3 Reasons We Needed a New Translation of The Odyssey

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Homer’s Odyssey is one of the oldest and most influential works of Western literature. Before this year, it had been translated from Greek to English no less than 60 times. And now, there’s a new version available, translated by Emily Wilson.

So, did we really need yet another translation of The Odyssey? Here are 3 reasons why the latest version is worth your time:

This is the first English translation of The Odyssey by a woman.

Emily Wilson is the first woman to translate The Odyssey into EnglishBut does that matter? Yes, because the process of translation is rarely as straightforward as an outsider might think.  Often, there’s not a single correct word or phrase to use. Instead, there’s a series of trade-offs in finding the closest match, something that conveys as many of the original shades of meaning as possible, without losing the rhythm and mood of the original text.

And sometimes, a translator’s own beliefs and biases can affect the final product.

Wilson herself told the  New York Times that “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.” But at the same time, she acknowledges,  “I do think that gender matters. I’m not going to not say it’s something I’m grappling with.”

Gender and Translation

So what does that mean for her translation of the poem? Let’s look at her approach to the scene in The Odyssey where Odysseus orders the death of all of the slave girls who slept with Penelope’s suitors, and how it compares to that of previous translators.

To Wilson, this episode is “one of the most horrible and haunting of the whole poem.” These women are slaves. Neither Penelope, the lady of the house, nor her son Telemachus had enough power to kick the suitors out of the house. How could the slave girls have possibly been expected to keep them out of their beds?

Earlier translations refer to the girls as “whores”, “creatures,” and “sluts.” But in The New York Times, Wilson explains ” the original Greek .. .  is just a feminine definite article meaning “female ones.”

In an article she wrote for Time, Wilson says:

We may be tempted to assume that ancient texts will articulate benighted ideas that “we” have now risen above; but this is a clear case where modern bias has been projected back onto antiquity. My Telemachus says that the women “lay beside the suitors.”

Wilson isn’t afraid to call a slave a slave.

Speaking of those female slaves, previous translations of The Odyssey referred to them as “maidservants.” In the New York Times, Wilson calls this “an entirely misleading and also not at all literal translation,” the root of the Greek meaning “to overpower, to tame, to subdue.” And with refreshing directness, she calls them what they are: slaves.

Slavery was part of ancient Greek civilization from the beginning. By the time of Aristotle, all but the poorest households in Athens had at least one slave. In Homeric times, slaves were considered members of the household, but they were still slaves.

Wilson’s translation is more direct and accessible.

Whether that’s a good thing or not is a matter of personal preference, of course. But if you were bored by The Odyssey in school you might want to check this new, more “modern” translation out.

Wilson aims to make the story more accessible to the modern reader, capturing the “speed” and “nimble gallop” of the original poem. 

Some of her choices are bound to upset people. For example,  there’s the way she translated the Greek word “polytropos,” used to describe Odysseus at the beginning of the poem. “Polytropos” literally means “many turns”.  Previous translators have gone with “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile,” “crafty,” “sagacious,” “a man of twists and turns,” etc.

Wilson goes with “complicated,” a choice she herself describes as “markedly modern.” She wants to convey the ambiguity of Odysseus’ character: he’s the hero of the story, but he’s not always the good guy.

And let’s face it, he’s definitely the type of guy who uses “It’s complicated” as his Facebook relationship status.

Can a “modern” translation faithfully recreate an ancient story?

And that’s not the only way she modernizes the text:

 She also dispenses with the usual handling of Homeric epithets (“rosy-fingered Dawn,” “enduring Odysseus”), that repeat throughout the text, noting that such repetitions, which served as guideposts to audience and performer alike in preliterate recitation, are tedious to a modern readership. Instead, she riffs on the epithets when they appear: “Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses”; “ The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.”

But while she may have freshened-up some of the more archaic-sounding language in the original poem, she does manage to keep her translation to the same number of lines as the original Greek. And as the Washington Post notes, she is also “attentive to [Homer’s] rhythm and musicality, often replicating the sound effects of the original. ”

What do you think it means to produce a “faithful” translation?  As you can see, it’s not always straightforward. Translators can use a variety of approaches. If you want your translated content to be successful, it’s important to choose the right one. For example, in some circumstances, you might try to translate word-for-word, sticking as close to the original as possible. But for marketing and advertising, you might need to change some words or even recreate your campaign to appeal to your new target audience.

At K International, our team offers a comprehensive set of translation and localization services to meet your business needs. Take a look at what we offer and feel free to contact us– we’d love to hear from you!

Will you read the new translation of The Odyssey? Let us know in the comments!