My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I was so excited to read Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, the first full translation into English by a woman. I’d recently finished Caroline Alexander’s Iliad, the first translation of that work into English by a woman. Alexander’s was the best Iliad I’d ever read and I savored each line. She blew away translations I’d read from the 19th, 20th and 21st century. I have to say I wasn’t as enamored with Wilson’s edition of the Odyssey.
To be fair, a chunk of my unhappiness was that I really dislike Odysseus. If you asked me five or ten years ago, I’d have said the Iliad sucked and the Odyssey rocked. I’ve totally flipped and prefer the Iliad these days. I find Odysseus to be arrogant, selfish, vain, and ungrateful. Homer perhaps meant us to see Odysseus this way, and if he did, he succeeded. Of the 20 years he was away from Ithaca, he spent 10 at war in Troy, 8 years in bed with two different goddesses, and the other two years mouthing off and strutting around, often leading to his men being killed. My reaction to Odysseus reminds me of the TV series MASH. Larry Linville was an amazing actor for creating such a hated character as Frank Burns, I can’t like Burns, and by proxy, Linville. I should praise Linville for creating such a deep & real character. I should praise Homer for showing us how awful Odysseus is. And, therefore, I should praise Wilson for conveying Homer’s intent into English.
As for Wilson’s translation, her introduction was amazing. I loved that she gave the original Greek words for certain things, a definite help with my study of the language. I was so happy that she tracked her translation close to the original, line for line. It makes study and following along with an original text (and Latin translation) so much easier. Caroline Alexander did that too and I was forever grateful. As reviews of Wilson’s translation (and Alexander’s) noted, many translators have embellished the text, adding so much more than was actually there in the original epic. Some of that is male arrogance. Some is academic pomposity. Either way, it often slows the story down and complicates tracking with the original. Wilson’s Odyssey flowed smoothly and quickly. I welcome her approach.
Some of the choices she made I didn’t find so exciting. For example, her choosing to update the language to a more contemporary, colloquial tone. This reminded me of Stanley Lombardo’s recent translations of both of Homer’s epics. Wilson chose things like “pigheaded” for “boaster/big talker” in the original. She described Demeter “with the cornrows in her hair”. The original Greek meant godly locks or fair-tressed. That seemed a stretch for me. Now, these are translator choices and translation by definition is meant to reach out to a larger audience (i.e. those who can’t read the a text in its original language). I got hooked on Homer a long time ago, in translation, and the one I read fit for the time I read it. If I’d first encountered Alexander Pope’s or George Chapman’s translation, I would have politely did my class report and then moved on and never looked back. The translation I read worked for me. People encountering Homer for the first time today might want language that is different, that they can relate to. If it captures them, then they can move into all the varied versions in English since the early 1600s, and maybe explore further.
While word choices can be battled over by both sides with both sides being correct, one decision Wilson made that I can’t be happy with was her disposing of the repetitive epithets. These are phrases found in Homer that modify the name of people, deities or objects. “Rosy-fingered dawn”, “bright-eyed Athena”, etc. She said that these were due to it being an oral poem originally and that they weren’t necessary for a written work. I disagree. I find them useful to root the story and characters, giving something familiar to hook onto as you move through the work. “Comfort words”, if you will, like comfort food. Caroline Alexander kept them in and I loved them and didn’t feel like they were repetitive or slowed the flow of the story. Wilson changed the translations around, choosing alternative forms each time she came upon one. She changed “rosy-fingered Dawn” to “her fingers bright with flowers” and also “the early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.” Perhaps valid translations, but the “nickname” for these characters is something I remember and I like re-encountering it when I meet them.
So, as I was getting into the book, I was thinking 4 stars. That dropped to 3 stars through the bulk of it and when I finished, I initially chose 3 stars. I changed that a few seconds later to 2 stars. Goodreads rankings are roughly “Hated”, “Ok”, “Liked”, “Really Liked”, “Loved”. I’m torn. 2 is too low, 3 seems a teensy bit too high. But, I’ll go with my original gut feeling and choose 3 stars.
On a person note, I have to say that after Odysseus’s men kill the cattle of Helios, I wanted to become a full-time vegetarian: “It did no good; the cows were dead already. The gods sent signs–the hides began to twitch, the meat on skewers started mooing, raw and cooked” (Book XII: 391-394). Wow.