Interpreting Homer

Max Norman


The Odyssey
Translated from the Ancient Greek by Emily Wilson
Norton, 592 pp., $39.95


NO ONE KNOWS who the Greek poet Homer was. Or if he was just one person. Or if he was a he. Today, we think Homer is the bard (possibly illiterate) who, in the 7th or 8th century BCE, somehow recorded the poems now called the Iliad and the Odyssey. That has not always been the consensus. (Consensus is probably too strong a word for the lingering doubt among scholars.) One notable contribution to the Homeric Question, as this ongoing argument is called, was that of the British novelist and translator Samuel Butler. In 1897, he published a thin book called The Authoress of the Odyssey, in which he argued, quite sincerely, that the great epic poem was written by a Sicilian woman who lived between 1050 and 1000 B.C. Apart from some sexist assumptions about style and manner, as well as some philological conclusions that no modern scholar would take seriously, Butler’s belief stemmed from the sheer number of female characters in the Odyssey, and their central roles, as well as the poem’s interest in precisely what the prototypically masculine Iliad is not: the home, domestic life, and what might be called manners.   

The Odyssey tells the story of how one man makes his way back home after the greatest cultural trauma of Greek history, the decade-long Trojan War. His voyage is marked by encounters with marvelous women: the goddess Circe, who turns Odysseus’s crew into swine, the princess Nausicaa, who brings the shipwrecked hero to her father Aeolus, king of the winds, and his wife, Cyane, whose knees Odysseus clasps as he begs her for shelter. There’s the immortal Calypso, on whose island Odysseus is trapped when the poem begins; they make love every day and Odysseus cries by the seaside, longing for home (a confusing contradiction to many first-time readers). There’s Eurykleia, the old nurse who recognizes Odysseus by his scar when he first returns to Ithaka. And Penelope, his wife, who sits in her palace, besieged by a band of suitors vying for her hand and, perhaps more important, Odysseus’s throne. The poem ends not with the loving reunion of king and queen, but with the brutal murder of the slave girls who slept with the suitors. From beginning to end, then, the Odyssey is preoccupied with the status of women.

So Butler was right about the importance of women in the poem. And, in a way, he was right about the importance of what he thought of as “feminine” themes. The Odyssey is not about war, like the Iliad, but about post-war— about the family back home, the people and the possessions (sometimes one and the same) left waiting while the men leave to fight.

The Odyssey is centered on households and hospitality, in Greek called xenia, something either upheld or corrupted by the women of the poem. Circe deceives her guests for her own entertainment, violating the laws of hospitality, while Cyane and her husband grant Odysseus refuge and food and winds to drive him home. But as the material dimension of xenia suggests, home also means wealth, slaves, land, and bloodline. Where the Iliad repeatedly insists that war cannot be fought with treasure—that Helen can’t be traded, that even outsize ransom cannot lure Achilles into battle—the Odyssey constructs a vision of home and peace based on ideas about ownership of things and of people. Zeus is the king of the gods and metes out the fates of warriors in the Iliad. In the Odyssey we think of him more in his other role: the patron god of xenia.

Emily Wilson’s new translation is particularly sensitive to sociopolitical aspects of the Odyssey. In part, this reflects the poem’s own fascination with the domestic: economics and consumption, the responsibilities of wife to husband, the bonds that tie slaves to their masters. But the careful attention to politics also stems, Wilson acknowledges, from an awareness of her work’s place in literary history. In 1699, Anne Dacier translated the Iliad into French prose; she completed her version of the Odyssey in 1708. Her translations became the standard edition in many French schools and were widely admired by poets and scholars alike, including Alexander Pope. But for some reason or another—probably the inaccessibility of the classical curriculum to those who were not white and male— it was another 300 years before Dacier found a successor in Caroline Alexander, whose Iliad (2016) is one of the best versions to date. Now Emily Wilson is the first woman to translate the entire Odyssey into English.

The elusiveness of Homer him/her/themselves has shown that readers don’t need to know who exactly an author is to enjoy a piece of literature. Readers are free to picture Homer however they like, with relatively little consequence. Whether Homer is a man or a cicada, classicists will continue to talk about verbs, moralizers will continue to moralize, historians will continue to mine the poems for clues. So does the identity of a translator matter?  

