Translating Scholarship

Emily Wilson is professor of classical studies and graduate chair of the program in comparative literature and literary theory at the University of Pennsylvania. We asked her about her approach to translating The Odyssey and about her popular @EmilyRCWilson Twitter threads. A condensed version of this interview was published in the Summer 2019 MLA Newsletter

Paula Krebs: You’ve said that creating translations is a way of communicating with an audience beyond colleagues and students. Does that desire to connect to readers outside the academy shape the choices you make in translating classical texts?

Emily Wilson: For the particular translations I’ve created—of Seneca’s tragedies, Euripides, Sophocles, and Homer—I knew that the primary readership had to be undergraduates and their teachers, including teachers who couldn’t read the original as well as those who could. But of course I hoped that there would be other kinds of readers too. Norton, the publisher of my Odyssey translation, issued it first in a lovely hardcover edition with lovely shiny gold cover art, which was priced beyond what most college students could be expected to pay for a course book; it was marketed as a book that people might buy as a holiday gift, and indeed they did; I was grateful. The marketing isn’t usually something that the author or translator can entirely control; I’d have loved to sell Seneca and Euripides as holiday gifts too—some pedophagy to discuss over the festive meal!—but sadly that didn’t happen.

I was conscious while creating each of my translations that these texts ideally should work for a number of very different demographics: those who had read the original, those who hadn’t; eighteen-year-olds, eighty-year-olds, even precocious eight-year-olds; those who had read other translations of the same text, those who hadn’t; general readers taking it on voluntarily as well as those being forced through at a quick march; and if possible, theater people, artists, poets and poetry people, as well as classicists and historians in the academy. My editor told me to visualize then-President Barack Obama as my target reader for the introduction, which was helpful; I knew I had to be able to write for a highly intelligent, perhaps well-informed reader, who was probably not any kind of specialist in Homer or archaic Greece. I wanted to connect with fellow Homerists and try to make an intervention in how the Homeric poems are presented in the scholarly literature as well as in the classroom; I felt that in the contemporary scholarly and commentary tradition, as well as beyond the world of specialists, there is still a tendency to read The Odyssey as if it were entirely told from Odysseus’s point of view, rather than paying the kind of attention I think needs to be paid to the poem’s complex ethics and complex narrative perspectives.

At the same time, especially for The Odyssey—a text that’s often taught in American high schools as well as colleges and may be the first, for some readers the only, work of ancient literature they ever read—I wanted to change common cultural perceptions about what ancient epic is like, both in poetics and in world views and world building. It seems to me really important to notice that translations of ultracanonical texts can make a huge difference to what these texts are used to teach in the classroom, at any level—from middle school to graduate level. The Odyssey is often seen as a foundational text about a white elite man’s struggle to return to his hetero-normative marriage, his success in slaughtering or outwitting native peoples, his dominance over his wife and slaves, and the triumph of consumerism, patriarchy, militarism, and normal male white people over foreigners. Those ways of reading are simplifications of the text, and they lurk, it seems to me, behind the perceptions of classicists as well as nonspecialists. I think it’s essential to get them out into the open so they can be discussed and interrogated. The Cliff Notes on Odyssey 22, drawing on the Fagles translation, tells the student who can’t be bothered to read the text that the death of the “servant girls” has a “macabre beauty”; this strikes me as a pretty horrifying account of a scene of gendered violence, and I think we ought to be worried about what it means to present it in these (entirely debatable) terms, when we’re thinking about what we use the canon for—whether in the academy or beyond. This isn’t just about gender, of course; it’s more fundamentally about how every work of canonical literature presents an image of society. If we don’t think hard, clearly and critically about the text’s political or social world, we can end up inscribing some terrible things. So I thought as hard as I could, as a reader, a scholar, and a translator, about the ways that the poem contains multiple different points of view. I thought hard about how to echo that complexity, how to give voice to characters other than Odysseus himself, as well as the wonderfully complex, fascinating protagonist himself; how to ensure that violence, including structural violence (like slavery) was visible to the reader.

