Emily Wilson on Translations and Language (Ep. 63)
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In a recent Twitter thread, Emily Wilson listed some of the difficulties of translating Homer into English. Among them: “There aren’t enough onomatopoeic words for very loud chaotic noises” (#2 on the list), “It’s very hard to come up with enough ways to describe intense desire to act that don’t connote modern psychology” (#5), and “There is no common English word of four syllables or fewer connoting ‘person particularly favored by Zeus due to high social status, and by the way this is a very normal ordinary word which is not drawing any special attention to itself whatsoever, beyond generic heroizing.’” (#7).
Using Twitter this way is part of her effort to explain literary translation. What do translators do all day? Why can the same sentence turn out so differently depending on the translator? Why did she get stuck translating the Iliad immediately after producing a beloved translation of the Odyssey?
She and Tyler discuss these questions and more, including why Silicon Valley loves Stoicism, whether Plato made Socrates sound smarter than he was, the future of classics education, the effect of AI on translation, how to make academia more friendly to women, whether she’d choose to ‘overlive’, and the importance of having a big Ikea desk and a huge orange cat.
Listen to the full conversation
Read the full transcript
TYLER COWEN: Hello, I’m here today with Emily Wilson, who is professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She has recently translated Homer’s Odyssey. The book has been a smash hit. It’s my personal favorite of all the translations I’ve read. We’ll speak more about some of her other work. Emily, welcome.
EMILY WILSON: Thank you so much for having me.
COWEN: Let’s jump right in on the Odyssey. I want you to explain the whole book to me, but let’s start small. Does Odysseus even want to return home?
WILSON: [laughs] He does as the poem starts. As the poem starts, he spent the last seven years on the island of a goddess called Calypso, originally, the poem implies, quite willingly. So, it seems as if he’s changed his mind about whether or not he wants to go home. But as the poem begins, he does want to get back home to Ithaca, to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus.
COWEN: Do you think he means it? Or is he just self-deceiving? Because he takes the detour into the underworld. He hangs around with Circe for many years. There’s a contrast with Menelaus, who acts as if he actually does want to get home. Who’s lying to whom in this story?
WILSON: Odysseus, of course, is lying all the time, so it’s very hard for the reader to get a firm grasp on what are his motives. Also, when he tells Calypso that he desperately wants to get back home, it’s very striking to me that he doesn’t give his motives. He says to Calypso, “You’re much more beautiful than my wife is, and you’ve promised to make me immortal. It’s a great offer, but I want to go home.” He doesn’t explain what is it that drives that desire to go home.
And you’re quite right: he makes many detours. He spends another year, quite willingly, with Circe, another goddess. So it seems as if he’s easily distractible from the quest, for sure.
COWEN: How much should the character of Odysseus actually be viewed as admirable?
WILSON: He’s a hero, which of course, in an archaic Greek context, doesn’t necessarily mean an admirable figure. He’s a figure who is — as I translate polytropos — he’s complicated. There’s many sides to him.
He has the extraordinary qualities — which is part of what makes him heroic — that he’s different from the rest of us. He’s smarter than any other mortal. He’s better at disguising, better at telling stories, better at fictionalizing his own life, better at coming up with a plausible way to get out of any impossible situation. Does that make him admirable? In a way, it does. He’s a survivor. He has impressive qualities that enable him to survive.
COWEN: But he loses what, 11 out of 12 ships to the Cyclopes? Isn’t he just a bad general?
WILSON: He loses a hundred percent of the men under his care, yes.
WILSON: He does. It’s a pretty bad track record, yes. Of course, as the father of one of the suitors says to him in book 24, after he’s slaughtered all his wife’s harassing suitors — says, “You have this unfortunate habit of killing young men. First, you killed this whole batch of young men who left with you to go to Troy, of whom zero returned. And now you get back home, you kill a whole bunch more young men.”
It seems as if there were certain problems with that, in terms of both leadership and just being a human being.
COWEN: Early on in the story, why does Telemachus feel, at all, the need to set off and leave home? Why doesn’t he just hang around and protect his mother?
WILSON: That’s a very good question. Ancient commentators on the Odyssey were puzzled over it because it seems unmotivated and, if anything, a stupid idea, right? Because he puts himself in danger.
WILSON: It’s because he’s left home that the suitors are then able to lie in wait to ambush and try to murder him. It’s a very dangerous and, in the end, futile journey because he finds out nothing in the way of concrete information about his father. He does it because he’s inspired by the goddess Athena, who wants him to go on a quest which, in some way, will parallel the quest of his father.
The Odyssey is a poem that’s very interested in parallel narratives, in showing us one way this could go down and then another way this could go down. Here’s one journey around the Mediterranean, here’s another way, here’s another way. The same story could be both the same and very different.
COWEN: How grown up is he when he returns home? Is there any kind of moral or spiritual advance? Or is the Telemachus you see the Telemachus you get?
WILSON: Well, before he leaves, he makes an attempt to stand up in the council of men, speaking out both to the suitors of his mother and also to the men of Ithaca. It’s an attempt at being an adult man in a peaceful environment, to speak out in the council.
It’s a speech which doesn’t go very well because he explains, fairly vehemently, what his problem is — that he’s surrounded by all these bullies, nobody’s helping him, his whole inheritance is being wasted, but he ends the speech bursting into tears. So it obviously is not a particularly successful model of public speaking and of male adulthood.
COWEN: And the vision —
WILSON: Sorry, but when he gets back from his trip, it’s unclear whether he’s grown up at all. He’s certainly had the experience of meeting his father’s age-mates, of meeting alternative father figures, and of course, he’s grown up without a father figure.
He’s had the experience of being exposed to different elite households, different marriages, different potential paternal figures, and also being exposed to the experience of having a brother, or a quasi brother, and spending time with Nestor’s son, Peisistratus. So, he’s had certain experiences which, in theory, could be formative or helpful for him. I think it’s unclear in what way exactly do they affect him, if any.
COWEN: Could the earlier Telemachus have killed the women raped by the suitors? Which he does toward the end of the story. What has changed in him?
WILSON: The crucial thing that’s changed is that he’s got to spend time with his father doing something they both love, which is killing people. He’s been spending time with his father throughout the previous few days, I think is very important in terms of his fashioning into some kind of masculinity, some kind of adulthood.
