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Emily Wilson | Not the First Women to Translate The Odyssey

Emily Wilson is not the first women to translate The Odyssey, as she has pointed out many times. The poem has been translated into many languages by women, just not into English. Wilson has however, translated Homer’s epic poem into English and has done it fantastically.

Wilson chose to re-create the musicality of the original by using a regular rhythm in her poem, preferring the native English pentameter to the Greek original hexameter. She also uses the same number of lines as the original, this makes her translation all the more enjoyable and maintains a certain faith to the oral performative tradition of the original poem.

Gender in Translation & Dog-faced Helen

Bust of Helen of Troy by Antonio Canova at Victoria and Albert Museum, Image by Yair Haklai (CC BY-SA 3.0)

Wilson has been asked about gender over and over again. People seem to assume that as a women, she must be interpreting and translating The Odyssey in a gendered way.

Wilson points out:

“Men have gender identities as well. and I think that it’s a problem that we never seem to notice that or ask them about them.”

In fact, translations of The Odyssey that came before certainly have gender biases inherent in their interpretation. For example, when Helen refers to herself as “dog-faced” in Book 4, it’s a tricky interpretation as the word κυνώπις is a pretty uncommon word. Most translators before Wilson, have interpreted this word with a modern day misogyny that isn’t present in the Greek.

Fagles has Helen call herself a “shameless whore.”

Hammond opts for “whore”

Verity uses “shameless bitch.” whilst,

Mendelsohn translates the phrase as “bitch”: “shameless bitch that I am!”

Wilson on the other hand, gives us the line, “They made my face the cause that hounded them” 

Wilson takes a scholarly and poetic approach, in which she attempts to portray the Greek as accurately as possible for the English reader. She said of her translation, “I try to avoid importing contemporary types of sexism into this ancient poem, instead shining a clear light on the particular forms of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text, which are partly familiar from our world.

Social Identities

Wilson’s lecture on how and why she translated the odyssey is fascinating, she talks about how gender has affected not only her translation but those men who came before her.

She states quite rightly,

“I would like there to be just as many thoughtless and badly written translations by women as there already are by men”

Wilson doesn’t deny that identities matter, rather she argues that

“social identities do matter, for the words we speak, for the words we interpret… it matters who you are”

That is why we need many more translations of The Odyssey by people of many different identities and we celebrate this one, in part because it has been written by a women but also because it has been done so brilliantly!

You can watch Emily Wilson read her translation of The Odyssey on YouTube, she does it in her own fantastic style and with many marvellous props!

The Odyssey

The Odyssey (Paperback)

The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson is a wonderful and accessible version of the Greek Classic.

Wilson brings to life the many characters in The Odyssey, their complexity and their relationships with one another, as she tells the story of Odysseus’s journey home from Troy.

*Find it at Waterstones for £13.99


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