That there still is story left to be told in the second-oldest text in Western tradition is something of a miracle.
The “Odyssey,” a Greek epic poem attributed to Homer, thought to be composed near the end of the eighth century BC, first appeared in English around 1615. But the contemporary works of Madeline Miller and Emily Wilson, authors of the Sweet Briar College Common Read selections for the 2019-2020 academic year, recast, retell and reevaluate the story in a new light.
“Pulling these foundational texts into the bright light of the present is incredibly illuminating,” said Carrie Brown, director of Sweet Briar’s Center on Creativity, Design and the Arts. “The conversation that develops over centuries about iconic works is wonderful. It’s a way for us to touch who we are as human beings and civilization, and see where we are at the same time.”
Sweet Briar will host Miller, a New York Times bestselling author, and Wilson, a classicist scholar and MacArthur Fellow, in a Q&A and presentation in March, where they plan to discuss feminism, the craft of writing and the dichotomy of ancient and modern ideas through the lens of their works.
The event will be held March 18 from 7:30 to 9 p.m. in the Murchison Lane Auditorium at the Babcock Performing Arts Center.
The “Odyssey” has undergone some 60 translations into English, and countless adaptions thereafter — from the stage and screen, to the page.
“There is a real, deep pleasure in a great retelling or a great new translation because it allows you to see the old story that you loved in a fresh way,” Miller said in a phone interview with The News & Advance. It’s the same reason we love reboots, said Miller — “Tell it to me again, but in a different way. Help me see something new, help me feel it again.”
While Miller’s New York Times bestseller, “Circe,” dove headlong into a retelling of the story of Circe — a goddess best known for her part in Odysseus’ tale as an exiled sorceress who turned men into pigs and, briefly, as Odysseus’ lover — Wilson wrote a celebrated translation of the “Odyssey” into English, tackling the 12,100-line epic poem, notably translating it into iambic pentameter and limiting herself to the same number of lines as Homer’s original.
“The use of a very regular meter was absolutely essential to what I wanted to do,” Wilson said. Rather than the more popular mode of translation into free verse or stacked prose, she wanted to translate the epic into the original metrical rhythm, designed to be experienced out loud.
Much has been made of Wilson’s status as the first woman to translate the “Odyssey” into English in its more than 60 iterations — a title, she said, that can be a little exhausting.
Maybe her Twitter bio says it best: “NOT the first woman to publish a translation of the Odyssey.”
Though certainly the first woman to translate it into English, it’s a title that risks tokenism, Wilson said — the idea that through such a status, you have to be one representative woman.
“I’m certainly not sitting down at my desk, thinking, ‘Now let me exist primarily as a woman,’ rather than a reader, a writer, a scholar,” Wilson said. “With my work, the way that I approach the process of translation, I think a lot specifically about the diversity of voices, the diversity of points of view, and I think it would be limiting if you just frame that in terms of gender.”
Translating is more than replicating the interpretations that came before, she said. Her motivation had to do with thinking she could make a difference — to create a shift in the way people read Homer.
“How do we use Homer to teach older and younger students? How do we use Homer to perceive both about the past, and about ourselves, whether we are a 90-year-old or a 19-year-old?” Wilson said.
“That translators are different from each other is not really a headline.”
These works are not novel because the authors are women but rather because they are telling a story that readers want to hear, perhaps from a perspective less traveled. Miller and Wilson are two women linked through their work in a common sphere and have sat on many panels together, and interviewed each other, in turn.
Through the overlap of their work, the two have become friends.
They first met after Miller reviewed Wilson’s translation for The Washington Post in 2017. It’s not her normal gig, said Miller, but the new translation was exciting enough that she couldn’t turn it down.
“As her potent translator’s note makes clear, Wilson relishes debate and, indeed, hopes to provoke it with her choices. Her worthy goal is always to engage readers, inviting them more deeply into the story,” wrote Miller in her review. “In this she succeeds with the skill of an ancient bard. It is rare to find a translation that is at once so effortlessly easy to read and so rigorously considered. Her “Odyssey” is a performance well-deserving of applause.”
Miller said they are both interested in stripping away some of the common perceptions entrenched in telling of the “Odyssey.” She appreciated Wilson’s willingness to “go back to basics” on aspects of the epic, particularly those that have been whitewashed or reshaped in prior translations.
“She is such a smart classicist, such a smart poet, and I think that what she is doing with this work is really transformative,” Miller said. “I’m thrilled to get to do this again with her.”
Through translation, said Wilson, you focus on “every syllable, every single phrase, every single sound, every single character.” She spent more than five years on the project, similar to the seven Miller said she spent crafting “Circe.”
While the nature of a translation forced Wilson to tackle the work as a whole, Miller focused on expanding a character that only emerged in the “Odyssey” for little more than a cameo.
The novel follows Circe across the millennia of her immortal existence as she crosses paths with several mythological icons and flips a script written by Homer, through the voice of Odysseus, thousands of years before.
“Circe” does more than place a woman at the center of an iconic story. It retells the narratives of its male characters in a more critical light, and allows women who often would be pitted against each other in less nuanced tellings to have layered, complicated relationships — like that of Circe and Penelope, Odysseus’s famously faithful wife. The work rejects antagonism in favor of a complex relationship that allows them to find common ground.
Acknowledging the toxicity of internalized misogyny, and a yearning for connection, Circe and Penelope, both craving a family, found it in each other.
“We are drawn to these stories because they are about us, they are about timeless human things that we heard through the centuries and the generations,” Miller said. “Somehow the fact that they are set in the past lets us see it a little more clearly.”
Sarah Honosky covers Appomattox and Campbell counties at The News & Advance. Reach her at (434) 385-5556.