Teasing out the gender politics of Homer’s world
An average book reflects the concerns of its author. A good book reflects the concerns of the era in which it was written. But a great book shapeshifts to reflect the concerns of the era in which it is read. The Odyssey — Homer’s epic poem born of the Greek oral tradition, put on to the page sometime in the 8th century BC, and translated into English more than 70 times — belongs in the latter category.
The most recent translation of the text comes from British classicist Emily Wilson and arrives with much fanfare, both for the substance of the translation and for Wilson herself — or, more specifically, her gender, because her book is the first English-language publication of The Odyssey to be translated by a woman.
To be clear, Wilson’s translation is faithful to the original (in as much as any work of trans- lation is faithful, being an act of interpretation filtered through the translator’s own frame of reference, bias and literary sensibilities). She doesn’t add anything to the text that is not already suggested by the original Homeric Greek. If the role of the translator is to deliver not just the words but the world of the original, then Wilson has perhaps written the definitive translation of our time. Here is a world that demands outsized masculinity from men and constant submission from women; where men are celebrated for their violence and women for their fidelity; where female agency is feared and female sexuality is punished.
These things were true for Homer’s world. They are also true for ours. Wilson’s gender shouldn’t matter, but it does — if only because her attentive, nuanced translation choices serve to illuminate the choices of the male translators who came before her.
Consider, for example, the Greek word kunopis, meaning “dog-face” or “dog-eye” and used by Helen of Troy in a line referring to the role she played in launching the Trojan War.
In Robert Fagles’s version, Helen describes herself as the “shameless whore that I was”, and in Stephen Mitchell’s the “bitch that I was”. Richard Lattimore: “shameless”. Stanley Lombardo: “shameless thing”. Now consider how Wilson frames it: “the day the Greeks marched off to Troy, their minds / fixated on the war and violence. / They made my face the cause that hounded them.”
In Wilson’s version, the noun becomes a verb: Helen is not a dog, a thing or a whore. It’s the Greeks who are hounded.
While the broad strokes of The Odyssey are well known to Western audiences, the way in which the epic unfolds is less familiar. The 24book poem begins not with Odysseus but with his teenage son Telemachus. Urged into action by the goddess Athene, Telemachus travels to Pylos and Sparta to gather information about his absent father and win the respect of his countrymen.
Back home, his mother has her own battles t to face: surrounded by suitors who want her body and her fortune, she does everything she can to delay remarrying. Odysseus enters in Book 10: held captive for seven years with the goddess Calypso, he’s finally sent on his way by the intervention of Athene.
He travels to the island of the Phaeacians, w where more familiar elements of The Odyssey — the somnolent Lotus Eaters, the Cyclops, Circe and her pigs, the Sirens, Scylla and Charybdis, the prophet Tiresias and the strange land of the dead — unfold as tales related by Odysseus to the king.
Odysseus finally makes it to Ithaca in Book 13 and, from there, the poem is concerned with how he wreaks bloody vengeance on his wife’s suitors, is restored to the head of his house and reunited with his family.
Wilson set herself strict boundaries in this translation. She employs iambic pentameter, the five-beat structure that is most familiar to the English-speaker’s ear. But unlike most translators, Wilson gives herself a further restriction: she aims for a direct transposition on the level of the line: one line of Homeric