Teas­ing out the gen­der pol­i­tics of Homer’s world

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

Emily Wil­son

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