Late in August, as a shadow 70 miles wide was traveling across the United States, turning day briefly to night and millions of Americans into watchers of the skies, the British classicist Emily Wilson, a woman of 45 prone to energetic explanations and un-self-conscious laughter, was leading me through a line of Ancient Greek.
“Polytropos,” Wilson said, in her deep, buoyant voice, pointing to the fifth word — πολuτροπον — of the 12,110-line epic poem that I had come to her office at the University of Pennsylvania to discuss. On the wall hung pictures of Wilson’s three young daughters; the windows behind her framed a gray sky that, as I arrived, was just beginning to dim. The poem lying open before us was Homer’s “Odyssey,” the second-oldest text, after his earlier poem, the “Iliad,” in a Western tradition impossible to imagine without them.
Since the “Odyssey” first appeared in English, around 1615, in George Chapman’s translation, the story of the Greek warrior-king Odysseus’s ill-fated 10-year attempt to return home from the war in Troy to Ithaca and his wife, Penelope, has prompted some 60 English translations, at an accelerating pace, half of them in the last 100 years and a dozen in the last two decades. Wilson, whose own translation appears this week, has produced the first English rendering of the poem by a woman.
“One of the things I struggled with,” Wilson continued, sounding more exhilarated than frustrated as she began to unpack “polytropos,” the first description we get of Odysseus, “is of course this whole question of whether he is passive — the ‘much turning’ or ‘much turned’ — right? This was —”
“Treat me,” I interrupted, “as if I don’t know Greek,” as, in fact, I do not.
“The prefix poly,” Wilson said, laughing, “means ‘many’ or ‘multiple.’ Tropos means ‘turn.’ ‘Many’ or ‘multiple’ could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner.”
As Wilson spoke, I recalled a little formula by the American critic Guy Davenport about the difference between Homer’s two poems: “The ‘Iliad’ is a poem about force; the ‘Odyssey’ is a poem about the triumph of the mind over force.” Wilson was parsing the nature of that triumph, embedded in the poem’s very first adjective, a difference in mind that would make for a difference in Odysseus’s nature, both as a warrior and as a husband.
“So the question,” Wilson continued, “of whether he’s the turned or the turner: I played around with that a lot in terms of how much should I be explicit about going for one versus the other. I remember that being one of the big questions I had to start off with.”
That there could still be big questions about a nearly-three-millenniums-old poem that most everyone has heard of — it has exerted an influence on writers, from Virgil to Milton to Joyce — has everything to do with how Wilson is seeking to redefine the job of modern literary scholarship, an ambition that seems, in part, an inheritance. Born in 1971 in Oxford, England, Wilson comes from a long line of academics on her mother’s side. Her mother, Katherine Duncan-Jones, a Shakespeare specialist, taught English literature at Oxford; her mother’s brother, Roman history at Cambridge; her mother’s father, “a disappointed philosopher” — disappointed because, though he went to Cambridge, he couldn’t get a job there — taught at Birmingham; and her mother’s mother, Elsie Duncan-Jones, also at Birmingham, was an authority on the poetry of Andrew Marvell.
That inheritance was as much literary as it was a matter of temperament. Her mother’s experience as a female academic, Wilson said, over lunch the next day at a noisy bistro, “was tied up with her colleagues in Somerville,” the women’s college where she taught. “The older colleagues were mostly childless women and had this whole sort of anger — anger and also refusal to understand that there might be extra demands on my mom’s time, because she had children.” Wilson’s mother and another colleague took matters into their own hands. “It was revolutionary,” Wilson tells me, with uncomplicated pride, “and it was resented: I was the founding member of the Somerville crèche. She and another female colleague who had a child who was the same age as me organized this day care, first in my house and then it moved to this building near Somerville College.”
