Literature is a door into different worlds, and to read is to step into different selves. The importance of literature cannot be understated. Not only does it allow one to explore different perspectives, cultures, and places; it is also a tool used to look at the world critically. At the very least, it is a useful means of escapism.

The Odyssey is a piece of literature that fulfils all of these functions. The poem, traditionally attributed to Homer, follows the story of the Greek king Odysseus’s return to his wife in Ithaca after the Trojan War. The second oldest poem in the Western tradition, the Odyssey was first translated into English from Greek in 1615 by George Chapman. Since then, there have been around sixty English translations of the Odyssey. Still, it was only in 2017 that the first English translation of the poem by a woman was produced – by Dr Emily Wilson.

While the Odyssey is about Odysseus, it is just as much about other people: his wife Penelope, the witch Circe, Calypso the nymph, and the many slaves that are often never named. Wilson’s translation explores the lives of these surrounding characters as well. This is not the only difference between her translation and that of her predecessors. For one, Wilson’s translation emphasises some of the inequalities between the characters that previous translations have glossed over. For example, Wilson uses the term ‘slave’ where previous translations would use ‘maid’, ‘domestic servant’ or a more specific term. In this subtle way, Wilson includes unnamed slaves in the narrative where they have
previously been ignored. Wilson writes, “The need to acknowledge the fact and the horror of slavery and to mark the fact that the ideali[s]ed 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”.

Wilson also breaks the modern beauty standards that previous translations had imposed on the descriptions of various characters. At one point in the narrative, Penelope unlocks a storeroom of Odysseus’s weapons. Here, the original Greek describes her hand as “thick”. In the past, translators have ignored the adjective or replaced the description with a more palatable “steady hand”. Wilson instead describes her hand as “muscular” and “firm” to highlight Penelope’s physical strengths.

Wilson writes that the Odyssey provides a “defence of a male dominated society, a defence of its own hero and his triumph over everybody else but it also seems to provide these avenues for reali[s]ing what’s so horrible about this narrative, what’s missing about this narrative”. Through her contemporary style of writing, concern for the supporting characters in the poem, and careful use of language, Wilson translates the original in a way in which modern audiences can more accurately contextualise the narrative in a framework of their own understanding.

Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey garnered a lot of attention as well as criticism. It was accused of having strayed too far from the original text and turning the original into a “feminist reading”. These conflicting responses beg the question: what makes a good translation and should the translator’s gender affect the interpretation of a text?

At every turn, a translator has countless options to choose from that would stay true to the original text. In fact, in an interview with New York Times magazine, Wilson shared that she had considered writing the first line of the Odyssey as “Tell me about a straying husband”. This translation was completely viable, but would seem radical in comparison to previous translations. While Wilson was criticised for possibly tainting the translation as a result of her “woman’s perspective”, it could just as easily be said that previous translators had, as a result of their “male perspective”, ignored the nuance surrounding the poem’s female characters. It is impossible to define a good translation. For some, it is important that the translation is as close as possible to the original in linguistic terms, while others believe that the translated text should mimic the style of the original.

In any case, as is the case with literature, diversity is important. It is not only what is said that is important, but who it is said by. It is important that there is an abundance of perspectives, and that literature is accessible to, and representative of, all. If Wilson’s translation allows for the Odyssey to be accessible because of its contemporary language and relevant contextualisation, it is proof that there is much to be found in translation.


PDBY is the official student newspaper of the University of Pretoria.
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