Emily Wilson wants you to read Homer | Education | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST

Emily Wilson wants you to read Homer

The superstar of classics translation brings ancient Greek poetry to TikTok

Emily Wilson is bowing her upper body to the sea goddess Thetis, mother of the greatest Greek warrior, Achilles. Facing her is a packed lecture hall at the University of King’s College, where Wilson is giving this year’s Alex Fountain Memorial Lecture Wednesday Mar. 6. She sports a golden brooch of a hippocampus—a Greek mythological sea-horse—to honour Thetis, because, she tells the crowd of hundreds, “we all need a goddess mother on our side.”

In the next breath, Wilson makes a Barbie joke: In The Iliad, Thetis recruits the Greek god Zeus to restore Achilles’ lost honour by interfering with the Trojan War, thus enticing him to fight, “while Achilles is sitting on the sidelines doing something like ‘The Job of Beach.’” The hall erupts with laughter.

Wilson’s translations are big on TikTok and in lecture halls, and are praised by reviewers.

@inkonfireee At the Boston Book Festival, I was lucky enough to see the panel where Emily Wilson discussed her translation of The Iliad, and graced our presence with this lovely and impactful reading. I also got her to sign my copy of her translation of The Iliad and fangirled to her a little bit <3 #emilywilson #ancientgreek #iliad #translation #theodysseyemilywilson #bostonbookfestival #boston #booktok #mythology #achilles #patrochilles #homer #greek #reading #boston #aloud ♬ original sound - Christina Bagni

Her Fountain lecture, “Re-translating Homer: Why It Matters,'' focused on her 2023 English translation of The Iliad, Homer’s 8th-century epic poem. Wilson’s 2018 translation of Homer’s The Odyssey has received wide acclaim. Students at King’s read Wilson’s translations of Homer in their Foundation Year Programme. During the Mar. 6 lecture, new and worn copies of both books dot the desks.

Wilson has been teaching Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania for the last 20 years. She comes from a family of scholars and writers. She graduated from Oxford University and Yale. She’s a dyed-in-the-wool classics-buff-cum-academic-trendsetter: tattooed, witty, goofy and vibrant. Arms raised, she performs stanzas from The Iliad in its original Greek, sending sparks through the rapt audience.

Her translations are praised for their clarity and use of plain language. She’s become the literal voice of a generation of new classics readers—a Fox Mulder of ancient myths or Queen Bey of Homeric performance.

She wants her translations to be read by all kinds of people—inside and outside higher education. “Homeric poetry was well known, familiar and enjoyed by everyone in the Greek-speaking ancient world,” she tells The Coast before her lecture. “It wasn't an elite-only, fancy pants, people-can’t-understand-this text, so why should it be nowadays?”

Inside the feelings of ancient warriors

Wilson began translating The Odyssey 12 years ago. Her twist was to modify the Greek dactylic hexameter into Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter. Older translations are written in free verse or prose. “They don't have the regular rhythm, which is an essential part of the experience of The Iliad and The Odyssey in Greek,” says Wilson, “because they were usually experienced out loud in antiquity,” as a part of oral folk traditions. “It's not like reading a novel—it has this musical rhythm all the way through.”

Translation is writing; it’s a craft. Wilson chooses a word, a phrase to be true to its original alliteration and meaning, while also being true to the story. As a translator, Wilson is a chameleon moving between different authors and characters. “I'm Homer, but also, here I'm Achilles and here I'm Agamemnon—I've got to have a different voice for each of them.”

Wilson won’t pick a favourite character to read or write from The Iliad, but, gun-to-her-head, it’s Achilles. “The poem itself invites you to be so desperate for more Achilles because three quarters of the time, you don't get any!” In Achilles, “you get a dynamic, charismatic protagonist and then you don't give us him! It's frustrating. You're set up to be longing for more.”

First (word) impressions

Wilson says the way Homer holds back on Achilles is true to his weird and original approach to storytelling in The Iliad, where he doesn’t give us the beginning or the end of the war. That’s why the words you do get are important. Memorable first lines can make a book—think Moby Dick or Lolita. This is a unique challenge for a translator.

For example, the first word of The Odyssey is “ἄνδρα,” which means man. The word “polytropon” qualifies it. In Wilson’s version, the first line is “Tell me about a complicated man,” to describe the eponymous Odysseus. Other translations described him as an “ingenious hero,” or “a man skilled in all ways of contending.” Wilson not only writes more clearly, but remarkably she kept her translation of The Odyssey to the same word count as the original. Her Odyssey begins:

"Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wanted and was lost
when he had wrecked the Holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered on the sea, and how he worked
to save his live and bring his men back home."

Wilson solidified her voice in the first line of The Iliad, too, with her emphasis on the word “wrath.” The original begins with the Greek word, “μῆνιν,” which can mean “wrath, rage or anger,” says Wilson. “I wrestled quite a lot with which of those possibilities to use,” ultimately choosing “wrath,” because it signifies a divine kind of anger, “not normal human anger,” that half-god Achilles embodies in The Iliad.

It begins:

"Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath,
of great Achilles, son of Peleus,
which caused the Greeks immeasurable pain
and sent so many noble souls of heroes
to Hades, and made men the spoils of dogs."

Why Homer matters

Wilson encourages people to read Homer, whether translated or in the original Greek as she first studied it, because it’s important “these myths continue to be part of a living tradition.” Homer’s poems “ give you an insight into some imaginative version of life 3,000 years ago. The fact that it's both alien and then, once you start reading it, can affect you emotionally, can become familiar and yet it's also strange—that’s extremely valuable.”

Homer re-trains us to read stories that can’t be condensed into a Tweet.

“It's not the kind of thing you can sum up and say, ‘The Iliad is all about grief and rage,’ even though you can also sum it up and say that, because it is about those things,” says Wilson.

The Iliad is “polytropon.” It’s complicated.

“It's both glorifying these warriors who are so brave and want to give their lives for chaos, glory and success, and yet, it's also showing how deeply destructive that warrior code of ‘death for glory’ is.”

Wilson doesn’t want to predict what future translations of Homer will look like. She’s humble to acknowledge that hers might already be the definitive versions for this generation. She hopes her translations are “open enough texts that they’re available for whichever novelists and Percy Jacksons of the future want to do with them."

Lauren Phillips, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Lauren Phillips is The Coast’s Education Reporter, a position created in September 2023 with support from the Local Journalism Initiative. Lauren is a graduate of the journalism program at the University of King’s College, and has written on education and sports at Dal News and Saint Mary's Athletics for over...
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