Poetry News

Emily Wilson's Translation of The Odyssey Partly Informed by Contemporary Poetry

By Harriet Staff
Emily Wilson, The Odyssey

Ben Shields met with translator and UPenn professor Emily Wilson to talk about her translation of The Odyssey (W.W. Norton, 2017), which Shields notes is the first of its kind, in that it is serious about translation as interpretation. "Any translation is going to be shaped in some way by the translator and is going to include the translator’s whole self. People assume that if you’re doing something totally different, you must be doing something illegitimate, imposing your own agenda. That the way it was translated thirty years ago must be the way it always had to be. That is not the case," says Wilson. More, from Bookforum:

Most articles about Professor Wilson draw attention to her gender. This is understandable: She’s the first woman ever to accomplish a complete Odyssey translation in English (Caroline Alexander did the same last year with the Iliad). But few have given her the credit for the kind of translation that it is. It’s in exactly the same number of lines as the original, an almost Oulipian restriction for a Homer translator. More important, unlike the standard modern translations by the likes of Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo, Wilson’s Odyssey is entirely metrical—just like the original text. But she has also introduced formal elements that will be familiar to readers of English poetry. In place of Homer’s dactylic hexameter (long-short-short vowel pattern), the Muses spoke to Wilson in iambic pentameter. Using the style of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, she has given the poem a style appropriately unique to the English language. This is, in her words, “a big deal.” For our entire conversation, Wilson’s arm rests beside the Odyssey of George Chapman, who also translated in this style in the seventeenth century.

Translating the Odyssey into iambic pentameter is the convergence of Wilson’s two fields of expertise: Classics and Renaissance literature (she holds an MPhil in the latter subject from Oxford). Many classicists know little or nothing about the post-Classical world of reading, even Shakespeare. Wilson’s unusually broad education is the secret ingredient to her briskly readable translation; Shakespeare, even more than Homer, is the author she has revisited the most for pleasure.

“I think if I didn’t care about Shakespeare as much as I do, I wouldn’t have been able to bring out the proto-dramatic qualities in the way that I hope I did, and really care about doing,” she says. “I wanted to bring out the way that this is a poem that has all these dramatic and literary, as well as generally poetic, qualities. I was informed by Milton’s music, and Shakespeare's much more varied music, but also contemporary poetry.” Later, she compares Homer’s sea descriptions to Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

There is something proto-romance, especially in the wandering books, about the Odyssey, sharply distinguishing it from the Iliad’s clashing masculine egos and honor codes. When we first see Odysseus, he’s sobbing...

Find the full piece at Bookforum.

Originally Published: January 12th, 2018