Mostly, Wilson recalls a quiet, almost somber childhood with her younger sister, the writer Bee Wilson, and her father, the prolific biographer, novelist and critic A.N. Wilson. “There was a lot of silence,” Wilson says. “As a kid I was just aware of unhappiness, and aware of these things that weren’t ever being articulated, but the sense that nobody is going to be saying what they feel or encouraging anyone else to say what they feel. If you’re unhappy, all you can do is go to your room and cry silently.” Her parents divorced shortly before she went to college.
In school, Wilson was shy but accomplished. She liked French but was in terror of talking in class. “The potential shame of pronouncing a French word wrong was pretty inhibiting,” Wilson said, laughing. “It’s very easy to pronounce a French word wrong.” But with Latin, Wilson found an instant home. She loved the systematization of it, the reams of things to memorize and to get right. “You have all this information, and you can regurgitate, in the sense that you can strategize to translate an English sentence or a Latin sentence. You can do it all in writing. You don’t have to have beautiful Latin pronunciation. It took away a whole level of shame.”
As an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, Wilson studied classics and philosophy. Though her education there, she says, offered her a strong introduction to literary study, it wasn’t lost on her that none of her professors were women. “There was an awareness of it being sort of a boys’ club. Just the fact of never having a female teacher, but it’s a difference to how you feel when you don’t have any mentors who don’t even know what it would be like. I never had a female mentor in classics.” Still, the appeal of classics as a discipline was profound, particularly the way that Greek drama presented great emotional tumult. “I had a childhood where it was very hard to name feelings, and just the fact that tragedy as a genre is very good at naming feelings. It’s all going to be talked out. I love that about it.”
Although Wilson was undecided on a direction after taking her undergraduate degree — she had thoughts of doing law — she ultimately chose to do further studies in English literature at Oxford while she figured her way forward, rereading some of her favorite books, particularly Milton’s “Paradise Lost.” Emerging with a sense that the writers she appreciated most were in dialogue with antiquity, Wilson pursued a Ph.D. in classics and comparative literature at Yale. Wilson knew that if she was “being smart,” she ought to focus on something understudied, like Plutarch. “I loved Plutarch, but I didn’t love him as deeply as I loved Sophocles, Euripides, Milton. I just felt like I wanted to spend a little bit longer with Euripides.”
Dedicated to her grandmother Elsie, Wilson’s first book, “Mocked With Death,” grew out of her dissertation and was published in 2004. It looks at the way mortality was imagined, in the tragic tradition, by Milton, Shakespeare, Seneca, Sophocles and Euripides. Rigorous in its readings, Wilson’s study is also frequently touching. It is about the broadest of human inheritances: our constant awareness of all that we will lose, are losing, have lost.
“If you’re going to admit that stories matter,” Wilson told me, “then it matters how we tell them, and that exists on the level of microscopic word choice, as well as on the level of which story are you going to pick to start off with, and then, what exactly is that story? The whole question of ‘What is that story?’ is going to depend on the language, the words that you use.”
Throughout her translation of the “Odyssey,” Wilson has made small but, it turns out, radical changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are presented — “radical” in that, in 400 years of versions of the poem, no translator has made the kinds of alterations Wilson has, changes that go to truing a text that, as she says, has through translation accumulated distortions that affect the way even scholars who read Greek discuss the original. These changes seem, at each turn, to ask us to appreciate the gravity of the events that are unfolding, the human cost of differences of mind.
The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. There’s Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; Henry Alford’s “much-versed”; Philip Worsley’s “that hero”; the Rev. John Giles’s “of many fortunes”; T.S. Norgate’s “of many a turn”; George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; George Edgington’s “deep”; William Cullen Bryant’s “sagacious”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s “so ready at need”; Arthur Way’s “of craft-renown”; George Palmer’s “adventurous”; William Morris’s “shifty”; Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”; Henry Cotterill’s “so wary and wise”; Augustus Murray’s “of many devices”; Francis Caulfeild’s “restless”; Robert Hiller’s “clever”; Herbert Bates’s “of many changes”; T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded”; William Henry Denham Rouse’s “never at a loss”; Richmond Lattimore’s “of many ways”; Robert Fitzgerald’s “skilled in all ways of contending”; Albert Cook’s “of many turns”; Walter Shewring’s “of wide-ranging spirit”; Allen Mandelbaum’s “of many wiles”; Robert Fagles’s “of twists and turns”; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s “cunning.”
