Emily Wilson, Classicist and Translator | 2019 MacArthur Fellow


I try to convey the excitement and
thrill of studying very ancient cultures and their complex layered literature in a
way that makes them feel both different from our culture and also totally
relatable. My name is Emily Wilson, I’m a classicist and translator from ancient Greek and Roman literature. I try and tease out the ways that ancient texts,
such as The Odyssey and The Iliad, ancient tragedy, has all this wonderful richness,
complexity of ideas, and of language. A translator is both an interpreter of
somebody else’s words, I have to speak as Homer, (SPEAKING GREEK) and also a creative agent in
her own right. I also have to use my own literary poetic skills, as
well as my scholarly skills, to try and bring a new poem to life in a very
different literary and social culture. Every translation is a new
interpretation of the text. My version of The Odyssey, I had a range of
different literary hermeneutic poetic goals. I deliberately kept myself
to the same number of lines as the original poem, in order not to make it
feel slow and boring, in the way the original doesn’t. I also very much wanted
to use a very regular meter, which isn’t the case for most modern translations. I
wanted to bring out the musicality, the way that this is a poem based on folk
music, folk poetry. I also wanted to bring out, in ways that I thought were not
fully the case for other translations I had looked at, something of the
polyvocality of the poem, by that I mean that there are many, many different
characters, it’s not all focalized through the eyes of Odysseus. We need new
translations because we need constantly to be reassessing what exactly might
this text be doing? Might there be ways that an earlier generation of
scholarship might have missed certain things because of their cultural blind
spots. It’s been striking to me in the case of the Odyssey, in particular, just
to realize, for instance, how the vast majority of English translations include
a lot of words like servants for characters who are very clearly
in the original represented as slaves. We don’t want to think of Odysseus as a slave
owner, and therefore we’re going to present him as somebody
who has issues with his servants, as opposed to somebody who is
enslaving people. I think reading The Odyssey now, in the 21st century, I think
it’s hard not to see that it’s a poem that’s about somebody who’s left his
home, gone to a war, come back from a war. It’s also a poem which is about violence,
and particularly violence caused by people trying to protect their
identities, their homes. I love the way that ancient societies, ancient works of
literature are both very alien, very distant, and also very much
connected to our world today. It’s an enormous honor, I mean I’m
incredibly grateful and still kind of flabbergasted that this would have
happened to me. I mean it feels in a way it feels like Athena’s swooping down and
saying, in fact, let me help you out and I’m going to escort you for the
next five years.

local_offerevent_note September 30, 2019

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