Yes and no. To say that Wilson’s version of the Odyssey is different merely because Wilson is a woman—something suggested by at least one prominent critic—would be to make a reduction as objectionable as Samuel Butler’s. But Wilson does stand out as one of very few women in a tradition largely dominated by men. And in an 11-page “Translator’s Note,”  her argument against the esteemed twentieth-century translations offers a distinctive vision of the poem itself.

A substantive statement on her philosophy of translation is one of the ways Wilson makes herself visible and present in this new Odyssey. In an 80-page introduction, accessible to first-time readers of Homer, Wilson explores the themes and characters of the poem alongside questions of authorship and reception. The “Translator’s Note” follows, simultaneously justifying the project and offering a translator’s declaration of independence.

My translation is, like all translations, an entirely different text from the original poem. Translation always, necessarily involves interpretation; there is no such thing as a translation that provides anything like a transparent window through which a reader can see the original. The gendered metaphor of the ‘faithful’ translation, whose worth is always secondary to that of the male-authored original, acquires a particular edge in the context of a translation by a woman of the Odyssey, a poem that is deeply invested in female fidelity and male dominance.

If translation is an interpretation, the interpreter matters. All interpretations spring from a certain perspective, and arguably from a certain subjectivity. Great translators aren’t simply scholars; they have some sort of connection with the language of the original and the language into which they are translating. It’s that connection, that special view, that we seek when we choose among the many versions of the classics we are lucky to have as readers of English.

We celebrate great translations for being more than merely “faithful.” The most celebrated translations—Golding’s Ovid, Pope’s Homer, FitzGerald’s Rubaiyat, Fitzgerald’s Aeneid—are all translations of poetry done by poets. Somehow, translating the distant classics is more akin to writing original poetry than translating the latest Ferrante novel. Somehow we care more. Perhaps this is because the whole art of translation emerged in tension with these ancient originals. Like the classics themselves, early translations, and early translational challenges, have priority. The greatest translations are as much a part of literary history as the classical originals, since they were done by some of the best (now-canonical) poets of the day and were read by succeeding generations.  

But Wilson is skeptical of the idealization of classic translations just as some are skeptical of the classics themselves. Because Homer was translated early and often, and assigned to high-schoolers and college freshmen for about as long as there have been high schools and colleges, English has almost developed a sub-dialect for Homeric poetry: “the wine-dark sea,” “swift-footed Achilles,” “Dawn with her rosy fingers,” and so on. Homer, in many English renderings, sounds sort of old and sort of foreign, and passes as whatever we imagine to sound “Greek.” But this doesn’t have to be so. In discussing the style of her translation—the great challenge for anyone working in a language as relatively poor in tonal variation as English is—she makes the seemingly bold but actually quite obvious claim that

All modern translations are equally modern. The question facing translators and their readers is whether to try to disguise this fact, through stylistic tricks such as archaism and an elevated, artificially ‘literary’ register, or to underline it, and thereby encourage readers to be aware that the text exists in two different temporal and spatial moments at once. I have tried to make my translation sound markedly poetic and sometimes linguistically distinctive, even odd. But I have also aimed for a fresh and contemporary register. The shock of encountering an ancient author speaking in largely recognizable language can make him seem more strange, and newly strange. I would like to invite readers to experience a sense of connection to this ancient text, while also recognizing its vast distance from our own place and time. Homer is, and is not, our contemporary.

Wilson strives to achieve some of the same duplicity attributed to the protagonist of her poem: Odysseus, who, frequently disguised, tells “ the truth.” Every translator must operate under the fiction of her translation as a new original. Wilson acknowledges that her version is “an entirely different text from the original poem,” and “a new and coherent English text.” All the while, she aims to create a text always conscious of the strangeness of the original. “I hope that my translation is readable and fluent,” Wilson writes, “but that its literary artifice is clearly apparent.”

