Emily Wilson is the first woman to have published an English translation of Homer’s Odyssey and it is an exquisite piece of work. Before reading it, I had already read several of her twitter threads about the translation process. She discusses some of the challenges she faced during the translati on process and examines the choices that different English translators made in their versions. In these threads, she often brings to light the misogyny that runs through the previous translations by men. I’ve wanted to read this translation since its publication in 2017, so when The Silence of the Girls put me in the mood for some Homer I knew the time had come to re-read this epic tale.
The Odyssey is set after the Trojan War has taken place and follows the Greek soldier Odysseus on his adventurous return home to Ithaca. The Trojan War lasted for ten years. It takes Odysseus another ten to return home to his wife and son. Odysseus angered the god Poseidon, who punishes him by filling his journey with danger and treacherous obstacles. Meanwhile, back in Ithaca, Odysseus’ wife Penelope has had her house overrun with suitors who, believing Odysseus to be dead, are pressuring her to choose one of them as her husband. Penelope faces her own battles as she struggles to keep the suitors at bay and longs for her husband to return.
Wilson’s translation was a joy to read. Written in iambic pentameter, it flows beautifully and I was able to fall into the story without ever stumbling over a passage. Wilson’s introduction and translator’s note gave me a greater appreciation of what she wanted to accomplish with this work. I would recommend reading them before diving into the poem. The choices that she made during the translation process are fascinating to read about and it also gives you some context about how Homer’s work has been treated in the past. If you have been put off reading The Odyssey because of its length or complexity, I would recommend this translation.
I enjoyed The Odyssey more with this read than I did when I read it for the first time six years ago, but it still does not compare to my love of The Iliad. The first half of the book was the highlight of the poem for me. It is filled with adventure, different lands, goddesses, nymphs, monsters and the dead. Odysseus and his crew face the sea monster, Scylla. Circe transforms Odysseus’ men into pigs. They meet the Cyclopes and the famous “Nobody” scene plays out. Odysseus enters the Land of the Dead and speaks with several souls, including those of his mother, Agamemnona and Achilles. It’s a wonderful assortment of a myriad of myths. I was captivated by Odysseus’ story.
I was less charmed by the second half of the poem, once Odysseus has returned to Ithaca. He returns home much earlier than I remembered and that means that much of the poem is about Odysseus in disguise, hiding from his wife. He tells a different lie about his identity to every person he meets and these tangents wore on me a little. I did not care for his made-up stories. I appreciate that spinning tales is a key aspect of his personality, but it doesn’t appeal to me. If the poem dedicated more time to his travels and less to his deceptions in Ithaca perhaps I would have enjoyed it more. But who am I to argue with how Homer wanted this story to be told?
Deciding to re-read The Odyssey was an excellent decision and I am pleased that I could appreciate it more this time. It will never be able to compete with The Iliad as far as I am concerned, but that’s okay. In a similar vein as Achilles in The Iliad, Odysseus is not a likeable character, but he is a fascinating one. The story is filled with adventures that we will never experience, but the longing for home makes the story universally relatable. The outstanding feature for me was Wilson’s translation, her introduction, and her note. If you choose to read The Odyssey, read this translation. You won’t regret it.