Of the 60 or so answers to the polytropos question to date, the 36 given above couldn’t be less uniform (the two dozen I omit repeat, with minor variations, earlier solutions); what unites them is that their translators largely ignore the ambiguity built into the word they’re translating. Most opt for straightforward assertions of Odysseus’s nature, descriptions running from the positive (crafty, sagacious, versatile) to the negative (shifty, restless, cunning). Only Norgate (“of many a turn”) and Cook (“of many turns”) preserve the Greek roots as Wilson describes them — poly (“many”), tropos (“turn”) — answers that, if you produced them as a student of classics, much of whose education is spent translating Greek and Latin and being marked correct or incorrect based on your knowledge of the dictionary definitions, would earn you an A. But to the modern English reader who does not know Greek, does “a man of many turns” suggest the doubleness of the original word — a man who is either supremely in control of his life or who has lost control of it? Of the existing translations, it seems to me that none get across to a reader without Greek the open question that, in fact, is the opening question of the “Odyssey,” one embedded in the fifth word in its first line: What sort of man is Odysseus?
“I wanted there to be a sense,” Wilson told me, that “maybe there is something wrong with this guy. You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded. We don’t quite know what the layers are yet. So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text that’s not going to be interpretively straightforward.”
Here is how Wilson’s “Odyssey” begins. Her fifth word is also her solution to the Greek poem’s fifth word — to polytropos:
When I first read these lines early this summer in The Paris Review, which published an excerpt, I was floored. I’d never read an “Odyssey” that sounded like this. It had such directness, the lines feeling not as if they were being fed into iambic pentameter because of some strategic decision but because the meter was a natural mode for its speaker. The subtle sewing through of the fittingly wavelike W-words in the first half (“wandered … wrecked … where … worked”) and the stormy S-words that knit together the second half, marrying the waves to the storm in which this man will suffer, made the terse injunctions to the muse that frame this prologue to the poem (“Tell me about …” and “Find the beginning”) seem as if they might actually answer the puzzle posed by Homer’s polytropos and Odysseus’s complicated nature.
Complicated: the brilliance of Wilson’s choice is, in part, its seeming straightforwardness. But no less than that of polytropos, the etymology of “complicated” is revealing. From the Latin verb complicare, it means “to fold together.” No, we don’t think of that root when we call someone complicated, but it’s what we mean: that they’re compound, several things folded into one, difficult to unravel, pull apart, understand.
“It feels,” I told Wilson, “with your choice of ‘complicated,’ that you planted a flag.”
“It is a flag,” she said.
“It says, ‘Guess what?’ — ”
“ ‘ — this is different.’ ”
Although translation might seem a natural step for a scholar preoccupied by the connections between antiquity and later texts, Wilson was dissuaded from pursuing it. “My colleagues told me: ‘You really shouldn’t be doing that kind of thing before tenure. Before tenure you have to write, you know, the right kind of book’ ” — the right kind being one on a subject that your discipline has yet to exhaust. Wilson did write a range of books before tenure, most on canonical texts: her study of suffering and death in literature; a monograph on Socrates. But, not heeding her colleagues’ advice, she began to translate Greek and Roman tragedies. A selection of Seneca’s plays appeared in 2010; four plays by Euripides in 2016. Both projects were outgrowths of her old desire to “spend a little bit longer” with these authors.
I asked Wilson why translation isn’t valued in the academy.
“Because there is no perception that it’s serious intellectually. It’s imagined as a subset of outreach. That you’re going to be communicating with the masses, which is less important than being innovative within your field. And even though I think translation is a way of being innovative within your field, my colleagues don’t see it that way.”
One way of talking about Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is to say that it makes a sustained campaign against that species of scholarly shortsightedness: finding equivalents in English that allow the terms she is choosing to do the same work as the original words, even if the English words are not, according to a Greek lexicon, “correct.”
