Emily Wilson on Porous Boundaries and the World of Homer

By Robert WoodApril 2, 2019

Emily Wilson on Porous Boundaries and the World of Homer
EMILY WILSON’S TRANSLATION of the Odyssey reinvented Homer’s classic with what The New York Times Magazine called a “radically contemporary voice.” The book was a breakout success, and not only for scholars and classics buffs. This was due in part to the political reimagining, and the powerful style of her version, which had a feminist orientation and a renewed fidelity to its material. It breathed life into an ancient text that made it perfectly suited to our contemporary moment. She has spoken extensively on these themes, in other interviews and in writing.

I read the work in a single sitting, turning page after page compulsively in the Butler Library at Columbia University, a building with Homer’s name etched above neo-classical pillars. It was a truly rare and memorable reading experience for me, and judging from other readers’ responses, many had similarly transformative encounters with her translation. I eagerly sought out more of Wilson’s work.

Wilson is a professor of Classical Studies and chair of the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. She grew up in Oxford, and has a BA in Classics from Balliol College Oxford, a Master of Philosophy in English literature from Corpus Christi College Oxford, and a PhD in Classics and Comparative Literature from Yale. Her books include a study of “tragic overliving,” a book on the death of Socrates and its various cultural receptions, and a literary biography of Seneca. Her verse translations include Six Tragedies of Seneca, four tragedies of Euripides, and a forthcoming translation of Sophocles’s Oedipus Tyrannus. She is also working on a new translation of the Iliad.


ROBERT WOOD: Congratulations on the fabulous success of the Odyssey, and a personal thanks for providing one of my favorite reading experiences in a very long time. You have written and spoken about the Odyssey at length since its release. What do you make of its coverage by reviewers, critics, readers, journalists, and scholars?

EMILY WILSON: I’ve been thrilled by the responses I’ve had. I’ve never before published anything that has aroused this level of interest and engagement from so many different people. I’ve had lovely letters and emails from readers of all walks of life, including people who have read other translations, people reading the poem for the first time, poets, writers, parents reading it to children, people reading it to dying or sick spouses, kids (for whom parts of it may in fact be unsuitably violent), and classicist colleagues of all ages who have found my translation enables new discussions and analysis in the classroom. It’s been particularly thrilling to hear about, and occasionally participate in, the many marathon readings, as well as to watch the success of the Claire Danes audiobook. One of my main goals in creating the translation, using an entirely regular poetic meter, was to enable a vivid, rhythmical oral experience of this archaic oral poem. I’ve also been delighted to hear how many people, both specialists and non-specialists, have said their vision of the Odyssey was fundamentally changed by reading my translation. Of course I knew I had something I wanted to do and say, but I didn’t know if people wanted to hear it; it is marvelous to see that people actually responded to my work. It’s been a success beyond my wildest dreams.

Some of the reviewers and interviewers made a great deal of the fact that I am, as far as anyone seems to be able to tell, the first woman to publish a complete translation of the Odyssey into English. There are a number of published translations by women into other languages, and of course there are plenty of other female Homerists, in the United Kingdom and the United States and beyond. I worried that some of the coverage seemed to obscure or erase the work of other women, by presenting me as unique in ways that I am not. I want all possible credit to be given to other female classicists and other female translators, as well as other Homerists of all genders, from many of whom I’ve learned a huge amount and with whom I’m constantly in conversation.

That said, there is definitely a gender gap in the world of Anglophone classical translation, far more so than in Anglophone classical scholarship. The vast majority of English translators of ancient Greek are elderly white men — even though many classicists don’t fit those categories. I very much hope that the coverage of my translation may encourage more young non-male people to become classicists, poets, translators, and historians, and may even encourage more reviewers and publishers to think about gender when they assess or commission translations in the future. I’d love to see the conversation broaden; we should also be asking why so few translators of ancient literature are people of color. We need to talk about social identities and how they affect the work of translators (as well as the work of scholars, journalists, historians, poets, and novelists), without putting writers or scholars into boxes, and without being simplistic or deterministic about the relationship of social role to interpretative work. It’s a problem that cisgender men never seem to be asked about how their gender affects their work (and white people don’t get asked about our whiteness, and so on).

Being a woman obviously didn’t predetermine any of my interpretative and poetic choices. Many women are not feminists, and many women are not interested in gender; many women also don’t write in iambic pentameter. Certainly, when I took on the project, I was thinking about poetics (the desire to create a metrically regular, line-for-line translation, in contrast to the free-verse, expansive modes of most contemporary translations), characterization, and narrative point of view; I wasn’t thinking about my own gender identity. It’s complicated. Women are different from one another; there’s no such thing as “the female perspective,” any more than “the male perspective.” The stylistic and hermeneutic choices I make as a translator aren’t predetermined by my gender identity. Other female translators of Homer — such as Caroline Alexander in English, Rosa Onesti in Italian, and Anne Dacier in French — have made extremely different choices from mine.

