Homer’s “Odyssey” Receives First Translation into English by a Woman
Homer’s Odyssey is a work of fiction that charts the trials and tribulations faced by Odysseus, King of the isle of Ithaca, as he endeavours to return home from the Trojan War. This classical text has been the subject of much scholarly attention and, up until now, has received at least 60 prominent translations into English. However, classics is a field still dominated by men and male perspectives, with all previous translators of Homer’s monumental work being male. Indeed, the translation by Emily Wilson, professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, is the first into English by a woman. This version was only published in November 2017.
Despite the classics being male-dominated, the fact that there has not been an English-language translation of the Odyssey by a female translator is somewhat of an anomaly. Indeed, Anne Dacier translated the Odyssey into French in 1708. However, as an expert in the field, Wilson’s translation has been received by critics with much acclaim. She has been praised for bringing a new perspective to the text. She has also been critical of the notion of “les belles infidèles” or “faithless beauties” previously applied to classical literature – a notion, steeped in misogynistic notions of women, which expounds that translations that are faithful cannot be beautiful and those which are beautiful cannot be faithful. Wilson strongly rejects this notion, as well as traditional notions of fidelity to the source text and original author – seeing herself as being simultaneously responsible to the author, English-speaking readers and the English language itself.
A work of literature, however close the translation, is subject to the interpretation of the translator. This is especially so in texts filled with poetry, vivid imagery and metaphor. This means that however faithful a translator may attempt to be, their own perspective will influence their interpretation, and, in turn, the final product. As Wilson points out, this is even more the case with a classical text, where the translator must interpret and allow the readers to understand not only a foreign culture, but one existing in a time long ago. In an article for Time magazine, she describes her role as a guide for the reader.
She also states that previous, male translators, have inevitably allowed their notions of gender and pre-existing views to influence their interpretation of the text, and thus their translation. In this way, her translation offers a fresh perspective of the text. She gives an example from the story, where Odysseus’ son Telemachus hangs slave women who have been sleeping with his mother’s suitors. Other translations use derogatory terms of judgment associated with unfaithful women, whereas Wilson, judging that such a moral judgment does not exist in the text (but rather that is a more contemporary notion projected onto it) simply describes them as the women “who lay beside the suitors”.
With her translation, Wilson has helped to bring something new to a much-translated and valued work. Translations of the classics by women, in producing another version of an ancient text, bring about something fresh and new, discovering it all over again.