Two years ago, Penn’s Classical Studies professor Emily Wilson rose to prominence as the first woman to translate Homer’s The Odyssey into English. Last month, she once again received worldwide recognition after being awarded the prestigious MacArthur “Genius” Grant, formally known as the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship. But on Twitter, where Wilson has been active since December 2017, her bio includes “Writer, professor, translator. NOT the first woman to publish a translation of the Odyssey.”
Indeed, in almost all news coverage of Wilson before and after the Grant—including a New York Times profile written when her Odyssey translation was first published—her position as “the first woman” has been featured prominently. However, during our conversation, Wilson points out her complicated relationship with the “the first woman” headline.
To begin with, while Wilson is the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English, she worries that the emphasis on her role as a “first” eclipses the fact that there are already multiple translations of The Odyssey by women in modern languages, such as Turkish and Italian. As the media focuses on Wilson as the “first female translator,” there is also the issue of tokenism, where one female translator may somehow represent all of them. “I worry about the way that it can potentially erase all the women,” Wilson says. “I personally have learned a huge amount from other female classicists, other Homerists; I don’t want it to be presented that I’m the only classicist that matters who’s female.”
Finally, the popular media depiction surrounding Wilson—although inspirational on the surface—perpetuates the notion that a person's work may be entirely characterized by their gender. “Almost all of [the interviewers] ask how does being a woman affect your work? And of course, people never ask that of male writers,” Wilson says.
Nevertheless, Wilson believes that are still upsides to how her work has been presented. By focusing on the translator’s background, it opens a conversation about how social and gender roles can affect the interpretation of classics, and how individual experiences may inform translation—a practice far more complex than what Google Translate might suggest. In fact, Wilson hopes that her translation brings attention to broader issues facing the field today, “The field of Greco–Roman translation into English is far more male–dominant than you might expect, given that there are lots of female classicists, and female translators, and female translators of those texts into other languages."
So, aside from the focus on her gender, how is Wilson’s English translation of The Odyssey different from the over 60 translations that came before it? Describing her work as “re–translating” a poem that has seen many similar interpretations, Wilson wanted to produce a responsible yet new reading, with various unique choices. These choices—described as “small… but radical” by The New York Times—include using iambic pentameter to echo the original meter, the same number of lines as the original to reflect its quick pacing, and a clearer and more modern language. Wilson also paid deliberate attention to the many different points of view in The Odyssey, from the enslaved women, to the lost soldiers, to the Cyclops Polyphemus—portrayed as a villain of the story, even though Odysseus is the one who invades his home.
When I first flipped through Wilson’s Odyssey, I was struck by how easy it was to read. There is no confusing syntax or archaic language—just sharp, metrical lines flowing into each other, creating a compelling world. “I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t making it harder to understand than the original is,” Wilson says. "If you know Greek, the original is not so difficult.” In fact, while Wilson didn't write her translation for a specific age group, she wanted it to be engaging for anyone ranging from 18 to 80.
Today, Wilson is working on several different projects, including a translation of Homer’s Iliad and a book about translation itself, titled Faithful. Although she has already finished several books of the Iliad, it has been a unique project. “The whole mood of the poem is totally different from the mood of The Odyssey,” Wilson explains, “It took quite some time to get my head around how I'm going to do this.” Meanwhile, Faithful will delve into the field of translation and the questions brought up by Wilson’s recent work: why is the field so male–dominated, and how might we change it?
When Wilson first got the call about the MacArthur Grant—about three weeks before it was announced to the public—it was a complete surprise. “I thought for the first few minutes of the call that it was a terrible prank,” Wilson says. “I still don’t feel that it has fully sunk in.” While she doesn’t know yet how the Grant will affect her future works, she hopes that—like the attention around her translation of The Odyssey—the grant can bring more attention to the field itself. Translation has traditionally been undervalued in the academic world of classics—and the MacArthur Grant can help address that.
For students who are interested in translation, Wilson urges them to take language classes at Penn. “One shouldn’t think of just passing the language requirement as a duty,” Wilson says. “It’s a wonderful opportunity, especially while you have a young and formable brain.” For students like me who may want to read The Odyssey now, Wilson tells us not to be scared. “I wrote a very long introduction … but if you don’t want to read the very long introduction, you don’t have to,” Wilson says. “It’s not as difficult as you might think.”
Students can dive in without a wealth of knowledge, and ultimately, The Odyssey is a universal, human story. “In a way, it’s the perfect story for college students, because it’s about being away from home,” Wilson posits, “and that question of: am I the same person in a different place?…I think everybody at that age between 18 and 24 is grappling with some version of that, of how do I form my own self—is that going to be different from the self I was back home, that other home?”
As we move through college, we may sometimes feel adrift without family or old friends. At these times, it can be comforting to discover pieces of ourselves in ancient, metrical texts, and thoughtful, modern translators like Emily Wilson allow us to do just that. Soon after her version of The Odyssey was published, Wilson joined Twitter to engage with a community of classicists. If you have a second, she just posted a thread relating the canceling of her flight to the traveling in The Odyssey. See if your life can be found in the timeworn words, too.