A ‘celebrity translator’ takes center stage

Emily Wilson, professor of classical studies, is renowned for her English translations of Homer’s ancient Greek epic poems, first ‘The Odyssey’ and now the ‘The Iliad.’

emily wilson at the penn museum auditorium
Emily Wilson, professor of classical studies at Penn, has become renowned for her translations of Homer’s epic poems, “The Iliad,” published in September, and “The Odyssey,” published in 2017.

Standing center stage, Emily Wilson is in the spotlight, reading aloud lines from Homer’s epic poem “The Iliad,” first in the original Greek, and then in her English translation.

The literal spotlight in Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium was for Penn Today film producers, but Wilson has been in a metaphorical spotlight since her translation of “The Iliad” was published in September. It’s a resurgence of the attention that she first received with her translation of “The Odyssey” six years earlier.

A professor of classical studies at Penn, Wilson has become a celebrity translator.

“I cannot think of anyone else who has quite occupied that position,” says Sheila (Bridget) Murnaghan, chair of Penn’s Department of Classical Studies. Although there are many notable translators, she says no one else has had “the kind of broad cultural impact that Emily has for translating a work of classical literature.” And, although there are many notable translations of Homer’s two epic poems, Murnaghan says none “have quite been as sensational as hers.”

The spotlight

“The Iliad” reviews in newspapers, magazines, and literary publications led to inclusion on several Best of 2023 book lists: The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Time in the U.S.; and in England The Telegraph, The New Statesman, and The Guardian.

The New Yorker published an extensive profile of Wilson in the Sept. 11 issue, “Mother Tongue: Emily Wilson makes Homer modern.” PBS NewsHour featured her in a segment filmed on campus, “Modern translation of ‘The Iliad’ reinforces its relevance.” The Washington Post invited her to explain word choice in “5 crucial decisions she made in her ‘Iliad’ translation.” Among many of her speaking engagements, an event by the London Review of Books also featured British actors Juliet Stevenson and Tobias Menzies reading passages from her translation.

Wilson says she expected media interest in “The Iliad” because “The Odyssey” garnered coverage soon after its 2017 publication. “But of course, nobody had heard of me before ‘The Odyssey’ came out,” Wilson says, so it has been “a very different sort of context” during the past few months. 

The audience at the Free Library of Philadelphia filled the auditorium on the day her “Iliad” was released, a harbinger for future book talks and readings. “The place was packed,” and books sold out, says Murnaghan, who was in conversation with Wilson on the stage that night. “She really does have a following.”

Book cover that reads 'The Iliad' and 'Translated by Emily Wilson'
Image: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company

Wilson joined Penn’s faculty in the School of Arts & Sciences in 2002, and in 2019 was named the College for Women Class of 1963 Term Professor of the Humanities. She has been chair of the Comparative Literature Department, and in September will become chair of the Classical Studies Department. She also was the topic director last academic year for the Forum on Heritage at Penn’s Wolf Humanities Center.

“You never get the slightest sense from Emily that she would expect to do less than her part,” says Murnaghan. “She’s an extremely dedicated colleague.”

It took Wilson 10 years to write her translation of “The Odyssey,” and then she went right to work on “The Iliad,” which took six years, supported by grants awarded as a MacArthur Fellow in 2019, and a Guggenheim Fellow in 2020. W.W. Norton & Co. is the publisher; audiobooks feature actresses Claire Danes reading “The Odyssey” and Audra McDonald “The Iliad.” 

Scroll through any social media channel to find people of all ages posting about the translations. Wilson has nearly 47,000 followers on X, formerly known as Twitter, where she provides her readers with “insights into the art of translation.” She has nearly 2,000 followers on YouTube, where she acts out scenes from her translations, complete with costumes, props, and dramatic voices.

“If someone gets this high measure of attention, it does bring attention to what all of us do,” says Murnaghan, who joined Penn’s faculty in 1990. “I think we feel that we benefit from this, and that the field benefits from it, and that these ancient authors that we all really care about benefit from it.”

The ‘public-image self ‘and ‘me-self’

The door to celebrity opened with a New York Times Magazine feature in November 2017, “The First Woman to Translate the ‘Odyssey’ into English.” 

In the 15-page translator’s note for the 848-page “Iliad,” Wilson contrasts the words “status,” “fame,” and “celebrity” with attitudes about honor, glory, and renown for her characters. All appear to apply to her at this moment. 

“I was thinking about ‘celebrity’ as something which has been part of my life in a different way over the last few years versus before I had any kind of fame,” Wilson says. “And also how ‘The Iliad’ itself grappled with the desire for fame or glory as something which is very dangerous. And that people are willing to die for it, and also to kill for it.”

Cover of book The Odyssey by Homer translated by Emily Wilson
Image: Courtesy of W.W. Norton & Company

For now, she is focused on promoting the books, starting work on new writing projects, and preparing to return to the classroom in the fall semester. 

“I’m quite a shy person, and to me it’s quite strange to have all this spotlight and attention. I’m not quite sure how to think about it,” she says. She refers to a short essay by the Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges, “Borges and I” from his 1962 book “Labyrinths,” in which he describes two personas.

“I have a sense there’s the public-image self, and then there’s the me-self, and the me-self is quite a private person. I’m struggling to get my head around how do those two selves fit together?” Wilson says. “And even when the media coverage is very good and tells the truth, I still have a hard time relating to myself as a public persona.”

The translations

The light on Wilson, of course, also shines on her translations. She would much rather turn the attention to Homer, credited with writing the epic poems around the 8th century BCE.

“I think that really is my job, to bring these characters into the spotlight and to invite different kinds of conversations about them. Maybe I find the spotlight on me in some ways uncomfortable, but I also think it’s useful in certain ways,” she says. “I want to be projecting that this text belongs to everyone, and I’m there to enable it to belong to more people in different ways.”

