GABBLER RECOMMENDS: The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ Into English The classicist Emily Wilson has given Homer’s epic a radically contemporary voice. By WYATT MASON

“If you’re going to admit that stories matter,” Wilson told me, “then it matters how we tell them, and that exists on the level of microscopic word choice, as well as on the level of which story are you going to pick to start off with, and then, what exactly is that story? The whole question of ‘What is that story?’ is going to depend on the language, the words that you use.”

Throughout her translation of the “Odyssey,” Wilson has made small but, it turns out, radical changes to the way many key scenes of the epic are presented — “radical” in that, in 400 years of versions of the poem, no translator has made the kinds of alterations Wilson has, changes that go to truing a text that, as she says, has through translation accumulated distortions that affect the way even scholars who read Greek discuss the original. These changes seem, at each turn, to ask us to appreciate the gravity of the events that are unfolding, the human cost of differences of mind.

The first of these changes is in the very first line. You might be inclined to suppose that, over the course of nearly half a millennium, we must have reached a consensus on the English equivalent for an old Greek word, polytropos. But to consult Wilson’s 60 some predecessors, living and dead, is to find that consensus has been hard to come by. Chapman starts things off, in his version, with “many a way/Wound with his wisdom”; John Ogilby counters with the terser “prudent”; Thomas Hobbes evades the word, just calling Odysseus “the man.” Quite a range, and we’ve barely started. There’s Alexander Pope’s “for wisdom’s various arts renown’d”; William Cowper’s “For shrewdness famed/And genius versatile”; H.F. Cary’s “crafty”; William Sotheby’s “by long experience tried”; Theodore Buckley’s “full of resources”; Henry Alford’s “much-versed”; Philip Worsley’s “that hero”; the Rev. John Giles’s “of many fortunes”; T.S. Norgate’s “of many a turn”; George Musgrave’s “tost to and fro by fate”; the Rev. Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s “many-sided-man”; George Edgington’s “deep”; William Cullen Bryant’s “sagacious”; Roscoe Mongan’s “skilled in expedients”; Samuel Henry Butcher and Andrew Lang’s “so ready at need”; Arthur Way’s “of craft-renown”; George Palmer’s “adventurous”; William Morris’s “shifty”; Samuel Butler’s “ingenious”; Henry Cotterill’s “so wary and wise”; Augustus Murray’s “of many devices”; Francis Caulfeild’s “restless”; Robert Hiller’s “clever”; Herbert Bates’s “of many changes”; T.E. Lawrence’s “various-minded”; William Henry Denham Rouse’s “never at a loss”; Richmond Lattimore’s “of many ways”; Robert Fitzgerald’s “skilled in all ways of contending”; Albert Cook’s “of many turns”; Walter Shewring’s “of wide-ranging spirit”; Allen Mandelbaum’s “of many wiles”; Robert Fagles’s “of twists and turns”; all the way to Stanley Lombardo’s “cunning.”

One way of talking about Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is to say that it makes a sustained campaign against that species of scholarly shortsightedness: finding equivalents in English that allow the terms she is choosing to do the same work as the original words, even if the English words are not, according to a Greek lexicon, “correct.”

“What gets us to ‘complicated,’ ” Wilson said, returning to her translation of polytropos, “is both that I think it has some hint of the original ambivalence and ambiguity, such that it’s both ‘Why is he complicated?’ ‘What experiences have formed him?’ which is a very modern kind of question — and hints at ‘There might be a problem with him.’ I wanted to make it a markedly modern term in a way that ‘much turning’ obviously doesn’t feel modern or like English. I wanted it to feel like an idiomatic thing that you might say about somebody: that he is complicated.”

I asked: “What about the commentator who says, ‘It does something that more than modernizes — it subverts the fundamental strangeness of the way Odysseus is characterized.’ I’m sure some classicists are going to say it’s flat out wrong, ‘Interesting, but wrong.’ ”

“You’re quite right,” she replied. “Reviewers will say that.”

How, I asked, would she address such a complaint from someone in her field?

“I struggle with this all the time,” Wilson said. “I struggled with this because there are those classicists. I partly just want to shake them and make them see that all translations are interpretations.” Most of the criticism Wilson expects, she says, will come from “a digging in of the heels: ‘That’s not what it says in the dictionary, and therefore it can’t be right!’ And if you put down anything other than what’s said in the dictionary, then, of course, you have to add a footnote explaining why, which means that pretty much every line has to have a footnote. …” Wilson paused. “That goes to what this translation is aiming to do in terms of an immersive reading experience and conveying a whole narrative. I don’t know what to say to those people, honestly.” Wilson laughed her buoyant laugh. “I need to have a better answer to them, because they will certainly review it, and they will certainly have a loud voice. They just seem to be coming from such a simple and fundamental misunderstanding.”

“Of what?”