COWEN: In the vision of Homer’s Odyssey, how good can politics get?
WILSON: [laughs] Politics is a tricky word because, of course, this is a poem which is set before the city-state. It’s before the polis. How good can communities get?
COWEN: But you visit what are, in essence, different city-states, right? Some may be mythical.
WILSON: You visit different communities, yes, which are proto-city-states, I guess you could say. There are different kinds of potentially idealized societies, so I think it’s unclear.
Does the poem think Nestor’s more traditional palace, in which the wife doesn’t have a name and there are many children, and they seem to spend most of their time performing elaborate sacrifices — is that better than the rich palace of Menelaus? Is that better than the poor but somehow heroized warrior society of Ithaca? Is that better than the matriarchal societies of Calypso or Circe? I think the poem is laying out for us these possible alternatives.
The quasi-magical land of the Phaeacians, where Odysseus visits — in some ways, maybe that’s the best possible state, but I think the poem is more interested in contrasting than necessarily ranking.
COWEN: How pleasant is life amongst the Phaeacians? At first, it sounds great. There’s a lot of prosperity, but they become increasingly passive-aggressive, you might argue. You start wondering, are foreigners really welcome here?
By the time Odysseus leaves, there’s almost a bit of a mild stench around that political order. Or do you think, “Well, this is the best humans can do”? Is Phaeacia even a real polity of any kind, or is it just imaginary?
WILSON: I think it’s very clearly figured as imaginary, but then the whole poem is imaginary. [laughs] It’s not like Nestor’s palace existed in precisely this form. It’s certainly true that from the beginning, the Phaeacians are defined by some kind of ambivalence about how cut off are they from other people? And are they actually welcoming to strangers?
Even when Nausicaa first introduces Odysseus to her people, she explains, “My people are not welcoming to strangers.” That’s why Odysseus has to walk into town separately from her.
Already, even before we meet the king and queen of this strange place, we have these mixed signals about how welcoming or not welcoming are they? Why is it that they’re so good at sailing, and yet they seem to have gone nowhere? In what ways is this very isolationist society the ideal or not the ideal?
COWEN: Is there humor in Homer?
WILSON: Oh, there’s tons of humor, yes. We were just talking about the Phaeacians. I think one of the funniest parts is when Odysseus has been shipwrecked, and he lands on the land of Scheria, or the land of the Phaeacians — and of course, has lost all his clothes in the shipwreck, and ends up having to pop up from behind a bush wearing no clothes in front of a beautiful princess.
In order to try and impress her, he has to cover himself up with branches and give a very long speech to distract her from the fact that she’s being accosted by a dirty, naked man. It’s a funny scene.
COWEN: Why did Thomas Hobbes translate the Odyssey? Was that part of his political vision somehow?
WILSON: I think so. I can’t give you the expert account of Hobbes’s Odyssey.
COWEN: But it’s a lot of work, as you know, right?
WILSON: It’s a lot of work, yes. I think both Thucydides and Homer were projects for Hobbes that had to do with trying to figure out what kinds of models, and also what kinds of countermodels — what kinds of wrong society — can be represented by the ancient political worlds.
I think both Thucydides and Homer were projects for Hobbes that had to do with trying to figure out what kinds of models, and also what kinds of countermodels — what kinds of wrong society — can be represented by the ancient political worlds.
COWEN: Now that you’ve spent so much time with this book, does part of you feel Socrates was actually right about Homer, that it’s a bad example?
WILSON: You mean right about Odysseus, or right about meaning —
COWEN: Well, Homer in general — that he’s banned from the ideal republic.
WILSON: He’s banned from the second-best ideal in the Republic, right?
WILSON: It’s not like Kallipolis — is that necessarily the ideal republic? It’s a second-best, compromise ideal. And Socrates, in that book, says that, of course, both Homer and the tragedians are problematic for several different reasons. It’s both that they water the emotions, which would be better dried up, and also that they make us want to pretend to be in the mindset of a persona of people that we shouldn’t want to be in the persona of. And also, they’re not representing reality.
COWEN: Isn’t the underworld also too dreary for heroes?
WILSON: It’s also too dreary. Also, of course, the gods behave abysmally in Homer. So for all these reasons, it’s both theologically and ethically and psychologically — and also metaphysically — wrong.
COWEN: Which is actually your worry.
WILSON: I don’t agree with any of those.
COWEN: You don’t agree with any.
WILSON: I think Homer is psychologically truthful and ethically helpful. The whole question about, “Is it literature’s job or poetry’s job to train a politician?” — I’m not sure that’s quite the right way to see it. By inhabiting worldviews which aren’t our own, we can grow in some way, which doesn’t necessarily have to be, “I agree with x, y, z political gnomon that’s articulated in this line or that line of Homer.” It’s a limiting way of reading a poem.
COWEN: But say you’re trying to steel-man Socrates and/or Plato — whoever you think is responsible. They were pretty smart people, so they thought this for some reason. What’s the critique of Homer that makes the most sense to you, even if you reject it?
WILSON: I think the critique of Homer that makes the most sense to me is to do with . . . there is some intense valorizing — even though there’s also questioning of that valorizing of the warrior code — whereby you get maximized honor by killing as many people as possible, which doesn’t seem to me a particularly good model for how a community should function, that we should be thinking that that level of military prowess should be put quite so high on the evaluative scale.
COWEN: Once Odysseus returns home, why does it take so long for the whole plot of revenge to unfold? This has bothered me. You expect a fairly swift ending, but there’s book after book after book, and still the suitors aren’t dead. What role is that playing in the exposition of the story? What should we infer from that?
WILSON: You’re absolutely right. Odysseus gets back home geographically in book 13, and yet the poem isn’t over. We’ve still got a whole half of the poem to go. We’ve still got another almost 12 books.
I think it has to do both with the poet’s self-glorification: “Look how amazing this is that I can spin out the story of a nostos, of a journey home, such that it isn’t even about the journey anymore.” It’s about all these elaborately different recognitions between Odysseus and each important member of the household.
It’s also about Athena’s plot. Athena’s plot is to glorify herself and her special mortal. The best way to glorify Odysseus is not just to have the maximum body count, but also to do it in a way that’s as massive — both temporally and geographically — as possible, where she’s spinning it out so it’s even more impressive.
