Homer’s Odyssey, probably composed around 700BC, is one of the oldest poems in the western tradition, with a concomitantly long history of translation. The first into Latin was in the third century BC by a slave called Livius Andronicus. The first into English was by George Chapman in 1614-15; there have been at least 60 others. Now comes the first by a woman.
Emily Wilson’s crisp and musical version is a cultural landmark. Armed with a sharp, scholarly rigour, she has produced a translation that exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem. (Wilson studied classics at Balliol College, Oxford – as, full disclosure, did I – and is now a professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania.) She has also written a work of limpid, fast-moving verse, in English epic’s home metre of iambic pentameter. This translation will change the way the poem is read in English. When Keats first looked into Chapman’s Homer, he felt like “some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken”. So it is with Wilson’s Odyssey.
Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.
Wilson has written a work of limpid, fast-moving verse. This translation will change the way the poem is read in English
The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
Suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
And weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
A luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
And scented cypress.