I’d taught The Odyssey in several different translations before, and had also had to choose translations to use in the Norton Anthology of World Literature, of which I’m the classics editor. I was aware, from my experiences in the classroom, that every translation I’d used seemed to alienate or silence the students’ critical faculties. For instance, I was shocked every time, with several different translations, to see that groups of intelligent kids would, time and again, fail to register that the first thing Odysseus does, after leaving Troy, is invade the island of the Kikones and slaughter all the men and enslave all the women. I realized that this episode, which is clearly described in the original poem, seemed to have become invisible to them, because the framing of the translations we were reading—either in an archaizing-foreignizing style, like the Lattimore, or the melodramatic, exclamatory heroism of Fagles, or various others—seemed to encourage the students to treat Homer’s vivid characters as stock types, and to assume that, back in the day, nobody ever minded being enslaved or killed or raped. I was, again, repeatedly surprised to realize that the narratological and ethical complexities of Odysseus’s encounter with the Cyclops were repeatedly entirely missed by students; it took a great deal more pedagogical effort to tease out the representational layers of this first-person account of a colonial encounter when I taught it in English translation, compared to when I taught the same passage in Greek. I felt I needed to work out, in my own translation, how to make the poem newly legible, newly visible, for anglophone readers, whether students or any other kind of reader.

I didn’t feel I had to do entirely different things for different audiences. For everyone, I wanted to convey something of the joy of reading Homer, and the ways that these poems are both so simple and so difficult at the same time. I wanted to echo the regular poetic rhythm of the original, the clarity of Homer’s language, and at the same time the complexity of the emotions, the social dynamics, the ethics, the characterizations, the shifting narrative points of view.

I was very lucky in having a lovely editor at Norton, Pete Simon, who doesn’t know Greek but read every book once I was almost done with it, very carefully, next to other translations, and gave me acute feedback based on his own sense of a good English sentence. Sometimes he would say, “But XYZ other translator has this instead,” and sometimes I would say, “But that’s not what the Greek has.” Often his questions clarified what I was trying to do; he made me make numberless sentences punchier and clearer and stronger. I also summoned groups of graduate students and colleagues at Penn and read each book out loud to them, to get the feedback from a different demographic. I also tried out drafts on friends, and repeatedly on my cats or an empty room at home. I didn’t always change things based on the feedback I got, but the whole elaborate process of multiple revisions and responses from multiple eyes and ears made me far more aware than I would otherwise have been of what the specific effects I was creating might be, for different readers. It was very different from the process that most of us go through with academic books or articles, where you might give a talk based on the work, and get reader’s reports, but you probably won’t go through dozens of drafts of the same sentence, and try that sentence out, with a slightly different phrasing, on dozens of different audiences. I knew that different things would and did strike different readers as odd or puzzling; the exercise of workshopping, revising, and getting feedback from different kinds of readers was extremely useful in creating for me a greater consciousness of what kind of communication I was making.

Beyond all that, even if listeners or readers said nothing—even if they were cats or my poor children, or the walls of the room—the exercise of reading out loud, many, many times, is essential to my practice, in trying to re-create texts that were originally designed for oral performance. In the academy, we often talk about literature in very theoretical terms; I do it myself, and I am not in any way understating the importance of analytical criticism. I wanted to create texts that would invite critical thinking. But beyond that, on the most visceral level, I wanted my translations to feel alive in the mouth, the body, and the feelings of the reader. It has been especially thrilling to me to see that my Odyssey translation in particular has invited some wonderful responses from many people outside the academy. I’ve had wonderful letters from dozens of people, many of whom have read it out loud to spouses, sick relatives, innocent children, or groups of friends, frenemies, and book clubs. I’ve been thrilled to see a number of artistic responses from people around the world—such as a musical score by Karem Rousrom, to be sung by Lorelei Quartet / A Far Cry, in Boston, and paintings by Edouard Baribeaud last year and this year by Chris Ofili. It’s been thrilling also to hear from other translators and poets and to feel that there’s so much potential for dialogue among people who are obsessed with language, whether or not they are in the academy. I’ve done public talks with Madeline Miller several times, and Maria Davana Headley, and Margaret Atwood and Valerie Martin and a range of other writers and intellectuals; it’s been exciting to see all the common ground between writers and storytellers from different perspectives. I’m also thrilled to hear, as I do fairly regularly, from high school teachers who tell me it’s working for their students, including high schools (and colleges) with a lot of immigrant students; this is a poem that can speak pretty directly to immigrant experiences, as well as to experiences of broken homes and violence in communities.   There was an initiative in Baltimore last year, run by Amy Bernstein, to buy copies for underserved high school students, and they created projects based on their study both of my Odyssey translation and Hamilton. I created a much-abridged staged reading that was directed at BAM by Desiree Sanchez last year, with veteran actors from Aquila Theater, and she’s doing another, more fully theatrical version next year; it was very moving to see how the veterans connected with this dramatic poem about the veteran experience in all its complexity.

