A Complicated Man

The labeling of Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey” as merely a feminist reading is problematic.

Reading Time: 7 minutes

“The Odyssey” is one of the most famous works of fiction ever written. An epic poem about Odysseus’s journey home, it has been translated into countless languages and has inspired 60 English translations. Though women had translated “The Odyssey” before, Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation marked its first adaptation into the English language by a woman.

Wilson is a professor of Classical Studies and the graduate chair of the Program in Comparative Literature and Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Her translation of “The Odyssey” is impressive in its simplicity. In the Translator’s Note section, she addresses that it is entirely un-Homeric to write in a stylistically pompous manner. Unlike previous translations, Wilson made sure that the number of lines in her translation is the same as the original to match the brisk pace of Homer’s oral tradition. While other translations are written in an elevated and archaic fashion, Wilson took a crisp and simple approach that contemporary readers find appealing.

Translations are representations of the original text, which can differ quite drastically from each other because the act of translating comes through interpretation, and interpretations are rooted in one’s experiences. Shortly before Wilson went off to college, her parents had divorced. As a kid, Wilson recalls the difficulty of naming her emotions. At home, nobody expressed how they felt or encouraged anyone else to say what they felt. If she was unhappy, all she could do was go to her room and cry silently.

“The Odyssey” is more than just another story where a good guy defeats monsters and returns home to his wife. The epic also grapples with identity and what homecoming means. Odysseus arrives home well before the end of the poem but there is more to homecoming than the physical act of arriving at the doorstep. After 20 years away from home, Odysseus has to reveal himself to his wife Penelope, his son Telemachus, his servants and slaves, and eventually to the unwelcomed suitors who sought Penelope’s hand in marriage. To properly return home, one must battle the emotional obstacle of rebuilding relationships. Coming from a childhood where naming emotions seemed impossible, the presentation of emotional conflicts in “The Odyssey” was particularly appealing to Wilson.

Seemingly microscopic word choice and language can have massive implications for the story, which can cause controversy. Take her first line: “Tell me about a complicated man.” The original text features the ancient Greek term “polytropos” composed of the prefix “poly-” which means “multiple,” and “tropos” which means “turns.” Because of the phrase’s ambiguity, translators have trouble deciding which traits to highlight in their translation. There have been many different interpretations of this phrase in previous translations. George Chapman, for example, starts with “many a way / Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby offers a terse “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes simply avoids the conflict and just calls Odysseus “the man.” There’s also Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d,” H.F. Cary’s “crafty,” William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried,” and William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed / And genius versatile.” Wilson’s solution to polytropos, “complicated,” differs from her predecessors’ and is brilliant in that it is both seemingly straightforward and ambiguous at the same time. “Complicated” tells the readers that there are multiple layers to Odysseus and to be on the lookout for a story that is not black and white. On the surface, Wilson’s first line may seem like a feminist insertion into the ancient Greek text, but when looking at her careful considerations and thought process, “complicated” does not necessarily relate to her gender.

One of the most notable differences between Wilson’s translation and previous translations of “The Odyssey” is the recognition of the girls who serve Odysseus as “slaves.” Previous translations have called these girls “servants.” This, however, is inaccurate because the girls work for wealthy families without pay. Translators tend to appropriate the flaws in this Homeric society to fit their fantasized image of Odysseus: he is the good guy so he can’t possibly have slaves. The need to idealize the protagonist results in an oversimplification of the epic’s social and ethical constructs.

Other translations like that of Fagles seem to impose their own ideas of misogyny and gender onto the poem. After Odysseus reveals his disguise as a beggar to his wife’s suitors and slaughters them with the assistance of Athena, his wrathful gaze turns to the slaves. He tells his son Telemachus to kill those who had slept with the suitors. In Fagles’s translation, Telemachus says:

“No clean death for the likes of them, by god!

Not from me—they showered abuse on my head,

my mother’s too!

You sluts—the suitors’ whores!”

The use of “sluts” and “whores” suggests that the punishment the slaves endured is justified because they had somehow committed sex crimes. Wilson points out in her introduction that the original Greek does not have any abusive language or label these slaves with derogatory terms. Instead, it portrays sexism more subtly than the contemporary misogyny imposed by Fagles along with other translators. In this way, perhaps Fagles’s translation has a male bias.