“Of what any translation is doing.”

What a translation is doing — and what it should do — has been a source of vigorous debate since there were texts to translate. “I’m not a believer,” Wilson told me, “but I find that there is a sort of religious practice that goes along with translation. I’m trying to serve something.”



On Hephaestus’s Pandora: “Hesiod never her calls her the first woman—or even a woman, period.”

“Indeed, what is regarded asthe first example of the ekphrasis of an artistic object in Western literature, the shield of Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, is a description of an object that did not and could not physically exist…

Thetis, Achilles’ goddess mother, approaches Hephaestus for new armor
made by the divine craftsman himself. Upon entering Hephaestus’
workshop, Thetis sees him putting handles on a set of twenty automated
tripods on wheels, mechanical servants able to move back and forth to the
Olympian feasts. These automatons give the audience a foretaste
of an even more dramatic set of the god’s creations. As Hephaestus puts
away his work and leaves his forge to speak with Thetis, he is assisted by attendants made of gold who are like living young women in appearance (zo\e\isi nee\nisin eioikuiai). Unlike the tripods, however, the poet says these automatons possess intelligence (noos), sense (phrenes), voice (aude\),
vigor (sthenos), and have been taught skills (erga) by the gods (417–20).
The passage is curious. The only roughly similar instance in Homer is
the gold and silver dogs Hephaestus made to guard the palace of king
Alcinous in Odyssey 7.91, but these are not described as animate…

At the request of Thetis, Hephaestus sets about making Achilles’
new armor. Although he does make a corselet, helmet, and greaves, these
are tersely mentioned in only a few lines at the very end of Book 18. The
principal focus of the poet’s descriptive energy is on the shield, and the
context of the description is not a static appreciation of the completed
work but rather the dynamic process of the god fabricating it. The emphasis
is on the making, yet it is not even so much the making of the shield per se
as it is the god’s creation of the images ornamenting it.24 First mentioned
is Hephaestus’ depiction of the earth, sea, and heavenly bodies (483–89).
Then follow the three dominant scenes: a city at peace (490–508), a city
at war (509–40), and a bucolic harvest scene (541–605). Lastly, two lines
specify that the river Ocean is depicted around the outermost rim of the
shield (606–7). Starting with the city at peace, the description becomes
immediately and intensely detailed, presenting the motivations of individuals
and the sequential action of the stories that would be difficult if
not impossible to convey by solely visual means. In the city at peace,

we know that two men involved in a dispute are arguing over restitution
for someone one of them accidentally killed and that the aggrieved
party refuses compensation. We know that they take turns laying their
cases out before a council of elders and that two talents lying before the
elders are to go to the one among them who gives the best counsel. In
the city at war, an army marches out from the city, takes up its ambush
and attacks. Yet the action is not described as a series of vignettes but as
a continuous moving narrative, as if the shield were running some sort
of movie in animated metal. Hephaestus even depicts the divinities Ares,
Athena, Hate, Confusion, and Death as present in the scene.

The description in these major scenes is not limited to the visual.
In the city at peace, the poet describes the song of a marriage procession
passing by in the scene, the bystanders speaking up in the manslaughter
dispute, the speakers taking turns, and in the harvest scene, singing,
whistling, and the music of the lyre. In one striking image in the harvest
sequence, the absence of sound is described: the king stands behind his
workers in silence—a condition paradoxically easy to describe in words
but difficult to do in mute images. The cast-metal images on the shield
recapitulate the metallic maidens. The images are presented as vigorous
and moving; they can sense, reason, and argue. Like the maidens, they
are endowed with speech. They know the crafts of peace and war. In the
ambush scene, the soldiers “battle like living mortals” (ὡμίλευν δ’ ὥς τε
ζωοὶ βροτοὶ ἠδ’ ἐμάχοντο, 18.539) similar to the way the “golden maidens
scuttered about their master like living women” (ῥώοντο ἄνακτι / χρύσειαι,
ζωῇσι νεήνισιν εἰοικυῖαι, 18.417–18).26 The use of the simile here underscores
both the lifelikeness of these images and their nature as representations.
Both the figures themselves and their poetic descriptions make them both
real and representational at the same time…

Homer’s description is embedded in Hephaestus’
action of laying out the metals and placing the sculpted scenes, while at
the same time Hephaestus’ work of creating images in the visual realm
parallels Homer’s in the verbal realm. This adds further depth to one
aspect of the poem that has been long recognized: the scenes on the
shield are emblematic of the story of the Iliad itself, so that the shield is
a multilayered image of the poem, created by and embedded within the

