Emily Wilson, a classical studies professor at the University of Pennsylvania, set herself a challenging task — to translate Homer’s Odyssey into modern English in lines of iambic pentameter.
To complicate things, she also decided to produce a translation that was the same length as the original, same number of lines per book and same number for the whole poem. She explains:
I chose to write within this difficult constraint because any translations without such limitations will tend to be longer than the original, and I wanted a narrative pace that could match its stride to Homer’s nimble gallop.
Wilson notes that the original “reads nothing like prose and nothing like any spoken or nonpoetic kinds of discourse.” Neither does it read like free verse, the approach used by most modern translators who, she writes, don’t attempt to create a regular line beat. That, to her mind, is wrongheaded.
The Odyssey is a poem, and it needs to have a predictable and distinctive rhythm that can be easily heard when the text is read out loud.
She employs iambic pentameter because it’s the conventional meter for English narrative verse and because it echoes in some way the dactylic hexameters of the original.
I have spent many hours reading aloud, both the Greek original and my own work in progress. Homer’s music is quite different from mine, but my translation sings to its own regular and distinctive beat.
Enticing, absorbing and tangy
In other words, in some way, Wilson’s translation, published in 2018, “sounds” like the original without replicating it exactly. It “sounds” somewhat foreign.
That’s on purpose, Wilson writes:
There is often a notion, especially in the Anglo-American world, that a translation is good insofar as it disguises its own existence as a translation; translations are praised for being “natural.” I hope that my translation is readable and fluent, but that its literary artifice is clearly apparent.
To that, I’d say a resounding: “Yes!”
Wilson’s Odyssey flows as the story of Odysseus unfolds. Her own poetic skill creates lines and sections that are alive with brightly imagined scenes and piquant descriptions and muscular images.
Her Odyssey is a vibrant and vividly written story that most readers will find enticing and absorbing, made all the more tangy by its subtle foreignness.
Wilson and seven other translations
I know nothing about the original Greek version, so I can’t comment on how well or poorly Wilson captures the specific words and phrases of Homer. But I did wonder how it matched up against other English translations.
So, I gathered a bunch, pretty much at random, and dipped in here and there to see how Wilson’s words related to those of an earlier translator. Here are those translators, listed by year of publication:
- S.H. Butcher and Andrew Lang, 1879, prose.
- Samuel Butler, 1900, prose.
- T. E. Lawrence, 1932, prose.
- Allen Mandelbaum, 1990.
- Robert Fagles, 1996.
- Robert Fitzgerald, 1998.
- Stephen Mitchell, 2013.
I didn’t think closely about which translation to compare with any particular excerpt from Wilson’s version. So, the following collection of comparative versions is somewhat scattershot. I took lines from Wilson’s book that I found interesting and matched them against whatever other version was near to hand.
Calypso bad-mouths Penelope
Wilson: Book 5, 211-214
“And anyway, I know my body is
better than hers is. I am taller too.
Mortals can never rival the immortals
Butcher and Lang
“Not in sooth that I avow me to be less noble than she is in form or fashion, for it is in no wise meet that mortal women should match them with immortals, in shape and comeliness.”
Comment: This is an example of a place where Wilson’s translation doesn’t sound so foreign. Indeed, the 1879 version will strike the modern reader as convoluted and hard to read — and also in no way poetic. I was struck by Calypso claiming to not only have a better body than the mortal wife of Odysseus but also to be taller. I wonder if Wilson’s reading here may been strengthened by her being a woman.
Odysseus talks of his yearning to get home
Wilson: Book 7, 151-153
“Now help me, please, to get back home, and quickly!
I miss my family. I have been gone
so long it hurts.”
“…to help me home to my own country as soon as possible; for I have been long in trouble and away from my friends.”
Comment: Although working within her poetic constraints, Wilson gives a lively colloquial feel to her hero’s words, particularly “gone/so long it hurts.” Butler’s version is, well, pretty prosaic.