“Look how your hero got home in only a year or two years. My hero took 20 years to get home, and then look how he managed to come back from this absolute loser position of being one man against over a hundred, looking like an old beggar.” And so on. It means the whole narrative arc is all the bigger, the longer it takes.
COWEN: What kinds of people, if you had to generalize, prefer the Iliad to the Odyssey? What’s that preference correlated with, empirically?
WILSON: [laughs] I think it’s about mood, partly. The Odyssey is much more varied just in terms of scenes. If you’re easily bored, you may prefer the Odyssey because it has more different characters, more different scenes, more different types of things happen.
In the Iliad, it’s some men are angry, some people get killed, some men are angry, some people get killed. It’s that, relentlessly, over and over and over. And it’s in this very, very small space, small stretch of time, whereas the Odyssey has far more variety in terms of what kinds of people are speaking, what kinds of events are happening.
COWEN: Is it fair to say that throughout most of the history of Western criticism, earlier critics preferred the Iliad to the Odyssey, even though the Odyssey, I would say, is clearly superior?
WILSON: [laughs] I wouldn’t agree that the Odyssey is superior.
COWEN: But why this earlier preference?
WILSON: I’m not sure that everybody did. Dryden criticizes the Iliad for being too warmongering, for it being too much — and Homer, for the same reasons. It’s not like it’s been a universal preference of the Iliad over the Odyssey until the 20th century, when it all changed around, though I think maybe that is part of the trend.
So, Longinus, Pseudo-Longinus, in On the Sublime, says that the Iliad is like Homer is at the height of his power, and then the Odyssey is like the setting sun. It’s the old man’s poem. It has all these cute incidents. It’s like a poem where you learn about character rather than learning about this very, very intense dramatic arc.
So, I think it’s partly about thinking a poem of warfare, with fewer female characters, is more impressive, more important than a poem which is more domestic and has more to do with survival than with killing. Beyond that, I’m not sure. They were both very highly valued in most periods of antiquity. It’s not like people skipped the Odyssey.
COWEN: I’m noticing a trend lately. Madeline Miller has a best seller with Circe. Pat Barker has The Silence of the Girls, which is a takeoff of the Iliad. Margaret Atwood, a few years earlier, had her retelling of Penelope’s tale. Why is this a trend now?
WILSON: Well, The Penelopiad — I can’t remember what date it is, but it’s about 20 years old.
But you’re right that there are a lot of retellings of myth right now, and I think part of it has to do with a sort of turning back to possible alternative archetypes: “We don’t quite know what to do with the great religious books, so let’s look for something else which has cultural authority.” And it’s going to be meaningful and recognizable to many, many different people from different religious traditions. And we can somehow have a space of cultural sharedness over that.
COWEN: Are you going to do one?
WILSON: The Iliad? Yes, I’m doing the Iliad.
COWEN: No, not a translation, but a fictional derivation.
WILSON: I’ve thought about it. I’m not ready to do it right now. I don’t have a good, big concept, but maybe one day.
COWEN: What’s your view on who Homer was? How much oral tradition? How much a single mastermind, a group of editors, one final finisher? What do you think?
WILSON: They’re written poems, so obviously the puzzle is, how did these written poems come into being? I feel that the writing must have been involved in the composition, not just in the recording of something which was already present entire in one genius’s mind, because I think having something present entire without any use of writing that’s as monumental as these poems are seems to me implausible.
Beyond that, I don’t really have a clear view about, was it a pair of people? Was it a single person? Did the same person do the Iliad and the Odyssey? I don’t see how we could possibly know that.
I think they’re very different poems, but I also think the chances are that the Odyssey seems to be composed with some kind of awareness of the Iliad, but to what extent can that fully be proved? I’m not sure.
COWEN: Can’t software tell us if it’s the same author?
WILSON: No, no. It can tell us that there are linguistic differences, which we already knew, but then there are linguistic differences partly because they’re different poems. Also, author might not be the right term. If we’re imagining that it could be an oral poet who’s collaborating with a scribe, is that an author? I don’t know.
COWEN: Do we know anything about why Mycenaean civilization declined?
WILSON: There are different theories about that. There seems to have been various cataclysmic events. There may have been weather events. There were clearly conflicts. There were clearly sieges and sackings of cities, but —
COWEN: So, war and environment? Is that your best guess?
WILSON: War and environment seems to be the best guess, but I’m just echoing what I’ve learned from archaeologists. It’s not like I’ve actually excavated at any of these cities.
COWEN: You think that’s not very good evidence, then? It’s a guess?
WILSON: Oh, no, I’m just saying that I can’t speak from personal digging, but that seems to be what happened. It seems to be the combination of war, environment, and who knows what. Chance as well, presumably.
COWEN: Moving forward a number of centuries in time, how well did ancient Athenian democracy work in terms of accountability? Were rulers accountable to those who could vote? Or did they just do what they wanted? How should we understand or model that system?
WILSON: How should we model that? You mean, how should we imagine it? Or how should we —
COWEN: Well, is it like a democracy, but simply fewer people vote and the rulers are responsive to public opinion? Or does the agenda setter have all the power? What’s your vision of how ancient Athenian democracy, at its peak, worked?
WILSON: For those who were citizens, it was, in a way, much more democratic than our system — which is representational democracy — because, of course, everybody who was a citizen had a voice in the assembly, was able to speak directly to those who were in power.
Several offices were elected by lot, such that anybody, regardless of background — aristocratic or not aristocratic background, or regardless of wealth — could, in theory, become one of the generals or one of the leaders of the assembly.
Of course, also, it was a tiny fraction of the population of Athens that was a citizen. Of course, most of the population were enslaved and were not citizens. Women weren’t being appointed to be generals or leaders in the assembly.
The critique that many of our sources from Athens are, in a number of different ways, hostile to democracy — the critique that you find in Plato, for example — has a lot to do with the idea that, because it depends so much on the will of the people, and the people aren’t necessarily educated people, they’re easily swayed by demagoguery. And, of course, in an age of the internet, we can see how people are still easily swayed by all kinds of different voices.
COWEN: Should we consider electing politicians by lot today? Is it such a crazy idea?
