When we interpret classic literature, female characters become more than mere archetypes; they become women.
When classics scholar Emily Wilson tackled her own English translation of the Ancient Greek epic poem The Odyssey, she faced a major question in the very first line: Would she translate the Greek polytropos, which describes the protagonist Odysseus, as “much turning” in his difficult journey home to Ithaca from the war in Troy, or as “much turned”? In other words, would she treat him as active—responsible for his own diversions, or passive, stymied by the gods in his efforts?
According to a recent New York Times Magazine profile of Wilson, such questions took on extra meaning for the first woman to translate Homer’s classic text into English—there have been at least 60 men before her to do so. In fact, most (though not all) of those men chose the active route—the hero is a man, after all!—even though their interpretations of the hero differed as to whether he was admirable or nefarious. Translations have deemed him “prudent,” “crafty,” “full of resources,” “skilled,” “adventurous,” “shifty,” and “ingenious.” A man’s man if there ever was one.
Wilson chose to project a little less onto Odysseus. Her first line is: “Tell me about a complicated man.” Compare that with the same line in a previous translation: “Muse, tell me of a man: a man of much resource, who was made to wander far and long, after he had sacked the sacred city of Troy.” It’s hard not to hear Wilson’s subtext as: Okay, boys, relax.
Of course, factors beyond her gender undoubtedly contributed to Wilson’s interpretation of the text. But her “first”—after decades and dozens of male translations—is one more reminder of women’s own baffling, winding, complicated journey toward parity in the literary world. Wilson spoke to the Times about the overwhelming maleness of her field—none of her undergraduate professors in classics and philosophy at Balliol College in Oxford, England, were male, an indicator that women’s perspective is largely absent from our trusted translations and interpretations of foundational literature.
When Wilson first took on the project, she didn’t realize she would be the first woman to do it. She did know she wanted a straightforward, readable, modern interpretation that wasn’t “showing off,” which she later admitted might be a gender issue, at least “on the down-low,” as she told Bustle. She also knew that she wanted to make sure, as much as possible, to represent characters besides Odysseus—particularly his wife, Penelope, as well as many other female supporting characters like goddesses, witches, slave girls, and Odysseus’s little-noticed sister.
Wilson’s “first woman” status is a starker version of the inequality that continues to plague much of what comes out of the current, commercial publishing business, short-shrifting the Penelopes, slave girls, and sisters of more modern literature. Just two years ago, author Catherine Nichols did an experiment: She submitted a manuscript sample under her own name to agents and received two requests for the full novel; when she did the same under a male pseudonym, she got 17 requests. On major book reviewing and selling sites, there is still a subgenre labeled “women’s fiction,” where you can find the likes of Elizabeth Berg, Celeste Ng, and Jane Austen. Goodreads’ page on the subject explicitly says, “There exists no comparable label in English for works of fiction that are marketed to males.” Presumably that’s because “men’s fiction” is just considered “fiction,” or “literature,” period. (Though Goodreads does have a “bro lit” page, even if the term isn’t as widely used as “chick lit.”) And this happens even though those behind the scenes working for U.S. publishers are overwhelmingly female, according to 2016 numbers. And the majority of regular readers are female as well.
As the #MeToo moment has unfolded in recent months, we’ve seen the value of women’s stories. But public perception of serious female literary authors clearly lags behind that of men. In one online Ranker poll—admittedly not a rigorous measure, but a strong indicator of mass opinion—only 13 of the top 50 “best living writers” are women. The annual VIDA: Women in Literary Arts count for 2016 found that women still got only 35 percent of the bylines in The Paris Review, the quintessential mark of literary seriousness; in The Atlantic, another indicator of “respectability,” women represented only 36 percent of bylines; The New Yorker came in at 39 percent. Overall, gender parity at major literary publications dropped from 58 percent to 48 percent year-to-year. (That said, we’ve seen shakeups amidst the flood of sexual harassment allegations taking down major male media figures, including Paris Review editor-in-chief Lorin Stein.)
On the other hand, some of the powers that sway book business have been recognizing female authors more, no doubt shamed by VIDA’s dismal reports, which began in 2010. Publishers’ Weekly’s Best of 2017 list is half women; The New York Times’ gave six of its top ten spots to women. VIDA’s count also shows steady progress over the past few years for The New York Times Book Review, where its review byline count was split equally between men and women in 2016, and 44 percent of books reviewed were by women.
The National Book Foundation has made notable strides lately as well: Its annual list of 5 Under 35, which recognizes promising young first-time novelists, was entirely female. This is the second time in the award’s 12-year history that the list is all women, and this time three are women of color. And that’s no coincidence: It’s the first list to come out since Lisa Lucas took over as the organization’s first woman and first African-American executive director. Three-quarters of the group’s finalists for the National Book Award were female, and the same percentage took the top prizes: Three of the four went to women. These lists and prizes—all chosen subjectively—represent some of the best solutions to wrenching public perception into female authors’ favor.
So the good news is that progress is being made in some, if not all, quarters. (And there’s plenty more work to do on intersectionality, bringing women of color, nonbinary writers, and disabled writers into the fold.) Wilson’s Odyssey is a step in the right direction. Among the blurbs supporting Wilson’s translation is novelist Aline Ohanesian, whose Orhan’s Inheritance was well-reviewed in 2015: “Having a female scholar and translator look with fresh eyes upon one of the foundational myths of Western civilization is nothing short of revolutionary. Emily Wilson’s riveting translation of The Odyssey ripples with excitement and new meaning.”
Indeed, Wilson demonstrates a nuanced view of the women in Homer’s epic, which depicts some of early literature’s great female characters, from Odysseus’s long-suffering wife, Penelope, to the famous supernatural Sirens who tempt the hero toward destruction. In an essay for The New Yorker, Wilson points out Penelope’s clever tricks for surviving her husband’s 20-year absence: weaving by day and undoing her work at night, for instance, while telling her suitors that she cannot marry until her weaving is finished. Wilson also explains how her version highlights the humanity of the slave girls who are killed upon Odysseus’s return as punishment for sleeping with Penelope’s suitors in his absence. Other English translations have called them “disobedient maids,” “sluts,” and “whores.” Wilson simply calls them “these girls,” whose “heads all in a row, / were strung up with the noose around their necks / to make their death an agony.”
Wilson concludes, “I read Homer’s great poem as a complex and truthful articulation of gender dynamics that continue to haunt us. The Odyssey traces deep male fears about female power, and it shows the terrible damage done to women, and perhaps also to men, by the androcentric social structures that keep us silent and constrained.” In other words, there’s nothing more timely in 2017 than this 2800-year-old epic poem—especially in the hands of its first female English-language translator.
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