Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, widely praised when it was published in the autumn of 2017, knocked Richmond Lattimore’s Odyssey translation right off the reading list for Columbia College’s famed core curriculum in less than a year.
How big a deal is that? The Lattimore Odyssey had staked its claim for undergraduate attention as long ago as the 1960s, serving up erudition to thousands of Columbia freshmen and sophomores marching through the classics, year in and year out.
Quite a feat when one considers there have been about 60 translations of The Odyssey into English since George Chapman’s inaugural effort in the early 17th century. A dozen have appeared since 2000 alone. Wilson blew them all away.
As difficult as knocking Lattimore from the Columbia syllabus might seem, however, it now pales somewhat on the list of Wilson’s unsought literary achievements.
On Wednesday, the 47-year-old, British-born classicist at the University of Pennsylvania was named one of 26 recipients of a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which brings with it a monetary award of $625,000, and not-a-little cachet. It’s called the “genius award.”
Locally, Jeffrey Alan Miller, a Montclair State University associate professor of English who discovered the earliest known draft of the King James Bible, received a grant.
So did Cameron Rowland, a Friends Select graduate, who creates art using materials seized in civil forfeiture or created by prison labor. He’s one of the youngest recipients of the grant, at age 30.
Wilson is one of the few translators of ancient Greek texts to be so honored since the grants began in 1981.
“I heard about it a month ago and I still don’t really believe it,” she said by phone from her Penn office. “It’s strange. You don’t really think the Greek and Roman world is going to be the way to fame and fortune.”
She certainly didn’t think a translation of The Odyssey would be a ticket to anything. The field is very crowded. But an editor at W.W. Norton convinced her that Homer was worth spending five difficult, and at times frustrating, years to render into English.
“I thought maybe I shouldn’t do this because there are already so many,” she said. “I didn’t think it would be worthwhile to do one that’s more or less the same as the others. One of the big things that drove me was thinking about poetic form. You’ll remember from the Lattimore that it is not in regular meter. It’s laid out by verse, but it doesn’t have any particular beat or musical stress to the lines.”
Wilson wanted to focus on the clarity and the beauty of the Homer. (The Odyssey is written in lines of six beats.)
Wilson determined that her translation would bear fruit, if it bore anything at all, through use of classic English iambic pentameter — lines of five beats, rendered in a straightforward manner. Here is her opening, which attracted lavish praise:
“I wanted to bring out the potential,” Wilson said. “There’s more than one voice. There’s more than one character. Each of the characters is vivid, well-rounded, and has their own different perspective in the narrative. It’s not as Odysseus-centric as some translations might make you think.”
Wilson, who has also translated Euripides and Seneca (“Nobody cares about Seneca,” she said. “I care.”) and is now at work on Homer’s Iliad, the predecessor of the great road tale.
The MacArthur award, she said, obviously provides some freedom, but it also means “drawing attention” to Greco-Roman studies.
“I’m excited about the publicity it potentially brings — not to me personally, but to the fields of translation, poetics, history. And I hope it’s a way to get other people to engage in those fields.”