Emily Wilson’s translation of the “Odyssey” is the latest in a long history of feminist classical translation
“Tell me about a complicated man,” opens Emily Wilson’s new translation of Homer’s Odyssey, the first English version by a woman. It is staggering that such a breakthrough had to wait until 2017, but it is not a complete break with literary history. Although classics remains a male-dominated field, women like Marguerite Yourcenar, Monique Wittig, Louise Glück, and Elizabeth Cook have contributed to a growing tradition of women poets, translators, and authors adapting Homer over the past century. But Wilson’s translation does break with male translators of the Odyssey, beginning in the very first line. Male translators have historically described Odysseus with a variety of obviously heroic attributes; Wilson’s “complicated” is a first. As I read the striking opening lines, I could start to place Wilson and her translation into an existing feminist tradition of classical translation that began in the nineteenth century.
Classical translation has been the purview of male scholars for centuries, and it is not until the 19th century that we see a break in the façade of male ownership of the ancient past. At the time, women struggled to acquire the resources to take part in the long, complex process of learning Greek and Latin. Anna Swanwick, one of the first women to translate Aeschylus, said, “I often longed to assume the costume of a boy in order to learn Latin, Greek, and Mathematics, which were then regarded as essential to a liberal education for boys, but were not thought of for girls.” As the daughter of a wealthy merchant, Swanwick was eventually able to pursue her interests, but many others had to get their education at the margins, most often while assisting male relatives with their studies. For a woman to learn Greek and then translate a classical work was, by its very nature, a radical act.
Yet, translate they did.
Elizabeth Barrett (later Browning), who wanted to be a “female Homer,” wrote an epic, The Battle of Marathon, when she was 14. She later published a version of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound (1833) and followed with reflections on Homer throughout her career. While not overtly engaged in the politics of translation, Browning’s poetic works were some of the first to win popular and critical acclaim, showing that it could be possible for women to make a very male-dominated subject their own.
Swanwick, however, took a more activist approach through her translations and scholarship. In 1865, she published a translation of Aeschylus’ trilogy The Oresteia, following it with all of his plays in 1873. Swanwick’s knowledge of Greek brought with it recognition and legitimacy as a writer and intellect that few other women were able to obtain, and she harnessed that platform to advocate for suffrage and public education. She would go on to wield considerable influence as the President of Bedford College, London.
Even though women were not often directly translating Homer, many turned to Greek tragedy. Despite being originally written by men to be performed by men, probably for an audience of men, tragedy has some of the greatest roles for women in Western literature — roles that had been minimized in most 19th century renderings. Euripides’ Medea, for example, was a popular play at the time, but versions by men downplayed the title character’s gender politics, ultimately domesticating Medea’s anger at the social system by directing it toward a love interest. In Greek Tragedy and the British Stage, Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh speculate that the rediscovery of Medea’s anger by mid-century activist translators set off a convergence of activism and translation.
In Medea’s first speech to the Chorus of Corinthian Women, she voices grief and anger at the fact that women are made to suffer while men enjoy greater freedoms. She forms a bond of solidarity with the chorus that lasts through the play, an act that perhaps captured the imagination of the burgeoning suffrage movement. Hall and Macintosh point out that translations of Medea’s speech were often read at suffrage meetings in the 1890s, forming what could be considered part of resistance repertoire.
Augusta Webster, who learned Greek while helping her brother, published a literal rendition of Medea in 1868. By crafting a version intended only for study, Webster demanded that women be allowed to take part in classical scholarship. Not content to only engage academics, she followed with a volume of powerful dramatic monologues called Portraits (1870), which reverses traditional expectations of ancient women. Two poems stand out in particular: “Medea and Jason,” in which Medea confronts the ghost of the man who abandoned her, and “Circe,” about the sorceress in the Odyssey who Webster re-imagines as someone whose magic acts to reveal their true nature as pigs, not as someone who just cruelly transforms men into animals. Both boldly depict women whose feelings of revenge, sexual desire, and loneliness are deeply interconnected. Webster would go on to be a highly visible suffrage advocate, publishing Essays on Suffrage in 1878.
Other women followed suit by using the classics to comment on contemporary social injustice. Amy Levy wrote Xantippe (1881), a poem from the perspective of Socrates’ wife. She followed with a version of Medea (1884) about the oppression of confined women. Earlier in the century, Florence Nightingale had privately published an essay entitled “Cassandra” (1852), after the Trojan prophetess who was cursed to see the future but not be believed by anyone. Nightingale “shrieked aloud her agony,” as Virginia Woolf would later note, against a society that forcibly kept women from public life.
In 2016, Caroline Alexander was the first woman to translate Homer’s Iliad, an act which some critics heaped massive expectations on. And now in 2017, we have Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey. Wilson’s version does not seek to be “definitive,” but boldly weaves ancient and modern, just as her predecessors, who used translation to wrench the Greeks from their ivory tower and respond to their present moment.
Although we have tantalizing references to accomplished figures such as Aspasia, Diotima, and fragments of Sappho, almost all women were denied the tools and audience to actively participate in public life. As long as men have held the power to legislate who can translate the Greeks or be a classicist, they have reinforced a centuries-old silencing of women’s voices. We need feminist translations and revisions like Wilson’s to break through this ancient tradition that has worked to make women readers but never writers. And to remind us that heroes like Odysseus are, indeed, “complicated.”