It’s a difficult task translating “The Odyssey” for a modern audience — especially when almost 70 translations already exist.
But Emily Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, still spent five years creating a version of her own.
“It didn’t seem to me obvious that I should do another one unless I thought I could do something that was genuinely different,” Wilson said.
Wilson talked Friday about the challenges she faced and her role as the first woman to publish a translation of the Greek epic. She spoke to a standing-room only crowd of over 500 in MU’s Anheuser-Busch Natural Resources Building.
In 2017, she published her English translation of “The Odyssey,” a feat that had previously only been accomplished by men.
“Professor Wilson is that rare scholar who is solidly grounded in the complexities of the ancient Mediterranean world, both Greek and Roman, and also able to weave her way through intricacies of the reception of the world in art, literature and culture,” said David Schenker, MU associate professor of classical studies in the Ancient Mediterranean Studies department.
The lecture was a keynote event of a semester-long series of panels, “Gender and Translation,” sponsored by several MU departments.
Wilson said she tried to emphasize two themes: the complexities of homecoming and the relationships between strangers and guests in ancient Greece.
Though her translation might appear more modern than its predecessors, Wilson took several steps to preserve qualities of the original language to give a modern audience a “time-travel whiplash.” These include keeping specific poetic techniques like iambic pentameter, repetition and high rhetoric.
Wilson also attempted to use more modern, ethical language that she felt was lacking in previous translations. For example, she used the term “slave” in parts of her work.
“There’s no ambiguity in the poem about the status of all the people in Odysseus’s household,” Wilson said. “But in a lot of translations, those characters are ‘servants’ or ‘maids’ or ‘housekeepers.’”
Even though she is the first woman to translate “The Odyssey” into English, Wilson worries that the news coverage surrounding this fact has the potential to erase the work of other female classics scholars.
“I think gender in itself doesn’t tell us everything you might want to know about a particular writer or translator,” Wilson said. “Not every single choice I made in this quite-long poem was absolutely predetermined by the fact that I was a woman.”
Wilson will be discussing her translation again at 10 a.m. Saturday at Skylark Booshop.
Supervising editor is Tynan Stewart.