It’s hard to have it both ways: fluent and consciously artificial. The self-stated goal—and presumably the literary niche her version hopes to occupy in a long history of translation—is accessibility. A contemporary voice allows readers “to respond more actively with the text. Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force”—the qualities exemplified by the translators that preceded Wilson—“are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement.”

Dissent is an interesting word to use: not only explicitly political, but countercultural. Every translation that inscribes itself in the tradition strengthens it—and tacitly strengthens the status quo of style and tone. Wilson wants her version to be subversive, to redistribute attention to the characters in the poem that tend to be ignored or short-changed, such as the slaves who serve Penelope. But she also wants her poem to speak to a readership that may not identify with, or even want to engage, the traditional, even fraught style of so many previous translations.

From the first line, Wilson’s Homer speaks in a new voice—a voice that will unsettle many scholars, but will speak immediately to many contemporary readers. As an opening gesture, it’s something of a revelation, particularly to a reader raised on Lattimore or Fitzgerald or Fagles:

Tell me about a complicated man.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost

when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,

and where he went, and who he met, the pain

he suffered in the storms at sea, and how

he worked to save his life and bring his men

back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,

they ate the sun God’s cattle, and the god

kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,

tell the old story for our modern times.

Find the beginning.

Wilson’s use of the word “complicated” for polutropon (literally “much turning”) has received an unusually large amount of attention (perhaps because it’s in a convenient place for reviewers to find). But the word also encapsulates the distinctive sensibility of Wilson’s translation. It feels so different from Lattimore’s “the man of many ways,” Fitzgerald’s “the man skilled in all ways of contending” or Fagles’s “the man of twists and turns.” In a way, it’s closer to Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”: “complicated” does not strive to sound ancient, and it does not strive to sound poetic. “Tell the story for our modern times” seems almost like a re-writing, an updating—and, one suspects, precisely the kind of accessibility publishers and popularizers are looking for in an era where everything has to prove and perform its relevance for the 21st century. Accessibility and relevance are Wilson’s brand, her product: her translation’s raison d’être, as well as her publisher’s watchword. Every translator must be convinced of the value of the original from which she works. Wilson wants to sell us on Homer, too.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though it may irk those who believe in the self-evident importance of the canon. In order to make the Odyssey or any other ancient text accessible—not just comprehensible—to a modern audience, a translation can’t simply be the ghost of a rich but inaccessible original. It can’t simply be an Important Poem that announces itself as such. The translated poem—particularly when read by someone who has no Greek, and relatively little sense of Homer’s place in the history of literature—has to operate within its own parameters rather than those set by previous poets and translators, whose work a reader may not have read. And maybe a reader shouldn’t need to have read the forebears in order to appreciate a poem that, after all, was written long before Chapman and Pope and Lattimore and Fitzgerald and the rest of the dead white men, who founded modern translation of Homer and who helped define Homeric epic for modern readers. Wilson’s desire to move away from the traditional idiom of classical translation actually harmonizes with the aim of many classicists, who urge their students to read Homer as it actually is in the Greek, rather than as translators have taught us to read it.

The autonomy of Wilson’s translation accounts for ostensible breaches of poetic style—the intrusion of language that doesn’t belong in poetry, traditionally conceived: “tote bag” may be the most shocking, but there is also the curiously frequent “home owner,” and other unexpected words like “category,” “trash,” “playtime,” “speechify,” “folks,” and “Ugh!”  These non-poetic words, as well as the non-traditional use of repeated exclamation marks and dashes, come alongside the occasional “wine-dark sea,” and phrases that sound as archaic as anything Lattimore ever rendered—“the journey-ways of fish,” for example—plus groan-worthy internal rhymes (“All through the night till dawn the ship sailed on,” and “ I do not own / a ship or have a crew—because of you!” to name just a couple examples).  The effect is a diversity of tone and language that provides an accurate if unusual sense of the variety of Homeric language, which drifts between the utterly traditional and the radically original, between linguistic archaism and innovation.

