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21 January 2018

Emily Wilson sensitively considers The Odyssey’s original poetic purpose and resonance

Not only is this the first English verse translation of the poem by a woman, it is a fluid and immensely readable versification.

By Josephine Balmer

“The interest of the poem,” Samuel Butler noted of The Odyssey in 1897, “ostensibly turns mainly on the revenge taken by a bald middle-aged gentleman, whose little remaining hair is red, on a number of young men who have been eating him out of house and home, while courting his supposed widow.” Butler’s dry summary of Odysseus’s ten-year journey home from the sack of Troy to his beloved island of Ithaca might appear understated. Yet famously he also asserts that, rather than the male bard Homer, as tradition records, the author of the ancient Greek epic was instead a woman (a view Robert Graves later adopted in his 1955 novel, Homer’s Daughter). As Butler discerns, The Odyssey’s “preponderance” of women characters – from Odysseus’s loyal wife Penelope to the sorceress Circe, the deadly Sirens, the lovestruck nymph Calypso, the young, gauche princess Nausicaa and the ever-vigilant goddess Athena – displays “a fuller knowledge of those things which a woman generally has to deal with”.

Nevertheless, in the century or so since Butler’s eccentric study first appeared, English translations of the epic have remained firmly male. EV Rieu’s bestselling prose version launched the Penguin Classics series in 1946, capturing the imagination of returning servicemen. Robert Fitzgerald’s stately blank verse appeared in 1961, followed by Richmond Lattimore’s faithful, if stiff, six-beat lines in 1965. Then came Robert Fagles’s gripping Wild West adventure in 1996 and Stanley Lombardo’s crisp millennial transformations in 2000. Throughout, the men who travel, rather than the women who wait, have remained centre stage.

“The cities are down,” observed George Steiner of the poem, “and survivors wander the face of the earth as pirates or beggars.” But late last year, Emily Wilson’s new translation appeared, like one of Zeus’s thunderclaps, to part the clouds. Heavily promoted by her publisher as the first by a woman in English verse (Anne Dacier produced a French prose version in 1708, used as a crib by Alexander Pope, while in 1952, the children’s author Barbara Leonie Picard published a complete prose retelling), some of the subsequent critical amazement perhaps recalls Samuel Johnson’s verdict of a woman preaching, “surprised to find it done at all”. As Butler countered the argument that only a male poet could have written the battle-hardened Odyssey: “A woman can kill… on paper as well as a man can.”

So what does Wilson, a renowned classical scholar and translator, bring to the text? Rather than any feminist revisioning as in Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novella, The Penelopiad, Wilson’s fluid and immensely readable versification harks back to Lattimore’s close rendition of Homer’s original. She maintains line lengths – no easy task in a non-inflected, word-hungry language such as English – and writes in iambics, “the conventional meter for regular English narrative verse” as she explains. Modestly, she argues in favour of employing “fairly ordinary, straightforward, and readable English”. She is anxious to avoid “bright, noisy linguistic fireworks” yet at the same time she sensitively considers the poem’s original poetic purpose and resonance.

In practice, Wilson’s quiet ambition provides an immediacy and clarity, blowing away the cobwebs of pseudo-archaisms or epic pomposity, the brilliant clear sky after one of the many storms Odysseus endures. Take her translation of the moment an anonymous Odysseus listens to the Phaeacian bard Demodocus as he sings of the Greeks’ exploits during the fall of Troy:

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Odysseus was melting into tears;
his cheeks were wet with weeping, as a
weeps, as she falls to wrap her arms
her husband fallen fighting for his home and children.

As Wilson points out in her introduction, it is an extraordinary image, a transference of the experience of the conquered woman, whose fate would now be slavery, to that of the male, conquering hero. Fagles’s version is more verbose: “Great Odysseus melted into tears,/running down from his eyes to wet his cheeks…/as a woman weeps, her arms flung around her darling husband,/ a man who fell in battle, fighting for town and townsmen,/trying to beat the day of doom from home and children.” Compared to this, Wilson’s economy and restraint become only more poignant.

For Wilson, Odysseus represents “a veteran soldier, with his own version of PTSD”. Such incisive contemporary readings power her narrative. Her use of colloquialisms might offend those who prefer ancient epic to remain wrapped in aspic but Wilson understands that, as William Cowper complained in 1791, “it is difficult to kill a sheep with dignity in a modern language”. So Nausicaa describes her brothers as “strapping single men” (AT Murray’s translation for Loeb has “sturdy bachelors”). And the disguised Athena’s teasing address to Odysseus as he arrives at Alcinous’s palace, xeine pater or “father stranger”, becomes “Mr Foreigner”. In addition, Wilson rises to the challenge of the poem’s repetitive formulaic epithets by adapting them subtly to suit the line; polumetis or “resourceful” Odysseus becomes “the lord of lies”. Meanwhile ichthuoeis, the “fish-full” sea, is transformed into the beautiful “journey-ways of fish”.

Cowper describes how he mastered the “difficult places” in Homer by consulting commentators. Wilson’s own scholarship is outstanding throughout. Her wide-ranging introduction covers the nature of Homeric poetry alongside issues of its authorship and date, as well as the poem’s cultural background. She also provides a measured section on the epic’s many women protagonists plus a thoughtful discussion of Odysseus’s own ambivalent portrayal in the work.

Above all, her “Translator’s Note” reveals how translation is not a craft of certainty but an art of choice. Here she reveals the subtle workings – and reworkings – of her woman’s version. For example, as Penelope fetches the bow with which Odysseus will kill her suitors, Homer describes her hand as pachus or “thick”, an epithet, Wilson reveals, usually reserved for those of male warriors. After much consideration, Wilson settles on “muscular”, to underline Penelope’s “physical competence” and “crucial part in the action”. Such small, yet significant, strategies allow Wilson to pervert the showy tropes of previous male versions while staying true to Homer’s original.

It is immensely satisfying to see The Odyssey in the hands of such a careful and creative scholar who can pore over the semantic nuances of Homer’s Greek as well as those of her own English. Considerations of gender aside, perhaps Wilson’s greatest achievement is to disprove the increasingly held view that versions of ancient texts require an established poet to be parachuted in, like a literary James Bond, to rescue their English lines from the prosaic. For a translation of The Odyssey that knows what it is talking about and sings as it speaks, this is the one to read. 

Josephine Balmer is a poet and Classical translator. Her collections include “The Paths of Survival” (Shearsman) 

The Odyssey
Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson
W W Norton, 582pp, £30

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This article appears in the 17 Jan 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Churchill and the hinge of history