The First Woman to Translate the Odyssey into English

One of the author's copies of the Odyssey, this one in Greek. (Credit: Geordie Wood for The New York Times)

One of the translator’s copies of the Odyssey, this one in Greek. (Credit: Geordie Wood for The New York Times)

“Find the beginning.”

“Tell me about a complicated man,” reads the first line of classicist Emily Wilson’s new translation of the Odyssey. Published this month, November 2017, the book marks the first time a woman has translated Homer’s epic poem into English. Called “lively, fast-paced” and “contemporary and exciting” by reviewers (indeed, “radically contemporary” according to The New York Times), it is a new–and necessary–perspective on an ancient foundational text. Here is the first verse of Book I, as published in the Paris Reviewthis past summer:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun Gods cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.

(The rest of the excerpt may be read here.)

That word “complicated” is hard-won. It is Wilson’s translation of the famous polytropos–literally “many turnings”–that is used to introduce Odysseus to the reader. It is a word that, even so early in the text, has stumped Wilson’s predecessors, some 60 in number. So how did the translator extract “complicated” from polytropos? And does it work? Wyatt Mason ofThe New York Times seems to think so. In fact, he thinks highly of the translator’s choice:

Complicated: the brilliance of Wilsons 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 dont think of that root when we call someone complicated, but its what we mean: that theyre 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.

As a flag, the word is representative of Wilson’s translation. Simple, succinct, and accurate, it provides a different lens through which to view a character who has long been engrained into our literary psyche,preparing us for the journey of the main character and setting the tone of the rest of the narrative.”You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded,” says Wilson. “So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text that’s not going to be interpretatively straightforward.”

Read the rest of the article on The New York Timeswebsite.

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