WILSON: I think it’s a great idea.
COWEN: Great idea?
WILSON: Yes, yeah.
COWEN: Classics enrollment — as you know, at many schools, it’s been declining for maybe 20 years or more. Do you think classics, as a distinct field of study, will still exist in 30 years? And what will it look like?
WILSON: I don’t know. I think it’s going to have to look different because you’re right that enrollments are declining. There’s also a lot of questioning from within, by classicists, about the elitist legacy of classics, about the ways that it’s been tied up with the people who end up being classicists — especially in Britain, but this is true in the States, too — are those who’ve gone to the fancy private schools and have learned Latin since they were five years old.
Then, it’s sort of tied up with being of a particular class means that you can speak Latin or you can read Latin. If we can’t give a better reason to learn Latin or Greek, or to read the ancient texts, than this is going to be entry to a particular social class within our own society — which it no longer is — then, of course, that’s not going to be a good reason for people in the future.
COWEN: Say we elect you by lot to be in charge of all classics education. What would you do? What would you change?
WILSON: [laughs] I would try and find ways to make it both more attractive and more inclusive to people from different backgrounds. I would talk to more different people about what it might be that might entice them to learn about cultures and languages that are totally different from any that are nowadays extant.
I think we should stop selling classics as, “These are the societies that formed modern America, or that formed the Western canon” — which is a really bogus kind of argument — and instead start saying, “We should learn about ancient societies because they’re different from modern societies.” That means that we can learn things by learning about alterity. We can learn about what would it be to be just as human as we are, and yet be living in a very, very different society.
I think we should stop selling classics as, “These are the societies that formed modern America, or that formed the Western canon” — which is a really bogus kind of argument — and instead start saying, “We should learn about ancient societies because they’re different from modern societies.” That means that we can learn things by learning about alterity. We can learn about what would it be to be just as human as we are, and yet be living in a very, very different society.
COWEN: Now, you have another well-known book. It’s called Seneca: A Life. On reading it, this is my reaction: why are the Stoics so hypocritical? Seneca spends his life sucking up to power. He’s very well off, extremely political, and possibly involved in murder plots, right?
WILSON: [laughs] Yes, that’s right. Yes.
COWEN: What is there about Stoicism? Marcus Aurelius is somewhat bloodthirsty, it seems. So, are the Stoics all just hypocrites, and they wrote this to cover over their wrongdoings? Or how should we think about the actual history of Stoicism?
WILSON: I see Seneca and Marcus Aurelius as very, very different characters. Marcus Aurelius was militaristic, bloodthirsty, and an expander of the Roman Empire. He was happy to slaughter many barbarians. He was fairly consistent about thinking that was a good idea, and also fairly consistent in associating his dream of culture and military imperialism with Stoic models of virtue.
Whereas Seneca was very much constantly unable to fully act out the ideals that he had. One of the reasons he’s so interesting as a writer is that he’s so precise in articulating what it means to have a very, very clear vision of the good life and to be completely unable to follow through on living the good life.
COWEN: But why would you accumulate so much wealth if you’re a true Stoic?
WILSON: I personally don’t think you would, [laughs] but Seneca has a lot of very wonderfully rhetorically ornate explanations for why, in fact, that’s perfectly reasonable because Stoics had this distinction: There were things that aren’t good in themselves. The main thing that’s good in itself is virtue, being a good person. The thing that’s bad in itself is being a bad person.
But then there are also things in the middle, which are neither good nor bad but might be preferable. It might be preferable not to be a slave, or it might be preferable not to be homeless and impoverished. And it might be preferable to have millions and billions of dollars. So it’s not that it’s actually bad, as long as you can hang onto virtue despite being in the midst of corrupting power then, or even better —
COWEN: Are you surprised that so much of Silicon Valley has turned to the Stoics or their vision of the Stoics?
WILSON: [laughs] Not at all. I think it fits very well. Yes.
COWEN: What’s the hardest thing about translating Seneca?
WILSON: I translated most of Seneca’s tragedies rather than his prose, but I think the same issues would apply for both. I had a hard time figuring out how much I could get away with pulling out all the stops rhetorically because he writes in this wonderfully ornate, purple style. It’s showing off, showing off, showing off, bombast. The risk is always that it’s going to come across as too silly to be impressive. It has to go very close to sounding silly, but without quite getting there.
COWEN: Do you think Seneca had a role in the murder of the emperor’s wife?
WILSON: I think he probably knew about it. I don’t know if he actually got his hands bloody or wet, but I think he probably knew about it.
COWEN: Socrates — you’ve written on Socrates. Are Socratic ideals in decline today?
WILSON: Here we are having a conversation. Look at us being so Socratic.
WILSON: It’s so hard to say what are Socratic ideals because, of course, Socrates didn’t write anything. Everything, as we have referred to earlier — we were talking about the Republic — that’s Plato’s Socrates. It’s not necessarily Socrates’s Socrates, or history’s Socrates.
Insofar as the Athenians voted to have Socrates drink the hemlock, you could say, “Well, maybe that was the low point of Socratic ideals, back then in 399. Maybe it’s all been up since then.”
COWEN: What does the dying Socrates mean to you personally? Someone you admire? Someone you think, “He’s a fool”? Someone who was a martyr, a precursor of a Christ figure? Or —
WILSON: I deeply admire him, with some serious reservations. The reason I’m constantly turned back to thinking about him — partly because as an academic and also as a writer, I’m constantly thinking about, “What does it actually mean to try to educate people?”
I’m interested in the Socrates who claims that he isn’t teaching anybody anything, and yet he’s living this life of being engaged in conversations which are clearly designed to either draw things out of people or else put things into them insidiously. So I’m interested in whether all educators are somehow in that double bind of “Am I actually helping you find something out, or am I imposing my own vision on you?”
I’m interested, also, in the figure of the dying Socrates as an image. In a way, this is related to the Seneca questions, as an image of integrity. What does it mean to live with so much integrity that you can be absolutely yourself at every moment, even when you’ve just poisoned yourself?
COWEN: Let’s say I’m a greater fan of Plato. He’s a more systematic thinker. The other versions of Socrates, say from Xenophon — they’re not, to me, very impressive.
WILSON: No, they’re not.
COWEN: They’re okay.