Academics don’t always have to choose between communicating with each other and communicating in a broader conversation.

PK: Translators inevitably weigh a desire to capture the distinctive voice of the original text and its culture with a desire to speak to contemporary audiences, to eliminate barriers between the author and the audience. What factors influenced your choices in translating The Odyssey?

EW: One of my primary motives in taking on the translation of this already much-translated poem was that most modern versions are in prose or stacked prose; they don’t do anything to echo the musicality and regular rhythms of the original. I didn’t see that choice, to use very regular iambic pentameter, as necessarily alienating, but of course it wasn’t necessarily the opposite either. I also chose to make my translation the same length as the original; that was motivated by a sense that most English versions feel too long, too slow, compared to the original; but I’m not sure that I’d see it as necessarily about speaking to contemporary audiences as such. Presumably archaic and classical audiences, too, enjoyed a good cracking pace to the story; that’s why Homer is so absorbing in the original.  In talking about translation, theorists often use the binary of “domesticizing” versus “foreignizing”; but as translation theorists also know well, that binary is a radical oversimplification, as is the other common set of binaries, to do with “loose” versus “literal,” or “faithful” versus “poetic.” There’s really no possible way to create a text that captures every element of a text from a completely different sociolinguistic culture. You can use an archaic or unidiomatic or stiff kind of English; but that doesn’t exactly “capture” anything, if the original isn’t archaic in quite that way, and if the original isn’t stiff or unidiomatic, or didn’t feel that way to audiences at any point of antiquity, at least to our knowledge. The syntax of Homer is mostly very, very easy; I wanted to echo that. I made entirely different choices in translating Seneca, whose style is entirely different; the bombast that I wanted to inject into my Senecan English would have felt entirely out of place for Homer. In working, now, on the Iliad, I very much don’t want it to sound exactly the same as The Odyssey. There’s much more at stake than the binary of one audience versus another.  There is the specific feel of each individual text, each individual passage or character or line or phrase, and how to make that come alive both in a moment, and in the context of a whole large tapestry of language.

How do you make a text that feels alien and familiar at the same time? I think a lot about the scene in The Odyssey when Odysseus wakes up on his own home island of Ithaca and doesn’t recognize it, because it’s covered in fog sent by Athena. It’s a moment of geographical and temporal confusion: he doesn’t know where he is in space, and also where he is in time, because Ithaca exists both in the present and in the twenty-years-ago past. I see my own task as a translator as analogous to that scene: I want to convey the reader, like Odysseus in the swift magical self-steering Phaeacian boat, across a vast distance, with smooth, ostensibly effortless energy, so she’ll sometimes feel unaware of where she is in time or in text, or of my own labors; but I also want to create moments of bewilderment, when the reader doesn’t quite know if it’s three thousand years ago or now. The Homeric poems are very recognizable, very human, very relatable and gripping, and also very alien; I wanted to create an experience of both. I’ve sometimes encountered people telling me that I am surely trying to make Homer more simple, or more plain, or more contemporary, or more relatable. I don’t really recognize those goals as mine. I don’t see using a regular meter as necessarily a move toward relatability, even though I also think of meter as a way of inviting the reader to feel the text with her whole body. As I suggested earlier, I wanted to bring out the emotional and ethical and narratological complexities of the text, while also echoing the simplicity and directness of Homer’s syntax. I hoped that my translation would feel immersive enough that the reader would be able to have those moments of surprised alienation. If the whole thing is unidiomatic and stiff, you may not feel particularly startled by any of it, or have a visceral awareness of gaps in time and culture; whereas if a text invites you in and seduces you a little bit, with some clarity, humor, and a twinkle in the eye, you may be genuinely struck by cultural difference—at least that’s my hope. I want the reader to have a sense, for example, of how much Telemachus is like any normal moody bullied angry aggressive dopey man-child adolescent—but that at the same time, he’s growing up to be an elite warrior, and his culture’s expectations of him are quite different than those that surround most elite young men in American society. It’s all plain sailing, a nice boat trip, and all of a sudden, you get to the beach, and they’re slaughtering a hundred bulls to Poseidon. Cultural alienation, and engagement with cultural difference, can be created and enabled by linguistic clarity and by the reader’s sense that the translator isn’t speaking in a show-off voice or a fake foreign accent; she’s speaking to you, whoever you may be, about a world you can understand though you may not know it yet.

