The Voices of The Odyssey: Emily Wilson On Language, Translation, and Culture

I recently finished another great boat-centric book that contained the hallmarks of modern action-adventure fantasy: shipwrecks, monsters, intrigue, heroes, a complicated good guy, evil-smashing, regrets, and a happy ending. Turns out, the book is among the oldest tales in Western literature. The very title sometimes causes memories of high school requirements to surface. Yet The Odyssey—especially this latest version—still rings true beside our modern marvels (see what I did there).

I’ll say it again: Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey (Norton, 2017) is vastly different from the version I read in high school. Where I remember the ominous drone of Pope’s version of the invocation—

“The man for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,
Long exercised in woes, O Muse! resound,”

—Wilson’s Odyssey begins as it means to continue, in uncomplicated, flowing English that feels exciting again, … and right for our time: “Tell me about a complicated man.”

I, like many other readers, was immediately delighted by this shift, and any lingering high school-related dread fell away as the adventure took over. When Dr. Wilson spoke about her five-year translation journey into the epic poem last month at The Rosenbach Museum in Philadelphia, I made a point of going and then peppered the University of Pennsylvania professor, Yale PhD, classics editor, literary theorist, and translator of works from Euripides to Homer with a whole stack of questions, covering everything from poetry to prose, translation and re-envisioning, to superheroes modern and past.

Here’s what she had to say:

Wilde: It struck me, upon hearing you read at The Rosenbach Museum this April, that you do all the voices for the characters in The Odyssey. Why is that?

Wilson: I have three daughters, aged 13, 8, and 7, and I’ve spent a lot of time over the past few years reading out loud to them. It made me realize how much fun that can be. By the way, my poor 13-year-old gets really embarrassed if I drag her along to any of my events, because I make a fool of myself with the silly voices. But I do it anyway, because it is so enjoyable for me. I have a very long-standing interest in the theater, but as a kid and student I was too shy to do much drama; it’s really liberating to do public readings of my translation and get to ham it up. I did a huge amount of reading out loud to myself when I was working on the translation, of both the original poem and my own drafts in progress, and then later, when I had drafts that were sharable, reading out loud to other people (friends and students and colleagues). It’s a poem based on an oral tradition, so I wanted it to sound good: musical, metrical, fluent, exciting, and also truly multi-vocal.

In creating the translation, it was essential to me to feel that I had a deep understanding of each character and could hear their voices in my head, and to make sure they sounded different from each other. The dramatists of fifth-century Athens borrowed a huge amount from Homer: Aeschylus said all his plays are slices from the great banquet of Homer.

So in working on my version, I very much wanted to show the proto-dramatic elements in this poem. When I was writing, and now when I read it out loud, I don’t want it to sound as if it’s the same all the way through, or as if all the characters are alike. They really aren’t, and the diversity of Homer’s voices is a huge part of the pleasure of this great poem.

Wilde: Your translation feels so pleasurable. Part of this is the meter (one more familiar to us, today: pentameter), part of it is, I think, that you truly see these characters and this adventure as epic, and epically fun. The scenes came alive—Athena pouring beauty over Odysseus’ head and shoulders, Circe’s advice ignored, the fantastical creatures of the Wanderings. With all this vivid energy, which was your most favorite character to work with besides Odysseus?

Wilson: Thank you! I had fun with so many of them, it’s hard to choose just one. I really enjoyed all the different manifestations of Athena in different guises, especially the appearance in book 13, when she transforms herself twice and has a wonderfully flirtatious conversation with Odysseus about which of them is better at disguises and deceit (spoiler alert: she is). I also really loved doing the operatic complaint of Calypso, against the unfairness of her special human getting confiscated from her. I loved trying to figure out how much Nausicaa should be like any ordinary teenage girl — and how to convey her relatable interests and activities (laundry, clothes, parents, ball-games, cute guys) while also retaining her dignity and the magicalness of her world.

