“The minds of the immortals rarely change,” old King Nestor tells Telemachus in Book III of The Odyssey. That may be true, but the ways that we experience and imagine those gods change regularly. Since the sixteenth century, dozens of English-language translators have traversed the epics of archaic Hellas, and all of them have returned with their own unique account: Blank verse, couplets, and prose are all available portals into Homer. But few have internalized the old cliche, “Translation is interpretation.” Professor Emily Wilson, the Odyssey’s newest intermediary bard, is doing more to correct that than any translator of Homer in history.

“I’ve heard people say, ‘I just want a translation that tells me what the original says,’” Wilson tells me in her office at the University of Pennsylvania, where she has taught for fifteen years. “Obviously that’s never going to happen. If you want to read the original, spend the time, learn Greek. Any translation is going to be shaped in some way by the translator and is going to include the translator’s whole self. People assume that if you’re doing something totally different, you must be doing something illegitimate, imposing your own agenda. That the way it was translated thirty years ago must be the way it always had to be. That is not the case.”

My meeting with Wilson in the UPenn Classics department fulfilled a long-standing fantasy: to rub shoulders with the gatekeepers of Classical studies. In my early teens, I became riveted not only by Greco-Roman texts but also by their legendary scholars and translators, such as Maurice Bowra and Jane Ellen Harrison. I studied their personal lives the way some study Hollywood gossip. I consider telling Wilson this, but she already seems a touch impatient when I compare the tragedies to The Young and the Restless. We agree, though, on the basic appeal of Classical literature. Beginning to show some excitement, she describes her first encounter with the Aeneid.

“I loved the way it was focused on—in a way it seems horrible—but on the destruction of a city, a civilization, people’s lives, families, and communities,” she says. “Whether or not one could survive the chaos, hostility, and destruction. It seemed to be able to articulate all these things in a beautifully precise way, things that are so hard to talk about. I grew up in a house where people didn’t really talk. People wrote, but they didn’t talk. I liked that there were areas where there was much more explicit facing up to things that are horrible. There’s also always a comfort in reading about families that are so much more messed up than your own.”

Most articles about Professor Wilson draw attention to her gender. This is understandable: She’s the first woman ever to accomplish a complete Odyssey translation in English (Caroline Alexander did the same last year with the Iliad). But few have given her the credit for the kind of translation that it is. It’s in exactly the same number of lines as the original, an almost Oulipian restriction for a Homer translator. More important, unlike the standard modern translations by the likes of Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo, Wilson’s Odyssey is entirely metrical—just like the original text. But she has also introduced formal elements that will be familiar to readers of English poetry. In place of Homer’s dactylic hexameter (long-short-short vowel pattern), the Muses spoke to Wilson in iambic pentameter. Using the style of Shakespeare, Donne, and Milton, she has given the poem a style appropriately unique to the English language. This is, in her words, “a big deal.” For our entire conversation, Wilson’s arm rests beside the Odyssey of George Chapman, who also translated in this style in the seventeenth century.

Translating the Odyssey into iambic pentameter is the convergence of Wilson’s two fields of expertise: Classics and Renaissance literature (she holds an MPhil in the latter subject from Oxford). Many classicists know little or nothing about the post-Classical world of reading, even Shakespeare. Wilson’s unusually broad education is the secret ingredient to her briskly readable translation; Shakespeare, even more than Homer, is the author she has revisited the most for pleasure.

“I think if I didn’t care about Shakespeare as much as I do, I wouldn’t have been able to bring out the proto-dramatic qualities in the way that I hope I did, and really care about doing,” she says. “I wanted to bring out the way that this is a poem that has all these dramatic and literary, as well as generally poetic, qualities. I was informed by Milton’s music, and Shakespeare's much more varied music, but also contemporary poetry.” Later, she compares Homer’s sea descriptions to Wallace Stevens’s “The Idea of Order at Key West.”

There is something proto-romance, especially in the wandering books, about the Odyssey, sharply distinguishing it from the Iliad’s clashing masculine egos and honor codes. When we first see Odysseus, he’s sobbing. The poem’s episodic nature anticipates the Renaissance adventures and allegories of LudovicoAriosto and Edmund Spenser, which would complicate and expand the trajectory of English literature. The not-entirely linear narrative structure, with a great deal of plot revealed in Odysseus’ recollections, is, for modern readers, surprisingly novelistic. Though all of that background isn’t necessary to enjoy Wilson’s superb translation, it justifies her objective to make an Odyssey that’s readable, rather than in archaic (or simply strange) English.

Here, the messenger god and trickster Hermes, sent by Zeus to negotiate Odysseus’ freedom, surveys the cavern of Calypso:

There sat Calypso with her braided curls.

Beside the hearth a mighty fire was burning.