Some readers definitely came for the “First Woman” headline, but I think they stayed, if they actually read the translation, for the rhythm, the style, the storytelling, the descriptions, the characterizations, and the emotional vividness. While I’m doing the daily work of translation, I’m not thinking about myself; I’m thinking about how to create a truthfully polyvocal, nuanced, clear, rhythmical rendition of Homer’s rich imaginative and poetic world.

The book is an entry point for many people, not only to Homer but also to your other work. What are some of the themes, ideas, and interests that have mattered to you since you started working in classics?

I’ve written three monographs: on ancient and early modern tragedy, on Socrates, and on Seneca. I’ve also done other verse translations (of Seneca, Euripides, and Sophocles). My central interests are in poetics, narrative, ethics, literary representations of life and time, and maybe most centrally, the relationship of the present to the past, in culture and especially literature. I have a degree in English literature as well as degrees in classics, which is fairly unusual for a classicist, especially a British one; it certainly wasn’t inevitable that I would end up in a classical studies department. My deep interest in, and training in, Anglophone poetry, as well as Greco-Roman classics, is essential for my approach to the translation of ancient Greek and Roman verse into English. I’ve found myself constantly propelled, in my studies of languages, literatures, and philosophy both from antiquity and later periods, by the desire to keep on rereading texts that mean different things to me every time I come back to them, and that have meant different things to readers in different eras. I love the sense of being immersed in different imaginative worlds, of constantly seeing things a little differently, and of constantly grappling with the gap between the then and the now.

How does the academic field of the classics fit within and without the university today?

Within the academy, the study of ancient Greek and Roman languages and cultures is undergoing a kind of identity crisis at the moment. In that sentence, I avoided the terms “classics,” or “the classics,” because they imply a very debatable superiority complex, as if ancient Greco-Roman antiquity were classier or more important than other ancient cultures. Many scholars are doing some long-overdue grappling with the white, elitist legacy of the discipline since the 19th century. Scholars of antiquity have everything to gain from working to dismantle that legacy, and inviting engagement with the ancient world based not on racist or elitist identity politics, but on critical thinking, open-minded curiosity, and joy. We as teachers of Latin and ancient Greek need to do whatever we can to support students from different racial and socio-economic backgrounds in the study of the languages — to ensure that the classical philologists and translators of the future, the people who can read and interpret and recreate Greco-Roman literature for the rest of us, aren’t all privileged white men. We also need to be willing to think critically and creatively about the different ways that our objects of study can be configured institutionally, and we need to get rid of the absurd idea, still endemic in the discipline, that language study of a particular kind is inherently superior to all other serious engagements with ancient cultures (such as archaeology). I believe in the value, for people from all backgrounds and classes and identities, of engaging deeply with very alien cultures, languages, texts, and ways of life, including those of the ancient Mediterranean world. In a presentist age, the serious study of antiquity has a particular value as a provocation to the present; reaching out across time can spark new insights, especially if we don’t assume we already know everything, either about antiquity or about the modern age.

I see the creation of new translations as a way of communicating both with my colleagues, fellow-classicists, and with students, and also with people outside the academy. There is a lot of agonizing among humanities faculty, maybe especially classicists, about “outreach.” That term in itself strikes me as patronizing and misguided, as if academics were always donating priceless gifts to the intellectually impoverished masses. I don’t see it that way. We (i.e., human beings who have the privileged position of spending our lives on teaching/scholarship/writing) should be engaged in multi-way conversations with other people who do other things, trying to listen as well as talk without talking down, and we should make the boundaries between different peoples as porous as possible. “The public” includes me; it’s not some separate sphere out there somewhere. It’s been thrilling to me, especially in the time since my translation was published, to see how many people outside the academy have an intense interest in the ancient world and in ancient literature, and are eager to engage with it in new ways. I joined Twitter since publishing my translation, and despite the particular frustrations of that platform, it’s been fun to use it as a different way of inviting a public conversation about translation and ancient literature.

We’re also living in a great new age of contemporary literary engagements with antiquity, like Madeline Miller’s Circe and Song of Achilles, or Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, or Daisy Johnson’s Everything Under. Scholars aren’t the only ones who engage in profound ways with ancient cultures and literatures.