With some of the other characters, it felt less like “fun”, though there were different kinds of pleasure and engagement. I spent a long time struggling with how to convey the pathos and fragility of Telemachus, this bullied young fatherless man-child, who knows he isn’t a real grown-up adult man, and feels constantly out of his depth. I also realized in the course of working on my translation that I’d never taken the slave characters in the poem seriously enough, or understood how vividly created they are. For instance, it was really interesting to try to find a persuasive voice for Eumaeus, the “good” slave who tells the terrible story of how he was trafficked as a child, and in adulthood, identifies with the interests of his owner. I could go on and list all the main characters and explain how interesting they are, but I should probably stop here.

Wilde: Translation, in this Odyssey, is as much a feat of structure as it is one of tone and cadence, clarity and nuance. I was awed to read that you kept the story to the same length as the original. Why was this important?

Wilson: When translators don’t set that kind of limit on themselves, they end up expanding, and that means translations are often longer and slower-going than the original.

In the case of Homer, the rapidity of the action seems really important to me, so I wanted to keep that quality in my translation. I wanted it to be the kind of story where you don’t feel bogged down; where instead, you zoom along in the story and feel eager to know what happens next.

People in antiquity really enjoyed listening to Homer; they did it voluntarily, as entertainment. I wanted to create a contemporary Homer that would have an analogous capacity to immerse and grip the reader or listener.

Wilde: You have spoken particularly to some systematic blindnesses in translations regarding certain words, like slave, that have been given alternatives (like maid) in order to cover up what they really meant. Why was it important to you to deliver these words directly? Were there words you returned to and translated differently after working on a different part of the text?

Wilson: I’ve been surprised, since finishing my translation, to go back and look more at other translations, and realize how much translators have worked to remove or reduce slavery from The Odyssey. In many cases, there are interpretative questions about what a literary text means, and it’s debatable. In the case of the words for “slave”, they’re really not debatable; those are just mistranslations, motivated presumably by a desire to idealize Homeric society and Homeric poetry, and remove the troubling fact that it depicts a slave-owning society.

I realized in the course of working on my translation that I really wanted to convey the all-round complexity and multi-layered-ness of Odysseus. He’s repeatedly described as multiple: much-turned, much-enduring, much-crafty, much-scheming, and so on. I know multi-layered-ness is probably not a real word, and nor are those compounds I just listed; so I had to figure out how to convey the layers in the character, while using real English words. I remember that in very early drafts, I thought I could quite often render the phrase “dios Odysseus” as “the hero”.

“Dios” is a very common standard formulaic positive epithet, suggesting something to do with the sky or the gods or marvelous or noble or famous or shiny; it’s so common that it becomes almost equivalent to saying, “Odysseus with a Capital O” or “The Main Guy Odysseus” or “Superhero-Odysseus”. I thought “hero” would be good because it’s a short shorthand (useful for maintaining pace, which, as I said earlier, mattered to me), and it conveys something about this is an important character, in a vague, quasi-formulaic way. But after using the word “hero” quite a lot in early drafts, I realized that it has connotations in modern English that don’t really match the Greek text. An English “hero” can be a positive role model, a person who saves people from burning buildings. The word “dios” isn’t moral like that, and nor is the Greek word “heros”, which suggests “warrior”. The English word “hero” also can suggest, “main character in the text”; but again, that isn’t what “dios” means. So in later drafts, I cut way back on my use of “hero”, though I used it a couple of times in passages where I thought its weight was earned.

Wilde: Who would you cast for the movie? For Odysseus? Circe? Telemachus? Penelope?

Wilson: I love this question, though I’m also completely unqualified to answer it. My first thought is that I’d really like it to be 100% people of color. There was that stupid fuss made over the BBC TV series Troy, which cast David Gyasi as Achilles. I’d love to see a casting that pushed even further against the idea that the western canon belongs to white people. It really does not.

