Professor revives epic poem

Emily Wilson, the first woman to ever translate “The Odyssey” into English, is set to lecture at Vassar this Thursday, Feb. 15, at 5:30 p.m./ Courtesy of Imogen Roch via Vassar College

“The Odyssey” is one of the best-known stories of all time; there’s no doubting that. But it might be hasty to call it the best-known book of all time. You’ve heard the story regardless of background or homeland. Centered in Greece, the story of “The Odyssey” has spread far away from the Western civilization that so happily claims it as its own. Indeed, the only thing to travel more than Odysseus is the story of “The Odyssey” itself.

This very fact calls for a pause of appreciation, one that should be followed by excitement, as the next step in this legendary journey is taking place right here at Vassar. There is no need to slaughter any goats for this celebration or bring out prized swords to give as gifts. This Thursday, Feb. 15, at 5:30 p.m., University of Pennsylvania Professor of Classics Emily Wilson will be giving a talk on her newly released translation of “The Odyssey.” Wilson will read from her translation and talk about the experience of translating this daunting classic.

Wilson is the first woman to ever translate “The Odyssey” into English. Regardless of whether or not we’ve read the translation, or are even familiar with “The Odyssey,” it is significant that we can all be here to celebrate a milestone like this on our campus. Case in point, I haven’t read this translation of “The Odyssey,” and I’m sure very few students have. However, a propensity for not doing the reading is something that all Vassar students have in common, and this event can serve as a valuable introduction to the world of Homer.

Wilson’s translation has garnered much acclaim in a short amount of time. The professor has made the cover of The New York Times Magazine, with the byline, “The Classicist Emily Wilson has given Homer’s epic a radically contemporary voice,” (The New York Times Magazine, “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ into English,” 11.02.17). A month later, The New York Times Book Review gave Wilson a favorable appraisal as well, stating that she boldly dares to match Homer line for line (The New York Times, “A Version of Homer That Dares to Match Him Line for Line,” 12.05.17).

What makes Wilson’s translation so noteworthy—enough for these reviews to frame her translation as a formidable combatant to Homer himself—is that it is one of the more distinctive translations to come out in quite some time. What makes Wilson’s translation stand out, in contrast to older ones, is its dedication to translating the original text line for line, and its strict adherence to iambic pentameter. What this means is that Wilson’s lines correspond exactly with the lines of the Greek original. This puts pressure on Wilson to act like Proteus and morph the language of the poem into a style suitable for English while still matching up with the original. Wilson’s translation is noteworthy not only because she is a woman, but also because she tackles the translation in such a creative manner. The talk at Vassar will see Wilson describing the her process.

There seems to be a great deal of stigma attached to the word “translation.” Literature, as a field, often has a toxic relationship with objectivity. This is a word that English majors tend to hate with a passion, but when the literature in question is a translation, English majors tear off their disguises and reveal their true identities as rational robots. One is able to see where this comes from—literature as an art form involves spending a great deal of time analyzing the words used by the creator. So it makes a certain amount of sense that you would want to read the original words and not play some weird game of telephone.

But nobody’s perfect, and no matter how many languages you know, there will always be a book in a language you don’t know––that is, always a need for translation. Even Dante Alighieri never read Homer in the original form of Greek that he utilized. But this itself leads to the problem that plagues literature classrooms everywhere: the need for a translation creates the need for the “right” translation.

The stigma attached to translations tends to dictate that they shouldn’t be considered for their own merits, but instead be judged according to how true they are to the original piece. This is the environment in which the one-eyed monster that is the “literal” translation rears its head. In relation to this, Wilson’s talk serves as a monument to a class offered last semester that worked to fight against this cyclops of accurate representation. The class was taught by both Professor Rachel Friedman of the Greek and Roman Studies Department and Professor Ronald Patkus from Special Collections. They set out with the goal of teaching “The Odyssey” in English slowly and through its various textual incarnations. As a capstone project, each student was assigned a different English version of “The Odyssey” and had to write about what set it apart from other English versions.

On display in the library are the many versions of “The Odyssey” that Vassar has in its collection, and above them are blurbs that these students wrote about the various editions. The students of this class will likely have a very rewarding experience of attending this talk, given their familiarity with English translations of “The Odyssey”; through this exhibit, Professors Friedman and Patkus have worked to help make this knowledge of English translation of “The Odyssey” common parlance.

When asked about what guided the study of English versions of “The Odyssey,” Professor Friedman indicated that these translations represents a wealth of built-up knowledge, ripe with areas of potential study. Friedman stated, “It’s not that often we get to study a text with such a long history.” At first glance, this statement appears quite obvious, but when taken with the fact that this class was concerned with English translations of the book, we realize that “The Odyssey” isn’t just a book with a long history, but one with many long histories.

What the exhibit hopes to elucidate for campus is the idea that every translation has merit in its own right, and that translations are should be considered subjective works of art just as much as the original pieces they translate. Indeed, if there is any keyword that can be used to define the class, the talk and the exhibit about Homer’s epic poem, it would be the word “translation,” considering that it comes from the Latin verb translatione, which means “to carry over.” Surprisingly, the Greek word from which English derives the word “metaphor” is an analogue for the Latin translatione: that is, translations and metaphors are literally and linguistically linked to each another.

To make the assumption that translations and translators are somehow removed from the creative process is to commit a cardinal sin of the arts— that of discarding a piece of art without due consideration; of judging something by its cover. Regarding the exhibition, Professor Friedman elucidates, “I hope it forces us to think in a way that the translation is figurative too.” The exhibit shows us why we shouldn’t think of Wilson’s talk as simply a lecture justifying her “radical” and challenging translation—as the New York Times’ articles would have us believe—but that we should see it as an artist giving us a window into her mind.

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