Odysseus sees Orion in the underworld
Wilson: Book 11, 573-5
……. I saw great Orion, chasing
across the fields of asphodel the beasts
he killed when living high in lonely mountains,
holding his indestructible bronze club.
I next caught sight of Orion, that huge hunter,
rounding up on the fields of asphodel those wild beasts
the man in life cut down on the lonely mountain-slopes,
brandishing in his hands the bronze-studded club
that time can never shatter. …..
Comment: Here Fagles’ free verse allows him to use a lot of words, but the result seems overly wordy when compared with Wilson’s version. To my ear, “his indestructible bronze club” works better than “the bronze-studded club/that time can never shatter.” But maybe there was something in the original Greek that Fagles sought to capture.
Eurylochus’s argument to eat the Sun God’s cattle
Wilson: Book 12, 347-352
“If he is so angry
about these cows that he decides to wreck
our ship, and if the other gods agree —
I would prefer to drink the sea and die
at once, than perish slowly, shriveled up
here on this desert island!”
“But if he is angered enough by the loss of his high-horned cattle to want the ruin of our ship, and if the other Gods cry yea to him — why then, I choose to quit life with one gulp in the sea rather than waste to death here by inches in this desert island.”
Comment: I liked Wilson’s rendering “prefer to drink the sea” which, to my mind, sounds like he would drink the whole sea. Lawrence’s wording makes it something less grandiose — quitting life “with one gulp in the sea.”
Odysseus reveals himself to the suitors
Wilson: Book 22, 1-7
Odysseus ripped off his rags. Now naked,
he leapt upon the threshold with his bow
and quiverfull of arrows, which he tipped
out in a rush before his feet, and spoke,
“Playtime is over. I will shoot again,
towards another mark no man his hit.
Apollo, may I manage it!”
Astute Odysseus now threw off his rags.
He leaped onto the great threshold; he grasped
the bow; he grasped the quiver full of shafts.
He cried out to the suitors:
“Now at last
the crucial test is at an end, and yet
there is another mark, one that no man
has ever struck before. But I’ve a chance
to reach it — if Apollo is my friend.”
Comment: I like Mandelbaum’s “he grasped….he grasped…” Wilson’s first line “Odysseus ripped off his rags. Now naked,…” is stronger, to my ear, than Mandelbaum’s “Astute Odysseus now threw off his rags.” But I’m not sure I like her “Playtime is over.” That seems too light and offhand for this key scene, one of the most powerful in all of Western literature.
The slaying of Leodes by Odysseus
Wilson: Book 22, 326-330
Agelaus had dropped
his sword when he was killed. With his strong arm
Odysseus swung, slashed down and slice right through
the priest’s neck, and his head, still framing words,
rolled in the dust.
With these words he picked up a sword that was lying near him,
where Agelaus had dropped it, and brought it down
on Leodes’ neck, and just as he was beginning
to answer, his head fell off and rolled in the dust.
Comment: It seems from these two that the original Greek must really make a point that the head “rolled in the dust.” Mitchell’s “just as he was beginning to answer” seems inferior to “still framing the words.” This, I think, is an example of how Wilson’s strict approach to matching the number of lines in the original led her to come up with a punchier version.
Odysseus and Penelope in bed after 20 years apart
Wilson: Book 23, 293-300
Finally, at last,
with joy the husband and wife arrived
back in the rites of their old marriage bed…..
the couple had enjoyed their lovemaking,
they shared another pleasure — telling stories.
So they came
into that bed so steadfast, loved of old,
opening glad arms to one another…….
The royal paid mingled in love again
and afterward lay reveling in stories:….
Comment: I prefer Fitzgerald’s “opening glad arms to one another” and his “mingled in love again.”
Readable, poetic, down-to-earth
Taken together, I think these comparisons give a sense of Wilson’s translation and how it stacks against seven others.
As I said above, her Odyssey is vibrant and vividly written.
It’s eminently readable while also highly poetic in its down-to-earth way.
Patrick T. Reardon