I know style is a foremost consideration of yours, as is rhythm, line-break, tonal diversity, contemporaneity, and feel. You’re working on a translation of the Iliad — at what stage is that project now?

I’m still in early stages, and I am still struggling. I thought I would go straight on to the Iliad, while I was on a roll with the Odyssey. But the mood of the poem is so different that I’m going to have a good two years of pain, trying to figure out how to get the feel. Certainly, I’m very interested in conveying the intense emotions and the precise delineation of the different characters, different moods and different scenes. I’ve had a wonderful time, even in Book One, figuring how to make the enraged hurling of insults between Achilles and Agamemnon feel appropriately, convincingly furious. Certainly it will be metrical. Homeric poetry has a regular rhythm all the way through that to me is an essential element of the experience; I’m not interested in producing yet another free verse translation, when there are already dozens of those out there in English. There’s no point glutting the classical translation market with products that are all more or less the same as each other — though that does seem to be a popular activity. Similarly, there are already a great many English translations of Homer that are in a stiff, foreignizing, archaizing style — because writing badly is very easy, and it’s the way that classics students are trained to “translate” in class, for exams, to demonstrate their basic understanding of syntax. That style of translation can be defended, like any interpretation, but it can also be misleading, insofar as it makes Homer sound hard to understand and clunky. I want a register that is dignified without being melodramatic or pompous. I want to bring out the clarity and vividness of Homeric Greek, which means doing the work to create an English poetic style that sounds as deeply natural as the original. Beyond that, I am still working it out.

One specific thing that is very difficult is this: I made my Odyssey translation the exact same number of lines as the original, in an attempt to echo the rapid pace of Homer. It was possible to render hexameter line for line into regular iambic pentameter only because I could often use shorter words than those of the original: I didn’t generally skip words, but I often use fewer syllables. For instance, there are many possible ways in English to render a multi-syllabic word for “rushing through space” or “strategically intelligent,” using only one or two syllables. But the Iliad has more patronymics, and it’s difficult or impossible to come up with synonyms for a patronymic: I can do “son of Atreus” or “Atreides,” but those both take lots of syllables. I don’t want to skip too many patronymics, because the poem is all about male honor, naming, and the cost of a name; its whole account of masculine warrior culture would be deeply impoverished without all those names. The names and epithets and patronymics are essential. So I thought I might need either to use more lines than the original, or use a longer line. I’ve tried using dactylic hexameter in English; for a long time I thought that wouldn’t work, but after rereading Arthur Hugh Clough, I decided to give it another go. But I wasn’t really satisfied with the results; it felt unnatural, however hard I tried to create fluent English. I tried with iambic hexameters or Alexandrines, which seemed rhythmically more possible, but I found it hard not to make the lines feel too long, or to make the caesura feel too marked. I tried using a mix, of pentameter with a few hexameter couplets to round out a scene; but that felt arbitrary, even though Dryden and Shakespeare do it sometimes; it felt like too much end-stopping. Here is the same line done three ways:

Dactylic hexameter: “Let no forgetfulness take you when honey-heart sleep has released you.”

Iambic hexameter, Alexandrines: “Do not forget when honeyed sleep lets go of you.”

Iambic pentameter: “Keep all this in your mind, do not forget / when honey-hearted sleep lets go of you.”

So far, I think I’m back to iambic pentameter, and I’d love to make it line for line, if I can without paying too high a price; if I can’t, so be it. You’ll see what I come up with in a few years’ time.

I’m fascinated by the relationship of the Iliad to the Odyssey: the ways the poems are alike as well as unlike, and how they complement one another. One is about war, one about the aftermath of war; one about death, one about survival; one about a very contained, claustrophobic world, and a story that takes place over just a few days, and one about an expansive world, many places, many cultures, many peoples, and a span of 20 years. But they also tell parallel stories: about a superior male warrior, of extraordinary talents and extraordinary social status, who becomes excluded from his own community and, by surprising and complicated means, finds a way back to connection and back to his role as a warrior. There are big questions or themes that run through both poems: about individuals and groups, about grief, death and honor, about the relationship of the battlefield to the household, about the interventions of gods in human lives, and about how human strength and human vulnerability can be so closely intertwined. I feel enormously privileged to have another five years to be immersed in the world of Homer.


Robert Wood is a poetry and essayist who grew up in Australia. He is the author of three books and the chair of PEN Perth.

LARB Contributor

Robert Wood is a Malayali writer living on Whadjuk country. The author of three books, he is interested in dream, language, enlightenment, joy, and ethics. At present, Robert is Creative Director of the Centre for Stories and Chair of PEN Perth.


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