Emily Wilson: First Woman to Translate the Odyssey into English

Written by Angie Carrera

As a contemporary reader, when one hears the word “complicated,” it is natural to assume that someone is speaking of their newly changed relationship status, because everything in the twenty-first century is deemed “complicated.” British classicist Emily Wilson wrestled with this word and took into great consideration its social nuances and our modern-day ideologies to describe Odysseus when at the age of 45, she became the first woman to translate the Homeric epic, the Odyssey, into English.

As Wyatt Mason wrote in his feature for the New York Times, Wilson’s origins lay in the soot and cold of Oxford, England, where she grew up alongside her sister, writer Bee Wilson. As her childhood home became overshadowed with the sound of silence, she sought solace in learning French through her high school years, but was greatly overwhelmed by her fear of pronouncing the nasally language incorrectly. This ultimately prompted Wilson to take an interest in Latin, a language that does not need to be beautiful so long as it is written correctly.

In her undergraduate years at Balliol College in Oxford, Wilson began to notice that the classics and philosophy were fields largely dominated by men. Though she lacked a female mentor, Wilson’s forays into the captivating and cathartic world of Greek tragedy prompted her to further her career in English.

Wilson found the translation of Homer’s epic especially difficult, and she began to face unsolicited critique from colleagues while she struggled with the challenges presented in the poem. One of the greatest complications was quite simply that of the translation itself: whether to translate the piece word for word as many fellow classicists before her had done, or whether to interpret the piece as she saw it on paper. This difficulty arose from the fifth word of the roughly 12,000 lined poem, polytropos. As many multilingual speakers experience, Wilson had to decide how to translate this word in the context of describing Odysseus himself.

Polytropos, in Greek, has a dual meaning of either being turned at the will of others, or turning in convenience of the situation. After much thought, Wilson took her contemporary audience into account and described Odysseus as a “complicated” man. Shying away from her classicist roots revolutionized the execution of this translation. Not only is Wilson marking this occasion as one performed by a woman, but as a woman controlling the way she is confined by the translation. Her simplistic yet profound translation of Homer’s complex text has become the segue between the distant past and the modern day, enticing another generation to the classics.

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