Most scholars believe that The Odyssey was written near the end of the 8th century, though it wasn’t translated into English until the early 1600’s. It’s only taken sixty translations into English and another four hundred years for it to finally be translated by a woman.
Emily Wilson, a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, is that woman. The Odyssey has long been of interest to her. She first heard the story when she took on the role of Athena in a school play adapted from the story. When she was in high school, she started studying Greek and was able to read classical texts firsthand. Translating The Odyssey was a passion project for her long before she realized that she was the first woman to do so. In an interview with Bustle, she explained, “I wanted to do a translation that was going to have its own kind of music and have a regular meter, which most of the current translations don’t have.”
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Of course, that doesn’t mean that she didn’t take her role as the first woman to translate the text seriously. While The Odyssey primarily follows Odysseus, the story is full of female characters including goddesses, witches, princesses, slave girls, and even Odysseus’s own wife. According to Wilson, they don’t always put up with men’s double-standards. The goddess Calypso, for example, gets in trouble for keeping Odysseus as a lover, but Zeus gets away with this all the time, so Calypso calls him out on it. “I love that the poem is able to at least have that moment where a female character is totally powerful and totally able to say, ‘There’s a problem here, with how we’re doing this,'” Wilson said.
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Still, while some of the most powerful goddesses and monsters in the epic are female, Wilson did not shy away from including the inherent sexism from the original. Take, for instance, when Odysseus returns home and orders all the slave women who had sex with his wife’s suitors be killed. These women don’t personally pose a threat to Odysseus, but rather than let them live and unwittingly remind him of how he almost lost his wife and his kingdom, he wants them dead.
Wilson believes that as a female translator, she is more uncomfortable with the text than previous translators, but she appreciates this fact and hopes that readers will be equally uncomfortable with the inequalities presented in the book. According to Vox, she wanted to make these aspects of the story more visible instead of glossing over them. Ultimately, her translation is meant to be a reflection of how far we’ve progressed in the centuries since the original was written down, but also a reflection of how much things have stayed the same.
Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is available now, and you can find it on Amazon here.
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