The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson – Book Review

Title: The Odyssey

Author: Homer

Translated by: Emily Wilson

Genre/Themes: Classic, Greek Mythology, War, Adventure

Blurb from Goodreads

The first great adventure story in the Western canon, The Odyssey is a poem about violence and the aftermath of war; about wealth, poverty, and power; about marriage and family; about travelers, hospitality, and the yearning for home.

In this fresh, authoritative version–the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman–this stirring tale of shipwrecks, monsters, and magic comes alive in an entirely new way. Written in iambic pentameter verse and a vivid, contemporary idiom, this engrossing translation matches the number of lines in the Greek original, thus striding at Homer’s sprightly pace and singing with a voice that echoes Homer’s music.

Wilson’s Odyssey captures the beauty and enchantment of this ancient poem as well as the suspense and drama of its narrative. Its characters are unforgettable, from the cunning goddess Athena, whose interventions guide and protect the hero, to the awkward teenage son, Telemachus, who struggles to achieve adulthood and find his father; from the cautious, clever, and miserable Penelope, who somehow keeps clamoring suitors at bay during her husband’s long absence, to the “complicated” hero himself, a man of many disguises, many tricks, and many moods, who emerges in this translation as a more fully rounded human being than ever before.

A fascinating introduction provides an informative overview of the Bronze Age milieu that produced the epic, the major themes of the poem, the controversies about its origins, and the unparalleled scope of its impact and influence. Maps drawn especially for this volume, a pronunciation glossary, and extensive notes and summaries of each book make this an Odyssey that will be treasured by a new generation of scholars, students, and general readers alike.

My Review

In 2017 I read Homer’s The Iliad and loved the storyline but I was left with a sense that there was something missing from my reading experience. At times the Iliad bored me with its clunky writing style and, at the time, I concluded that this was down to the translation that read.

So in 2018 I decided to read two versions of Homer’s classic epic poem The Odyssey simultaneously to decide if I would have a different reaction to the different translations of the same texts.

And I 100% did!

I chose to read Robert Fagles’ translation that many have considered to be the definitive translation and a recently published translation by Emily Wilson.

Why translations matter, and why reading new translations of old texts matters with regards to equality of the sexes and the depiction of women:

*****The following are direct quotes taken from translator Emily Wilson’s twitter on 3rd March 2018*****

Anthropos in Greek is the word from which we get “anthropology”, the study of humans, and “misanthropy”, the hatred of humans. It is masculine in form (-os ending), but it can be feminine in meaning.

Anthropos occurs multiple times with the feminine article, referring to female human beings. If Ancient Greek writers want to refer specifically to male humans, or husbands (same word), they can use a different word, aner, from which we get “androcentrism”.

“Man” in English is quite different semantically from Anthropos in Greek, and was different even a century ago, when “man” meaning “human” was a more acceptable usage than it is now – – because it is the same word we use for a markedly male person.

Here is a single generalisation about humanity, made by Odysseus in his disguise as a beggar, talking to the “good” suitor, Amphinomus:

οὐδὲν ἀκιδνότερον γαῖα τρέφει ἀνθρώποιο,
πάντων ὅσσα τε γαῖαν ἔπι πνείει τε καὶ ἕρπει. (18. 130-131)

Here is the “literal” prose translation, the Loeb, supposedly revised in 1995:

“Nothing feebler does earth nurture than man, of all things that on earth breathe and move.”

It’s very pseudo-biblical, and the only humans are male.

Here is Lattimore, 1965, again often said to be “literal”:

“Of all creatures that breathe and walk on the earth there is nothing more helpless than a man is, of all that the earth fosters.”

Again, faux-biblical; and again, all humans are male.

Here is Fitzgerald, 1961:

“Of mortal creatures, all that breathe and move, earth bears none frailer than mankind.”

Again, faux-biblical; again, all humans are male.

Here is Fagles, 1996:

“Of all that breathes and crawls across the earth, our Mother Earth breeds nothing feebler than a man.”

Again, it’s all about men.

Here is Lombardo, 2000:

Of all the things that breathe and move upon it, Earth nurtures nothing feebler than man.”

Again, all humans are male. Notice also how Lombardo, as is often the case, echoes Fagles’ word choices: here he copies “nothing feebler”.

Here is Mitchell, 2013:

“No creature that lives on the earth is frailer than man.”

Mitchell, as quite often, leaves out a good bit of the Greek; he skips the vivid reference to the only two kinds of action that creatures do: breathing and creeping. Again, all humans are male.

Wilson 2017:

Of all the creatures that live and breathe and creep on earth, we humans are weakest.”

Mine isn’t perfect, but I don’t limit the generalisation to half the human race. A few lines later, a non-male human, Penelope, will be taking about her vulnerability.

*****The following are direct quotes taken from translator Emily Wilson’s twitter on International Women’s Day March 8th 2018*****

I know this is a downer but… for #IWD2018 I am thinking about violence against women. About how violence is enabled and perpetuated. About how gender inequality intersects with other forms of social injustice, like class, race and wealth. About recognition, stories and change.

I am thinking today, as often, about the slave women in the Odyssey, the ones who sleep with the suitors, who have been claimed by the wrong owners, who have the wrong memories. For Odysseus to claim back all power over his household, they need to be eliminated.

Odysseus instructs his son Telemachus to hack the life of them with long swords. Telemachus adjusts the weapon: he insists they are too metaphorically dirty to touch with his sword (sic), so he hangs them instead.

The rope round the throat. What better way to stop a woman’s most threatening orifice, her mouth?

Many translations import misogynistic language when it isn’t there in the Greek.

