Why has the English-speaking world waited so long for a female translation of The Odyssey?

In a world rife with gender inequality, gender pay gaps and a generally uneven balance between the sexes, the literary translation sector offers plenty of opportunities for female translators.

The Man Booker International Prize is one of the most high profile examples of this. The £50,000 prize recognises the best of translated fiction, with the reward being split equally between the winning author and his/her translator. The prize was revamped in 2016 and attracted an outstanding array of contenders. Of those works of literature that made the long-list, eight out of the total 14 were translated by women. (The fact that only four of them were written by women is the subject of a wholly different article.)

Female translators have fared well throughout history when it comes to career opportunities. Professional translation is about linguistic talent and the ability to tune into the meaning of what is being said as well as the actual words. There are no gender-based limitations on the ability to do this.

This is, perhaps, why it is so staggering that it has taken 3,000 years for the world to receive an English translation of Homer’s Odyssey undertaken by a woman. In other languages, female translators’ take on The Odyssey have been some of the most widely revered versions. One of the most frequently used versions in Italian schools is that by translator Rosa Calzecchi Onesti. Meanwhile, Anne Dacier delivered Homer’s epic literary work to French-speaking audiences as far back as 1708.

Yet it has taken until 2017 for an English language version of The Odyssey to be published by a female translator. That’s despite at least 60 English versions of Homer’s work having been published in the three millennia since the original was conceived.

Those who translate literary fiction appreciate that there is an art to delivering outstanding copy in another language. It’s about far more than just converting words from one language to another. Each translator brings his or her own perspective and understanding to the work, presenting a unique interpretation that no other translator would be able to deliver.

That’s why the new translation from Emily Wilson, professor of classics at the University of Pennsylvania, is so significant. Homer’s treatment of the female characters in his epic tale is, naturally, representative of male attitudes towards women in ancient Greece. Every translation of the work into English since then has also reflected the personality and attitude of its male translator. Until now.

Helen of Troy provides us with one of the best examples of how male and female interpretations can present Homer’s characters in a different light. Daughter of Zeus and Leda, Greek mythology held that Helen was the world’s most beautiful woman. She was married to King Menelaus, but eloped with Prince Paris of Troy (whether willingly or under duress is a matter of debate). Her actions resulted in the Trojan War and Helen has been blamed and reviled for various acts of treachery that took place during the war.

Homer, if anything, presented a gentler version of Helen than many tales recount. Yet translations into English over the years have focused on Helen’s failings. Robert Fagles’ 1990s translation saw Helen refer to herself as “shameless whore that I am,” while other translators have settled for “dog-eyed” and “impudent.”

However, Emily Wilson presents us with a different perspective. She has interpreted the Greek word kunopis as implying an altogether softer, more feminine-focused translation: “They made my face the cause that hounded them.”

It’s a simple example, but one that shows how gender bias and difference of perspective can subtly influence the way that literary fiction is presented. Apply that unique interpretation to an entire literary work and you have a fresh new take on the established tale, just as we now have with The Odyssey.

Of course, there is no ‘right’ version of The Odyssey, unless perhaps it is the original Homeric Greek edition, which continues to be studied to this day. However, the more perspectives we have in terms of translation, the greater our understanding of this supreme literary work can be.


Louise Taylor

is content manager for Tomedes translation company. She's in charge of the Tomedes translation blog and the Tomedes Business translation center. Louise is a writer who has had a passion for languages since an early age. She holds qualifications in Latin, French, German and Spanish, as well as her native English. She is also well on her way to speaking Portuguese fluently.