WILSON: They’re silly, yes.
COWEN: Maybe it’s a bit like Boswell and Johnson, where Boswell makes Johnson much better. Boswell, in some ways, is smarter than Johnson, I would say, or sharper. Socrates was just pretty smart, but Plato’s the true philosopher. Can you talk me out of that?
WILSON: I think that’s a perfectly reasonable point of view, yes. I’m sure that Socrates didn’t have the whole edifice of metaphysics. Also, obviously, he wasn’t the enormously impressive literary stylist that Plato is. Plato was both an extraordinary writer and an extraordinary thinker.
It does seem as if there’s good evidence — partly because Aristotle seems to confirm this — that Socrates himself did come up with some pretty interesting ideas, such as the idea that nobody willingly does wrong. Insofar as anybody does anything wrong, it’s because of a mistake. We don’t realize it’s wrong, which I think is actually still something which is worth some ethical, philosophical grappling. It’s an idea that’s worth some grappling.
COWEN: As you know, your doctoral dissertation — it’s on the concept of “overliving,” as you call it. What is overliving? And why is that interesting?
WILSON: It’s a term that I took from Paradise Lost by Milton. Adam says, after he’s eaten the apple and he’s fallen, he realizes that the only thing to look forward to is death. Yet he’s not dead, so it’s a moment when Milton’s character is grappling with what you could see as a continuity error in the book of Genesis, that Adam and Eve don’t die immediately after eating the apple, which was supposed to result from eating the apple. He says, “Why do I ever live? Why am I marked with death?”
That comes at a moment in Paradise Lost after the narrator has said, “I now must change my notes to tragic.” I was interested in trying to figure out, why does Milton imagine not death, but a failure to die, as being part of a tragic genre? That this sequence of the poem is both tragic and about the failure of Adam and Eve to die right after the fall.
I think it’s an interesting idea, just to realize that we have this idea from Shakespeare that, of course, tragedy is all about when you have the heaps of corpses up on the stage at the end of Hamlet. But, of course, that’s not actually all that tragedy is about, especially if you go all the way back to Athenian tragedy. There’s a number of tragedies in which there aren’t any corpses onstage at the end. [laughs]
So I’m interested in it, both as thinking through “How does narrative represent death? How does narrative represent the experience of not being dead?” Also, in terms of imagining ‘“What is the tragic genre all about? What does it say about both life and death?”
COWEN: Is there an example of overliving, say, from contemporary popular culture? Someone who either has seen, or whose tragic fate is that he or she lived too long?
WILSON: I’m not going to come up with good examples, so I suppose I should have prepped for that.
COWEN: Michael Jackson.
WILSON: Yes. There’s also postmortem reckoning very often, too. The whole Solonic line of “Call no person happy until they’re dead.” Very often, the whole meaning of your life can change, as of course it is right now with Michael Jackson. The legacy can become totally tainted.
COWEN: Even after you’re gone, history itself can revise the earlier meaning of your life.
WILSON: History can change the meaning, yes.
COWEN: Would you accept immortality if offered it at your current age and state of health? You would be intact as you are today, forever.
WILSON: Do the people I love get to live forever, too?
COWEN: No, just you. You have a chance to overlive. Do you want it?
WILSON: Can I also create world peace and solve climate change?
COWEN: No, but you do get to live forever, and people might buy even more copies of your books.
WILSON: [laughs] Can I change my mind in a couple hundred years?
WILSON: Oh, then I won’t take it.
COWEN: Then you won’t take it?
COWEN: Let’s say you were age 80, and you could be restored to your current physical state. Would you then accept living forever?
WILSON: I think Thoreau said he wants to take it then. So, sure, I will. Yes.
COWEN: What’s the year at which you’re indifferent, where you’re not sure whether or not you’d take it?
WILSON: No, I’m kidding. I’m not going to take it.
COWEN: I would take it, I think. If you took it, do you think you would end up being bored, or are we able to always keep on amusing ourselves as humans?
WILSON: I’d probably keep on amusing myself, but it would probably get hard. Once there are no more humans left, it’s going to get tough. Once all the books have rotted, and once . . . I’m not going to be able to run the electrical power plants all by myself.
On things under- and overrated
COWEN: We have a segment in the middle of these conversations called overrated or underrated. I’ll toss out a few items, and you give us your opinion if they’re overrated or underrated. The fork — overrated or underrated?
WILSON: In fact, my sister wrote a book called Consider the Fork.
COWEN: I love this book, yes.
WILSON: Maybe this is a chance to plug her book. It’s about kitchen technologies and the ways that people eat, given that we have both knives and forks. Before fairly recently, people ate without forks, and it encourages a very different approach to cutting up food into small pieces, and therefore being able to not have an overbite in your jaw. The whole model of eating, and even the structure of the face, is different thanks to the fork.
COWEN: Caligula — overrated or underrated?
WILSON: Underrated. It’s pretty much at a low.
WILSON: It’s not like I think he was great. Yes.
COWEN: But what’s the case for Caligula, so to speak, relative to reputation? That he was a pragmatist? He had no choice? He had to maintain orderly rule?
WILSON: He had to maintain orderly rule, and of course, everybody would have said he was absolutely insane and come up with the worst possible excessive stories, even if he actually wasn’t quite as insane as made for a good story.
COWEN: Couldn’t he have just been another Tiberius, or was that then impossible politically?
WILSON: He probably could have been, but then, psychologically, in terms of his personality, not everybody is Tiberius. Not everybody wants to just go off and sit on Capri for the rest of their life.
COWEN: Philip Sidney, the poet and essayist — overrated or underrated?
WILSON: Underrated. He’s great.
COWEN: He’s great. What do you like about Philip Sidney?
WILSON: Are we doing plugs for every member of my family?
COWEN: If you choose.
WILSON: Okay, that’s great. My mother, Katherine Duncan-Jones, wrote a very good biography of Sir Philip Sidney, partly explaining why he’s so underrated. I think it’s extraordinary that so many people have read Shakespeare but haven’t read Sidney, who was both a formative influence on Shakespeare and also an extraordinary both poet and prose writer in his own right.
He wrote two versions of what, in many ways, are the most important early proto-novels in English, The Old Arcadia and The New Arcadia. He also wrote an amazing sequence of sonnets called “Astrophel and Stella.” He was a great poet, great writer.
