The Odyssey. Homer. Translated by Emily Wilson. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. New York and London, 2017. 582p. Pr. $56.95. Hb.
The Odyssey has been translated many times. The first English translation was by George Chapman in 1615. There have been many others; over sixty in fact. Among the best known translations are by Samuel Butler, Alexander Pope, Butcher and Lang, Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore; the last two being the most recent. This translation is the first English translation of the Odyssey by a woman. For this reason it is put under the spotlight. Much is anticipated. Much is expected, and she does not disappoint.
While the Odyssey is ostensibly about the prime journey of the hero Odysseus, the epic itself also has a strong feminine presence. This presence is represented in the females who are otherworldly, dangerous, clever and or faithful who are woven into the fabric of Odysseus’ return journey. Wilson acknowledges this. Her introduction has a focus on gender which addresses a range of issues including the complex character of Penelope, the matriarchy argument specifically with regard to the status of Penelope and Arete, sexual fidelity, and the famous suggestion by Samuel Butler that the epic must have been written by a woman. In this Wilson demonstrates her awareness of the complexity of femininity in the epic.
Other than translating from the Greek, the other concern for an English translator of Homer has been what to do about the metre. Homer is set in dactylic hexameter, and this does not read well in English. Previous solutions have been to set it to iambic pentameter, or as Chapman did – to rhyming couplets. Fagles used five beats per line, and Lattimore used an English version of the long dactylic line. Butcher and Lang made an important contribution, as theirs was the first English translation into prose. Wilson made the decision to translate into verse, which is admirable as this is reflective of the original. She uses iambic pentameter, and it is quite concentrated in its effect in that it fits one line of English to one line of Greek. Her work as a result is very focussed.
Each book of the Odyssey is titled. Book one for example, is titled ‘The Boy and the Goddess.’ This gives the reader a sense of what is the main focus for each book. In the opening line of the epic, Wilson translates polutropos as ‘complicated.’ The line reads, ‘Tell me about a complicated man. Muse, tell me…’ The adjective polutropos literally means ‘many turns.’ This is a departure from Lattimore’s translation of ‘many ways’ and Fagles’ ‘twists and turns.’ Wilson’s translation of this frequent epithet of Odysseus’ is apt in that the word resonates not only with the multi-layered character of Odysseus, but also with the focus of the epic – that of journey, and that of the mind. For the much analysed, discussed and debated word kunopis literally translated as ‘dog faced,’ which is uniquely applied by Helen in a self- referencing manner, Wilson translates kunopidos at book iv line 145 as ‘the face that hounded…’ (for further discussion on the word kunopis see Blondell, R. “Bitch that I am. Self- blame and Self Assertion in the Iliad” TAPA Vol.140. No.1. 2010.pp.1-32.) In contrast, Fagles translates it as ‘shameless whore,’ and Lattimore as ‘shameless.’ This subtle change in translation shifts the focus from Helen blaming herself, which has been the tradition and the source of much semantic, psychological and feminist literary analysis, and puts the emphasis on how the men viewed and reacted to her. The blame is shifted to the men, and she discusses this choice in detail in the introduction. (p.44.) This in itself is a significant change in translation, as it alters our understanding of the text.
Another change is Wilson’s decision to not have repeated Homeric epithets. They are dispensed with because the Odyssey is not to be listened to as it was in antiquity, but in the present time it is read. Therefore, to Wilson’s mind, repetition is not needed. For example the epithet ‘rosy-fingered Dawn’ is given other variations – ‘Dawn was born, her fingers bloomed’, and ‘Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses.’ In contrast, Butcher and Lang’s translation, though in prose, keeps the Homeric formulae of the repeated epithets. Though Wilson’s reason for this variation is understandable, it does detract from the essence of the epic; the oral tradition.
Another modernisation of the text is found in book iv, when Menelaus offers ‘canapés’ to Telemachus and the other guests. (Od.iv.55. eidata is the word translates as canapés.) In a similar vein the suitors are described in book ii as ‘bullying’ and ‘mean,’ (Od.ii.268) and Nausicaa in book vi addresses her father saying, ‘Dear daddy, would you please set up the wagon with the big smooth wheels for me…’ (Od.vi.56-7). Wilson means to modernise the language and make the text relatable. For all the directness of some of Wilson’s modern choices, which one may find buffeting at times, her description of Calypso’s island captures the beauty of the Greek.
The scent of citrus and of brittle pine
suffused the island. Inside, she was singing
and weaving with a shuttle made of gold.
Her voice was beautiful. Around the cave
a luscious forest flourished: alder, poplar,
and scented cypress. It was full of wings.