  • In Fagles’ best-selling version, “You sluts — the suitors’ whores!”
  • Lombardo: “Sluts”.
  • Lattimore: “Creatures”.
  • Fitzgerald: “Sluts”.
  • Pope’s is the best: “nightly prostitutes to shame”.

Let’s look at the simile that describes these women’s death. They are like birds, trying to fly, who are trapped in a net.

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἂν ἢ κίχλαι τανυσίπτεροι ἠὲ πέλειαι
ἕρκει ἐνιπλήξωσι, τό θ᾽ ἑστήκῃ ἐνὶ θάμνῳ,
αὖλιν ἐσιέμεναι, στυγερὸς δ᾽ ὑπεδέξατο κοῖτος,
ὣς αἵ γ᾽ ἑξείης κεφαλὰς ἔχον, ἀμφὶ δὲ πάσαις
δειρῇσι βρόχοι ἦσαν, ὅπως οἴκτιστα θάνοιεν.

Many translations – – by men, and some by women, e.g. Anne Dacier – – blame the victims. It’s their own fault they die, because they’re “disobedient”. Or because they’re “sluts”. It’s normal, like killing a chicken. It’s taking out the human trash. No empathy.

Loeb:

“as when long-winged thrushes or doves fall into a snare that is set in a thicket, as they seek to reach their roosting place, and hateful is the bed that gives them welcome, even so the women held their heads in a row, and round the necks of all nooses were laid.”

Held their heads” suggests that they are willingly submitting to this natural process; the verb echon could suggest either “hold” or “have”, but the translators choose to make the victims collude with their death.

Fagles:

“Then, as doves or thrushes beating their spread wings
against some snare rigged up in thickets — flying in
for a cosy nest but a grisly bed receives them —
so the women’s heads were trapped in a line
nooses yanking their necks up, one by one”

The childish half-rhyme, “cosy… grisly”, encourages us not to take any of this too seriously. Fagles reads these “whores” or “sluts” (his words) as girls who have partied too hard, hung “in a line”, like chorus girls or clubbers on a night out. Fun times!

Lombardo:

“Long-winged thrushes, or doves, making their way
to their roosts, fall into a snare set in a thicket,
and the bed that receives them is far from welcome.
So too these women, their heads hanging in a row”

Lombardo makes the birds’ home definitely non-human, and uses similar ironic/ sneering distance (“far from welcome”). The archaism “piteous” creates distance: from afar, we can observe that something painful is happening to someone else, but we don’t need to feel it ourselves.

Fitzgerald:

“They would be hung like doves
or larks in springès triggered in a thicket,
where the birds think to rest — a cruel nesting.
So now in turn each woman thrust her head
into a noose and swung, yanked high in air”

Fitzgerald uses literary allusion: “springès” recalls Polonius warning Ophelia not to let Hamlet take her virginity. “Thrust her head” suggests Fitzgerald’s women are definitely gagging for it. There’s nothing they like more than a good hanging.

Wilson:

“As doves or thrushes spread their wings to fly
home to their nests, but someone sets a trap —
they crash into a net, a bitter bedtime;
just so the girls, their heads all in a row,
were strung up with the noose around their necks
to make their death an agony”

I hope my version of the violence is not fun or normalising or sensationalised. These birds want the same thing that Odysseus himself wants: to go home to bed. The nostos/homecoming of Odysseus means that many, many other people will never get to go back home.

These slave women are a poetic construct, imagined not real. But they stand in for millions of real silenced, abused and murdered women, in history and now, who never get to complete their journey.

*****end of direct quotes*****

The point I want to make here is that in Homer’s The Odyssey it is not at all problematic that female characters were oppressed.

But when a translation chooses to unnecessarily reinforce negative female stereotyping because of the choices the translator makes regarding the wording they use, then that’s something that I have issue with.

And what is utterly refreshing about Wilson’s translation is that she’s not making this a feminist modern Odyssey, she’s just trying to make it more authentic to the original and attempting to not add any extra (misogynistic-tinged) layers to the text that Homer did not intend to be there.

This article, written by Emily Wilson, that appeared in The New Yorker in December 2017 perfectly explores the role of the female, in particular Penelope, in the Odyssey.

What is also wonderful about Wilson’s translation is that it is eminently readable.

She has maintained a natural flow and rhythm to the verse that really helped me as a reader to engage with the story. I never lost interest or had to track back and check if I understood what the text was saying because she kept the language contemporary to our times.

I remember when I read The Iliad last year I found it difficult to always follow the text. At times it read in a very clunky fashion and I found myself frequently getting distracted. And I think this is due to the use of faux olde-style English. As if because this is a classic text then it should be translated in a word-heavy style to give it some sort of extra gravitas.

Wilson dismisses this notion and instead delivers a text that is accessible to all readers and doesn’t make you want to fall asleep from boredom.

Fagles’ translation, while also quite readable, I did find suffered at times from that same classic heaviness and I much preferred the Wilson version. Wilson also kept her translation to exactly the same length as the source text whereas Fagles’ was longer and more drawn out.

As for the story itself. It really is wonderful. It is epic in its scope, wonderfully exciting and was everything I could have hoped and expected from a classic Greek text.

So if you are looking to read The Odyssey then I highly recommend you seek out Wilson’s translation over Fagles’.

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11 thoughts on “The Odyssey by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson – Book Review

  1. “Of all the creatures that live and breathe and creep on earth, we humans are weakest”
    That translation took my breath away where none of the others came close! I am definitely going to check out Emily Wilson’s translation. Thank you for sharing

    Like

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