There are dozens of translations of “The Odyssey,” the ancient epic poem credited to Homer, yet Emily Wilson’s is the first by a woman into English.
“We should be shocked that the English-speaking world hasn’t had a translation by a woman,” Wilson said during a recent visit to Harvard. “Slightly more women than men get Ph.Ds. in the classics in the U.S., and yet the vast majority of translations that readers read in English for classics are by men. This is an issue, and we should talk about it.”
Important translations of Homer's Odyssey
"The Odyssey" has been published in English dozens of times since the 15th century, but some are notable for their literary quality, authorship, or offering a new perspective on the influential text.
In a manner that remains obscure and controversial, "The Odyssey," attributed to Homer, emerges from oral tradition.
As the Renaissance reaches England, Shakespeare contemporary George Chapman publishes "The Odyssey" in iambic pentameter. It is a rousing success, and quickly becomes the English standard for the next century.
Famed philosopher Thomas Hobbes translates "The Odyssey" using a rhyme scheme, though the rhymes are often imperfect.
Luminary poet Alexander Pope secretly employs two co-translators to write the epic in heroic couplets — rhyming iambic pentameter. His translation, more accessible than its predecessors, is a huge success, becoming the new standard until the 20th century.
Poet and hymnodist William Cowper translates "The Odyssey" into blank verse — metered poetry without a rhyme scheme.
Conservative Homeric scholars Andrew Lang and Samuel Butcher collaborate on a prosaic translation that, while archaic, is heralded for its attractive language.
Influential artist and activist William Morris publishes a well-received translation in two installments.
In the foreword to his prosaic translation, writer and social critic Samuel Butler posits a theory that "The Odyssey" was actually written by a Sicilian woman, citing geographical descriptions, the plethora of strong female characters, and the otherwise two-dimensional male characters other than the epic's namesake.
Four years before being named the Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard, poet and Greek translator Robert Fitzgerald publishes some of the most acclaimed and widely read translations of Homer's poetry, still considered the academic standard by many.
Princeton Professor Robert Fagles translates the epic using contemporary language that is praised for being politically correct and more sympathetic to the female characters.
More than 400 years after the first English translation, Emily Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, becomes the first woman to publish a translation of "The Odyssey" in English.
Study.com; Kenyon Review
The British classicist, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, gave a lecture earlier this month titled “Translating ‘The Odyssey’: Why and How.”
“It’s very visible to me how misogynistic some of these translations are, and not because they were consciously imposing misogyny, but they had some unconsidered biases,” Wilson said before her talk. “Men are never asked about their gender, and this omission is seriously distorting. It’s very clear gender has an impact on men’s work.”
To a crowd in Sever Hall, Wilson, who first fell in love with the Greek tale from the eighth century B.C. at a staged production at her elementary school, made her case with side-by-side comparisons of her work with past translations. In one example, she compared the opening lines of Chapter 5, when the goddess of dawn awakes. She noted the 1614‒16 translation by George Chapman:
Aurora rose from high-born Tithon’s bed,
That men and Gods might be illustrated.
That translation empowers the man with ownership of the bed. Similarly, Alexander Pope’s 1725 version — The saffron morn, with early blushes spread, Now rose refulgent from Tithonus’ bed — reads as if the goddess were doing a “walk of shame.”
The best-selling modern translation by Robert Fagles from 1996 — As Dawn rose up from bed by her lordly mate Tithonus / bringing light to immortal gods and mortal men — suggests the only mortals are men.
Like Chapman and Pope, Wilson used iambic pentameter. Her version of these lines is: Then Dawn rose up from bed with Lord Tithonus / to bring the light to the deathless gods and mortals.
Wilson spent five years working on the more than 12,000-line poem, explaining that she aimed for a stylist register that would reflect the tension between poetic artifice and clarity. Her translation features words and phrases such as “pep talk,” “stuck up,” and “tote bag.” She explained her decision to avoid bombastic, archaic, or unidiomatic language by saying that such literary tricks don’t get closer to the original.