Emily Wilson’s New Translation of Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’
Homer’s The Odyssey is a classic that is read globally. Throughout its history of existence, it has been passed down orally and then transcribed and translated into many languages. And for every language it has been translated into, there is no one singular version that trumps above all. Especially in English, there are multiple translations that skew the same story into different interpretations. By using different literary techniques for their translations, Robert Fagles and Emily Wilson each impose different perspectives onto the adventure, changing the overall sense, mood, and emphasis of the passages. Fagles, in his translation, focuses on the immense vocabulary of adjectives and verbs to chronicle the great Odysseus’s battle home while Wilson’s translation brings the text alive with short, straightforward lines to emphasizing the vulnerability of men and women alike.
Just from the start of the epic, the calling upon the Muse is different in each translator’s diction and choice of lines. Fagles’s invocation of the Muse starts out by putting emphasis on the Muse being a subordinate, a minor goddess, under Zeus: “Launch out on this story, Muse, daughter of Zeus / Start from where you will—sing for our time too” (Fagles). He does not call the Muse a goddess like Wilson does: “Now goddess, child of Zeus / Tell the old story for our modern times / Find the beginning,” which may be attributed to the fact that he is male (Wilson). Another disparity between the translations is that Fagles chooses to use “our time” while Wilson translates the poem into “our modern time.” This addition of “modern” into the translation may seem like a small difference, but it depicts Wilson’s overall goal of trying to rewrite the story that applies more to modern beliefs. In this sense, Wilson places not only the main focus on Odysseus, but also the women in the book, especially Penelope, who fights to keep her home. She gives the story a modern perspective and returns the dignities that women in the story deserve.
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Fagles calls upon the Muse to “start from where [she] will” while Wilson requests the Muse to “find the beginning.” However, Wilson is not only invoking the Muse to begin the story, but also using this phrase as an invitation for the audience, the readers, to find their beginnings, even if the readers are lost among the older, more confusing translations of the epic. She tries to speak to the readers on a personal level that makes the epic much more readable, intimate, and applicable to modern life.
The difference between each translator’s text starts even before calling upon the Muse, as was done by antiquity orators. Instead of keeping the original Greek poem’s length, Fagles extends each line, adding upon words to make up for the extensive descriptions of Odysseus’s journey. Wilson stays to a strict iambic pentameter, which results in a sparse but simple translation, matching each line of Greek to each line of English. For example, her second stanza, “All the other … back at home,” is 11 lines, just like how it originally is in Greek, as compared to Fagles’s 13 lines (Wilson).
In describing Odysseus, Fagles starts with a phrase, characterizing him as a “man of twists and turns” while Wilson just uses a singular word, “complicated.” Although both point to similar meanings, Wilson’s vocabulary has a slightly negative connotation, which brings out the hero’s ambiguity. She does not succumb to the temptation to reinforce Odysseus’s position as a stoic and remarkable hero. This multifaceted word captures Odysseus’s qualities all in one as he can be considered as cunning, loving, righteous, and merciless.
Fagles starts by placing an emphasis on Odysseus’s heroic acts in the first stanza through his manipulation of diction and syntax. When talking about leading his men into disasters, Fagles does not put the fault and blame onto Odysseus. Instead, he says that there was nothing Odysseus could do to save his men: “But he could not save them from disaster” (Fagles). In contrast, Wilson’s translation is more straightforward and places the responsibility wholly on Odysseus’s shoulders: “He failed to keep [his men] safe” (Wilson). This setting of the mood already relays each translator’s differing emphases of the epic. At first glance, Fagles’s translation seems to assert that all the faults were caused by the gods. But for a orator to do that in antiquity would be disrespectful to the gods, so it may be assumed that the blame for Odysseus’s misfortune is placed on the Fates, who even the gods cannot control. Fagles chooses words such as “suffered,” “wandered,” “lost,” and the phrase “worked to save his life and bring his men back home” to argue that Odysseus was helpless to the tricks of the Fates.