Birds nested there but hunted out at sea:
The owls, the hawks, the gulls with gaping beaks.
A ripe and luscious vine, hung thick with grapes,
Was stretched to coil around her cave… (Od.v.60-69.)
The Odyssey brings out the depth of life; the complexities of human interactions. This Wilson demonstrates in specific highlighted areas of the epic. Though her tone is not level, largely due to the modernised choices, the areas that are smooth, capture the beauty and depth of Homer. At the reunion of Odysseus and Penelope her translation is sensitive and at ease.
‘Now you have told the story of our bed,
the secret that no other mortal knows,
except yourself and me, and just one slave,
Actoris, whom my father gave to me<
when I came here, who used to guard our room.
You made my stubborn heart believe in you.’
This made him want to cry. He held his love,
his faithful wife, and wept. (Od.xxiii.227-34.)
Wilson particularly here, captures the essence of humanity and the depth and fragility of love. Wilson’s translation comes at a time when two other canonical verse texts have been recently translated by women; the Aeneid by Sarah Ruden (YUP) in 2008 and the Iliad by Caroline Alexander (Ecco) in 2016. It will hopefully pave the way for more women, particularly those outside North America to contribute their own translations of Greek and for that matter Latin texts.
Emily Wilson is Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her other works include translations of four tragedies of Euripides, in The Greek Plays, Modern Library: Bacchae, Helen, Electra and Trojan Women (2016, Random House), Six Tragedies of Seneca with introduction and notes (2010,Oxford World’s Classics) and The Death of Socrates: Hero, Villain, Chatterbox, Saint. (2007 Harvard UP).
She is currently working on a new verse translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannos.
Kaiser, Alan (2015), Archaeology, Sexism, and Scandal: The Long-Suppressed Story of One Woman’s Discoveries and the Man Who Stole Credit For Them, Kindle Edition vols. (Lanham, Boulder, New York, London: Rowman & Littlefield). [Kindle Edition](1)
Alan Kaiser is currently professor of archaeology at the University of Evansville, Indiana. In the book under review, he has written the story of Mary Ross Ellingson (1906-1993), who worked on the 1931 excavations at Olynthus in northern Greece under the direction of David Robinson of Johns Hopkins University. Later in life Ellingson held a teaching position, eventually becoming full professor at the University of Evansville, a highly respected teacher of Latin and classics.
At the time of the Olynthus work, David Moore Robinson (1880-1958) was a high-profile figure in American classical archaeology. He had worked at Corinth, Sardis and Pisidian Antioch in the earlier years of the twentieth century, and in 1928 had commenced excavation at Olynthus under the aegis of the American School of Classical Studies at Athens. Kaiser reports that the 1928 work attracted criticism for inadequate assessment of strata and context (1: 446). Part of the problem here may have been that Robinson was more interested in locating public buildings than private dwellings, and it was the latter which seemed to predominate at Olynthus (1: 486). The 1931 expedition featured technical improvements and a new approach.
Mary Ross Ellingson, Sarah Freeman and Gladys Davidson Weinberg were three young women who were included in the 1931 Olynthus team. Kaiser quotes from Ellingson’s letters home, which were invariably cheerful, funny and full of interest in the people and customs at Myriophyto, the modern village near the ancient site. All of Ellingson’s spare time was spent in recording and cataloguing the terracotta figurine finds. This work formed the basis of her PhD in classical archaeology, awarded by Johns Hopkins University in 1939 (4: 1414).
Kaiser has demonstrated beyond doubt that in two of the fourteen volumes of the Olynthus material, Robinson plagiarized Ellingson’s unpublished work, word-for-word. Excavations at Olynthus volumes VII and XIV include large chunks, unaltered, of Ellingson’s work, both catalogue and analysis. Kaiser quotes both works side-by-side to show that they are virtually identical (6: 1866-1870).
It would seem that Ellingson believed that Robinson acknowledged her as the author in the relevant volumes. Kaiser has located a poignant human-resources form from 1973, at Evansville, in which, in answer to a question about publications, Ellingson wrote: “[T]he [Olynthus terracotta] work is acknowledged as mine in introduction” (6: 1844). In fact, Robinson made no such acknowledgment; the only name to appear on the title page of Olynthus VII is that of Robinson himself (6: 1893).