“What gets us to ‘complicated,’ ” Wilson said, returning to her translation of polytropos, “is both that I think it has some hint of the original ambivalence and ambiguity, such that it’s both ‘Why is he complicated?’ ‘What experiences have formed him?’ which is a very modern kind of question — and hints at ‘There might be a problem with him.’ I wanted to make it a markedly modern term in a way that ‘much turning’ obviously doesn’t feel modern or like English. I wanted it to feel like an idiomatic thing that you might say about somebody: that he is complicated.”
I asked: “What about the commentator who says, ‘It does something that more than modernizes — it subverts the fundamental strangeness of the way Odysseus is characterized.’ I’m sure some classicists are going to say it’s flat out wrong, ‘Interesting, but wrong.’ ”
“You’re quite right,” she replied. “Reviewers will say that.”
How, I asked, would she address such a complaint from someone in her field?
“I struggle with this all the time,” Wilson said. “I struggled with this because there are those classicists. I partly just want to shake them and make them see that all translations are interpretations.” Most of the criticism Wilson expects, she says, will come from “a digging in of the heels: ‘That’s not what it says in the dictionary, and therefore it can’t be right!’ And if you put down anything other than what’s said in the dictionary, then, of course, you have to add a footnote explaining why, which means that pretty much every line has to have a footnote. …” Wilson paused. “That goes to what this translation is aiming to do in terms of an immersive reading experience and conveying a whole narrative. I don’t know what to say to those people, honestly.” Wilson laughed her buoyant laugh. “I need to have a better answer to them, because they will certainly review it, and they will certainly have a loud voice. They just seem to be coming from such a simple and fundamental misunderstanding.”
“Of what any translation is doing.”
What a translation is doing — and what it should do — has been a source of vigorous debate since there were texts to translate. “I’m not a believer,” Wilson told me, “but I find that there is a sort of religious practice that goes along with translation. I’m trying to serve something.”
Early arguments about translation were over the Old Testament. One tale has it that an Egyptian king of the third-century B.C. wanted a Greek copy of the Pentateuch — the five books of Moses — for the Library of Alexandria. Some 70 Jewish elders said to be “skilled in the Scriptures and in both languages” were sent from Jerusalem. Each worked in a separate room to translate in isolation. When finished, they compared their work. The 70 translations? Identical, “in the very same words and the very same names, from beginning to end,” according to one account. The translation was, literally, faithful: God himself had moved their hands in unison, only one possible translation for his Word. Called “Septuagint” after its 70 translators, this Greek version became a foundational text, both for the early Christian church and for the impossible standard to which all subsequent translations are held: faithfulness. Later Bible translators failed to meet that mystical standard. The Catholic Church took 1,200 years to accept Jerome’s Latin version (“tainted with Judaism,” was the charge, as it relied on Hebrew sources). The first English Bible’s translator, John Wycliffe, was disinterred and his bones were burned for the heresy of translating into English, and his successor, William Tyndale, was excommunicated, sentenced to death by strangulation and burned at the stake.
Although you can understand, if not condone, how murderous rage at a translator might arise if a believer supposed a sacred text to have been desecrated by a translator’s hand, it is somewhat surprising that similar vehemence can greet translations of secular canonical texts. Perhaps the most famous such expression is in Matthew Arnold’s “On Translating Homer,” his series of lectures in 1860 when he was Oxford professor of poetry. In them, he offered a takedown of existing translations of Homer and then asked “in what faithfulness exists”: “The translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities … that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble.”
Most every Homeric translation since has been scrutinized against his quartet of qualities. Wilson is not persuaded.
“These are not good criteria,” Wilson told me. “I think he was a terrible reader of poetry. It’s not like he ever translated Homer. I think he had a good ‘classics major’ undergraduate kind of Greek, but I think it’s all to do with a particular notion of aesthetics and class, the whole ‘plainness and nobility.’ It’s about noblesse oblige and you’re going to be the kind of gentleman who’s going to have gone to Rugby and that will be the kind of language that we speak: the classy kind of language. And projecting all of that back on to the classics. This is what ‘sweetness and light’ is. It’s describing a boys’ club. I think it’s very interesting that’s still with us. Those are the four? It’s just the boys’ club.”
