How Professor Emily Wilson’s New 'Odyssey' Translation Inspires Both New Possibilities for Performance, and New Understandings of One of the Foundational Works of Western Literature

148 Pages Posted: 6 Jun 2018

Date Written: May 21, 2018

Abstract

Homer’s “Odyssey” is one of the foundational works of not only Western, but world literature. No person interested in literature, in fiction, or, indeed, no person interested in understanding human nature, can claim to be competent, without having read the “Odyssey.”

But being such an ancient work, in an ancient version of the Greek language, it is inherently difficult to bring to new generations of students a fresh vision of what the “Odyssey” is to them, and what it was to its original audience. Each translator brings his – and now, with Professor Emily Wilson’s translation, her – own attitudes and interests: how much is the translation to be a reflection of the original text – filled with the rhetorical styles that were fresh and effective to the original audience, but impenetrable to us – and how much is it to respond to the writing and speaking styles of the translator’s times? Do we want the experience to be vivid and personal, or to be a kind of time-machine, carrying us back to the ancient times?

Professor Emily Wilson has decided to make her translation a vivid personal experience for readers today. Upon reading her translation in April 2018, I immediately recognized, due to my own prior career as a producer of avant-garde theater, that her translation offers our culture a sound and rich basis for audio performance, and for stage performance.

I also realized, as a member of an old family with a long tradition of sea-faring, that my own experiences and background would aid readers in understanding what the “Odyssey” was to its original audience – an audience that was itself of a society of risk-taking sea-farers.

Furthermore, as I reflected upon the society that Professor Wilson’s fresh, vivid translation brings us into, I recognized that the “Odyssey” presents “political science” and economic lessons relevant to us today: specifically, how successfully a society limits the “internal looting load” to a level that it can tolerate while maintaining long-term, indefinite sustainability.

The problems that drive the “Odyssey” arise from the efforts by some members of Odysseus’ own society – the “suitors” – to loot his rich household, and from the fact that the society itself imposes no limits on that looting. The unlimited “internal looting” permitted by Odysseus’ society, as presented in the “Odyssey,” may be the best explanation why, historically, that society collapsed, and was followed by a “Greek dark age” of some 400 years – the time-period between the setting of the poem, and the writing of the poem. The paper touches upon one of the earliest written efforts to impose limits on “internal looting” – the Magna Carta.

Historically there have been many moral and emotional justifications to support “internal looting:” praise of the King, support for the Church, or, today, aid to the poor. In each age, the justifications for “internal looting” are widely persuasive to the general public, as being valid reasons why the people should peaceably surrender the fruits of their labor – and yet, like mathematics, no matter what the justification, no matter how emotionally powerful it is at a particular time, there is a limit beyond which no society can go, without collapsing the productive energy of the society that praises this transfer of wealth. “Dark ages” comprising hundreds of years of suffering for everyone follow such collapses.

The “Odyssey” also presents the pre-eminent – and perhaps only – “theological character” who receives the praise and the active, strenuous effort of the gods to help him, because he is dedicated to being a husband and father. At the outset of the poem, Odysseus is in a “Garden of Eden” – yet he wants desperately and passionately to leave paradise. Why is this? Because Odysseus wants more than anything else to be a husband and father – which the garden does not permit him to be. This paper compares the “Gardens of Eden” presented in the “Odyssey,” in Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” and in Milton’s “Paradise Lost,” and discusses the Christian desire to stay in the garden, as compared to Odysseus’ desire to escape the garden. The “Garden of Eden” is no paradise to Odysseus, because he wants to be more than a mere pleasure-experiencing man – which is all that Adam desires to be. Odysseus wants to give of himself to other people – specifically, to his son and to his wife – even if it costs him great effort and even his own life. This is something that no prominent character in Dante or in Milton desires to be. The Olympian gods praise and help Odysseus because he is this kind of person - which makes him a "theological" character, and thus, a "culture-shaping" character.

Professor Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” also opens to us a world in which the intellectual equality of men and women is presented, from a time prior to the time that Christianity spread the Hebrew oppressive vision of a “God-commanded” women’s subservience to men across the entire western world – to meet its similar counterpoint in the Asian world.

The “Odyssey,” unlike its predecessor the "Illiad," is as much a “women’s” poem as it is a “men’s” poem, because women are so central to its story, and to the happiness and desires of all the male as well as of the female characters. Professor Wilson brings to the role of translator the personal experience of being a woman.

In the “Odyssey,” as shown us by Professor Emily Wilson, men and women have different roles, and the men have more power – but this is due to the inherent biology of the creatures our minds find themselves vested within, and not due to any godly or moral command. In the “Odyssey,” men and women play different roles, because, given our biology, and given the rudimentary technology of the time, this is what “works” as a practical matter, to ensure that there are children, and that the children are well-raised.

The “Odyssey’s” major character, Athena, is a woman who, being a goddess, is not under the physical domination of any male – and she presents to us a person, imagined and written by men, who is the ideal of what men really wish women would be: wisely aiding both men and women who are practical, productive, and wisely protective of children – not merely while the children are little, but as they grow into independent adults. An accurate alternative title for the “Odyssey” could have been “The Raising of Telemachus” – because that is the goal of both Penelope and Odysseus – his parents – and even moreso, the goal of the goddess Athena herself. The paper compiles the evidence and makes the argument for this.

Keywords: Odyssey, Odysseus, Ulysses, looting, theology, theological characters

Suggested Citation

Sisson, Edward H., How Professor Emily Wilson’s New 'Odyssey' Translation Inspires Both New Possibilities for Performance, and New Understandings of One of the Foundational Works of Western Literature (May 21, 2018). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3182868 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3182868

Edward H. Sisson (Contact Author)

Independent ( email )

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