COWEN: Monty Python’s Flying Circus — overrated or underrated?
WILSON: Correctly rated very high.
COWEN: Okay. Philadelphia?
WILSON: Underrated. Love it.
COWEN: How long have you lived here?
WILSON: Oh, 16 or 17 years or something.
COWEN: Okay. Queen Victoria — overrated or underrated?
WILSON: My father, A. N. Wilson, wrote a biography about Victoria. I don’t know about Victoria. I don’t think I have an opinion. Maybe it can stay in the middle, yes?
COWEN: In the middle?
WILSON: In the middle.
COWEN: Bad on imperialism, but good for European peace?
WILSON: That kind of thing exactly, yes.
On Greek texts
COWEN: Here’s a question from a reader about translation: “Greek morphology is a nightmare, but syntax is relatively easy. Latin is opposite. So Latin is more of an intellectual language. Agree or disagree?”
WILSON: I don’t think it follows that difficulty of syntax implies intellectuality of ideas or concepts or anything else. I think they require different kinds of thinking.
COWEN: As artificial intelligence advances and there are more online resources, what will translation even mean in that future world? Will we keep on learning other languages?
WILSON: I hope so. It’s a great shame that so many languages are dying right now. I think in every language, you think differently. You see the world differently. So the fewer languages that are known by anybody on Earth, the fewer visions that we have of what life’s about, the fewer ways of thinking.
COWEN: Other than ancient Greek and Latin, what languages interest you?
WILSON: Lots of languages I don’t know, but as I’m not going to have time, thanks to my refusal of your lovely offer of immortality —
Wilson: That’s, in fact, something I would do if I had time.
COWEN: You could learn them all, right?
WILSON: I would learn them all, for sure. I don’t know any Asian languages. I feel guilty about that. I know one semester’s worth of Russian. I read French, German, Italian, a little bit of Spanish. My daughters go to a Spanish immersion school, so I know elementary-school Spanish. But I’d love to know some languages which are more different from those I do know. I’d love to know Chinese, Japanese. Arabic would be great.
COWEN: Here’s another reader question about translation: “Could you please ask her about home? Her translation pulls this word to the foreground more than I remember other translations doing, and that decision made me read the text differently. It also made me realize that home is not a concept that I interrogate nearly as much as I should.”
So, I’m asking you about home.
WILSON: I love that question. The Greek text has a lot of uses of the noun nostos, from which we get nostalgia, the journey of homecoming, the event of homecoming, and then of cognate words. I wanted to use the word home as a way of signaling the centrality of the concept of home, and of defining the concept of home in the poem.
It’s already a very loaded word in English, I think. It’s a word which means so much more than just house or place where you live. The Odyssey is fascinating in the ways that it defines home as something which involves both a living space, a particular kind of community, and a space where at least one member of the household has the choice about who to keep in, who to keep out.
COWEN: You’re working now on a translation of the Iliad. Is that correct?
WILSON: That’s correct, yes.
COWEN: Is that easier or harder than translating the Odyssey?
WILSON: Well, I started doing it almost right away after I finished the Odyssey because I thought, “I’m on a roll now. It’s not that different in terms of language than the Odyssey.” Then I got really stuck. For the first few months that I was working on it, I was feeling completely stuck and questioning everything because the mood of the poem is so different.
It’s not all that different linguistically, but it’s different enough that I felt I had to step back and think differently about everything I’d already done.
For the Odyssey, I used iambic pentameter all the way through. I also made it line-for-line, and I started thinking, “Should I do something completely different? Should I use hexameters? Should I use dactyls rather than iambs?” I think I’m back to iambic pentameter, but it’s been through a lot of different struggles and a lot of drafts of different ways of doing it stylistically, poetically.
COWEN: What’s the process you go through to improve your translation? Is it you show it to people? You simply let it sit? You compare it to other texts? You evaluate it as poetry? What do you do to have it become better?
WILSON: I usually do a lot of reading and rereading the original, and then I usually write a draft of a little bit out in a notebook. I do a lot of looking up different words in different dictionaries and trying to figure out connotations. I read my drafts out loud to myself before I read them out loud to anyone else. Then I fix things and change things and try and change things that didn’t sound right. Then I change them again.
Then, after I’ve tinkered with it for a long time myself, once I’ve got a whole complete book, I send the complete book to my lovely editor at Norton, Pete Simon. He doesn’t know Greek, but he looks at it next to other translations and thinks about, “Does this sentence work as an English sentence?”
Then he sends it back, and then I reread it again, and I fix lots of things, including things he hadn’t commented on. Then eventually I share it with other people as well. I go through multiple stages of revisions.
COWEN: I have the impression that you’re using Twitter, in some ways, to revolutionize how people discuss and present translation. Is that a fair assessment of what you’re up to?
WILSON: Yes, I think there are some misunderstandings about translation that are really common, so I’m trying to articulate this sort of Translation 101 to the Twitterverse.
COWEN: And how do you do that in 280 characters?
WILSON: I don’t —
COWEN: Is it all tweetstorm? Or embedded photos? What’s your method of using Twitter?
WILSON: I do have some cat photos as well. My method, though, about translation is to take a tiny bit of mostly the Odyssey, but occasionally some other texts, and analyze what different translators — usually, if it’s the Odyssey, including me — have done with it, and just show how very, very different the meaning of a sentence can be, depending on how exactly a translator chooses one word versus another word, and how there can be very, very different interpretations, all of which are valid readings of the Greek.
COWEN: What do you think translation teaches us, or you in particular? Say I were to talk with an ancient historian about Periclean Athens. Or I could speak with you, and you’ve done translating of ancient Greek or of Homer’s time. What perspectives are you likely to have on those periods that, say, an ancient historian would not? What kind of knowledge do you end up specializing in, other than the translation itself?
WILSON: I would say I have a pretty deep knowledge of word choice and poetics and style and literary form of each of the texts I’ve studied. I wouldn’t say —
COWEN: But what will that cash out into? Like, if I ask you, what might you understand about ancient Athens that an ancient historian would not as well? What would you say concretely?