This evading of fault continues in Fagles’s translation continues into the second stanza. Fagles molds Odysseus into a hero character through the phrase, “But one man alone… / his heart set on his wife and return” (Fagles). By emphasizing the point that he trying to accomplish a goal, ultimately a woman, at the beginning of the stanza, the mood is set as an epic chronicling this man’s journey back home to his wife. He then uses negative diction to describe Calypso, a goddess that has trapped Odysseus. Although this negativity should apply to Calypso because she may indeed be considered a bad character blocking his path back home, Fagles’s sudden contrasting words such as “bewitching,” “lustrous,” and “craving” only further emphasizes the negativity surrounding the role of most women in his translation. Wilson’s translation is much more tame than Fagles’s, just describing Calypso as “a great goddess” that trapped him in her cave. This simple and straightforward translation serves to capture the reader without overloading the story with too many descriptive adjectives as in Fagles’s case. Wilson chooses this method to return to antiquity methods. In order to keep the crowd engaged, the orator would have to create a sense of eagerness in the audience, and this clean phrasing Wilson adopts sets a much faster pace for the story, keeping the reader in check.
Although Fagles’s translation includes more original details from the original Greek poem, the text does not flow smoothly and does not sound like what an orator would say. His third stanza, exceeding the original poem by three lines, has a choppy and complicated description of the Ethiopians. Where Wilson just describes the place where the Ethiopians live as between the sunset and dawn, Fagles includes an extensive description of the sunset and dawn as the sun god setting and rising. This unnecessary clarification just serves to make the audience less engaged as the story drags on at a slow pace.
Fagles’s translation also refers to Atreus’s son Agamemnon as Atrides instead of directly calling him like Wilson does in her poem. If a reader was not educated beforehand about this preceding story, they could have assumed Atrides referred to Menelaus, another son of Atreus. This inaccuracy could impede the audience to wonder which son Fagles is referring to, contributing to the choppiness of his text. Only later in the stanza does Fagles clarify it was Agamemnon’s wife, Clytemnestra, that was taken by Aegisthus. Wilson also adds onto Clytemnestra’s character by calling her the “legal wife of Agamemnon,” which is omitted in Fagles’s translation. Wilson’s intentions are again revealed her as she gives Clytemnestra a sort of respectability while Fagles just refers to her plainly as “Atrides’ wife.” In this same stanza, Fagles mentions that Aegisthus’s heart is hardened as he does not listen to the gods. This can compare to the Bible’s story where the pharaoh’s heart was hardened by God each time a plague appeared. By hinting at this connection, Fagles suggests that Aegisthus’s death was intended by the gods.
She portrays this hero as a sort of helpless character that is trapped and alone, with no one to help him. Wilson also endows more power as does Fagles in her description of Calypso as she calls her the “daughter of fearful Atlas” as contrasted to Fagles’s plain “daughter of Atlas.” While Fagles continues to try to mold Odysseus into a heroic character that would rather die than to stay with Calypso, Wilson captures a fragile image of Odysseus just longing to see “the smoke that rises from his own homeland” (Wilson). By doing this, she rebuffs an idealist Homeric society where men were the strongest and Odysseus the perfect hero.
Wilson, in her translation seeks to restore the strong images that were meant for the female characters in the story by also pointing out obvious flaws in the male characters, especially Odysseus. She does not mold Odysseus into a perfect cunning hero like Fagles often does with his elaborate descriptions, but uses simplicity to allow The Odyssey apply on a universal level. By rejecting the usage of intricate, complex words, she nods back to antiquity, where orators would often engage in long poems to the general public, consisting of people ranging from children to educated adults. She seeks to make the epic more enjoyable for modern times, as mentioned in her translation near the beginning. Although previous translations were also different as compared to each other, Wilson’s translation is most bold in her choice of directness. She chooses to uncover the frailty of the men in The Odyssey while giving a more accurate portrayal of women, especially Penelope and Athena. Her goal is not to turn the epic into some feminist journey, but to expose the morals and values during that time, comparing it and applying it to our modern time.