I believe translators should, ideally, think hard about the particular strategies they want to adopt, based on the place of the translated text in the receiving culture and based on their readers’ specific preconceptions. Those are different for translators of modern novels versus translators of classical texts. In the case of Homer, there are all kinds of debatable prejudices that a contemporary American or British reader is likely to have, such as that this poetry will be pompous, “epic” in the style of Pope or Milton rather than Homer; or that this text will be boring, or inaccessible—even though in antiquity that wasn’t at all how people felt about Homer; they listened to these poems for fun. I wanted to convey something of the joy that people in antiquity might have felt in Homer and that I myself feel in reading the Greek poems.

PK: Your @EmilyRCWilson threads examine the challenges of translation and analyze specific choices that translators of  Odyssey have made. What inspired you to use Twitter to talk about translation practice?

EW: I joined Twitter for the first time when my translation of The Odyssey had been out for a little while, as a way to get involved in a more public conversation about translation. It seemed clear to me from conversations, classes, and reviews—of my translation(s) and others—that the level of public understanding of translation, both conceptually and practically, is very low in the United States and United Kingdom, for obvious reasons. Many people in these countries are more or less monolingual; many people haven’t spent much or any time thinking about how languages are different from each other. Within the anglophone classical studies world in particular, there is perhaps an even deeper set of blind spots, because the pedagogy in dead languages so often involves a fetishization of clunky syntactical translations as a tool for language learning. This means that many people who have taken a couple of years of Latin have a notion that there is a right answer to a text in an ancient language, as if Homer and Virgil were crossword puzzles, waiting to be solved by an intermediate student. Latin and ancient Greek students talk about “translating,” rather than reading or acquiring fluency. It’s this set of prejudices that encourages the idea that translations of ancient texts ought to sound barely comprehensible in English, like the renderings of students who don’t really understand the language. The fact that translations are always interpretative is not in the least bit new within the world of translation studies; but a great many people, in the academy as well as beyond, including those who teach languages (like classicists), seem to have little detailed understanding of what it means to say that. I definitely wanted to address academics as well as nonacademics, and everyone in between, in inviting some broader understanding of what literary translation is. So I figured I’d do the exercise of writing little comparisons of a line or two from The Odyssey, just to show how very different they are, and how the translator’s interpretative framework, whether consciously or unconsciously, always affects the result.

PK: What have you learned about tweeting since you first started? Has the way you’ve tweeted evolved?

EW: I learned about it as I did it. I learned about the basics of using Twitter—like how to create a linked thread, which I totally messed up on my first one. I also learned a lot about the specifics of different translations. I didn’t look at other translations while I was creating mine, so I had no idea when and how my version would be different from those of others. It was very interesting to learn about differences, both between other versions and between dominant translation trends and mine.

I was aware that a certain number of readers of reviews of my translation—usually people who had not got very far into the actual text—seemed to think I had a political agenda or axe to grind. I found that very puzzling, and I wanted to be able to talk about it, ideally without being defensive or aggressive. I suspect that this worry was not really the result of anything about me or my work, but the marketing of the translation as the first published in English by a woman, which triggered some readers into terror that I might be a feminist. I found my Twitter threads useful as a way of pointing out that having a gender identity, having attitudes to gender, and making particular decisions about the social dynamics of the poem are factors common to every single translator of the poem, whether we’re male, female, nonbinary/ genderqueer/ trans, or something else. I’m in no way unique in those respects.

