October 02, 2023
"The Odyssey" is a legendary 2,800-year-old text, one that's received at least 60 English translations over the years. But none of those translators were women, until Emily Wilson came along.
Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, caused a sensation in the literary world in 2018 with her interpretation of the Homer story, written in more contemporary language and with a more conscious eye to gender and power dynamics. Now, she's returned to the ancient Greek poet with a translation of his war epic "The Iliad," which was released last week. Like her "Odyssey," Wilson's "Iliad" has already been hailed by critics as a fresh, dynamic interpretation that stands apart from previous translations and brings the ancient story to "rousing new life."
"I hope there are ways that my choices will be interesting to people who've read other translations or who've read the Greek," Wilson said shortly after the book's publication last Tuesday. "I think a translation that's exactly the same as every previous translation is not really worth spending years of your life on."
She would know. Wilson spent six years working on "The Iliad," plus countless more in the classroom teaching the text to college students. The ancient story picks up deep into the Trojan War, a conflict sparked when the Trojan prince Paris abducts Helen, the queen of Sparta, and her brother-in-law Agamemnon retaliates. The Greek warrior Achilles propels the action of "The Iliad" after refusing to fight over a perceived slight and roping the gods into his grudge.
Wilson is not the first woman to translate "The Iliad" into English — that distinction belongs to Caroline Alexander, who published a translation of the poem in 2015 — but her version still departs from previous interpretations in a number of interesting ways. Take, for example, her approach to an ancient Greek word that literally translates to "dog-face." Achilles uses this term during an argument with Agamemnon in "The Iliad," and so does Helen when referring to herself.
Wilson stuck to the literal translation. But in a number of modern American translations of the story, male translators interpreted Helen's words as "slut that I am" or "whore that I am," while applying more literal phrasing, such as "you with the dog's eyes," when Achilles says it. As Wilson jokes, consistency would demand Achilles scream, "Agamemnon, you slut!"
"It would be, in a way, kind of great if they did do that," she said. "I think if a translator approaches the text thinking the female characters will be less interesting, or will be perceived externally, or will be judged for their sexuality, then that's going to inhibit some understanding of the original. Homer has this incredibly empathetic and psychologically deep vision of the characters in the poem, including the divine characters, including the male characters, the female characters. Everyone is treated with this synonymous sympathy and understanding."
Wilson designed her text to be an immersive experience that replicates the meter and "music" of the original, rather than following the prose or free-verse style of many previous translations. Her intended reader is not a scholar fluent in long-dead dialects, she said, but anyone hoping to experience the story as Homer's audience did.
"I think some translations get bogged down in trying to replicate word order or trying to make it sound sort of bombastically fancy in a way that I don't think Homeric verse really is in the original," she explained. "And that's not because I don't like bombast. I love bombast ... But Homer isn't like that, there's a sort of straightforwardness as well as poetic artifice. And I want to have both of those qualities coming through."
At 848 pages, Wilson's text is a door-stopper full of squabbling gods and arrogant mortals. As the war rages on, each of them struggles through grief, rage and passion. Wilson wants readers to feel it all, even if they can't fully relate to the eighth century B.C. characters at the center of the classic saga. That, she insists, is the point.
"I think one of the big reasons for experiencing and learning about antiquity is that it takes you somewhere different," she said. "And it shows you the intensity of human experience and human emotions, even in a very different, and in some ways quite alien, cultural environment. I mean, the feelings in Homer are totally recognizable ... And yet it's also a very, very strange world. People inhabit their bodies in weird ways. The customs are weird. The gods are weird. So much of it is weird. And I think the weirdness is also part of why people should read it."