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A Complicated Man, Outlined Clearly In Emily Wilson's New 'Odyssey'

"Sing to me of the man, muse, the man of twists and turns." Remember reading those lines in high school? It's the Odyssey — and nearly three millennia after its creation there are hundreds of translations of Homer's epic. But only now do we have a translation into English done by a woman, University of Pennsylvania classical studies professor Emily Wilson.

Wilson discovered the Odyssey after playing the part of Athena in a school play. "I was a shy, unhappy eight-year-old in a new school," she recalls, "and the new school was wonderful, because they put on a production of the Odyssey for eight-year-olds, which involved a lot of costumes, papier-mache masks — I had a helmet which I loved wearing, and I got to be Athena and I got to pretend to be guiding Odysseus to blind the Cyclops, who was played by the headmaster."

Interview Highlights

On remembering that eight-year-old

The Odyssey itself is very much interested in whether somebody — specifically Odysseus — can be the same person over time and space. Whether the Odysseus that was in Ithaca 20 years before can be the same Odysseus who's back in Ithaca 20 years later. So I definitely thought about that in relation to my own life, and also in relation to how the poem is figuring is time, and how identity might change when you're in a different place, with different people and you're 20 or 40 years older.

On how she arrived at her translation

I spent many many many days and hours and weeks rewriting and rewriting and rewriting. I didn't sort of instantly have the muse speak to me, how I should translate it ... but what I wanted to do was have something of what I see in the original, which is a crystalline clarity, even though some of the words are difficult vocabulary, would have been difficult vocabulary for a classic, fifth-century Greek, the syntax is very very clear ... Combined with that, I wanted to have a sense of artifice, because I hope that the listeners can hear, my version is iambic pentameter, and it has a speed that matches the speed of the original.

On why we should read (or reread) the Odyssey now

The sense that this is a poem about identity and belonging ... it's a poem about nostos, which is the Greek word for homecoming, and I think the poem is sort of smart in making homecoming a question, rather than a predetermined "we know what home is, we know what it is to be in your own place and to be yourself." Odysseus comes home, geographically, to Ithaca, halfway through the poem. But the nostos isn't complete. He isn't yet home — there's still another 12 books to go. Because homecoming also involves reforging all his relationships with all the people who matter, and also killing the people he figures as having taken over his proper place. So the whole question of whether one person's belonging means the exclusion of other people, or whether we can have an inclusive or an exclusive notion of what a home is, I think that's a super important question right now, and it's super important in the poem.

This story was produced for radio by Barrie Hardymon and Peter Breslow, and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.