Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2017/11/04/emily-watsons-translation-of.html

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Typo in the headline @beschizza

I’m very fond of the Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood


I finally got through both the Odyssey and the Illiad thanks to Fagle’s terrific translations. Glad for another but – enjoyed them both – those are one-and-done for me.


I’m rubbish with names. I had to go and check that this was written by Hermione Granger from Harry Potter.


I would like it translated into Big Lebowski/ Sam Elliot prose!

I recently tried to tackle The Odyssey again and got bogged down with Fagles prose, though it does give it some classical grandeur.

My nephew was struggling with it as well. What helped me get into the rhythm of it was listening to Ian McKellan’s reading of it. You can find it on the u toob!


To be honest, that quoted translation above by Watson, while perfectly clear, lost some if its grandeur.


Wilson? <-> Watson?
I’m just finishing up the Illiad (Graves, Robert; not Peter) that I started in lieu of watching GoT this year. I will look for this.


Wilson’s reads like a Cliffs Notes version, to my ear. That’s probably good for students required to absorb the material, but I’d prefer to read Fagles given the choice. But of course, it raises the question whether Fagles is “dressing up” the original Homer to sound like the conventions of English epic poem solemnity that he and I are used to from an anglophone bias. Looking forward to reading the link.


Everyone seems to forget about Stanley Lombardo’s translation from a few years back–he did both the Iliad and the Odyssey. I found them much more entertaining and exciting than Fagles or Graves, and made the entire experience feel vital and fresh. Highly recommended (and hard to find in bookstores).


I read Robert Fagle’s Illiad and Odyssey when I was twelve; reading them was a big part of my life-long love with mythology. I didn’t find them dull or stodgy, I found them lyrical and beckoning. I will take “Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns”, over “Tell me of a complicated man”, which frankly sounds like the Simple English Wikipedia version of the text.


I have a nodding familiarity with Ancient Greek—just enough to advance a tentative position that everyone has to dress-up the original in one way or another. The conventions of Homeric poetry apply pretty much only to the language used: translating it directly would be… mm… sort of like Young’s literal translation of the Bible. Just… off.

That said, I happen to know[1] that Odysseus is described in the very first line as “πολύτροπον,” i.e. ‘polytropic’ if I may mangle it a bit. That means, literally ‘many-turned’ but, as a check in Middle-Liddell shows, it is used to mean ‘well-traveled’ as well as ‘shifty, wily, cunning,’ and ‘changing, complicated.’

I cannot think of a better way to translate all of it better than ‘a man of twists and turns.’

A ‘complicated man’ is a different translation which is, on the face of it, worse. It fails to encompass the cunning of Odysseus, for instance. On the other hand, it is much more direct and it’s not like the reader will read the poem and neglect to notice that Odysseus is cunning incarnate.

It’s a a knotty problem. Generally, when dealing with translations, having more is always better. None are perfect, but a multiplicity of them may just provide the perspectives needed to glimpse something of the original properly.

[1] My teacher of the classics, bless her, would be overjoyed. Thank you Dr. P, you efforts weren’t entirely in vain.

Absolutely! Sometimes I worry we mangle these things by reading them. They weren’t meant to be, historically. They were meant to be heard. And Ian McKellen is as fine a voice to put to it as ever.


respectfully disagree!

i’ve always thought of the fagles verse as stuffy and antiquating, over-relying on the meter which alienates it from modern English… closely read: “man of twists and turns” is such a muddy rendering and the meaning is too obscured—while “complicated man” is so much more stark in turn.


Translation is always a balancing act, and translating poetry is balancing atop a bowling ball while spinning plates on a stick. The translator needs to supply whatever plain meaning the text might deliver, along with some indications of the effects built on verse and intensified language–the “poetry” of poetry. To my ear, the sample of Wilson’s verse is a bit flat–the lines run to ten syllables but lack the punch and swing of, say, the blank verse of Shakespeare or Milton. Of course, contemporary notions of poetry run to the prosey, so there are readers for whom the ragged-right-margin layout is a stronger signal than the music of the lines. (Maybe an eye-versus-ear bias?)

There’s nothing wrong with prose or even prosey translations of narrative verse, particularly if what’s wanted is a clear picture of story–and getting out of the constraints of verse allows some wiggle-room when trying to get across something like a trickily-packed term such as the Greek “polytropos,” which the NYTimes interview with Wilson discusses in some detail. But Wilson chose to stay within a verse format, with its constraints, and “complicated” in contemporary English carries a set of associations that don’t quite match the sets of possibilities and ambiguities the Greek word does. (Assuming, that is, that the poem’s original audience heard in “polytropos” the same range of associations and implications that modern scholars have excavated from it.)

Because poetry is, um, complicated. As Wilson acknowledges in the interview.

It’s an ambitious project–I’ll be interested to see what my wife (who teaches classics in translation) thinks of it.


I’ve just read War Music by Christopher Logue,an account of the Illiad.Quite a viceral rendering.Loaded with anachronisms but took me into the brutality of the battles like none of the others did.

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In addition to the problems of translating between languages the history of the text itself gives me serious pause when reading any Homer: the Fagles translation Preface I know discusses some of this history (every translation these days probably sketches this out in some way).

Btw, last time I read the Odyssey (the Fagles), two things emerged for me: First, I enjoyed Odysseus as a man of constant invention, where even Athena, his patron, seems kind of boggled by his nonstop lying/spinning. That seems to me to be a hub of the narrative, keeping an audience hanging on to find out what he tries next.

But then the poem on this reading also seemed so particular to its time and place and culture that I wondered why Western culture once claimed universality for it (though I know Homer was also a huge deal in the ancient world)? The place and the people, and the way in which they lived seemed just shrunken to me into something so particular to that time and place (also, the fantastic elements did nothing for me this time around) that I wondered how anyone got started blowing it up beyond its confines. I love both poems for many reasons, and will probably reread them again, but this reading surprised me.


It’s awesome she did it. She’s in a position to do anything she wants with her time and this certainly is better than polo, but my problem with that excerpt is that it’s so stark it loses the essence of Odysseus. He’s not complicated – which to my ear suggests “It’s complicated” or post-modern angst – he is LITERALLY the man of twists and turns. A hero who both solves his problems and creates problems for himself by being clever.

Invoking the muse is also a quasi-religious thing. Not sure if it should be implied. But it’s an impossibly difficult task to begin with. Next time I’m feeling all Age of Bronze, I’ll give it look.


Just read Wyatt Mason’s interview with Wilson over at the NYT and this new Odyssey translation sounds incredible. Looking forward to reading it.

Carl Kruse

I really like the feel of that prose - direct, unadorned, fresh. I always felt like the odyssey would be a rather tiring read, in a format that just makes reading a pain - I’m not one for poetry, much less things written in meter, but this feels like something else entirely. Which might be a lot closer to the original, who knows?

Well, I’m just gonna steal the plots for my fantasy RPG stuff, anyway…


Well I have to endorse john dolan’s very recent translation of the Iliad. It is excellent:



Haha, that sounds like it could be delightful… or facepalm-inducing. What kind of style does he go for? Does he sound like an over-energetic bro? Or some kinda macho gun-toting maniac? Or just … what? I guess “war nerd” doesn’t conjure up anything particularly nice or nifty in my head.