Arts & Books Books

The horror and the beauty of ancient Greece

Penelope questioning Odysseus, by Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Tischbein

This is the best ever English translation of The Odyssey, argues Harry Mount

The Odyssey
By Homer, translated by Emily Wilson,
WW Norton, 593pp, £30/$40

The Odyssey – and The Iliad – are everything they’re cracked up to be: the great, early epics on whose shoulders Western European literature stands. But what are you supposed to do about them if you don’t read Greek? Emily Wilson provides the answer in her terrific new translation.

In 1925, Virginia Woolf wrote an essay, “On Not Knowing Greek”. Of course, the old Bloomsbury clever-clogs did know Greek – but her convincing point was that we can never really know Greek. As the greatest of the earliest surviving literary languages, Greek is so pure and underivative that it survives just this side of understanding in our corrupted, unoriginal, plagiarising, modern minds.

So a mighty burden falls on the brain of the Odyssey translator: not only to transmit the meaning of Homeric epic, but also to make readers understand that ancient magic which exists beneath the words themselves.

Emily Wilson – a classics professor at Pennsylvania University (and the daughter of writer AN Wilson and Oxford English don Katherine Duncan-Jones – planet-brained genes, then) has pulled off both tasks magnificently.

She has written, in my opinion, the best ever English translation of the Odyssey. I used to be an EV Rieu man. He was the one who wrote the best-selling Penguin Classics 1946 translation. He stayed true to the original text, but could sound archaic in doing so, like so many classical translators. (My favourite was the priggish Loeb translator who took the Greek for “sperm” and called it “life whiteness”.)

Wilson has played around with Homer’s forms without losing their original sense; in fact, she deepens it. So she’s changed the original meter – dactylic hexameter – into iambic pentameter, the conventional meter for English narrative verse.

Cleverest of all is her ability to take the original epithets – the adjectives used repeatedly to describe the characters, occasionally ad nauseam – and to come up with nimble alternatives. So “grey-eyed Athena” becomes “Athena, with her grey eyes glinting”. And the most famous epithet of them all – “rosy-fingered dawn” – has innumerable Wilsonian versions: “The early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed”; “Dawn was born, her fingers bright with roses”; “Dawn appeared and touched the sky with roses.”

Wilson doesn’t fall into the trap of writing in a grandiloquent, highfalutin style because we revere Homer and because he wrote, or broadcasted, so long ago. Instead, she uses the colloquial language the Greeks would have used. But she is never flippant or annoyingly down-with-the-kids, even when being modern. Calypso, the hot island nymph who bewitches Odysseus for seven years, says that, compared to his wife, Penelope: “I know my body is better than hers is. I am taller, too.” That’s the language catfighting women use today – and the language they used in 1200 BC. As Eumaeus, Odysseus’s old swineherd on Ithaca, says to him, “Sex sways all women’s minds – even the best of them.”

The combination of Wilson’s colloquial language and her deep understanding of the original Greek means you really get a feel for the horror and beauty of life in ancient Greece. Here she is on the moment Odysseus runs a sharpened tree trunk through the single eye of the monstrous Cyclops: “As when a blacksmith dips an axe or to temper in ice-cold water; loudly it shrieks … So did his eyeball crackle on the spear.”

She captures the most moving scene in the epic when Odysseus goes down into the Underworld to see his old companion-in-arms, Achilles. “My lord Odysseus, you fox!” Achilles greets him – “you fox” captures their bantering chat, but also gets Odysseus’s wily, brainy nature spot on. Once they’ve had their fond chat, Odysseus watches as “Achilles’s ghost took great, swift-footed strides across the fields of asphodel” – trapped for ever in the
Underworld.

Wilson captures Homer’s lyricism, too, when she describes the enchanted cave Odysseus is deposited in when he finally returns to Ithaca: “A holy place of sea-nymphs – Nereids. Inside are bowls and amphorae of stone, and buzzing bees bring honey. There are looms, also of stone; the Nymphs weave purple cloth, sea-purple – it is marvellous to see.” Marvellous to read, too.

Wilson doesn’t meddle with the text unnecessarily and, if a famous epithet works, why change it? Her sea remains “wine-dark” as previous translations have had it – the same colour, indeed, that I once saw the Mediterranean turn on a warm, summer dusk in the Peloponnese. Then, for a moment, I saw Homer’s Greece come alive – a magic trick Emily Wilson pulls off again and again.

Harry Mount is author of Odyssey – Ancient Greece in the Footsteps of Odysseus (Bloomsbury)