The First English Translation of the Odyssey by a Woman

November 6, 2017

NEW YORK – The Odyssey by Homer is the second famous work by the ancient poet following The Iliad, the epic poem about the Trojan War. Focusing on the return trip home of the hero Odysseus after the war, The Odyssey has been translated many times into several different languages.

Film and television adaptations as well as other works inspired by The Odyssey have made it a treasured work in the canon of Western civilization and world literature. The New York Times Magazine recently reported on the latest translation of the epic poem by the British classicist Emily Wilson, which is remarkable since it is the first translation by a woman.

Also notable is the fact that it challenges some of the small mistakes and mistranslations that English translations have accumulated over time and were perpetuated over the years. The difficulty of translating ancient Greek to English, for readers unfamiliar with the nuances of Greek is something Wilson has taken into account.

The word polytropos is the example that the article in the New York Times focuses on, a word Greek speakers will immediately understand, as the initial description of Odysseus, but the nuance is lost in most translations.

“Since the Odyssey first appeared in English, around 1615, in George Chapman’s translation, the story of the Greek warrior-king Odysseus’s ill-fated 10-year attempt to return home from the war in Troy to Ithaca and his wife, Penelope, has prompted some 60 English translations, at an accelerating pace, half of them in the last 100 years and a dozen in the last two decades,” as the Times reported.

Wilson, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania, attempted to explain “polytropos,” and said as reported in the Times, “One of the things I struggled with is of course this whole question of whether he is passive — the ‘much turning’ or ‘much turned’ — right?… The prefix poly, means ‘many’ or ‘multiple.’ Tropos means ‘turn.’ ‘Many’ or ‘multiple’ could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner.”

“The fact that it’s possible to translate the same lines a hundred different times and all of them are defensible in entirely different ways? That tells you something,” Wilson noted.

She continued, “So the question of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.”

Questioning and also redefining modern literary scholarship is probably in her genes. As the Times reported, “Her mother, Katherine Duncan-Jones, a Shakespeare specialist, taught English literature at Oxford; her mother’s brother, Roman history at Cambridge; her mother’s father, ‘a disappointed philosopher’ — disappointed because, though he went to Cambridge, he couldn’t get a job there — taught at Birmingham; and her mother’s mother, Elsie Duncan-Jones, also at Birmingham, was an authority on the poetry of Andrew Marvell.”

Her younger sister is writer Bee Wilson, and her father, the biographer, novelist, and critic A.N. Wilson.

While studying classics and philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford, Wilson noted “that none of her professors were women,” as reported in the Times. She said, “There was an awareness of it being sort of a boys’ club. Just the fact of never having a female teacher, but it’s a difference to how you feel when you don’t have any mentors who don’t even know what it would be like. I never had a female mentor in classics.”

Wilson found herself drawn to Greek drama, as noted in the Times, “I had a childhood where it was very hard to name feelings, and just the fact that tragedy as a genre is very good at naming feelings. It’s all going to be talked out. I love that about it.”

The article then looks at the ways several translators of the past have rendered “polytropos” from the first line of The Odyssey and the results are strikingly varied: “Chapman starts things off, in his version, with ‘many a way/Wound with his wisdom’; John Ogilby counters with the terser ‘prudent’; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus ‘the man.’”

Later translations include: “T.E. Lawrence’s ‘various-minded’; William Henry Denham Rouse’s ‘never at a loss’; Richmond Lattimore’s ‘of many ways’; Robert Fitzgerald’s ‘skilled in all ways of contending’; Robert Fagles’ ‘of twists and turns’; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s ‘cunning,’” as reported in the Times.

Wilson’s translation of the opening lines of The Odyssey are as follows, “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.”

Comparing Telemachus’ response to his father’s command to execute the palace women, Fagles’ translation reads, “No clean death for the likes of them, by god!/Not from me — they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too!/You sluts — the suitors’ whores!” 

In her introduction, Wilson notes that the palace women translated “correctly” as “maidservants” for the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, is “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” as reported in the Times. Her translation of the line: “I refuse to grant these girls a clean death, since they poured down shame on me and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”

“If I was really going to be radical,” she said of the first line of the poem, “I would’ve said, polytropos means ‘straying,’ and andra means ‘husband,’ because in fact andra does also mean ‘husband,’ and I could’ve said, ‘Tell me about a straying husband.’ And that’s a viable translation. That’s one of the things it says. But it would give an entirely different perspective and an entirely different setup for the poem.”

She said, as reported in the Times, “I want to be super responsible about my relationship to the Greek text. I want to be saying, after multiple different revisions: This is the best I can get toward the truth.”


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