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Tell Me The Old Story

The Odyssey rendered by a woman

The song of a blind bard in ancient Greece still echoes through the halls of imagination and the chambers of our minds. Homer’s Odyssey, epic in every sense of the word, resonates in the 21st century on a deep level, speaking to the universality of human dilemmas across time.

Odysseus, the eponymous hero, can be interpreted variously as an arrogant bastard seeking glory, a veteran suffering PTSD, or a conflicted husband and father voyaging homeward. His journey home after sacking Troy consumes much of the narrative, but so do the struggles of his wife and son and his eventual homecoming.

Emily Wilson is the first woman to publish an English translation of The Odyssey. In an email to me, she clarifies that plenty of women, like Sarah Ruden, have translated the classics, and that women do read ancient Greek poetry.

But Wilson’s translation clearly involved more thought and research than an extempore reading.

Translating poetry is a tricky business. The translator, necessarily both a poet and a scholar, walks a tightrope between meter and meaning, Greek idiom and common English.

Wilson has struck the golden mean in sleek, modern English. Her iambic pentameter is robust and fluid, propelling the reader through adventure after adventure.

Homer’s poem was written in hexameter, with six syllabic units per line. Wilson says she chose iambic pentameter because it is natively English the rhythm of such greats as Chaucer, Shakespeare, Byron and Keats. (“Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?”)

Wilson’s word choice is particularly contemporary for example, Menelaus serves “canapés” at his house. Some classicists prefer using archaic language when translating the ancients, and take issue with Wilson’s modern style.

However, Wilson tells me she writes in clear, speakable English to mark her awareness that her readers live in 2017, and that the English of the 1930s is no more like ancient Greek than today’s English is. 

Wilson says she tried to create a standalone piece of literature that has its own power and life. She succeeded.

Her poetry reads with the pace of a novel. Even her section titles feel like this: My favorite title is Book 6, “A Princess and Her Laundry,” chronicling that one time when Odysseus ended up naked by a river and met a foreign princess washing her clothes.

Wilson provides a fresh take on the women of The Odyssey. She comments in a translator’s note that her Helen, the beautiful cause of the Trojan War, “refrains from blaming herself for what men have done in her name.”

Evinced by her characterizations of other women in the epic, Wilson says she wants to “allow the reader to feel deep and genuine sympathy for the female characters.”

In the end, why should you read The Odyssey? Wilson says it addresses many strikingly pertinent questions: Are you interested in whether your identity depends on your relationships? Or what you should do for migrants and refugees? Whether gender is fixed? Whether war permanently damages a people? What binds a family together? What it means to have a home?

You’ve come to the right place. 

 “I wanted the language to come alive, and each of the characters to come alive too,” Wilson says in conclusion. “I hope that people who read my translation will find themselves feeling the suspense and pace of the story, and caring deeply about what happens to each of these characters.”

The Odyssey is full of characters whose struggles shed light on our issues today. Indeed, on the very first page the poet invokes the muse, “tell the old story for our modern times.”

The Odyssey, W.W. Norton, $39.95



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