Wilson’s handling of Homeric epithets is similarly unorthodox. These little tags, repeated thousands of times throughout the poem, are one of the most notable features of Homer’s oral style, and one of the ways in which an oral poem makes meaning. “Wily Odysseus” and “winged words” are two epithets repeated dozens of times throughout the poem. Wilson often shifts these from set formula to adverb or adverbial phrase (“He spoke winged words” might become “He let his words fly out to her” or even “his words took wings and flew”). She makes little effort to convey Homer as an oral poem—even if she often does an extremely graceful job of giving us a spoken Homer.

She has a good ear for rhythm, and her verse is most striking when she plays with cadences that borrow from outside the continuously moving style of epic. “Odysseus had suffered. In exhaustion from all his long ordeals, the hero slept,” reads the beginning of Book 6, employing a full stop to powerful effect. In the opening lines of Book 20, as she describes the still-disguised king, she achieves a rhythmic power that brings the Beat Poets to mind:

Odysseus was lying at the entrance

on an untreated oxhide, over which

he heaped a pile of fleeces from the sheep

the suitors sacrificed.

Here the iambic pentameter—a meter not often used by translators of Homer—gives these otherwise mundane lines a dramatic energy, a bit of an incantatory feel that reminds us that how those fleeces are symbols of precisely what Odysseus will avenge when he kills the suitors like animals.  

Wilson’s translation begs to be read aloud. But it gives the impression that the poem was composed with pen and paper, rather than over hundreds of years of evolution through repetition, variation, and memorization.

While some of these changes obscure the original to one who knows it—demoting the structurally important repetition of verbatim phrases to mere aesthetic texture, for example—some of her innovations actually bring us closer to the text. The most important example is the language of misogyny in the poem, which previous translators have greatly exaggerated. Helen famously refers to herself as a “dogface” when recalling to Telemachus her part in starting the Trojan War. Previous translators, for no apparent reason, have consistently rendered this as “bitch,” or “whore,” or even Fitzgerald’s “shameless wanton.” Wilson gives us “she-dog”—a term used by Hephaestus and Agamemnon to describe their unfaithful wives, and by both Penelope and Odysseus to insult a slave who sleeps with the suitors.

Wilson avoids the negative connotations of the English word “bitch” while reminding us of a complicated network of connections between women, the suitors (called “dogs” by Odysseus), and household pets like Odysseus’s faithful companion, Argos, who is the first to recognize him after his twenty-year absence from Ithaka. As Wilson writes in her introduction: “Women, more than men, are like dogs, because they are put low on the social hierarchy, and because they might be scarily capable of seeing through social conventions, and might refuse to stay in their place.” Here the politics of the translation give us a clearer vision of the original text.  

It is because of the real merits of Wilson’s translation that it will likely never replace Lattimore’s or Fitzgerald’s. Although there are moments of quiet beauty in Wilson’s translation, it is not written in language meant, like that of anxious poets and poet-translators, to last for all time. It does not announce itself as more Greek than ever before, or more ingenious, or more spectacular—rather, in its inconsistent mix of colloquialism and archaism, the translation, like its version of Odysseus, is complicated: good, but not entirely convincing; original, but not visionary. Aspiration to eternity is an aspect of previous translations for which Wilson would probably have little patience, and rightly so. Grandiose ambition can lead to grandiose translations. But it can also lead to memorable versions that have their own poetic value.

Yet translations, particularly of the classics, do not need to be great works of poetry to be original or enduring. Useful translations are just as good as pretty ones. Because of its deviations from the original, however, and its discontinuity from the canonical authors and styles that still make up the basis of literary study, Wilson’s translation will not be particularly helpful to scholars or university students of the epic tradition—though it may be more accessible. But what will today’s accessibility mean in twenty or fifty years?

Wilson’s Odyssey invites us to reject that question, and perhaps we should. Despite the high stakes of her Translator’s Note—which seems to reject previous translations not just as unsatisfactory but as somehow oppressive—I don’t think Wilson’s intention was to replace the dominant translations. That’s the kind of logic that leads to translations that speak to traditions, not to readers. Wilson is interested in how Homer can speak to us now, when poetry is less important than politics. And in spite of its inconsistencies, her distinctive translation suits, and reflects, this moment.