Emily Wilson has recently become the first female, after 60 male predecessors, to have a go at translating The Odyssey into English.
Wyatt Mason demonstrates that her new version has its points.
Throughout her translation of the â€œOdyssey,â€ Wilson has made small but, it turns out, radical changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are presented â€” â€œradicalâ€ in that, in 400 years of versions of the poem, no translator has made the kinds of alterations Wilson has, changes that go to truing a text that, as she says, has through translation accumulated distortions that affect the way even scholars who read Greek discuss the original. These changes seem, at each turn, to ask us to appreciate the gravity of the events that are unfolding, the human cost of differences of mind.
The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilsonâ€™s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with â€œmany a way/Wound with his wisdomâ€; John Ogilby counters with the terser â€œprudentâ€; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus â€œthe man.â€ Quite a range, and weâ€™ve barely started. Thereâ€™s Alexander Popeâ€™s â€œfor wisdomâ€™s various arts renownâ€™dâ€; William Cowperâ€™s â€œFor shrewdness famed/And genius versatileâ€; H.F. Caryâ€™s â€œcraftyâ€; William Sothebyâ€™s â€œby long experience triedâ€; Theodore Buckleyâ€™s â€œfull of resourcesâ€; Henry Alfordâ€™s â€œmuch-versedâ€; Philip Worsleyâ€™s â€œthat heroâ€; the Rev. John Gilesâ€™s â€œof many fortunesâ€; T.S. Norgateâ€™s â€œof many a turnâ€; George Musgraveâ€™s â€œtost to and fro by fateâ€; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Witherâ€™s â€œmany-sided-manâ€; George Edgingtonâ€™s â€œdeepâ€; William Cullen Bryantâ€™s â€œsagaciousâ€; Roscoe Monganâ€™s â€œskilled in expedientsâ€; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Langâ€™s â€œso ready at needâ€; Arthur Wayâ€™s â€œof craft-renownâ€; George Palmerâ€™s â€œadventurousâ€; William Morrisâ€™s â€œshiftyâ€; Samuel Butlerâ€™s â€œingeniousâ€; Henry Cotterillâ€™s â€œso wary and wiseâ€; Augustus Murrayâ€™s â€œof many devicesâ€; Francis Caulfeildâ€™s â€œrestlessâ€; Robert Hillerâ€™s â€œcleverâ€; Herbert Batesâ€™s â€œof many changesâ€; T.E. Lawrenceâ€™s â€œvarious-mindedâ€; William Henry Denham Rouseâ€™s â€œnever at a lossâ€; Richmond Lattimoreâ€™s â€œof many waysâ€; Robert Fitzgeraldâ€™s â€œskilled in all ways of contendingâ€; Albert Cookâ€™s â€œof many turnsâ€; Walter Shewringâ€™s â€œof wide-ranging spiritâ€; Allen Mandelbaumâ€™s â€œof many wilesâ€; Robert Faglesâ€™s â€œof twists and turnsâ€; all the way to Stanley Lombardoâ€™s â€œcunning.â€
Of the 60 or so answers to the polytropos question to date, the 36 given above couldnâ€™t be less uniform (the two dozen I omit repeat, with minor variations, earlier solutions); what unites them is that their translators largely ignore the ambiguity built into the word theyâ€™re translating. Most opt for straightforward assertions of Odysseusâ€™s nature, descriptions running from the positive (crafty, sagacious, versatile) to the negative (shifty, restless, cunning). Only Norgate (â€œof many a turnâ€) and Cook (â€œof many turnsâ€) preserve the Greek roots as Wilson describes them â€” poly (â€œmanyâ€), tropos (â€œturnâ€) â€” answers that, if you produced them as a student of classics, much of whose education is spent translating Greek and Latin and being marked correct or incorrect based on your knowledge of the dictionary definitions, would earn you an A. But to the modern English reader who does not know Greek, does â€œa man of many turnsâ€ suggest the doubleness of the original word â€” a man who is either supremely in control of his life or who has lost control of it? Of the existing translations, it seems to me that none get across to a reader without Greek the open question that, in fact, is the opening question of the â€œOdyssey,â€ one embedded in the fifth word in its first line: What sort of man is Odysseus?
â€˜I do think that gender matters. Iâ€™m not going to not say itâ€™s something Iâ€™m grappling with.â€™
â€œI wanted there to be a sense,â€ Wilson told me, that â€œmaybe there is something wrong with this guy. You want to have a sense of anxiety about this character, and that there are going to be layers we see unfolded. We donâ€™t quite know what the layers are yet. So I wanted the reader to be told: be on the lookout for a text thatâ€™s not going to be interpretively straightforward.â€
Here is how Wilsonâ€™s â€œOdysseyâ€ begins. Her fifth word is also her solution to the Greek poemâ€™s fifth word â€” to polytropos:
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 Godâ€™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.