The first English translation of The Odysseia (or Odyssey) appeared around the year 1615. After several centuries and 60-odd English translations of the ancient Hellenic epic, Emily Wilson has made history as the first woman to ever tell the story of Odysseus and his arduous journey home in the English language. Her translation is apparently "lyrical, radically readable, and as politically relevant as ever."

Composed around the 8th century BC, the Odysseia is one of the oldest works of literature and tells the story of Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, as he tries to make his way home from the battlefields of the Trojan war. As a woman, Wilson believes she comes to the Odyssey with a different perspective than translators who have gone before her. In a recent essay at the Guardian she said:

"Female translators often stand at a critical distance when approaching authors who are not only male, but also deeply embedded in a canon that has for many centuries been imagined as belonging to men."

She called translating Homer as a woman an experience of “intimate alienation.” She calls herself uncomfortable with the text and part of her goal with the translation was to make readers uncomfortable too — with the fact that Odysseus owns slaves, and with the inequities in his marriage to Penelope. Making these aspects of the poem visible, rather than glossing over them makes it a more interesting text, according to Wilson. Wilson chose to use plain, relatively contemporary language in part to invite readers to respond more actively with the text.

"Impressive displays of rhetoric and linguistic force are a good way to seem important and invite a particular kind of admiration, but they tend to silence dissent and discourage deeper modes of engagement. There’s an idea that Homer has to sound heroic and ancient, but that idea comes with a value system attached, one that includes endorsing this very hierarchical kind of society as if that’s what heroism is."

While Wilson’s language is often plain, it’s also carefully chosen. The slaves in older translations of the Odysseia are often not identified as slaves at all. Wilson, by contrast, uses the word “slave.”

“It sort of stuns me when I look at other translations how much work seems to go into making slavery invisible. The need to acknowledge the fact and the horror of slavery, and to mark the fact that the idealized society depicted in the poem is one where slavery is shockingly taken for granted, seems to me to outweigh the need to specify, in every instance, the type of slave.”

Recent events have led to a widespread debate over how audiences should consume the work of people we know to be abusers of women. This is intertwined with the question of how we should consume art that has racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted elements. Wilson’s translation is not a feminist version of the Odysseia. It is a version of the Odysseia that lays bare the morals of its time and place, and invites us to consider how different they are from our own, and how similar.

"Part of fighting misogyny in the current world is having a really clear sense of what the structures of thought and the structures of society are that have enabled androcentrism in different cultures, including our own. The Odyssey, looked at in the right way, can help readers understand those structures more clearly. It offers a defense of a male dominant society, a defense of its own hero and his triumph over everybody else, but it also seems to provide these avenues for realizing what’s so horrible about this narrative, what’s missing about this narrative."

Wilson, a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, has also translated plays by the ancient Greek playwright Euripides and the Roman philosopher Seneca. An excerpt ran in the summer 2017 issue of the Paris Review.

I have not read the translation yet. I plan to, if only to see if my initial dislike after reading the full article will lessen if I do. Wilson is a professor of classical studies. I have to assume she isn't as clueless as to regard slavery in ancient Hellas in the same light as, say, slavery in the 18th and 19th century. I have written a long blog post about this and I won't go into it again, but her words irk me. The same is true when she speaks of Penelope, Odysseus' wife. The article states:

"Penelope is a frustrating character — it’s not entirely clear why she doesn’t simply send the suitors away or marry one of them, and the poem offers limited access to her thoughts and feelings. Wilson didn’t try to make Penelope easier to understand — “the opacity of Penelope,” as she puts it, is one of the aspects of the poem she wants to trouble readers and make them uncomfortable."

I have also written a long blog post about marriage in ancient Hellas and the roll of women in it. Penelope belongs to Odysseus. Until he either comes back or is confirmed dead, she is stuck in the limbo of a marriage to a missing husband. She cannot marry another man and as a woman in her husband's house, she cannot send these men away because of the commitment of xenia. This is basic understanding of the ancient Hellenic culture and I can't imagine Wilson doesn't know this. So why is Penelope's behavior uncomfortable to her (and why should it be to anyone else)?

I will withhold judgement until after I have read the translation. Has anyone read it? If so, could they tell me their thoughts? I'd be very interested in hearing it!