Beinecke Library hosts Emily Wilson, translator of the “Odyssey”
Translator of the “Odyssey” reads from her current work and discusses the art of translation.
Courtesy of the Beinecke Library
On Wednesday, translator Emily Wilson GRD ’01 delivered the 2020 edition of the Mark Strand Memorial Reading, where she read from her in-progress translations of Homer’s “Iliad” and Sophocles’ “Oedipus Tyrannus” on a Zoom webinar.
The Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library hosts the Mark Strand Memorial Reading Series and invites accomplished American poets to read their work.
Wilson, who is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, was celebrated for her vivid and lyrical 2017 translation of the “Odyssey.” Although there are over 60 translations of the “Odyssey,” Wilson was the first woman to translate the epic poem into English. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019 and a Guggenheim Fellow in 2020, and she is currently a judge for the 2020 Booker Prize.
In an interview with the News, Wilson expounded on the value of new translations.
“Some retellings are newer than others, will be more fresh than others,” Wilson said. “There are some ways of looking that are visible in one culture that aren’t going to be visible in another culture. As our culture changes, we can see different things in looking at these very alien cultures in ancient Greece and ancient Rome.”
Wilson is known for her lyrical language and poetic sensibility in her translation of the “Odyssey,” which, along with her in-progress “Iliad,” use iambic pentameter. The poetic rhythm sets Wilson’s translation apart from many others — there is a tendency among other scholars to translate metrical verse into English that is not metrical, Wilson explained.
The virtual reading was followed by a discussion with Emily Greenwood, professor of classics and African American studies.
Greenwood asked Wilson about her depiction of Demeter — the Greek goddess of the harvest and agriculture — in Book 5 of the “Odyssey.” Wilson’s translation describes Demeter with “cornrows in her hair.”
“It’s great if the reader can be reminded not to think of a goddess as necessarily white,” Wilson told the virtual audience. “Whiteness is a modern construct. If the reader does go there, I hope that it will be a productive journey to unpick potential assumptions about race and ethnicity in the ancient world and not project whiteness back onto this poem.”
In the discipline of translation, writers can convey meaning even at the level of a single word. In her ongoing work on the “Iliad,” Wilson is contemplating using the word “superhero” — a word that does not exist in ancient Greek — to describe the protagonist, Achilles.
Wilson described her process of translation to the News.
“My translation is going to be in a hundred percent different words, a hundred percent different sounds, but I want to do something that’s in some way analogous to whatever the original’s doing, both in semantics but also emotion and sound as well, and different voices,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is on the syllabus for Yale’s Directed Studies program, which offers first-year students the opportunity to engage in interdisciplinary study in the philosophy, literature and historical and political thought of Western civilization and Near Eastern cultures.
Katja Lindskog, director of undergraduate studies for Directed Studies, shared her impressions of Wilson’s reading in an email to the News. According to Lindskog, Wilson’s reading from the “Iliad” “really gives a flavor of what is exciting about translation” — particularly that there is a new interpretation, rather than just a new version, of the text.
Lindskog praised Wilson’s translations because, according to her, they are reflective of the current time and place.
“There has been a sense in past 20th century North American translations, perhaps, that they claim to be universal in their appeal or interpretative reach. And Wilson, I think, makes it very clear that she does not claim to speak for all times and places, but she’s producing a translation which is appropriate for our era.”
Additionally, Lindskog told the News that she hopes that Wilson’s reading allows DS students to recognize translation as an ongoing process and conversation.
She added that it also reminds students that works like the “Iliad” should be performed rather than just read.
“Wilson mentioned in the talk that she isn’t looking to supplant other translators,” Lindskog said. “Since her translations might be the only versions of these texts that people might read during their time in college, it’s important for students to be exposed to the process of translating, rather than just the finished product in their books.”
Elijah Boles ’24 recently read Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” in Directed Studies. He found the translation “terse and to the point” and felt that Wilson’s perspective allowed the reader to “examine with a little bit more of a critical lens some of the inherent flaws of these oh-so-revered characters in ancient Greek literature.”
A recording of the event will be uploaded to the Beinecke Library YouTube channel late next week.
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