Traveling with the Classics: Emily Wilson’s The Odyssey

 

I first encountered the Odyssey like everyone else. This was not as a text that was written, a book that I sat down and read without any idea of Homer or the narrative. Rather, I came to it through popular culture, through reference, through the shared imagination of the world itself. It seemed familiar upon reading Emily Wilson’s newly released translation, or rather, it seemed like I had read it before or knew, somewhere in the depths of myself, what the epic meant and why it mattered. This time around it was like encountering a long lost relative.  So, what is it like to read it now? What is The Odyssey for the twenty first century?

From the outset, it must be said that Wilson’s version is superb. It is a wonderful translation that is readable, smart, wry, humorous, propulsive. It is exactly how the epic should be in our contemporary age. As you know, the narrative centres on the return home of Odysseus, a war hero, waylaid by gods. The character of Odysseus is a complex one, something that is there in the very first line, which states: “Tell me about a complicated man.”

Elsewhere, Wilson has written that the word ‘complicated’ was a highly conscious choice, stating:

I wanted there to be a sense that maybe there is something wrong with this guy. You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded. We don’t quite know what the layers are yet. So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text that’s not going to be interpretively straightforward.
[https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/magazine/the-first-woman-to-translate-the-odyssey-into-english.html]

This comes through in how Odysseus is cunning and often disguises himself (see chapter 13, line 291; chapter 21, line 274; chapter 24, line 426). This is something he shares with the gods who can change their appearance at will. This includes Athena, who is the most present one, a seer, a guide, a totemic figure throughout the epic. She comes across as a larger than life figure. She is a heroine who is the counterpoint and companion to the complicated man the work centres on.

They live in a world that is richly sensuous. It is a place of death, feasts, nature, meat, oceans, boats, wine, cloth. People spend time celebrating, drinking and eating, listening to music and poetry, hearing about Odysseus’ feats as he chooses to reveal part of his journey to be here. Although most of the narrative centres on his attempt to get back to his home, once he arrives it is no sure thing that he will be reconciled with his wife Penelope or that he can resume his rightful place atop his throne. There is bloodshed and fighting, but I will leave it to readers to make sense of the details of this.

The Odyssey is one of the foundations of Western civilisation, and a work of world literature. In Wilson’s translation, we come to know a fully-formed character and his travails and travels in a beautiful rendering. What it suggests to me is that the classics reward re-reading, that we can encounter something wholly familiar in such a way that it feels refreshed. I think one of the most remarkable achievements is that the voice of Homer comes through in a rhythmic flow that is accessible to English language readers who come from anywhere across the globe.

I am reminded of Italo Calvino when he wrote:

To read a great book for the first time in one’s maturity is an extraordinary pleasure, different from (though one cannot say greater or lesser than) the pleasure of having read it in one’s youth. Youth brings to reading, as to any other experience, a particular flavor and a particular sense of importance, whereas in maturity one appreciates (or ought to appreciate) many more details and levels and meanings.

The Odyssey gives us both pleasures at once. On the one hand, we know it before and on the other, in this translation, it is wholly new. There are pleasures here from the single line to the overarching narrative that keeps us coming back for more. Perhaps we should reflect once again on the first words Odysseus yells when he reveals himself to his enemies at home: “Playtime is over.” And in that, we know there is work to do as readers and writers, but also that we can take pleasure by renewing our faith in the greatest of epics thanks to Wilson’s own labour.

 

Emily Wilson. The Odyssey. New York: W.W. Norton, 2017.

Robert Wood is the author of two books and recently completed a residency at Columbia University. Find out more at: www.robertdwood.net

 

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