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Kevin Christopher RoblesDecember 22, 2023
Emily Wilson (Photo by Daniel McGarrity)

In 2018, Emily Wilson, a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, became the first woman to write a full translation of Homer’s Odyssey in English. For that translation, she received no shortage of acclaim from classicists and readers alike, who have praised her work for its accessibility and energy. Recently, Dr. Wilson published her translation of the Iliad, a text that is timely, given the uptick of war and strife the world over.

America interviewed Dr. Wilson by email after the publication of the Iliad to discuss its importance to both young and old readers, its relationship with faith and what lessons we can glean about essential human nature from such an ancient text. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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"Ideally, the Homeric poems are the kinds of books you might read first as a child, but then understand in a whole new way when you reread them later in life."

Dr. Wilson, in your introduction to the Odyssey, you mention that your first encounter with the text was when, at eight years old, you portrayed Athena in a stage production of the epic. For many of us, our initial exposure to the Iliad and the Odyssey occurred during our school years. How did you approach the prospect that your translation might serve as the first time that many readers will encounter Homer?

Homer is for everyone, young and old. Ideally, the Homeric poems are the kinds of books you might read first as a child, but then understand in a whole new way when you reread them later in life.

When thinking specifically about the first-time and/or young reader, I felt I needed to keep constantly in mind the qualities of Homeric poetry that still engage me, at my own middle-aged stage of life: rapidity, emotional intensity and clarity of narrative. I hope that people who read these poems in youth will come back to them and find new meanings, but I also know that even the first read won’t feel meaningful—or the young reader may skip the text entirely and resort to SparkNotes—if I don’t work as hard as I can to convey how fascinating these poems are, and how intensely emotional. If a translation of Homer is boring, it’s a failure for readers of any age, because Homer is anything but boring.

My job as a translator is not to teach the class for the instructors who will use the translation with their students, but to make their task easier and more enriching, by aiming to be clear where the original is clear, and to avoid simplifying where the original is varied or ambiguous.

It appears to me that, unlike many other translations of Homer, your work is tailored to be read aloud. There’s a rhythmic quality that suggests a certain musicality, which I think many younger readers did not grasp when they read the works in school. What were your intentions in creating a translation that emphasizes the auditory experience for readers? How do you hope this impacts the way these poems are taught?

I was for many years frustrated that most 20th and 21st-century translations both of Homer and other ancient metrical verse are done into prose or free verse. One of my primary motives for retranslating the Homeric poems was simply to provide an alternative: to use very regular meter, echoing the metricality of the originals, inviting reading or performance out loud, and at the same time, to stick close to the Greek and echo the clarity and energy of Homeric storytelling. I hope my use of meter and my attentiveness to sound more broadly—my attempts to echo the alliteration and other sonic qualities of the original— changes things for many readers, of the physical [books] and ebooks and of course also for listeners to the wonderful audiobook, performed brilliantly by Audra McDonald. A huge element of my process was constant reading out loud, both of the originals and my own drafts in progress.

"These epics are long poems, but they don’t feel long if you’re carried along by the vast flowing river of sound."

Students may learn theoretically that the Iliad was experienced as an oral performance text in antiquity, even if they read a free verse translation. But they can experience that truth in a more experiential way, if they read Homer in a metrical translation that invites reading out loud. I hope my translations will invite everyone—general readers, students and instructors—to do lots of reading out loud and hamming it up, getting inside the language and the characters, and getting a clear sense of how performative and proto-dramatic these poems are. These epics are long poems, but they don’t feel long if you’re carried along by the vast flowing river of sound.

The portrayals of masculinity in the Iliad seem quite multifaceted. Today, there’s considerable fascination with the concept of masculinity and its place in modern society. What considerations guided your portrayal of masculinity in the poem?

The portrayals of all Homeric characters, male and female, are definitely multifaceted. This is a huge piece of why I love Homer so much; the characters are so rounded and alive.

I want to point out first that cruelty, rage and the yearning for glorious triumph over others is absolutely not presented in the Iliadas an exclusively masculine quality. Rage and violence are functions of power, not gender, in the world of this poem. Enslaved mortal women don’t get to express rage, even when terrible things are done to them, because they don’t have the power to get vengeance or kill their enemies. But goddesses certainly do. Rage and violence are not confined to male characters.

The reader of the poem will very likely form judgments about the characters, but I don’t want my translation to encourage those judgments to be too quick. I want the reader to feel fully immersed in this strange ancient world, and learn to understand the characters in all their complexity, not leap too fast to blame or condemn. You need to read or listen first, and take the time to understand.

I felt the main framework I needed was empathy, for every character and for the whole social structure and mythical world of the poem. With empathy and deep attentiveness, I hope the reader or listener can understand the complexity of gender as one strand in the Homeric representation of people and societies, both mortal and divine.

"It’s a good thing to shake ourselves out of the idea that the contemporary world is the only one."

A great many readers of America are interested in the intersection between faith and culture. The Odyssey and the Iliad hail from a time and place where morality and ethics greatly differ from our modern understanding. How do you believe your translations resonate with the sensibilities of contemporary believers, especially those raised in Judeo-Christian traditions?

