Odyssey translator Emily Wilson talks about complexity of translation, media reaction

The writer spoke as part of MU’s “Gender and Translation” series.
Emily Wilson, a Classics professor at the University of Pennsylvania, discusses the process of her translation of “The Odyssey” on September 19, 2019. Photo by Photographer Daniel Daugherty

Emily Wilson, writer and professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania, came to MU to talk about her translation of “The Odyssey” Thursday, Sept. 19 at Conservation Auditorium. The talk was a keynote in MU’s “Gender and Translation” Series.

Wilson knew that her translation had to stand out from the myriad of other English translations.

“I wasn’t going to do it unless I thought I could do something that was genuinely different,” Wilson said. “I wanted to bring out some of the alliteration that was a signature feature of the original. I wanted to honor the clarity of Homer; the quick narrative pace.”

To do this, Wilson limited herself to using only as many lines in her translation as was in the original Greek.

The Odyssey’s original Greek transcription consists of words with many possible English translations, so there were many directions to take. For example, many translators use the word servants instead of the more accurate slaves that Wilson uses. Wilson chose to describe Odysseus as complicated instead of the less ambiguous versatile or resourceful.

Though her translation was very popular with critics, Wilson takes issue with the press coverage. Most of which focused on her being the first female translator of The Odyssey into English.

“I worry [that] the coverage and the focus on me being a woman has the potential to erase the work of other women,” Wilson said. “There are translations … into French by women, into Dutch by women and so on. English speakers tend to think that what happens in English is the only thing that matters.”

Freshman Jason Roberts enjoyed learning about the different ways one could translate Homer.

“I thought that hearing the different translations ... is interesting because there are so many ways you can translate the source material,” Roberts said.

MU freshman Jacklyn Vanderbilt, who’s read multiple translations of the Odyssey, says that Wilson’s was her favorite.

“I think this translation made it easier to understand,” Vanderbilt said. “The way the words were phrased made it more comprehensible to me.”

Wilson enjoyed the fact that young people are interested in The Odyssey.

“I was thrilled to see how many people were here in the audience,” Wilson said. “It was wonderful to see the level of engagement and thoughtfulness in the students.”

Wilson is currently translating the Iliad and the works of Plato into English. Wilson is only a few months into translating the Iliad and expects it to take her a few years to complete.

Edited by Janae McKenzie | jmckenzie@themaneater.com

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