Although the god’s skill makes the figures so
realistic they (seem to?) move and speak, and although the poet aims at
vivid realism, the audience is deliberately reminded that these are but
images, representations in metal.32 In the next example, however, we shall
examine an image that actually becomes alive: Hesiod’s Pandora.
Though not often singled out as an example of ekphrasis of art, the
creation of “woman” in the poems of Hesiod, Theogony 570–615 and
Works and Days 60–109, where she is given the name Pandora, echoes
themes and language seen in Homer.33 Like Achilles’ shield, Pandora is
made by Hephaestus, but from clay instead of his usual medium, metal
(Theog. 571; WD 60–61, 70). The god, in effect, makes an archaic terracotta
statue in a form “like that of a modest maiden” (παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, Theog. 572; ἐίσκειν / παρθενικῆς καλὸν εἶδος, WD 63; παρθένῳ αἰδοίῃ
ἴκελον, WD 71).34 In Works and Days, the gods then bring the statue to
life specifically by giving it powers that Homer says were given to Hephaestus’
metallic maids: voice (aude\) and vigor or strength (sthenos, WD
61–62, 77–79; cf. Il. 18.417–20). Just as the maids “were taught their skills
by the gods” (ἀθανάτων δὲ θεῶν ἄπο ἔργα ἴσασιν, Il. 18.420), so “Athena
teaches her skills” to Pandora (Ἀθήνην / ἔργα διδασκῆσαι, WD 63–64).
Goddesses bedeck her with glittering raiment, jewels, and flowers.35 Works
and Days then goes on to detail at length the gods’ gifts of Pandora’s
interior character: craftiness, deceit, shamelessness, and irresistible allure.

…Faraone rightly notes that Hesiod never her calls her the first woman—or
even a woman, period. He merely states that her shape, vigor, and voice
are like that of a mortal woman and that all women descend from her
(Theog. 590)…

In one sense, Hesiod appears to exalt verbal representation, since his
words can describe Pandora’s true nature and belie her deceptive visual
appeal. But if this is true, then Hesiod’s words are also exposed as weak
and unavailing, for Pandora’s—and hence all women’s—attractions are
insuperable. Aphrodite herself instilled cruel longing within Pandora (WD
65), and no amount of words can prevent men from desiring women.
Moreover, Pandora’s appeal is purely visual. When she is led out in
public for the first time, both gods and men are awestruck as soon as
they lay eyes on her.To emphasize the visual dynamic, Hesiod equates
seeing Pandora with springing Zeus’ trap: θαῦμα δ’ ἔχ’ ἀθανάτους τε θεοὺς
θνητούς τ’ ἀνθρώπους, / ὡς εἶδον δόλον αἰπύν, ἀμήχανον ἀνθρώποισιν· (“The
immortal gods and mortal men were struck with amazement (thauma)
at this marvel, as soon as they saw this utter snare which men are helpless
against,” Theog. 588–89). Though given speech, she does not speak
in either of Hesiod’s poems. Given that speech is elsewhere a particular
quality of the living, that Pandora has this quality but does not use it
makes her even more of a contradiction and raises further questions as
to what kind of being she is.

…As Hephaestus’ metallicmaids demonstrate, there is no clear line between an image of life and life
itself. What keeps an image in human form, endowed with power, ability,
and speech, from being alive? At the same time, the images portrayed in
these passages are not only looked at, they also look back. Seeing and
being seen are active processes here. The scenes in Homer reach out to
the audience of listeners/readers/viewers and engage them emotionally
and viscerally. Pandora exerts her irresistible power simply by being seen.

…By the nature of his description, Homer invites comparison between the
visual image of the shield and the words he uses to describe it, which
communicate knowledge that the images cannot. Yet both images and
words are the poet’s creations, so that the result is a complex mirroring
not only of the visual and verbal representation of the shield but also of
the making of the shield and the making of the poem itself. In Hesiod,
the powerful reality of the vision of Pandora is actually the counterpart
to the words which describe her character; rather than compete with
one another, both the visual and verbal are necessary to describe her
completely. Artists and poets both create images, and one form of imagemaking
can, or perhaps inherently does, reflect the other. Visuality and
narratology are two sides of the same coin.”

-James A. Francis, “Metal Maidens, Achilles’ Shield, and Pandora: The Beginnings of ‘Ekphrasis.’

On poets and priests:

“The priest is rarely seen and is never of importance. In the Odyssey when a priest and a poet fall on their knees before Odysseus, praying him to spare their lives, the hero kills the priest without a thought, but saves the poet. Homer says that he felt awe to slay a man who had been taught his divine art by the gods. Not the priest, but the poet, had influence with heaven — and no one was ever afraid of a poet.”

-Edith Hamilton, Mythology. 



No narcissism here. Nope.

Richard Kearney on Catharsis, Hauntings, Trauma:

“Writing can only work through traumas as traces revisited as hauntings. They can never fully retrieve experiences or tell the full story — fill in all the gaps….There is something always lost in translation…It was because it was too much that trauma repeats itself as lack.”