Wilde: There are a number of popular re-envisionings of classic tales out or coming out, including Madeline Miller’s Circe and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife and a new translation of Beowulf, soon. Why do you think this is happening now?

Wilson: Humans always try to make sense of the world through stories. Our culture is going through a number of enormous changes: globalization, the internet, huge political, economic and cultural changes all around the world, different ways of thinking about identity, sexuality and the family, new modes of warfare and violence, and ongoing/imminent huge changes in climate, which will presumably make our world utterly different in the course of our lifetimes. So there’s a desire to turn back to earlier stories and myths that speak to grand conflicts, identity, and big cultural changes in earlier periods — like Beowulf, and the Greek myths. I think it’s also maybe about a desire for a text or set of stories that can be shared by people across different religious/faith traditions, including atheists as well as those from varied religious backgrounds, and by people from any political point of view. These myths engage with the relationship of humans to the divine, but they’re not theologically or politically divisive in themselves, and in our polarized culture, we’re hungry for some experience we can share.

Wilde: I know you are working on The Iliad now, but if a lost Homeric work were to surface, which one would you most wish for?

Wilson: The story of Odysseus’ sister, Ctimene. I don’t think there ever was such a poem but it would be fun. Maybe I’ll write it one day.

Wilde: You write in your introduction about playing Athena in an eighth grade production of The Odyssey as your first point of contact with the tale, and being compelled to find out more. Did this help drive your desire to make the text more approachable to modern readers? (It is so smooth.)

Thank you again! I wrote maybe a little bit for my 8-year-old self, but more for my daughters, and in fact for my 20-year-old and 80-year-old selves, too. I figured that what they all wanted certainly included vividness and smoothness and approachability. But they/I also wanted rhythm, music, meter, poetic beauty, psychological complexity and depth, as well.

Wilde: Do you think we will always need action-adventure stories? How have they changed over the millennia and how have they remained the same?

The Odyssey is only partly an action adventure story. It’s also about relationships. Odysseus’ wanderings are a relatively small part of the poem, and the big final massacre, in which Odysseus, his son, and their henchmen slaughter the suitors and the “bad” slaves takes only one book out of 24. In the movie, it would have to be a lot more, or else they couldn’t really market it as action adventure. You’d have to have separate movies for the pirate movie/travelogue parts, and separate again for the suspense-movie sequences, the long build-up to the murders.

The Odyssey is the precursor to the modern family-drama novel or TV series, as much as the blockbuster action movie. But yes: thrilling and disturbing stories of travel and violence have been around a long time, and I don’t see them going away as long as there are humans on earth. This is a big question and I”m not going to cover all of the millennia! Virgil’s Aeneid combines the two Homeric epics, and suggests that the action-adventure has to be in the service of a higher purpose—the founding of Rome. Milton’s Paradise Lost combines all three, along with the book of Genesis and many other texts, and suggests that the real action-adventure should be about the search for God, peace of mind, or the “paradise within”, not big massacres or journeys across vast tracts of space and time.

That question, of whether the real journey and the real action happens on the outside or on the inside, is there already in The Odyssey, and it’s definitely still with us in our own cultures.

Thanks so much to Dr. Wilson for her time, and to Fade Manley, Amal El-Mohtar, and John Wiswell who helped me craft some of the questions!

Fran Wilde’s novels and short stories have been nominated for three Nebula awards and two Hugos, and include her Andre Norton- and Compton Crook-winning debut novel, Updraft (Tor 2015), its sequels, Cloudbound (2016) and Horizon (2017), and the novelette “The Jewel and Her Lapidary” (Tor.com Publishing 2016). Her short stories appear in Asimov’s, Tor.com, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Shimmer, Nature, and the 2017 Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. She writes for publications including The Washington Post, Tor.com, Clarkesworld, iO9.com, and GeekMom.com. You can find her on Twitter, Facebook, and at franwilde.net.

 

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