WILSON: If you’re asking about Pericles, I would say that, if I had spent longer studying Pericles’s speech in Thucydides, I might have a deeper understanding of the rhetorical tropes that are being used and of the ways that rhetoric interacts with ideology within the representation in that passage, within the representations in multiple literary texts of that period.
I think I might have a deeper understanding of how cultural representations operate in classical Athens.
COWEN: But you end up thinking, “Well, they’re funnier than we thought. They’re more sardonic than we thought. They’re more bitter than we thought.” What’s the final takeaway in terms of your understanding of that time?
WILSON: Are you doing classical Athens or doing —
COWEN: Any period that you care to. Homer’s time is fine, but we know more about Athens, of course.
WILSON: We know more about Athens. I would definitely say funnier, but I’d also say — even though the texts we have are primarily by elite men — I think even from those texts, which are already a tiny demographic, we can say they’re more diverse in terms of how do they look at the world than we might have thought.
Generalizing about “This is the Athenian worldview” doesn’t actually make any sense if you look at the array of different opinions that are articulated in the text.
COWEN: When you translated the Odyssey — as a reader, I think of your approach as pretty clean and direct and very easy to read, but also with a lot of psychological depth, and I prefer that in the Odyssey. But when I read, say, the Hebrew Bible, I want something a little more, maybe stentorian in tone, or a little more baroque, actually. I think a lot of people feel the same way. Why that difference? Why do we want something different from a Bible translation often?
WILSON: Hmm. Have you read the Robert Alter translations?
WILSON: Do you like them?
COWEN: Very much so.
WILSON: They’re also fairly clear, right? It’s not that they’re —
COWEN: I don’t find them very clear. Maybe they’re as clear as they can be, but you’re easier to read than he is. That may be the difference in the authors.
WILSON: I think Homer’s pretty easy to read. Homer’s syntax is really very easy, and that’s part of what I wanted to bring out. In a way, I would like it if my Seneca translations are less easy to read than my Homer translations because I think they’re stylistically —
COWEN: That’s correct. They are less easy to read.
WILSON:I hope so, because stylistically those authors are very different. So, I think it’s partly just about the source text, and it’s also about the cultural perception of the sourced text. Most people in contemporary society don’t believe in Athena, so we have a different idea about how should divinity be represented in this text versus in a text where there are people who still worship the God of the Hebrew Bible, right?
COWEN: Sure. Which poets have influenced your translations, other than the poets of the time? Obviously Homer.
WILSON: [laughs] Obviously Homer, yes.
COWEN: But later poets?
WILSON: My translation of the Odyssey is all in iambic pentameter. And as I said earlier, my first book, which is my dissertation, came out of a set of questions about Milton’s Paradise Lost. I was very much aware that English already has epic poems, and I also was very much aware that I didn’t want to make Homer sound sub-Miltonic.
I didn’t want to make it sound like Paradise Lost. I didn’t want to make it sound like The Faerie Queene. I didn’t even want to make it sound like Tennyson, even though I love Tennyson’s Idylls, as well as his “Ulysses” and “Lotos-Eaters” and so on.
COWEN: He has one of the most ambiguous characterizations of Ulysses —
WILSON: He sure does.
COWEN: — which, to me, makes perfect sense.
WILSON: Yes, it’s a wonderful poem. So, I wanted to try to obscure my love for Shakespeare and Milton in the style I was writing, but also for it to be there on the down low. I wanted to try and write a kind of narrative verse that was informed by pre-20th-century narrative verse, but that was not archaizing. In some ways, I wanted to try and make it more like Elizabeth Bishop or Auden than like Shakespeare, even though I also have spent a huge amount of time reading Shakespeare.
COWEN: Samuel Johnson once opined that “No one ever wished Paradise Lost to be longer than it is.” Do you agree? Or did you wish that —
WILSON: I wish it were longer, but I also wish the last two books were better.
COWEN: What’s wrong with them?
WILSON: It’s just a lot of summary of how the world’s going to be terrible, terrible, terrible, and then, yes, it’s going to be terrible some more, which, in terms of narrative and characterization — it’s much less interesting than the first 10 books.
COWEN: I much prefer Samson Agonistes to Paradise Lost. Am I crazy?
WILSON: Very interesting. I love Samson Agonistes, but I don’t much prefer it.
COWEN: Now that you’ve achieved a high degree of fame, glory — and income also — and you think about how the ancient Greeks understood fame and glory, how is it to be, from a position of fame and glory yourself, evaluating their views?
WILSON: [laughs] I guess it depends which ancient Greeks we ask. If you ask Odysseus, he’d say, “Great, you should get as much stuff as possible. You should try to come home, not just broken and in a borrowed boat, but with as much treasure as possible.” If you asked Socrates, who went around with no sandals and one cloak, summer and winter, maybe not so interested in the accumulation of kudos.
On the Emily Wilson production function
COWEN: Some more questions about you. How important do you think it is, having more female mentors in academia? And how do we get there?
WILSON: I think it’s very important, and I don’t have an easy answer to how we get there. I think part of it has to do with family-friendly hiring policies, family-friendly retention policies, because there are also glass ceilings in terms of how many women get tenure as opposed to how many get hired as opposed to how many finish their PhDs. Women drop off at every stage.
COWEN: Should we just abolish tenure and have five-year contracts —
WILSON: I don’t know.
COWEN: — but pay some people more?
WILSON: Pay all the adjuncts. That’s the area that I think really needs to get fixed, in general. Of course, there’s the trend towards these people who not only don’t have tenure, but also don’t have any kind of contract beyond the single course, which is a terrible deal.
COWEN: But other than just having more money, which everyone would want —
WILSON: We all would love that, yes.
COWEN: — how should we change the rules of the system?
WILSON: I don’t know. I think there should be more equity. I don’t feel like there should be such a disparity between people like me, who are lucky enough to have a good salary and guaranteed medical benefits for the rest of my career — unless I go crazy and quit — and then the adjuncts, who get none of those things. I feel like there should be something closer to a leveling, and I don’t know what I can do to fix that, but I nearly —
COWEN: When you were 17, what in the world of ideas were you obsessed with?
WILSON: Whether the unexamined life is worth living.
COWEN: And what did you conclude?
WILSON: I thought I needed another few years examining it to figure it out.
COWEN: Worth living as long as it’s not too long, right?
WILSON: That’s right, yes.
