LAUREN FRAYER, HOST:
(Reading) Sing to me of the man, muse, the man of twists and turns. Remember reading those lines in high school? It's "The Odyssey." And nearly three millennia on, there are hundreds of translations of Homer's epic, but only now do we have a translation into English done by a woman. Her name is Emily Wilson. She's a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and she joins us now from the studios of our member station WHYY. Welcome, Emily.
EMILY WILSON: Thank you so much for having me. Thank you for your hospitality.
FRAYER: How did you first encounter "The Odyssey?" I read that you played Athena in a childhood play.
WILSON: I did, yes. I did.
FRAYER: Tell us about that.
WILSON: It was a lovely experience when I was a shy, unhappy 8-year-old in a new school. And the new school was wonderful because they put on a production of "The Odyssey" for 8 year olds, which involved a lot of costumes, papier-mache masks. I had a helmet, which I loved wearing. I mean, I got to be Athena, and I got to pretend to be guiding Odysseus to blind the Cyclops, who was played by the headmaster.
FRAYER: So when you started working on this project, did your mind go back to that 8-year-old girl in a toga in the classroom?
WILSON: It's - I mean, I think "The Odyssey" itself is very much interested in whether somebody, specifically Odysseus, can be the same person over time and space, whether the Odysseus that was in Ithaca 20 years before can be the same Odysseus who's back in Ithaca 20 years later. So I definitely thought about that in relation to my own life and also in relation to how the poem is figuring time and how identity might either change or not change when you're in a different place with different people and you're 20 or 40 years older.
FRAYER: Let's go to the text. In case our listeners didn't do well in their high school tests or simply don't remember, the plot of "The Odyssey" is actually right there in the first stanza. Here's what I read in high school. It's the Robert Fagles translation. (Reading) Sing to me of the man, muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.
And, Emily, I wonder if in contrast you could read the first lines of your version there.
WILSON: Sure. So this is my version. "Book One - The Boy And The Goddess." (Reading) 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.
FRAYER: You're a much better dramatist than I am.
WILSON: I ham it up.
FRAYER: You read it better. This is plain, contemporary language. This is not intimidating for the layperson. Can you explain how you translated those opening lines of "The Odyssey?"
WILSON: So - I mean, I spent many, many, many days and hours and weeks rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I didn't sort of instantly have the muse speak to me how I should translate it. So I went through many different ways of doing it, but I - what I wanted to do was have something of what I see in the original, which is a crystalline clarity. Even though some of the words are difficult vocabulary - would have been difficult vocabulary for a classical or 5th-century Greek, the syntax is very, very clear. And it's - so I felt that I didn't want to use an English, which would have an unclear kind of syntax. I wanted to have a sense of the muse can speak directly to the people. And I felt that - but combined with that I wanted it to have a sense of artifice because, I mean, I hope that the listeners can hear my version as iambic pentameter. And it also has a speed which matches the speed of the original because I use the same number of lines as the original.
FRAYER: One thing that people might remember from the text are called Homeric epithets - wine-dark sea, rosy-fingered dawn. How did you approach these sort of beloved parts of "The Odyssey?"
WILSON: I wanted readers to have a very clear sense that there is a formulaic-ness (ph) to the storytelling, that when the dawn comes, she's always going to have rosy or floral fingers. There's going to be a repeated way that when somebody gets dressed or when somebody eats a meal, it's always going to happen in the same sort of way. But I also wanted to be truthful about the fact that we are literate people. We're not actually living in a pre-literate society. So when we encounter exact repetition as opposed to partial repetition, we tend to zone out and think that's a cliche coming out, I'm going to skip. So I wanted to include the formulaic elements but vary them in different ways. So for instance, Odysseus has multiple different epithets applied to him. He's both polytlas, polymechanos, polymetis, that he's many-minded, much turning of many stratagems, much daring, much enduring - all these things do with muchness. And I deal with them in different ways in each instance. So I bring out the multiplicity by a variety of word choice as well as by the formulaic-ness of repeating. There's going to be something attached to him every time his name comes up.
FRAYER: There are themes in "The Odyssey" - slavery, war, marriage - that we read differently now than centuries ago. Your translation calls a slave a slave, not a maid or a housekeeper. Are you trying to be closest to the original meaning or to how we understand those topics now in modern life?
WILSON: I want my readers, or Homer's readers who are also my readers, to have an awareness of the interesting relationship between now and then in reading this text. So, I mean, you say slavery as a theme in "The Odyssey." I honestly don't think any reader of Robert Fagles' translation would say that because the word slave doesn't come up, you know.
FRAYER: It's gone, yeah.
WILSON: It's gone - it's not gone because it was never there in his translation. In the Greek, for instance, the word dimoa (ph) or dimoas (ph) it means somebody who's been subdued or overpowered. And so it clearly suggests slave and the characters who are labeled in that way, at least two of them have narratives about how did they come to be here, which makes it very clear they've been trafficked and sold as slaves. And most translations completely obscure that by making them housekeepers, servants of different kinds. So I wanted people to be able to see what exactly are the social structures in this poem and then whether or not you want to say does the poem have the same attitude to those social structures that we have.
FRAYER: Why do you think we should reread or read for the first time "The Odyssey" now? Is there something particularly relevant about this man's journey at this moment, something about - I don't know - searching to find your home and what that means?
WILSON: Yes. I think that - the sense that this is a poem about identity and belonging and also about Odysseus' choice to - so it's a poem about nostos, which is the Greek word for homecoming. And I think the poem is sort of smart about making homecoming a question rather than a pre-determined we know what home is, we know what it is to be in your own place and to be yourself. Odysseus comes home geographically to Ithaca halfway through the poem, but he isn't - the nostos isn't complete. He isn't yet home. There's still another 12 books to go because homecoming also involves reforging all his relationships with all the people who matter and also killing the people who he figures as having taken over his proper place. So this whole question of whether one person's belonging means the exclusion of other people or whether we can have an inclusive or an exclusive notion of what a home is, I think that's a super important question right now, and it's super important in the poem.
And then just beyond that, the things we've talked about in terms of social roles, gender, different kinds of conservatism and about whether we should be looking to be the same as we always were in the way that Odysseus is - I think it's also a poem, which is really interesting, about poverty and social hierarchies even beyond slavery and about how we should treat foreigners and those whose cultures are different from ours in a increasingly globalized society. And I guess just one final thing is just this is a poem whose climax is a huge massacre with a special kind of weapon in a domestic space. And of course, we're all thinking right now about domestic massacres as well.
FRAYER: You've just given us the year in review in news...
WILSON: (Laughter) Yes, there you go. Yes, that's what it was.
FRAYER: ...As well as a 3,000-year-old epic poem.
WILSON: (Laughter) Yes.
FRAYER: Emily Wilson - classics professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the first woman to translate Homer's "Odyssey" into English. Thank you so much for being with us.
WILSON: Thank you.
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