Dartmouth welcomes first woman to publish English translation of "Odyssey"

by Lorraine Liu | 1/28/19 9:42am

Students reading the new translation of Homer’s "Odyssey" in their Humanities 2, "The Modern Labyrinth" course had the rare opportunity of meeting the translator in real life when University of Pennsylvania classics professor Emily Wilson came to Dartmouth last Thursday. As this year’s annual Hoffman lecturer, Wilson shared her experience as the first woman to publish a translation of Homer’s "Odyssey" into English, both during a public lecture and with students in several classes.

Wilson’s translation of the "Odyssey" was published in November 2017, a fruition of her five-year contract with publishing firm W. W. Norton & Company. She said she worked with editors at Norton as well as her colleagues and students at the University of Pennsylvania for the translation process.

The annual Hoffman lecture was established in the 1980s to honor James Hoffman ’82, a comparative literature major who died in a car crash shortly after graduation.

Comparative literature program chair Gerd Gemünden said that the Hoffman lecture usually takes place in the fall, but this year’s lecture was pushed to winter term to accommodate students taking Humanities 2, who are currently reading the "Odyssey."

Gemünden said he was excited to bring Wilson this year. 

“For a translator, she got a lot of press [and] made the news in academia,” he said. “So we’re pretty thrilled that she’s coming.”

According to Gemünden, the comparative literature department tries to “identify speakers whose work, in a very general sense, revolves around literature and politics” for the annual Hoffman lecture. Past lecturers have included University of Michigan American culture professor Lisa Nakamura on “Workers Without Bodies: A Feminist Critique of Labor on the Internet” and Michael Rothberg on “What Does It Mean to Inherit the Past? Holocaust Memory Through the Migrant Lens.”

Gemünden added that Wilson’s lecture serves as a kickoff event for the initiation of a minor in translation studies.

The lecture, which took place at the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, lasted approximately an hour and attracted over 100 people, including both students and faculty. Gemünden said that due to the collaboration between the comparative literature department, classics department, the Leslie Center for theHumanities and the humanities sequence, students and faculty members from a wide range of disciplines attended the lecture.

Wilson emphasized that she hoped to “do something different with the Odyssey than what was already available in modern English translations.”

During her lecture, Wilson said she hoped to “convey some of the joy” of reading Homer.

Her translation is unique in her use of iambic pentameter and choice to maintain the exact number of lines of the original poem, Wilson said.

“Most contemporary translations are either in prose or in free verse — they don’t have regular rhythm,” Wilson said during the lecture. “I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something which would feel engaging but also [be] totally metrical.”

She also noted that the original text included a variety of dialects and regional variations of Greek. She wanted to reflect this variety in her translation.

“I want to make sure that there are moments when the readers are surprised by the word choice,” said Wilson in the lecture.

Wilson also said specific translation choices added visibility to the role of slavery and women in the text.

“I find it a more readable and approachable translation,” Gemünden said. “It makes the epic poem come alive in a really interesting way.”

Lecture attendee Hannah Gallen ’19 said she appreciated the different light that Wilson’s work brings to the existing translations of The Odyssey. 

“She’s really trying to create an experience that is culturally and contextually relevant for a new generation of readers,” Gallen said. “I really admire her.”

Gemünden said the program decided to invite Wilson this year because “there is certainly a political background” in Wilson’s translation.

“She certainly reflects on how she wants to render the Odyssey to more contemporary readers,” he said. 

After a 45-minute presentation, the lecture shifted to a question and answer session in which students raised questions about Wilson’s works. Classics department chair Margaret Graver noted that she was impressed by the exchange between Wilson and the students. 

“It was a very lively interchange because students had responded to her work for a long time because they have to read the whole thing,” Graver said. “They had a lot to say and they were passionate about getting their questions in there.”

During her time on campus, Wilson also met with classical studies professor Roberta Stewart and veteran undergraduate students to discuss Homer, and spoke as a guest lecturer in the Comparative Literature 19.01, “Translation: Theory and Practice” class.

“It was great to meet everyone,” Wilson said. “I love how lively students were and how much they seemed to have these really thoughtful questions.”

Correction appended (Jan. 28, 2019): This article was originally published with the headline "Dartmouth welcomes first woman to publish a translation of 'Odyssey'." It has been updated to reflect that Wilson's edition is the first English translation of the 'Odyssey' by a woman.