Wilson, on the other hand, shines a light on the distinct forms of inequality and patriarchy that do exist in the original without imposing contemporary types of misogyny. Right before Telemachus hangs the slaves in Wilson’s translation, he says:

“I refuse to grant these girls

a clean death, since they poured down shame on me

and Mother, when they lay beside the suitors.”

Most of the slaves are likely teenagers since they were raised by Penelope and had never even met Odysseus. Because the slaves have no agency, any sexual relations between them and the suitors were not consensual. Wilson’s identity as a woman may have influenced her emphasis on disenfranchised characters in the poem, but we must remember that all translations are influenced by the translator’s identity and experiences. Many male translations of “The Odyssey” are “gender blind.” But in a poem that is interested in gender roles, inequality, and hierarchies, it’s actually a strength of Wilson’s that she is aware of gender and thinks about it critically. To label Wilson’s translation as a feminist reading implies that she is somehow inserting things in the text, but in reality, Wilson stays truthful to the text by highlighting issues that have been glossed over by her male predecessors.

Many readers want to elevate Odyseuss’s faithful wife Penelope to the ideal of an empowered woman, rendering the marriage between her and Odysseus as a fairytale partnership of equals. Penelope is indeed a strong woman who uses her intelligence and wit to fend off her abusive suitors, fooling them for many years by weaving and unwinding her loom. However, Wilson notes this perspective is too simplistic. There is a clear imbalance of power between Odysseus and Penelope. Penelope may be intelligent, witty, and strong, but as a wife in ancient Greece, she is constantly defined by her marital status. In one scene, Odysseus, disguised as a beggar, describes himself to Penelope, and she starts crying. In Wilson’s translation, she writes:

“Her face was melting, like the snow that Zephyr

scatters across the mountain peaks; then Eurus

thaws it, and as it melts, the rivers swell

and flow again. So were her lovely cheeks

dissolved with tears. She wept for her own husband,

who was right next to her.”

Other translations say her tears are running down her face or her tears are melting, but Wilson abides by the original metaphor and emphasizes that her face is melting. Readers may view this modification as something minuscule and insignificant to the entirety of the poem, but it grants access to Penelope’s perspective on her constraints and her marriage. Her relationship with her husband and her difficult feelings about him are experienced as a death to self, and Wilson captures the horror of this feeling through the description of her face melting.

Penelope’s choices are limited: she can either wait for Odysseus’s return or marry a suitor. While Odysseus can use his wit and imagination to escape danger, Penelope's wit only confines her in domesticity. The only times readers have access to her mind is through her dreams. In Wilson’s translation, an encounter between Penelope and her husband, who is still in disguise as a beggar, is stressed, where she recounts:

“I dreamed that twenty geese

came from the river to my house, and they

were eating grain and I was glad to see them.

Then a huge eagle with a pointed beak

swooped from the mountain, broke their necks, and killed them.

I wept and wailed, inside the dream; the women

gathered around me, and I cried because

the eagle killed my geese. Then he came back

and sitting on the jutting roof-beam, spoke

in human language, to restrain my grief.

‘Penelope, great queen, cheer up. This is

no dream; it will come true. It is a vision.

The geese are suitors; I was once an eagle,

but now I am your husband.”

This dream sequence shows that Penelope’s psyche is quite complex. She doesn’t necessarily want the abusive suitors killed but does not have a choice. She won’t necessarily get what she wants because her power is limited in this society. Wilson’s translation may be considered radical in comparison to her predecessors, but she still acknowledges the limitations of female power within the context of the time period by preserving ideas from the original work while exposing its disparities.

To raise the voices of women in literature, we must not define Wilson’s work solely based on her gender. There is a preconceived notion, depicted by the media, that Wilson is the first female translator of “The Odyssey.” Wilson is not, however. There are other translations by female writers in Italian, Turkish, and French that have preceded Wilson’s, from whom she personally learned. Wilson’s Twitter bio even reads: “NOT the first woman to publish a translation of the Odyssey.” Positing Wilson as the only female translator potentially erases the voices of all women translators.

Wilson is important, not only as the “first” woman to translate “The Odyssey” in English but because of her critical interpretation of the literature that highlights its complexities and showcases its beauty. When reading Wilson’s translation, we should recognize the many perspectives and disparities she brings to light, often avoided by her male predecessors. Wilson’s work is not merely a feminist translation—it is a better translation that offers a refreshing look into a 2,000-year-old work of literature still relevant to this day.