Penn prof pens first English translation of the 'Odyssey' by a woman

Emily Wilson of the University of Pennsylvania is the first woman to translate “The Odyssey” into English.

Sing to me, Muse, of Emily Wilson, she of many moves, first woman ever to translate the Odyssey into English, how, in her office at Penn, her house, wherever she wandered for five years, she read many books and saw the authors’ minds, how heartsick she probably got as she sailed the perilous ways of translation, fighting to get this thing done and bring it home.

That, friends, is a silly version of the opening lines of the Odyssey, applied to Emily Wilson. She is associate professor of classical studies and chair of the program in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania. And last week, she published her pellucid, demotic, canny … and, as it turns out, historic … translation of the  Odyssey (W.W. Norton, 592 pp., $39.95).

Many are the English translations of this ancient wonder-work. And they’re all by men. Well, shove over, big dogs. Wilson has created a page-turner, spacious, direct, and light-shot, yet also very much an exciting chain of adventure stories. A perfect gift for everything from Christmas to Festivus!

Wilson will be  at the Penn Book Center at 6 p.m. Monday for a free reading and discussion with classics colleague Bridget Murnaghan. Wilson spoke by phone about the poem, the translation, the wondrous women in it, and … being first.

Can it really be true that no other woman has ever done this?

It’s extraordinary, right? I know. It does seem mind-boggling. It’s been done into French by Anne Dacier in the early 1700s, three centuries ago. But as for English, yes, it does seem to be the case. I’ve been working on this for five years, and we have been asking around, and we’ve searched libraries and databases, and so far, no, we can’t find any others.

How did you feel when you were done?

With big projects, there’s always post-partum depression. And I’d played around with so many drafts of almost every line, it was so hard to let it go. And I still second-guess myself. If I had another five years, I’d keep working on it.

The translation really clips along. It reads aloud so well, direct and rhythmic. Can you talk about your choices? Iambic pentameter?

One reason I signed on for it at all is that I’d been getting frustrated by what’s become the norm: of translating this very metrical Greek poetry, entirely gorgeous and musical, into English poetry without a meter. And then the idea that you have to impose a supposedly “epic” style on it. I felt something different was needed. Many translations, to my ear, are not paying attention to the way it sounds. A lot of the time I was reading the original aloud, and then read my own draft aloud, and I’d stop whenever I found I wasn’t being true to the poem rhythmically or musically. The original has so much fluidity in rhythm, sound, pacing, speeding up, slowing down. My job isn’t to reproduce that but to engage with it, pay attention to it. As for iambic pentameter, I found I sometimes kicked against the rules — but I also loved having the rules, having five strong beats in a line. Since I knew that ahead of time, I was forced to find solutions I wouldn’t have found otherwise.

Speaking of women, I’ve always been drawn to the female characters.

Several get significant airtime and depth, with detailed grounding of their characters: Calypso, Circe, Helen, Nausicaa.

And Penelope, the long-waiting, long-suffering wife of Odysseus.

The way the poem frames her, Penelope is smart, and her grief matters. In an artistic sense, she doesn’t have to be as interesting as she is, but she is. She sees ambiguities in her situation with Odysseus and the suitors that he doesn’t see. So she has a lot of power. But really, her mobility is more or less confined to her way of thinking and seeing things. In reality, she is pretty circumscribed: She is stuck on Ithaca, and she has only one choice, really: stay with Odysseus or marry someone else. Meantime, Odysseus can travel the world — an exclusively elite-male privilege in this story.

The poem is concerned, even anxious, as Odysseus is himself, with the degree of her mobility. People like to fantasize that this poem was either written by or performed for women, as in “there are so many girls in it, it must have been written by a girl.” I don’t know about that. I will say that in Penelope and other female characters, they are allowed space for criticism of the way things are with men and women. One even says, “This is unfair.” And women in conversation with men often know things the men don’t know. Athena, for example, who in Book XIII out-lies the big liar, Odysseus.

In your introduction, you talk about guest-host culture, the huge importance of treating guests well, especially the stranger. In Book VI, Nausicaa says, “All foreigners and beggars come from Zeus / and any act of kindness is a blessing.”

I guess I’m thinking people in 2017 are going to be aware of the European migrant crisis, the U.S. debate on the issue. And it’s moving that there’s a fundamental ethics in the Odyssey regarding how you treat a stranger at your door — that is, you invite them in, give them a bath, drink, food. You don’t interrogate them before you let them in. It’s pretalk: First you give them what their bodies need. Later, there might be time when it’s OK to ask questions.

But there’s an anxiety, even a crisis, over this relationship.

Yes: It explores when it’s OK to switch from hospitality to piracy or war mode. This gets mixed up when Odysseus and his men visit the Cyclops.

I always felt sorry for him.

The Cyclops, alas, actually gets it wrong. He’s responding to them as war-makers, and they’re not. By the same token, what they end up doing to him is memorably awful.

Talk about getting poked in the eye with a sharp stick.

So the poem gives you a lot of reasons to feel the pathos of what’s done to the Cyclops, but he also has broken the rules.

In the end, it’s just a great story, with a great feeling for people.

The very variety of characters and scenes is so wonderful, and the understanding of what’s in people’s minds and hearts. Of course, the Greeks hadn’t read Freud, or any of our ways of speaking about psychology. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t understand people, how they talk to each other, how they shape what they say so the other person will get it. Or what Odysseus and Penelope, for example, go through emotionally in their reunion. Somebody worked very hard on that scene, felt very deeply about people, and about how they’d feel if they’ve been through a 20-year trauma, as this man and woman have.


Emily Wilson and Bridget Murnaghan: The Odyssey: A New Translation. 6 p.m. Monday, Nov. 13, Penn Book Center, 130 S. 34th St. Free. Information: 215-222-7600, pennbookcenter.com.