One thing I would say is that Judaism and Christianity are, of course, traditions based on ancient texts. Are the morality, ethics or the representation of the divine in the Iliad definitely more alien to “contemporary sensibilities” than those of Genesis or Leviticus? To me, that seems entirely debatable. Each of these ancient texts is deeply alien in certain ways, and each can be deeply resonant and inspiring to contemporary readers. Of course it is also different, in that there’s no living tradition of worship of the Olympian gods, and the Iliad wasn’t exactly a sacred text even in antiquity.

When I personally first started reading the Homeric poems seriously, as a teenager, I was already a serious reader of the Bible and churchgoer, in the Church of England. My religious beliefs have changed, but I still take religion very seriously. One of the elements of Homer that I first loved was the astonishing sense of the reality of the divine characters, the ways divine characters interact so directly with humans, and the echoes and differences between Homeric and biblical theology.

Reading the Iliad next to the Hebrew Bible can be a useful reminder that modern ideas of monotheism, meaning the idea that only one deity actually exists, rather than that one deity is especially associated with a particular people or individual, were quite unusual in ancient cultures around the world, and within the long course of human history. It’s a good thing to shake ourselves out of the idea that the contemporary world is the only one. I would think that applies all the more for people who are deeply committed to living through guidance from an ancient tradition and ancient set of texts.

Ancient peoples’ understanding of the gods and their relationship with them also differs considerably from how contemporary believers engage with faith. How much consideration was there in giving these differences more clarity?

I was conscious of the depiction of the gods and goddesses as one of the most essential challenges of the project of translating the Iliad. It was even more pressing than for the Odyssey, because the divine characters are so much more numerous and the Iliad devotes far more time to all the familial and social complexities of Olympus. I felt I needed to ensure that the reader or listener could take the divine characters seriously and feel their emotional and physical reality in the world.

Modern readers, if my students are any guide, can be tempted to interpret the gods as puppet-masters, or as allegories (which was a popular way of reading Homer in late antiquity, including by Christian readers). I wanted to do whatever I could, as a translator, to encourage the reader to resist these tendencies, and to understand that these are real deities who really were devoutly worshiped throughout Greek (and Roman) antiquity. The Homeric deities are presented as entirely real, as fully present in the world as the sky or the mountains, and they are far more powerful than any mortal. I wanted to encourage the reader to understand a set of divine beings and a set of religious practices, like animal sacrifice, that are likely to be very different from their own relationship to faith and the divine.

"War is never a story of good versus evil. The Greeks are no more sympathetic than the Trojans (perhaps less). Everyone has a story."

The world is embroiled in several significant armed conflicts—the crisis in Sudan, the invasion of Ukraine and the fraught situation in the Middle East. None of these conflicts are terribly far away from the setting of the Trojan War in the eastern Mediterranean. What insights do you think we can glean from an ancient text like the Iliad that we could apply to further our understanding of war and strife in the modern world?

I think one of the major insights of the Iliad about war that might be useful to bear in mind in the modern world is that the poem shows us, repeatedly and in all manner of different ways, that everyone—immortals and humans, Trojans and Greeks—has intense feelings, and feelings guide actions. The poem shows us, over and over again, the terrible cycle of grief at a loss, which motivates rage to recoup that loss, which causes more loss, more grief, more rage. Economics and strategy are sometimes at the forefront of how we talk about why wars start and continue, and how wars get reported in the press. But feelings, both individual and collective, of grief, rage, shame and desire, including the feelings of the very powerful and those under their power, are also essential in the story of the poem, and of how things happen in real life, including now.

Another, perhaps related point that is very clear from the Iliad is the essential importance of rhetoric and speech in warfare. Characters in the poem spend as much time talking as they do fighting, and words are weapons of war, arguably even more important than spears.

Another crucial insight is that there are always multiple sides to the story of a war. War is never a story of good versus evil. The Greeks are no more sympathetic than the Trojans (perhaps less). Everyone has a story. The Iliad shows how in war, both sides can feel wronged, both sides can feel under attack, the pattern of who attacks and who defends can shift and change with the vicissitudes of war, and it can be difficult to draw clear moral lines.

The poem also shows vividly what happens to non-combatants in war; it ends with the grieving voices of the women, lamenting for the death of Hector and the impending fall of the city, which will mean the slaughter of their male children, and their own enslavement, rape and forced displacement from their homes.

For some people—I know I’m one of them—it can be difficult, some days impossible, to keep reading the news about yet more suffering in wars happening right now. For me, and I think for plenty of other people too, the Iliad gives us a powerful resource in this impasse, not a solution but a place to turn in those times of helplessness. Even when I can’t bear to read or watch any more about what’s happening in current conflicts, I can reread the Iliad, and contemplate and weep for the human suffering in this ancient, mythical-poetic war. It’s not prayer, but I see it as partly analogous to prayer. It’s a way of recognizing and making emotional and cognitive space for the vast array of terrible human suffering in war, even in places far away in space or time, and being in some sense present for it.

Obviously, the Iliad is far from your final project. What can we hope to expect from you in the future?

I am working on some translations of early dialogues of Plato; it’s weird to be writing in prose, and raises new and interesting challenges of voice, characterization and tone. I am also writing a fictional retelling of the ancient myths associated with the Trojan War, as a series of linked short stories. It’s very enjoyable and interesting to do this entirely new kind of writing, not an academic study or a translation, but my own recreation of these ancient characters and tales.

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