“I do think that gender matters,” Wilson said later, “and I’m not going to not say it’s something I’m grappling with. I’m trying to take this task and this process of responding to this text and creating this text extremely seriously, with whatever I have, linguistically, sonically, emotionally.”
At the center of each of Homer’s epics is a warrior. In the “Iliad,” it is Achilles, the greatest of the Greeks, a demigod almost invulnerable to death. Although the war is begun over a woman, Helen, stolen from her Greek husband by a Trojan, the “Iliad” is a poem about and presided over by men. Zeus is the poem’s prevailing god, and what men do, or are willing to do, in love and war and in the friendships that arise in war and its losses, are the poem’s preoccupations.
In the “Odyssey,” preoccupations shift, radically. Zeus is replaced by Athena as the dominant god of the tale; the poem begins not with Odysseus but with his wife, Penelope, who has been without him for 20 years, in a kingdom overrun by suitors for her hand, whom the conventions of hospitality ensure she cannot simply expel. The reader doesn’t even see Odysseus until the fifth of the poem’s 24 books, where we learn that he has been living on an island with Calypso, a goddess, for seven years; that, earlier, he was detained by another goddess, Circe, with whom he also shared a bed; that the Sirens, as he navigates, call to him, desiring him; that a young princess falls in love with him; that, on all sides, women are temptresses, and whereas he submits, we are to understand that Penelope, alone, assailed, remains faithful.
“In the second-wave feminist scholarship in classics,” Wilson told me, “people were very keen to try to read Penelope as, ‘Let’s find Penelope’s voice in the “Odyssey,” and let’s celebrate her, because look, here she is being the hero in an epic in ways we can somehow unpack.’ I find that’s a little simplistic. What happens to all the unelite women?”
In the episode that Wilson calls “one of the most horrible and haunting of the whole poem,” Odysseus returns home to find that his palace has been overrun by suitors for his wife’s hand. Though she has resisted them, the women in her palace have not. Odysseus, after slaying the suitors, tells his son, Telemachus, to kill the women. It is an interesting injunction from Odysseus, who himself, during his 10 years of wandering, was serially unfaithful. In Robert Fagles’s much-praised translation of the poem, Telemachus says, before he executes the palace women on his father’s command: “No clean death for the likes of them, by god!/Not from me — they showered abuse on my head, my mother’s too!/You sluts — the suitors’ whores!”
But Wilson, in her introduction, reminds us that these palace women — “maidservants” has often been put forward as a “correct” translation of the Greek δμωαι, dmoai, which Wilson calls “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue” — weren’t free. Rather, they were slaves, and if women, only barely. Young female slaves in a palace would have had little agency to resist the demands of powerful men. Where Fagles wrote “whores” and “the likes of them” — and Lattimore “the creatures” — the original Greek, Wilson explained, is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.” To call them “whores” and “creatures” reflects, for Wilson, “a misogynistic agenda”: their translators’ interpretation of how these females would be defined. Here is how Wilson renders their undoing:
“If I was really going to be radical,” Wilson told me, returning to the very first line of the poem, “I would’ve said, polytropos means ‘straying,’ and andra” — “man,” the poem’s first word — “means ‘husband,’ because in fact andra does also mean ‘husband,’ and I could’ve said, ‘Tell me about a straying husband.’ And that’s a viable translation. That’s one of the things it says. But it would give an entirely different perspective and an entirely different setup for the poem. The fact that it’s possible to translate the same lines a hundred different times and all of them are defensible in entirely different ways? That tells you something.” But, Wilson added, with the firmness of someone making hard choices she believes in: “I want to be super responsible about my relationship to the Greek text. I want to be saying, after multiple different revisions: This is the best I can get toward the truth.”