The woman making The Odyssey feel new again

“Killing till the score is paid”: The Odyssey, illustrated by Neil Packer. © Walker Books.

Is translation an art or a science? This week, Emily Wilson publishes a new version of Homer’s Odyssey, the first by a woman. But translation is “complicated”, as her first line shows.

Tell me about a complicated man…

A war hero, Odysseus, wants to go home to his wife. But he keeps getting lost along the way. He spends years with the beautiful goddess Calypso; he escapes cannibals and witches and ghosts; he is shipwrecked; and when he finally makes it home, he kills all of the men who were trying to take his place.

Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey is the western world’s second oldest work of literature, and among its very greatest.

It has been translated into English over 70 times. But tomorrow, classics professor Emily Wilson will become the first woman to publish an English version of the poem. Her language is lively, and contemporary. One reviewer called it “the most accessible, and yet accurate, translation of Homer’s masterwork that I have ever read”.

Despite the many versions which have come before hers, Wilson told The New York Times that there were still fierce debates about the poem’s meanings.

Take its fifth word, πολuτροπον, (polytropon), the first adjective used to describe Odysseus. In Greek poly means “many” and tropos means “turn”. But to ordinary readers, it is unclear what a “many-turned” man is.

In the last 400 years, the word has been translated as “prudent”; “crafty”; “by long experience tried”; “full of resources”; “of many fortunes”; “tost to and fro by fate”; “deep”; “sagacious”; “adventurous”; “shifty”; “ingenious”; “restless”; “clever”; “never at a loss”; “of wide-ranging spirit”; “cunning;” and many more.

Wilson translates it as “complicated”. She wanted a word that sounded like something a modern reader might say, but which also shows that “Maybe there is something wrong with this guy.”

But she knows that not everyone will be happy about it. “Complicated” is not a dictionary definition of “polytropos”. And for some, that makes it “interesting, but wrong”.

This raises an age-old question about translation. Is it an art or a science?

Word play

“A science,” say some. It is about finding the correct answer, while being unbiased and objective. We know this is possible because computers can do it — there are strong algorithms for digesting text in one language, finding each word’s meaning, then producing a version in a different language. These translations may not be very poetic, but they are increasingly useful and accurate.

“An art,” say others. If you put the original lines of The Odyssey into Google Translate, you get a mess. Every language has its own subtle meanings — just look at all the interpretations of the word “polytropos”. The aim of translation is not to be the most technically accurate, but to conjure the same emotions and sensations. That is what Wilson has done, and why her Odyssey is so exciting.

You Decide

  1. Would you like to read Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey?
  2. Is translation an art or a science?


  1. Write your own poem that starts as Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey does: “Tell me about a complicated man”.
  2. Go to the Texas University link under Become An Expert. Here you will find the first few lines of The Odyssey in the original Greek, with a direct dictionary translation for each word. Use this to write your own translation. It can either be “scientific” (as close to the dictionary as possible) or “artistic” (as close to the emotions as possible).

Some People Say...

“And empty words are evil.”

Homer, The Odyssey (trans. Robert Fitzgerald)

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The Odyssey is 12,110 lines long. Experts generally think that it was derived from older oral poetry and composed around 725-675BC, but it was not written down for another hundred years or so. The earliest surviving text is from the third century BC.
What do we not know?
Whether a single person called Homer actually composed The Odyssey, or whether Homer existed at all. Even if he did exist, and is the author of both The Iliad (the story of Ilium or Troy, or rather of the “wrath of Achilles” there) and The Odyssey (the story of Odysseus or Ulysses) his work was passed down through memorised performances for at least a hundred years. This means we do not know how much of the “original” text is actually original, and how much had been embellished, cut, or swapped around.

Word Watch

King of Ithaca and husband of Penelope, he fought in the Trojan war. Very resourceful and quick-thinking, he is able to talk himself out of almost any situation. He angered the sea god Poseidon by killing his son Polyphemos, so his journey home is continually frustrated. Called Ulysses in Roman literature.
Second oldest
The oldest is Homer’s The Iliad, which is about Achilles and other heroes of the Trojan war. Both were composed around 2,800 years ago, though not written down for many years. Instead they were passed on through oral traditions (ie, being memorised and performed out loud.)
70 times
The first was the translation of George Chapman in 1616.
It could be that he was literally turned around many times as he tried to get home. “Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage,” says Wilson.
Lists of rules for computers to follow to solve problems. In the last few years, Google’s translation algorithm has been greatly improved by artificial intelligence.