My sister Susannah and I were looking for a pandemic friendly activity to share when she delighted me by coming up with the perfect idea.
We decided to read the Odyssey–aloud on zoom–in the newest translation, by Emily Wilson. This is the first time a woman has translated the poem into English.
Susannah had vivid memories of my father reading The Odyssey aloud–first to me, then to our sister Rachel, and finally to Susy herself, as youngest of the three. I remember that it was the Lattimore translation.
In college, Robert Fitzgerald was my senior year tutor, and my thesis advisor. Dry and gentlemanly as he was, I still worshiped him and benefited from his mentorship. We translated Ovid, but mostly I wrote my poems and Fitzgerald chopped them to bits every week–line after line, stanza after stanza. I don’t remember ever talking directly about Homer, but of course I read his translations.
So, off Susannah and I went. We loved that Wilson called Odysseus “a complicated man.” The music of each line was enchanting. And Dawn wasn’t just “rosy-fingered” but described with many floral manicures.
Then, we were startled. Susy was reading the hardback–I the paperback. And the versions were not identical! What had happened?
Inspired to find the answer, I wrote the translator. And she wrote back! (As authors will. Unless a writer is a superstar a fan note often gets an answer.) Wilson basically said she was still tinkering, couldn’t stop trying to perfect, and made changes in the paperback version.
It is a wonderful translation–lyrical, humorous, intense–following the story in that seemingly effortless way that can only be produced by hard labor.
And what a story! Adultery, war, revenge, sacrifice, and one-eyed giants. We’ve just finished Book Five, where our hero finally leaves the island where the nymph Calypso has him trapped as her unwilling live-in boyfriend. Calypso speaks at length–she is a practical if alluring immortal, and realizes he has to go.
Susannah noticed that Calypso talks more that all the women of the Torah put together. The Feminine is alive and strong in this poem–both in women and goddesses.
As a rule, women in Britain and America were denied a classical education that included Greek. How else were we to read about the adventures of Odysseus if not in translation into English?
And it feels just right for sisters on zoom.