This hypermasculine epic poem might be a startling selection for Women’s Month, but I chose it for the translation. Published in 2017, it is the first translation by a woman since the earliest of the sixty available English translations appeared in 1615!
I grew up with these tales. My maternal Lola was an English and Literature teacher who randomly inserted Odysseus and Greek mythological figures in bedtime stories and conversations as if they were old acquaintances. And so, even with the present-day debate on whether people should continue to read something so sexist by 21st Century standards, The Odyssey remains to have sentimental value to me. In fact, some of my favorite poems are “Ithaka” by Cavafy and “Ulysses” by Tennyson.
But I have to admit that it was only through reading Emily Wilson’s translation that I thoroughly felt a connection with the epic poem. Her language is accessible but she does not sacrifice beauty.
The introduction takes up almost a fifth of the entire book and has maps especially drawn for this volume, informative etymology, and a historical background of the Bronze Age that bids the reader to examine the context that is vastly different from our own. For the first time, I recognize Odysseus for the problematic character that he truly is, and for the first time, I am able to view Helen of Troy in a different and slightly better light — the translator ensuring that she, “like that of the original, refrains from blaming herself for what men have done in her name.” This is not a feminist version but it does not gloss over character defects and instead allows the reader to “see the cracks and fissures in its constructed fantasy.”
Despite what contemporary readers might think, we cannot deny its impact on the history of literature. It has not survived three millennia for nothing. But if there is an edition of The Odyssey a reader of our age should read and keep, I believe it should be this one. As much as it is a timeless celebration of adventure and the longing for home, this translation is most definitely a celebration of Woman.