wilson is acutely aware of her responsibility. In her Translator’s Note, she remarks that she has tried to “[shine] a clear light on the particular forms of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text.” One challenge of this is in representing the primary male characters of the text, Odysseus and Telemachus, father and son, in a way that equally emphasizes the good and the bad. After all, Wilson argues that the Odyssey is asking crucial questions about the “moral qualities” of Odysseus, who utilizes “aggression and violence” in problematic ways. In an attempt to live up to his father’s reputation, Telemachus is “consistent in his notion that masculine maturity means the suppression and exclusion of women and the suppression of female voices.” More than once, he asserts this control over his own mother Penelope. Given this scenario, Wilson’s translation of Book One especially highlights the toxicity of a masculine community defined by “dominance.”

Though former translations, including that of George Chapman (so praised by John Keats), emphasize the heroism of Odysseus (“a true soldier and a gentleman,” as Wilson describes it), Wilson asks us to take nothing for granted. She sees Odysseus as “a man whose grand adventure is simply to go back to his own home.” Chapman, in contrast, sees the text’s goal differently: “The return of a man into his country is his whole scope and object.” It is important to note here that Chapman, ensconced as he was in the seventeenth-century culture of patronage, dedicates his work to the Earl of Somerset and consequently emphasizes country and rulership. Wilson, speaking to a broader audience, asks us to consider Odysseus as a clever, but ultimately relatable, man, one seeking out his home. In this latter case, Wilson has more room to question Odysseus as well. She includes this as part of a larger goal to “tease out [The Odyssey’s] values, and to allow the reader to see the cracks and fissures in its constructed fantasy.” She also dares to represent Odysseus as one seeking a home, rather than a country. The difference is distinct and gendered.

So how does Wilson’s approach impact the translation itself? In Book One alone, the picture we receive of Telemachus is significantly different and more critical than the version of the son we receive in Chapman’s translation. Whereas Telemachus is “god-like” (l. 183) and “inspired” (l. 527) as he talks to the disguised Athena in Chapman, in Wilson’s version, he is moody (l. 230) and “sullen” (l. 345). Telemachus’s concern in this passage is the number of suitors that have overwhelmed his home in hope of marrying Penelope. The tension between Telemachus, as he tries to assert dominance over the household in lieu of his father, and the rowdy suitors makes for an acute investigation of male rivalry. Given the adjectives chosen by Wilson, it comes as less of a surprise when Telemachus is harsh with his mother upon Athena’s absence: “It is for men to talk, especially me. I am the master” (ll. 358-59). This, in the book entitled by Wilson as “The Boy and the Goddess.” Ultimately, Telemachus is trying to navigate his own masculinity, especially since Athena admonishes him that he is “no longer just a little boy” (l. 297). However, his society’s models are flawed, and these models impact men and women alike, Telemachus’s confidence as much as Penelope’s security.

Wilson, then, truly embraces her stated goal: to use the Odyssey “as a way of thinking about what might be old and worn out in the Western cultural tradition.” She turns our approach to the epic poem upside down and, in doing so, nabbed herself a spot on The New York Times’ “100 Notable Books of 2018.”

One thought

  1. Oh, thank you for this! I’m a Fagles fan but have heard good things about Wilson’s translation. Now I’m even more excited about it!

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