Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey: A book review by Bob Morris

The Odyssey
Homer; Emily Wilson, Translator
W.W. Norton & Company (November 2017)

A brilliant exploration of “both the origins of Western literature, and our infinitely complex contemporary world”

The last time I checked, Amazon offers 221 English translations of Homer’s Odyssey. Years before reading Emily Wilson’s translation, I had read several others and concluded that those by Stephen Mitchell, Richmond Lattimore, and Robert Fagles were (for me, at least) the most readable.

Add Wilson’s to that group. I am especially grateful for her 79-page Introduction in which she creates a context for “the two oldest works of literature in the Western tradition,” and, for Homer — “if there was such a person…[perhaps] a blind illiterate bard [who] could not, by himself have written the monumental Iliad and Odyssey…[given] the specific difficulties of understanding how these poems were created — not, or not simply, from the mind of an individual creator, but also from a long oral tradition, which has been transformed into two monumental written texts.”

In his review for The New York Times, Gregory Hayes observes, “The Odyssey is notable for the range of its female characters, and for the sympathy and respect with which it treats them. These Wilson shares. We feel sadness on both sides when Odysseus sleeps with the nymph Calypso, “not wanting her / though she still wanted him.” We feel sympathy for Helen, and even for Odysseus’ slave women, executed for sleeping with the enemy — or as Wilson puts it, “the things the suitors made them do with them.” (This goes further than the Greek, but not further than is allowable.)

“Wilson is at her best in one of the poem’s greatest scenes, the first meeting in Book 19 between Penelope and her unrecognized husband:

Her face was melting, like the snow that Zephyr
scatters across the mountain peaks; then Eurus
thaws it, and as it melts, the rivers swell
and flow again. So were her lovely cheeks
dissolved with tears. She wept for her own husband,
who was right next to her.

“Wilson gives us the simile, one of the loveliest in Homer. But then she goes on to give us Penelope’s ordinary grief: “She cried a long, long time, / then spoke again …” — where “cried” (not “wept”) and the repeated “long” evoke Penelope’s sobbing as powerfully as any other words could do.”

When re-reading my favorite passages such as those that also caught Hayes’s eye, I was even more amazed by what Emily Wilson has achieved. With skills I lack to describe it, she has re-connected readers in the 21st century with humanity in a “great book” that was created at least 2,500 years ago (if not more) and does so in ways and to an extent very few others have. Her recreation of The Odyssey is one of the few translations I will revisit again in months and years to come.

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