Interview · Torch:U.S. · Spring 2018
“Most translations that people read in contemporary English from even fifty years ago don’t have a regular meter, and that bothers me because the original has a very clear, regular meter. I really wanted to create a version of the poem that has a regular meter in English and would have somewhat of the pacing of the original. So, I decided ahead of time to make sure that it was not longer than the original, that it would have the same number of lines. I also meant to have a different kind of voice. The Greek has a clarity, which I find often obscured in translations. It’s not actually as difficult as some of the translations make you think.”
When she did look into other translations, she noticed a particular difference in the character portrayal of the goddess Calypso.
“One thing I noticed other translators do is call Calypso a nymph, who is in the Greek a nymphe, which is, for us, a nature goddess—the kind of goddess who lives in a cave. One can translate that in English to nymph, but this has a totally different connotation than nymphe in Greek. Other translations seem to go for translating her as a nymph, and along with that, translating her in a way that makes her seem ridiculous. A nymph in English is a woman or female character who is mocked for having a sexuality and for wearing a stupid seat of grass. What I wanted to do with Book Five and saw in the Greek text was not mocking Calypso. It was not suggesting that there is something undignified about her. Being a nymph is not a ridiculous role to be, and wanting a mortal is not a ridiculous thing to want. She is a scary, important, and also sympathetic female goddess.”
As the first female translator of The Odyssey, Wilson has thought greatly about her own identity and the role that gender and a feminine perspective play in her translation. She intelligently and honestly addressed this question, saying,
“Nobody ever asked Robert Fagles that question, but they really should have. How did being a man effect Fagles’ translation, and how did being a man effect dozens of other people who translated The Odyssey? Of course, I don’t think that is going to effect how you read and how you interpret the text in a whole lot of ways, and it doesn’t mean that the translator was irresponsible. I don’t think that Robert Fagles was irresponsible because he was a man and that I am irresponsible because I am a woman. I think I am an extremely responsible translator, and the fact that I am a woman also wouldn’t necessarily mean that I have sympathy only for female characters or that being a woman must mean that your translation is more permanent. Those things don’t necessarily follow. I think it’s possible to be a woman and have no particular gender awareness while reading or writing. We can sort of switch it off. We are supposed to be able to read in the gender-neutral way.
As an ending note, Wilson added,
“I hope it’s fun, and I hope people get that and enjoy it. Because it’s a classic, there is an idea that it has to be heavy-going, but I really think that there is a lightness to Homer sometimes. When I read the Greek, I feel engaged by the story, and I hope I managed to bring out that sense of immersive storytelling, relatable emotions, and moments both of beauty and fear. It is sometimes heavy, sometimes grand, but also occasionally funny. It’s a good read.”
Above: This NJCL Editor found a copy of Emily Wilson's translation at the bookstore! Photo: Jewel Woods.