One way is the classroom. Wilson has taught a wide range of courses at Penn, including several texts in translation. During graduate seminars on “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” she read passages of her translations aloud, inviting discussion she found “really useful,” not just on word choice but on different approaches to translation, she says. She also shared bits with groups of faculty and postdoctoral fellows during Wolf Humanities seminar lunches: “I love perspectives from people who are not classicists,” she says.  

While her “Odyssey” is being taught around the country, and her “Iliad” is also suited for the classroom, she wants to appeal to a “wide range of readers,” and bookstores are marketing the translations along with bestselling novels. 

The success of her translations, Wilson emphasizes, “is largely because the original poems are so great, and because so many people are interested in these poems, these stories, these characters, and in the broader areas of poetry, narrative, sound, history, and language—all core topics in the humanities. I’m briefly semifamous only because my work enables those much more important interests and experiences, allowing more people to engage with ancient literature and get excited about it.”

Echoing the ‘metaphors of the original’ 

Much was made in the media about the fact that Wilson is the first woman to translate “The Odyssey” into English. She takes issue with that characterization. “My goals have to do with translating Homer into regular meter. And does that have anything to do with my gender? No, it doesn’t,” she says. 

But she adds she doesn’t want to be “too dismissive about the ‘first woman’ headlines,” because she thinks gender can be a starting point for “more nuanced discussions about the many factors that influence the work of translation.” She is not the first woman to translate “The Iliad,” and she’s found “there’s been progress in the public conversation,” with more questions not related to gender. 

The media has, however, repeatedly characterized her “Iliad” as a “modern” translation, and Wilson disagrees. “I think people use the word ‘modern’ to mean it’s understandable, but I don’t think that necessarily is synonymous with modernity,” she says.

emily wilson reading on stage
Wilson often performs dramatic readings of passages from her translations during book talks. In Penn Museum’s Harrison Auditorium for Penn Today, she read one of “The Iliad’s” most famous scenes.

“Some of the words that I use are neither particularly modern, nor particularly conversational. I mean, I start off with ‘cataclysmic wrath.’ ‘Wrath’ is not a particularly notably modern word. And the use of very regular meter is also not notably modern. It’s a very traditional choice.”

Some writers’ translations use American colloquialisms. “I try to, whenever possible, echo the metaphors of the original rather than use an idiom that’s in English but not there in the original,” Wilson says, “and I think that’s an anti-modern choice in certain ways.”

So how would she describe her translation, if she wrote a headline? “Metrical-slash-musical,” she says, noting that she chose iambic pentameter. “And I do think clarity is very important in the Homeric poems. I want to echo the clarity of the original, and the propulsive pace.” 

The poems would have been performed aloud in antiquity. “It has this musical rhythm, and a lot of echoes of sound and alliteration. I want to find a way to echo those in English,” she says. “Poetry, it’s linguistic music.”

‘Passionate devotion’

In her translator’s note, she writes: “I liked “The Odyssey,” but I love “The Iliad” with a passionate devotion.” Now, she says, “sometimes I feel as if I’m changing my mind about that because I love “The Odyssey” too. I love them both.” 

A pivotal moment in her life involved “The Odyssey,” when she was cast as Athena at 8 years old in a school production, falling in love with the story and the theater. She first read Homer while studying ancient Greek in high school. 

“I was so excited about both the sound of the language and the sound of the poetry, and also the vision of the world of those poems,” she says, noting the “wonderfully rich and vivid” imagery. “Both these epic poems portray this magical, and also very dark, world with deities who are constantly grappling with one another.”

Wilson went on to Oxford University, earning a bachelor’s degree in classics, and an M.Phil. in early modern English literature, and to Yale University for a Ph.D. in classics and comparative literature, then joining Penn’s faculty. 

Often she is asked how Homer is relevant today. “We should read it because it’s not relevant, because it’s a very distant society and it’s very alien in certain ways. And I think part of the value of the humanities is that it teaches you about how human beings can live in very different social structures,” she says. “It’s both extremely strange and extremely recognizable, with themes of war and grief and rage and celebrity and environmental destruction and mortality.” 

Return to campus

Wilson is on sabbatical this academic year, focused on “The Iliad” launch and book talks in New York, Boston, Chicago, Washington, D.C., London, and Athens.

Her three daughters—Imogen, Psyche, and Freya—attended the Free Library talk. “My 12-year-old said I actually sounded smart. And my 14-year-old said that my reading was actually not too bad,” Wilson says, laughing, adding that they were also impressed by a TikTok The New Yorker helped put together

When not working, Wilson hangs out with her daughters, and her partner for the past decade, David Foreman, in their West Philadelphia home. She loves to go for long walks with their dog, a reddish poodle mix named Pepper. She thinks about the characters in the poems every day, she says, and even routine moments of daily life remind her of Homer.

Wilson plans to return to the classroom at Penn in September. And she’s already at work on her next writing project, expected to take a couple of years, a retelling (not translation) of the Trojan War myths that are less prominent in Homer’s epics. She wants to take on “all the translations,” and has already agreed to Plato, the ancient Greek philosopher.

She hopes that her “Odyssey” and “Iliad” continue their journeys through other creative projects. Her “Odyssey” has already inspired works by visual artists, musicians, playwrights, and actors, including a play performed by The Acting Company at Penn Live Arts featuring an cast of all women, and she hopes the same will be true for her “Iliad.”

“It’s exciting to feel that I did something that was partly creative, partly scholarly, partly writerish,” she says, “and then there are all these other people who can do all these other creative things with it, too. I hope it will be an inspiration.”

emily wilson sitting in the penn museum auditorium