In many ways, my Twitter is not at all revolutionary; it’s just bringing some old-fashioned close reading and comparative analysis to a platform that is often dominated by hot takes and sound bites. In creating comparisons, I wanted to clarify the nature of particular translators’ choices, for the Greekless reader. But I very much didn’t want to have readers think that my own interpretations and translations are the only possible valid ones. I read the piece Dan Chiasson wrote about my Twitter account, https://www.newyorker.com/culture/rabbit-holes/the-classics-scholar-redefining-what-twitter-can-do, for which I was grateful, though I thought hard about his line: “Twitter . . . is not often a seminar: it’s a knife fight.” The more I dipped into Twitter more broadly, the more I felt depressed by the knife-fight aspect of #PoliticsTwitter, and even #ClassicsTwitter; I didn’t want to play a part in turning the parts of the platform I usually like most—#PoetryTwitter, #WritingTwitter, #HistorianTwitter, and #TranslationTwitter—into scenes reminiscent of the Iliad. In later posts, I tried to think about my threads as miniature essays whose main focus would be an observation about either the difficulty of translating Homer, for anyone (not just me!), or the poem itself, with some comparative translation analysis interwoven. I also tried, in revisions or additions to earlier threads, to add comparisons with other female translators of The Odyssey, such as Anne Dacier into French and Rosa Onesti into Italian, to try to chip away at the problematic assumptions about gender that seem to encourage people in the United States and United Kingdom to see me as representing “the” female perspective on Homer—as if I were the only female Homerist who has ever lived. Women scholars and women writers often seem to be defined as Exceptional Women; I very much don’t want to enable the erasure of the many, many brilliant female scholars, writers and poets whose work I’ve learnt from.

Twitter is an engaging, enraging, potentially all-consuming platform. Right now, I’m honestly not engaging with it much. I’m working hard on my translation of the Iliad, and I don’t want either to be constantly going back to old work or to be tweeting about work in progress—or doing empty self-promotion, which makes for the most boring Twitter accounts ever. I’ll probably return to more engagement with the twitterverse at a future time, when the Muse prompts me to do so and when I feel ready to find ways to keep it fresh. I’m not interested in making the same points over and over. I’ll have to find new stories to tell that are tellable on that platform.

I don’t know if this is or isn’t a good lesson for others, but I have also learnt that it’s possible to vary one’s level of engagement with social media, and public engagement more generally. I love communicating with people and having interesting conversations about Homer, literature, ideas, and the ancient world. But I also love barricading myself in my room or the library and spending slow hours meditating on texts. You can’t always do it all, all at once, and it’s legitimate to take a break sometimes.

PK: What advice would you have for MLA members who want to start a broader conversation about their scholarly work?

EW: One of my central realizations about Twitter, a platform from which I’d always felt alienated and puzzled by, was simply that I could bring to it the skills that I already had. Those included the skill of packing a lot of meaning into a tiny number of words—a skill I’d honed in creating line-for-line translations—as well as pedagogy in close reading. Twitter—and other social media platforms too—can be a virtual classroom, and all MLA members already know a great deal about pedagogy. Of course, as in any classroom, you have to avoid patronizing your students, and you also have to avoid losing or alienating them by assuming they know things that they probably don’t.  Clarity without dumbing down seems to me the goal of any communication or conversation about scholarly work, either inside the academy or beyond. I also think a key fact to bear in mind is that academics are not smarter than nonacademics. When we talk only to specialists in our field, we can cut a lot of corners; we don’t have to explain all the terms we’ve learned from the pile of scholarly literature we’ve read on the subject at hand. We may also not bother as much as we should about whether our sentences are really good sentences, because we assume that people within the small world of our specialty will be speed reading our work for the gist. We can’t cut those corners when we talk to nonspecialists. But that doesn’t mean simplifying; it just means that different elements need to be explained and clarified, and clarity is at a higher premium. I personally feel that my work as a translator is in fact scholarship; it’s a deep, detailed critical practice, based on intense study of a text and other scholarship on that text.  But I also feel that my practice of several different kinds of writing, for different audiences—including poetic translation as well as nonacademic prose writing, on Twitter and in the public press—has improved my ability to communicate in scholarly writing, and in the classroom, too. I’d say we need to start moving away from drawing so many boundaries between what counts as academic writing and counts for the tenure file. I wish academics in the humanities could do much more to think and talk about what those boundaries mean, and why we seem to be so attached to them. It concerns me that young people in the humanities are often afraid to spend too much time on projects that are counted as “nonscholarly,” even if they involve highly creative, innovative, intellectual, scholarly work (like translations or blogs or anything else that isn’t the standard peer-reviewed monograph or article). I wish we could change the terms of appointment and promotion in more institutions, to enable more broad and deep conversations. That’s the bigger institutional picture. To individuals, I’d say, let go of those preconceptions, and do your work: tell a complicated, important, interesting truth, in clear, engaging language, with precise attention to conveying exactly what you hope to convey. Think hard about who you want to talk to, and think about why nonacademics should care about what you yourself care about. If more of us did that, more and better, there would be a far deeper understanding among nonacademics of what the humanities are and why we need to protect them.

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