In autumn of 2017, University of Pennsylvania professor Emily Wilson received widespread praise for her groundbreaking translation of Homer’s “The Odyssey.”
Two years later, the 47-year-old British native has won a “genius grant” through the MacArthur Foundation Fellowship — earning $625,000 for her translation of one of the most prominent literary works in history.
Her work earned her features in The New York Times Magazine and received positive reviews in The New York Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, Time, Vox, and NPR, among other outlets.
Wilson also published an essay in The New Yorker about the desire of modern audiences to see women empowerment in “The Odyssey.”
“I love Homer, and I was excited about doing a translation because I felt I could do something different,” Wilson said. “I bring a gender awareness to this poem which is very much invested in, but also questioning of, androcentric values. I also wanted to bring out that it’s not just Odysseus’s story but the stories of a whole rich tapestry of characters.”
Since the 17th century, more than 60 scholars — all of them male — had translated “The Odyssey” into English. But Wilson bucked this trend in a major way.
After five years of working on the ancient text, she enters into a small group of ancient Greek translators to receive the prize since the MacArthur Foundation grants began in 1981.
But she hesitated to do it at first.
In the highly saturated field of English-language Homer translations, Wilson thought that hers would end up lost among the others.
“I thought maybe I shouldn’t do this because there are already so many,” she told The Philadelphia Inquirer in an interview.
Wilson said that she did not want to render a translation that was “more or less the same as the others.” So she decided to focus on the “poetic form” of “The Odyssey,” whose lines are written without any particular beat or musical stress.
Wilson wrote her translation in a poetic meter, something which other modern translators haven’t attempted.
By using the classic English iambic pentameter — lines of five, straightforward beats — she created her own distinct rendition of Homer’s work.
“I aimed for it to be very easily comprehensible and speakable,” she says. “I wanted people to be able to have an immersive reading experience and be absorbed in the characters and what’s going to happen next.”
The following excerpt is from her opening:
Tell me about a complicated man.Wilson’s translation of ‘The Odyssey’
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’s previously translated works include Euripides and Seneca. Her current project is Homer’s “Iliad,” which precedes “The Odyssey.”
The Guardian called Wilson’s Odyssey “a new cultural landmark.”
“I think because I’m living in, writing in, thinking in my particular cultural context, I’m able to see things in this old poem which maybe weren’t visible before, and I don’t think that’s about imposing something on it that isn’t there. It’s about bringing something out in it,” Wilson said.
Featured image / Thomas Loof, Document Journal
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