Why has it taken 3,000 years for a woman to translate Homer's Odyssey into English?

November 8, 2017
Why has it taken 3,000 years for a woman to translate Homer's Odyssey into English?

One of the most famous examples of Western classical literature, Homer’s Odyssey dates back to the 8th century BC. That makes it the second oldest literary work that Western society possesses, with only Homer’s Iliad pre-dating it. So why is it that the first English version from a female translator has only just been published?

The Odyssey around the world

Professional translation of The Odyssey is nothing new. Scholars have been studying it for centuries, during which time it has been presented in multiple languages and inspired eccentric rewrites, stunning paintings and dramatic operatic performances. 

Translations by women have not been lacking overseas. Anne Dacier published her French version of The Odyssey in 1708. Meanwhile, over in Italy, Rosa Calzecchi Onesti’s translation is one of the most widely used in schools. Yet despite there being more than 60 English language versions of The Odyssey, until recently all translations had been undertaken by men. 

A fresh perspective

Now, Emily Wilson, professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, has published her own translation of Homer’s classic tale. The move is a significant one. Literary translation cannot help but take on an element of the translator’s personality. Ask two translators to translate the same novel and the versions will never be exactly the same. As such, while translations remain loyal to the original text, it is significant that the English-speaking literary world has finally been gifted with a female take on The Odyssey. While this doesn’t change the original text, it can present it in a new light, after centuries of male interpretation. 

An example is Helen of Troy’s recollection of the start of the Trojan war in book four of the poem. Over the years, Helen has been translated as referring to herself as dog-eyed, impudent and even the “shameless whore that I am” (in Robert Fagles’ 1990s translation). However, Wilson’s sympathetic interpretation of the Greek word kunopis presents us with an alternative: “They made my face the cause that hounded them.”

Wilson releases us from the male-dominated interpretation of the world that Homer captured so long ago. Being female doesn’t make her version any more accurate than that of any other scholar, but it does finally provide a fresh perspective that English-speaking readers of The Odyssey have been denied for so long. 

Equality in translation?

It is often assumed that female translators have equal career opportunities to their male counterparts. After all, the job is about linguistic ability and, with so many freelancers working in the translation industry, individuals can set their rates of pay irrespective of gender. 

However, such assumptions may not be reflective of reality. The Freelancers Union has found that male freelancers are 4.5 times more likely to earn more than $150,000 per year than female freelancers. It would perhaps be naïve, then, to assume that no gender pay gap existed in the provision of professional translation services!

Perhaps that is another reason why Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey is so important. Not only does it present a new perspective on an established classic, but it may also pave the way for inspiring more female translators to challenge areas of translation that have traditionally been dominated by their male counterparts. 

In many ways, the translation industry is one of equal opportunities. The balance of genders of those translators nominated for the Man Booker International Prize each year shows us that. However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t make the sector even better by addressing those areas where women have traditionally played no role, as Wilson has reminded us in such spectacular fashion.

Final thoughts

Have you read Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey? How has she challenged established wisdom with her fresh take on it? Share your thoughts via the comments.