In the introduction to Olynthus XIV, Robinson wrote:
“Here I should like especially to express my gratitude to Miss H.M.Mary Ross, now instructor in Classics at Mt Royal College, Calgary, Canada. She was a loyal, tactful, and industrious member of the staff at Olynthus and successfully helped supervise the excavation of the East Cemetery. She kept a careful typewritten inventory of the terra-cottas, separate from my note-books and the daily journal, and I have made abundant use of this and her own valuable suggestions.” (6: 1901)
This surely counts as patronizing faint praise, rather than adequate acknowledgment. Kaiser concludes that Robinson’s unauthorized use of Ellingson’s work may be the most egregious case of plagiarism in classical archaeology (6: 2244). There have recently been calls for Johns Hopkins University, as publisher of the Olynthus material, to publicly credit Ellingson for her work (2).
Bizarrely, in 1952 a painting of Robinson, by the artist Stanislav Rembski, was unveiled, showing him holding open the frontispiece to Olynthus XIV, which depicts one of Ellingson’s most beautiful figurines (the Rembski painting is now displayed at the University of Mississippi Museum of Art, alongside the Robinson collection of classical materials). Kaiser generously suggests that this was Robinson’s way of apologizing to Ellingson, knowing that she would appreciate the iconography. A less charitable interpretation might be that Robinson was defying viewers to call out his plagiarism (6: 2194-2239).
Kaiser found, having written an article about the case, that most publishers were very unwilling to countenance publication. His work on Ellingson was rejected by a total of eleven editors and more than two dozen anonymous reviewers (3). Two, mutually contradictory, reasons were offered for rejection. Perhaps surprisingly, the main one was that Robinson, the grand old man of US classical archaeology, was a serial plagiarist, and Kaiser had not told the full story (7: 2267). Kaiser was unable to substantiate this claim, although he identified, in addition to Ellingson, a further three students whose work had been appropriated by Robinson without adequate acknowledgment (7: 2412).
More conventionally, the other reason for rejection was that many people saw the exploitation of students’ work, in particular women students’ work, as part of the system: nothing to see here, there is no story, people wouldn’t be interested. On the contrary, Kaiser found that whenever he gave a talk about the Ellingson case, audiences were fascinated (7: 2453).
He is right to have persisted in telling the story. In addition to publishing the book, Kaiser has also contributed articles and photo collections to several archaeology websites which give credit to Ellingson. Just as valuably, in his Chapter 4, Kaiser has outlined the life history of Freeman and Weinberg, showing how they and Ellingson, in different ways, managed the career challenges presented particularly to women in academic life. Kaiser’s analysis shows that before World War II, a new horizon presented itself to women in archaeology: a false dawn, as it turned out. Large numbers of women entered classical archaeology, but comparatively few would accomplish recognition, and numbers dropped dramatically following the war (4: 1193).
Marriage and children, then as now, affected women more directly than their male counterparts. Ellingson married in 1939, shortly after gaining her PhD. Her first daughter was born in 1945, and the Ellingsons adopted a second daughter in 1951. In 1960, Ellingson returned to teaching part time, and in 1963 attained a permanent teaching role at what was now the University of Evansville (4: 1422-1452).
Weinberg, with her husband Saul Weinberg, a prominent archaeologist, formed a team in which she found posts wherever he did. Kaiser shows that the “husband-wife team” model was one way in which women found a role in academia (4: 1511). For her part, Sarah Freeman, who did not marry, attained her PhD from Johns Hopkins in 1934, going on to assist Robinson in various research roles (4: 1550-1552).
Kaiser points out that these various, non-traditional, flexible and intermittent roles, some paid and others volunteer based, are typical of women in academic pursuits. Because they lack the high profile of male counterparts, he writes, “To find the feminine footprint in our history we have to look harder since, like Ellingson, women often did not have the same career trajectories as men” (7: 2464-2468).
Ultimately, this is what makes Kaiser’s book so important. In exposing one particular case where a woman’s work was wrongly appropriated, Kaiser has drawn attention to a much more pervasive and everyday phenomenon: the comparative invisibility of women’s contribution to academic, investigative, and creative achievements. All of us part-time, intermittent, casual, paid or unpaid participants in academic research owe Kaiser a debt of gratitude. The initial reception accorded to his detective work is not encouraging, but now that Archaeology, sexism, and scandal has broken the ice, it is to be hoped that other previously invisible women contributors will be recognized for work which has, until now, largely been ignored.
In-text references give the chapter number followed by location number.
1. Kathy L. Gaca, review of Kaiser in Bryn Mawr Classical Review http://bmcr.brynmawr.edu/2015/2015-02-03.html
2. Alan Kaiser, ‘Why the peer review process works even when it doesn’t,’ Savage minds: notes and queries in anthropology http://savageminds.org/2015/02/23/why-the-peer-review-process-works-even-when-it-doesnt/ 23 February 2015