The Odyssey Emily Wilson Translation

March 2021

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.

Lawrence Durrell: Prospero’s Cell

“Somewhere between Calabria and Corfu the blue really begins. All the way across Italy you find yourself moving through a landscape severely domesticated — each valley laid out after the architect’s pattern, brilliantly lighted, human. But once you strike out from the flat and desolate Calabrian mainland towards the sea, you are aware of a change in the heart of things: aware of the horizon beginning to stain at the rim of the world: aware of islands coming out of the darkness to meet you.

In the morning you wake to the taste of snow on the air, and climbing the companion-ladder, suddenly enter the penumbra of shadow cast by the Albanian mountains — each wearing its cracked crown of snow — desolate and repudiating stone.

A peninsula nipped off while red hot and allowed to cool into an antarctica of lava. You are aware not so much of a landscape coming to meet you invisibly over those blue miles of water as of a climate. You enter Greece as one might enter a dark crystal; the form of things becomes irregular, refracted. Mirages suddenly swallow islands, and wherever you look the trembling curtain of the atmosphere deceives.

Other countries may offer you discoveries in manners or lore or landscape; Greece offers you something harder — the discovery of yourself.”

And this is only the first page. This year has brought me to the most adventurous prose and most daring forms of the novel, but writing like Durrell’s feels like home.

This is that famous book about Corfu — “not a history but a poem” — where I, already envious of his way with words when he sings about its olives in the middle section, had to close the book and say, “That’s it. I am going to Corfu.”

But this is not merely about a place, but of an irredeemable time and innocent way of life at the brink of the Second World War that we can only relive through the music he makes with his words.

“History with her painful and unexpected changes cannot be made to pity or remember; that is our function.”