Homer for Scalawags: Emily Wilson’s “Odyssey”

By Richard H. ArmstrongAugust 5, 2018

Homer for Scalawags: Emily Wilson’s “Odyssey”

The Odyssey by Homer and Emily Wilson

BY MY COUNT, we have seen 27 translations of Homer into English since 2000, so no one can say we languished for want of a new Odyssey. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Emily Wilson is making her presence felt in so crowded a field. This she does with the full literary arsenal of our age. She tweets, she appears discreetly photographed and interviewed in The New York Times Magazine, and writes for The New Yorker. Her tweeting then becomes a topic in itself for The New Yorker and Bustle. She makes the rounds on two continents for readings and chats. Good for her! We classical scholars can only rejoice to see a colleague hit the big time. Of course, tweeting is an offensive weapon, and she has ruffled feathers by taking her predecessors to task for misogyny — while also tweeting footage of dreamy Mark Ruffalo reading her verse for some celebrity cachet. So let me anticipate the inevitable criticism with an observation: Emily Wilson is not breaking norms of behavior as the first woman to translate Homer’s Odyssey into English; she is fulfilling them. From the outset, our English translators have all been on the make. Take our founding father, George Chapman. His translation is surrounded by punchy commentary and wild claims, both for Homer’s genius and his own bona fides as a translator — to the extent of calling one critic an “envious windfucker” for suggesting he had not really read the Greek (the word refers to a type of kestrel, so maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds).

Chapman’s successors were reinventing the book business, effectively, with innovative schemes. John Ogilby made use of a clever subscription drive, getting wealthy aristocrats to pay for the illustrations (which he adorned with their crests) to help float his huge folio Homers and Virgil. Alexander Pope was the ultimate artist of the deal; his Homer made him one of the first people in history able to live off the proceeds of a literary translation. So before the critics dismiss Wilson for taking to Twitter and making the most of her moment, I say look to her predecessors and know that Chapman and Pope would definitely have had Twitter accounts. Translations have a way of finding new readerships, and if Wilson is actively responding to her readers and building a different audience for Homer, then she is doing the gods’ work and well deserves a silver bowl — maybe even a gleaming chariot — for her efforts.

“Tell me about a complicated man.” So this new Odyssey begins, and with this verse Wilson plants her flag of difference. It’s a line that introduces a fundamental ambivalence toward the epic’s hero, whom Renaissance translators strove to make a wise and stoic mirror of princes. Wilson dove into the meanings pooled in the keyword polytropon and swam up with “complicated,” the kind of euphemism you use to describe a person you once admired, but who has hurt you. It’s kind of a trilingual play on words, as “much turned/turning” shades into “folded up” (from Latin complicare) and comes out, “complicated” (we never really sense the physicality of our Latinate words, but the classicist learns to savor it). The funny thing is, though this verse complicates Odysseus’ stature, it greatly simplifies the syntax of Homer’s opening sentence, which includes a number of snaking clauses and actually ends on line five. But this single verse introduces both her take on the work’s hero and a poetics of reduction that she observes rather ruthlessly in order to make a poem that matches Homer’s line for line. That’s quite a challenge when rendering Homer’s dactylic hexameter (ranging from 12 to 17 syllables) into iambic pentameter (comprising 10 or 11 syllables), a meter that slips behind easily unless you toss things overboard. But Wilson would rather match the old bard verse for verse than allow herself the indulgences of past translators. The result is a lean, wiry Homer, shorn of his more ornamental features. In this she is consistent, even to a fault.

Take, for example, the moment we might imagine a female translator would relish: Penelope’s challenge of the bow contest to the suitors. Male translators in the past have made Penelope very much a queen in this moment — or as Pope says, a “matron, with majestic air.” Wilson’s Penelope is remarkably understated, sounding almost depressive by contrast.

She said,

           “Now listen, lords. You keep on coming
to this house every day, to eat and drink,
wasting the wealth of someone who has been
away too long. Your motives are no secret.
You want to marry me. I am the prize.
So I will set a contest. This great bow
belonged to godlike King Odysseus.”

Contrast this with the high dudgeon of Robert Fitzgerald’s Penelope:

                                       “My lords, hear me:
Suitors indeed, you commandeered this house
to feast and drink in, day and night, my husband
being long gone, long out of mind. You found
no justification for yourselves — none
except your lust to marry me. Stand up, then:
we now declare a contest for that prize.”