The scent of citrus and of brittle pine

suffused the island. Inside, she was singing

and weaving with a shuttle made of gold.

Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave

a luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,

and scented cypress. It was full of wings.

Birds nested there but hunted out at sea:

the owls, the hawks, the gulls with gaping beaks.

A ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes,

was stretched to coil around her cave. Four springs

spurted with sparkling water as they laced

with crisscross currents intertwined together.

The meadow softly bloomed with celery

and violets. He gazed around in wonder

and joy, at sights to please even a god.

Homer’s music is not accessible without knowledge of Greek, but Wilson’s economic, rhythmic translation brings alacrity to this dazzling, yet strange, episode. Calypso’s cave is the bower of poetry and literary translation. We marvel at how, through Wilson’s sensibility, Homer’s scene description activates all the senses. Yet the artifice of poetry is in the room. No cave can contain a meadow; Calypso’s home is as fake as the Venetian canals of Las Vegas.

Wilson is no stranger to literary translation (she’s got Euripides and Seneca under her belt), and contrary to what some journalists—myself included—might be tempted to imagine, gender wasn’t on her mind when she began to weigh the possibility of this epic undertaking. Therefore, when I repeated for her consideration assertions by other writers that she translates “through a politically progressive lens,” she was quick to clarify.

“It’s a very fundamental misunderstanding of what I’m doing. When I took this project on, I didn’t know that I was going to be the first woman to do it. I didn’t sign up with my culture warrior lenses on. I signed up with the notion that I wanted to do a metrical version, because the meter and music of Homer are a huge element of the reading experience. I very much wanted to create something that had a regular meter, which had a music, and that people would get that sense of what it is to read a very long narrative with a regular beat.”

In speaking with Wilson, I encounter a mix of the above directness with an equally reluctant desire to reveal any more than necessary. When we discussed notable interpreters of Homer such as Julian Jaynes, she spoke freely and with insight. Ditto that on the subject of other translators, notably the revered Richmond Lattimore, whose oft-praised repetitive style she sees as merely “psychological comfort” to those desiring the myth of the literal translation. Yet when I would attempt to turn to her life outside of literature, an artful elusiveness took over. When I ventured to ask what her three children are like (Imogen, Psyche, and Freya, to whom she dedicates the book), she simply answers, “complicated.” By echoing the first line of her translation (“Tell me about a complicated man”), she skillfully returns the focus from herself to Homer.

It’s the same person that I had seen in the eighty-page essay that accompanies the translation. Arranged thematically on subjects from gods to guests in Homer’s world, it sparingly introduces Wilson’s own interpretations while offering a broad tour of the text, akin to the old style of Oxford and Cambridge classicists. Though she eloquently explains to me why Erich Auerbach’s famous essay “Odysseus’ Scar” is unconvincing, and enthusiastically recommends Lillian Doherty’s Siren Songs, she normally maintains a detached position, including on the never-ending Western Canon debate, which puts under fire the traditional emphasis on the “Dead White Male” authors whom she reveres. Nonetheless, she says she’d be fine if humanities curricula periodically swapped out Homer for ancient Indian epics instead. The bottom line being: “There is something lost if we’re not studying cultures which are very far away.”

Her reluctance to be pinned down can be playful. Reviews of the translation have invariably made reference to her unconventional rendering of the opening line. “I’m bored of it now,” she says, chuckling mischievously. “It would fun to do a second edition in which it would be identical—except for the first line.” She also resists my invitation to dwell on a number of topics, from narratology to feminist interpretations of Homer. Near the end of our conversation, however, she does wax eloquently on John Milton’s Paradise Lost. “He’s very keen to take on both the Iliad and the Odyssey, as well as the Aeneid, and then try to finish all of them,” she says. “There are ways that Satan is a kind of Odysseus figure, but then Adam is a kind of Odysseus figure because he’s ousted from his home.”

As a child, Wilson played the goddess Athena in a primary-school stage production. All Homer translators, no matter their gender, assume an Athena-like role. Athena, the star deity of the Odyssey, almost never appears as herself, and accomplishes her handiwork in the guise of persons familiar to her audience. Likewise, the translator of Homer speaks always through the mouthpieces of gods, heroes, and Homer himself. Wilson, who tells me that translating means getting “to be a poet and not be self-conscious about it,” seems to don another persona even before the start of the translation. The final paragraph of her preface begins: “There is a stranger outside your house.” Who is the stranger? Homer? Odysseus?

When I rise to leave her office, she says, “Tell the world I’m not an ideologue.” I promise to do so. The elevator door opens at the Humanities building ground floor, and suddenly, I regret not asking for her autograph.

Ben Shields is a writer and teacher residing in Brooklyn and Jerusalem.

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