COWEN: When you were 14, what was your favorite book?
WILSON: When I was younger than 14, I loved all books that had magic in them. So I loved the Narnia books, Diana Wynne Jones. I didn’t want to read anything that didn’t involve going through a portal to another world.
Then that started to change when I was 14, and I started to read Jane Eyre, maybe around that age, and I loved it. Jane Austen. I read Dickens. I went through a very religious phase, and I read the Bible. It might have been my favorite book at 14, that kind of thing.
COWEN: Yes, yes. And how did you decide to become a classicist? You could have taken a number of paths if you were going to be an academic.
WILSON: Mm-hmm. I could have taken many paths, and in fact, I considered not being an academic at all. That’s another possible path. I considered getting —
COWEN: What would you have done if not academia?
WILSON: That’s partly why I stuck to that, because I didn’t quite know. I considered going to med school, but I realized that I’m actually not very good with blood. I considered going to law school. But then, I actually thought, “I want to spend more time in the library than I think I’m going to get if I do that.”
I considered also being a literature scholar but not a classicist. I knew I wanted to read poetry and keep on studying poetry, but I didn’t necessarily think it had to be ancient poetry. I thought it could be later poetry, as well, would be fine.
COWEN: You have many writers in your family background. How did that shape you?
WILSON: It made me know that it wasn’t weird to want to read all the time.
WILSON: So that in itself was a formative thing. I didn’t have to learn that it’s okay to be reading all the time.
COWEN: Now, there’s some books you’re working on I’ll ask you about. On your home page, you list one called Classics Reborn, a book on the reception of classical literature in the early modern period. Oxford University Press. What will you cover?
WILSON: It’s going to be a sort of survey of what people used to unselfconsciously call the Renaissance. I always hesitate over that word because Americans say Renaissance, and I say Renaissance.
Anyway, in that period, the rebirth of classical antiquity — what exactly was it to imagine that classical antiquity was being reborn? It’s going to be about, what was that weird idea about? And how exactly —
COWEN: Is there a central figure, country, time?
WILSON: No, it’s going to be a broad but selective account of how that played out in what is going to be primarily Britain and Europe, probably more Britain than anywhere else, but I can’t skip Italy. Going through, primarily, literary texts and discussing the ways that literary authors of that period both build on and talk back to ancient authors.
COWEN: There’s another book listed, titled Faithful, described as a book about translation. What will that be, or what is it?
WILSON: That’s a much shorter book, and not covering the whole of the Renaissance. It’s a sort of stump piece, in a way, trying to do the same kind of thing that I’m doing on Twitter, in terms of trying to explain to the general reader, what exactly is translation? What do translators do all day? What do literary translators do all day?
Also, trying to figure out why is it — which, to me, was puzzling when I realized it was true — why is it that, for instance, that I’m the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English, or to publish a translation of the Odyssey into English?
I was surprised when I realized that, and then I realized this is part of a much broader gender disparity — that it’s not that there aren’t any female Homerists. Of course there are. Of course there are plenty of female classicists. And yet, the field of literary translation within classics is really skewed towards men. I wanted to figure out, why is that? What kinds of issues are there within the field of literary translation in general, and classical literary translation in particular?
COWEN: Why is that a stronger skew in the English-language world?
WILSON: I’m not sure. It’s very striking that there’s been a translation of the Odyssey by a woman into French since the 18th century. There were several by women into Italian. There’s one by a woman into Turkish. I think the whole culture of translation is different in European countries to what it is in the States.
COWEN: Do you think women translators have a higher relative standing when translation is less professionalized, less bureaucratized? It’s something you just do? Whereas when we conduct it through academia, maybe that puts women translators at a disadvantage?
WILSON: I think it’s a combination: that academia in the States — much more than perhaps in France or Italy — devalues translation, so that you don’t get tenure for translation, which then also means, if you’re a category of person who might be already less likely to get tenure, then maybe you’re even less likely to do this kind of work, which is valued as useless.
COWEN: Why do we devalue translation in academia? What’s wrong with our incentive scheme?
WILSON: The whole incentive scheme is messed up because the kind of writing that’s valued, almost exclusively, is the peer-reviewed monograph. I think it’s partly that the humanities are supposed to come up with “original research,” which is imagined to work in exactly the same structure as peer-reviewed research in STEM fields, which then means that it has to qualify in the same way.
Then, if you do a different kind of work, which is not the peer-reviewed monograph, it doesn’t look as much analogous to the research in the STEM fields, so we don’t count it.
COWEN: The different books you’re writing — the Iliad translation, Faithful, Classics Reborn — do you work on them all at once? Or what’s your method? Do you come back to them?
WILSON: I still struggle with that all the time. Right now, I’m not teaching, so I’m able to spend the morning doing one and the afternoon doing another. I like it if I can do at least some translating in the course of a day, and then some writing in the course of a day. I like to balance out because I feel like they use different parts of my brain.
COWEN: Just physically, what does your translation look like? Is it simply you sitting at a computer, typing and staring? Is it a room full of papers and books? Is it you’ve had to buy a separate house? What’s the production function for translation? Describe the factory.
WILSON: I have a very big desk from IKEA, and I have a huge orange cat, who’s mostly on it. I also have a couple of Greek dictionaries, usually a couple of commentaries, the Greek text, a notebook, a laptop. So, I usually do some writing of a draft by hand in the notebook first, and then I type it up on the laptop. Then I revise it, and I consult the various texts that are spread around me on my big desk at various points.
COWEN: Very last question. Let’s say a very smart female undergraduate comes to you. Say she’s 19, and she says, “I want to be the next great Homer translator, say 30–40 years from now, when we need another translation, just because our language has changed.” She asks you for advice or some kind of insight that you have, having done what you’ve done. What is it you would tell her that other people wouldn’t?
WILSON: I would tell her, “Read lots of English poetry.” I think it’s very common for classicists to be a little bit too overspecialized and to have just read ancient literature and not read enough literature that isn’t in ancient Greek.
COWEN: And she should start where?
WILSON: She should read things that interest her, that she loves. I don’t think it has to be that I prescribe her canon. [laughs] But she should be reading in her own language, as well as in ancient Greek.
COWEN: Emily Wilson, thank you very much.
WILSON: Thank you.