Fitzgerald’s Penelope is irritated and indignant, pointing out they are violating her husband’s space. Wilson’s in contrast only vaguely refers to a “someone” whose wealth is being wasted, though she is still very much attached to the house. Fitzgerald resorted to the plural of majesty for the contest’s big reveal; Wilson’s speaks in short sentences, with diamond clarity but little defiance. We have come a long way from Pope’s, “If I the prize, if me you seek to wife / Hear the conditions, and commence the strife.”

Epic blank verse is making a comeback recently, and to her credit Wilson knows how to craft her lines in the most flexible way, including a number of those ridiculously named “feminine” endings (an unstressed 11th syllable — this is only shocking if your notion of iambic pentameter comes from Pope and not Shakespeare, whose “To Be or Not to Be” starts with five 11-syllable lines in a row). But while her verse is traditional and flexible, her syntax is so clipped and terse at times she seems to be channeling Hemingway. Her sense of poetic diction is so austerely modern it’s as though she has jettisoned all the frippery from Homer’s argosy, paring it down to the frame. Perhaps it’s just as well — Odysseus only needed a raft to set out for Ithaca.

The result pitches between the ancient and modern as any translation must if it chooses to pursue the vitality of storytelling over the archeology of poetic form. Translating epic is, after all, a marathon, not a sprint; you have to be careful what you grab onto. Wilson’s verse may be traditional, but it contains an interesting variety of modern conveniences. Canapés and kebabs are now being served aboard Homer. Odysseus is a “scalawag.” Demeter has “cornrows in her hair” — anachronistically, if the metaphor is based on new-world maize; ironically, when we think she is an agricultural goddess.

Wilson shows humane concern about the status of slave women, though we might quibble that calling female slaves “girls” may not be not as enlightened as she thinks (to Homer they are women), nor is the suggestion that their escapades with Penelope’s suitors were things those men “made them do.” No one seems to believe this in the poem, including the other slaves, and Wilson has chucked the option of class rebellion in favor of a protective if bougie instinct to save their reputations. There’s a thread of philological justification for this, and she is right to tweet out no one actually refers to them as sluts and whores in Homer. But that strong language of past translations was focalized through Telemachus and Odysseus, not the narrator. The brutality of the women’s execution by mass hanging — sadly, perhaps the only thing Telemachus thinks up on his own — still speaks for itself: uppity slaves get lynched.

Wilson strives quietly at moments for striking imagery in order to deliver on epic’s “poetry” beyond the ticking of plot points. This typically occurs when she faces the dilemma of Homer’s formulaic lines, part of the repetitive boilerplate of traditional poetic diction that unnerves the translator; “rosy-fingered Dawn” and “winged words” are already clichés in English. Wilson responds with imagistic variations: “The early Dawn was born, her fingers bloomed,” “When vernal Dawn first touched the sky with flowers,” “When early Dawn, the newborn child with rosy hands, appeared.” Homer’s functional formularity thus becomes an occasion to wax lyrical, as if to turn the routine signposts of oral tradition into so many miniaturist paintings. This lyricization of epic may restore the poetry through the backdoor, but it reveals the tension between Homeric and modern notions of poetry. Again, Wilson has the virtue of consistency in her choices here. As a classics professor, an Englishwoman at home in the United States, a deep reader of English and American verse, Emily Wilson has come by her Homer honestly. Her poem has the stamp of a clear and consistent vision, and brings Odysseus home to us again — cunning, eloquent, murderous; in sum, complicated.


Richard H. Armstrong is author of A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Cornell University Press, 2005) and the forthcoming Theory and Theatricality: Classical Drama in the Age of Grand Hysteria (Oxford University Press), as well as the co-editor, with Alexandra Lianeri, of the forthcoming A Companion to the Translation of Greek and Latin Epic (Wiley-Blackwell).

LARB Contributor

Richard H. Armstrong is Associate Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Houston. He is author of A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Cornell UP, 2005) and the forthcoming Theory and Theatricality: Classical Drama in the Age of Grand Hysteria (Oxford UP). He can be found online at www.richardharmstrong.com.


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