Renowned classicist Emily Wilson on modernizing “The Odyssey”

Modernizing “The Odyssey” through thought-provoking translation

Rachel Milio, Contributing Writer

Emily Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke on Sept. 7 in Bucknell Hall on her work regarding “The Odyssey.” Stephanie Larson, professor of classics and ancient Mediterranean studies, introduced Wilson, calling her, “a new muse, telling an old story for our modern times.”

Wilson, whose translation of “The Odyssey” was published in 2017, has gained publicity not only for her position as the first woman to translate the Ancient Greek epic into English, but also for her refreshingly unique take on the millenia-old poem.

The event opened with a brief introduction from James Shields, professor of comparative humanities and Asian thought, who thanked all parties involved in the event, including University President John Bravman and the classics department. Afterwards, Larson stepped up to introduce Wilson, describing her translation as “something remarkably new.”

Wilson began her lecture by discussing the emphasis on her gender in the media. Wilson said, “my translation would not have gotten as much press coverage if I were a man,” and referred her audience to the many headlines that have exclusively discussed her in reference to her gender.

During her talk, Wilson made three points in regards to her gender. First, Wilson said, “Women, people of color, and younger scholars are underrepresented in translations,” referring to the imbalance of older white men in the field. Second, Wilson said, “Being female does not guarantee a unique female perspective.” She explained her belief that all women have different beliefs, and will not all create works with a feminist perspective. Lastly, Wilson said, “Men have gender identities too,” alluding to her observation that men in her field of translation are rarely questioned about the impact of their own gender on their work.

Attendee Charlie Espy ’21 said, “I found it striking that her focus in the translation was not to have a female perspective, but to have an impartial perspective.”

Wilson concluded her discussion of gender by lamenting that because of the media’s focus on her gender, she does not “get to talk about poetry very much.”

The lecture was also filled with Wilson’s reflections on her translation. She praised the original Ancient Greek text accredited to Homer as, “a poem which turns details of everyday life into rich symbols about human experiences.”

“Professor Wilson did a very impressive job of tailoring her lecture not to a room of classicists, but to a room of people vaguely interested in the classics,” Espy said. “The lecture focused not on the line by line interpretation of ‘The Odyssey’ specifically, but on how one goes about translating an ancient text and how different interpretations come about.”

Some of these interpretations involve Wilson’s refusal to sugarcoat the reality of Ancient Greek society. While in previous translations of “The Odyssey,” lower status characters are labelled as servants or maids, Wilson refers to them as she believes they accurately were—slaves. In her telling of the epic poem, Wilson chooses to highlight what she considers “the most compelling feature of the original: how deeply it shows character complexity.”

Larson observed this choice in Wilson’s translation, noting “the deep complexity of human relationships in the poem” as well as “the humor of the ancient epic.” Larson also said that students should consider “what the ancient epics communicate about slavery, gender expectations, colonialism, violence, and war” when approaching Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey.”

Wilson concluded the lecture by explaining her love of the epic poem. According to Wilson, “Ancients enjoyed Homer. They found it fun, exciting, and enjoyable to read.” Wilson intends for her translation to bring the same enthusiasm for “The Odyssey” to modern generations.

“I would highly recommend this event to any student, regardless of their major,” Espy said. “The classics are still applicable in modern day life. The issues of patriarchy and misogyny as well as conflicts between character and character or character and government are still issues that we face today.”

“These poems problematize the very act of war, the advocacy of violence, and interests in colonialism; the poems also question ideas of what it means to be a ‘hero’ and presents a multifaceted view of the kinds of relationships that can exist outside class and ethnic boundaries,” Larson said. “Professor Wilson’s new translation gives us a wonderful new way of reading the epics on these issues, and I would recommend reading it with an eye toward such themes which are so contemporary, too.”

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