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Wednesday, May 29, 2024
The Observer


Renowned classicist speaks on translating Homer

Classicist Emily Wilson illuminated the intricacies of translation in her lecture “Re-translating Homer: Why and How” held Thursday. The event delved into the challenges and significance of reinterpreting ancient texts for modern audiences.

The lecture was divided into four main topics: defining translation, explaining Wilson’s background and priorities in translation, demonstrating a case study and answering the question of why Homer is still relevant today. Julia Marvin, the chair of the department of the program of liberal studies, introduced the talk.

“The past is a foreign country,” Marvin said. “They do things differently there, and the past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

Wilson’s extensive background in classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania, coupled with her authorship of acclaimed translations of the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad,” position her as a leading figure in the field. Denis Robichaud, introducing Wilson, highlighted her numerous accolades, including prestigious fellowships and awards such as the MacArthur Fellows Program and the Guggenheim Fellowship.

The lecture began with a dramatic recitation of the opening of the “Iliad” in its original Greek form, offering attendees a glimpse into the ancient oral tradition. Wilson then transitioned to reading her own translation while still capturing the essence and cadence of the original in English.

“Translation always speaks to the way that language is about society and culture,” Wilson said.

Wilson underscored the significance of context and idiomatic expressions. She also stressed the necessity of a comprehensive understanding of both languages involved in the translation process.

Additionally, Wilson highlighted the complexity of translation, noting that it extends beyond mere dictionary definitions and syntactical analysis.

“It’s not just about looking at words in a dictionary,” Wilson said. “It’s not just about a whole cluster of syntactical things. It’s about understanding.”

Wilson delved into the nuanced considerations inherent in literary translation. She described it as a form of writing and challenged the misconception that fluently recovering the original text is sufficient.

“Literary translation is a form of writing,” Wilson said. “I think people sometimes imagine that there has to be just one half of being able to recover the original fluently.”

Transitioning to the creative aspect of translation, Wilson emphasized the task of recreating a text.

“To me, reading is only half or less than half because, for me, the hardest part about translation is not as you understand the original, but figuring out how can we create it entirely from scratch in a totally different language and culture,” Wilson said.

Wilson reflected on the approach to translation discussions, advocating for openness. 

“We have a very open approach to discussion of translation with a whole bunch of I think quite misleading, and simply sadistic binaries in our minds,” Wilson said.

In her description of the binaries, Wilson elaborated on the tension between domesticating and foreignizing translations, archaic versus modern language and poetic versus literal. She argued a translator should be responsible about their particular choices which will inevitably emphasize some aspects over others. 

Further, Wilson emphasized difference in translations is not always about mistakes.

“I think we can sometimes, very commonly, have this idea that a translation is either poetic or literary, or else it’s the literal translation,” Wilson said. “And that binary very often carries with it the idea that the ‘literal’ is the truthful one, and the ’poetic’ is the gussied-up, fancy one, which of course, is all lies.”

Wilson underscored the plurality of interpretative practices in translation, likening it to the varied interpretations of other art forms. Her priorities in translation include semantic meaning, sound, specificity of style, emotional effects and pacing, aiming for originality in each work of interpretation. 

In discussing her priorities in translation, Wilson highlighted the frequent narrow focus of media headlines surrounding her translations of the “Odyssey” and the “Iliad.” Despite headlines focusing on her gender, with her being the first female translator of the “Odyssey,” or the perceived “modernity” of her translations, Wilson emphasized her focus on maintaining the integrity of the original texts while infusing them with a new voice.

She additionally highlighted the complexities of language and the necessity for compromise in the translation process.

“With any sentence and any human utterance, there are all kinds of things going on beyond the dictionary definitions of individual words,” Wilson said. “I think it’s more useful for translators to think in terms of how to be responsible about multiple different truths in the original rather than think, ‘I will choose either to be modern or to be archaic.’ Of course, you’re always going to be trying for some version of both.”

Wilson shed light on the fact that a plurality of interpretative practices could exist in the world of translation.

“Language is a so-called complex system of communication, which operates on multiple different levels with multiple things going on with that text,” she said. “Then it might well be that there are multiple truths, not all of which are going to be told with every translation.”

Wilson furthered her point with comparison to other art forms. Wilson stated that multiple performances on the same piece of music could be excellent in the same way that self-portraits could offer different things to see.

Wilson emphasized the importance of translation within humanities education and its role in bridging two worlds: the ancient and the contemporary. She expressed her dedication to making classical texts accessible to a broader audience beyond the classics department, emphasizing the significance of engaging with these texts in the present moment.

“Translation is about writing for people outside of [the] classics department and not just studying how Homer is received in each century but being a part of how he is received in this one,” Wilson said.

Wilson’s priorities in translation extend beyond mere semantic meaning. She emphasized the importance of sound, specificity of style and emotional effects in conveying the richness of the original text. Moreover, Wilson highlighted the need for new translations of ancient texts.

In each of her translations, Wilson strives to capture the distinct voice of the text and characters. She advocated for originality in interpretation of a text, believing in the power of “making it new” with each translation. 

“We need new translations of ancient texts because scholarship on these texts reveals new insights,” Wilson said. “Cultures change, and we ask new questions of old texts. And language changes and other translations can start to seem dated in ways that weren’t necessarily true for an ancient reader of the original.”

Wilson concluded by explaining the significance of studying ancient texts. She pointed out themes in the Iliad with particular contemporary resonance, such as partisanship, technology’s influence on society, celebrity culture, inequalities and the glorification of violence.