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There’s an epic poem that has survived re-reading longer than the Bible and Shakespeare—but why?


Twenty-seven centuries have passed since The Odyssey first slipped into the Western Canon. Since then, it has been retold endlessly. The Wizard of Oz, Cold Mountain, Apocalypse Now, and many more have all borrowed its basic premise. Today readers, teachers and translators remain as captivated by it as ever. This epic poem may be 12,110 lines of dactylic hexameter or iambic pentameter, depending on your preferred translation, but it is in every form, a wanderer’s tale. For Emily Wilson, a University of Pennsylvania scholar and the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English, questions about identity and otherness remain some of the story’s most enticing.

Emily Wilson: What is it to be in a family? What is it to be a person over time? For me, that’s one of the most fascinating questions just in general, but then The Odyssey speaks to that question of, am I the same person that I was 20 years ago? Am I the same person in America that I was in the UK? Is Ulysses the same person when he’s on the battlefield, verses when he’s with his son, verses when he’s with his wife? What is it to be the same or to be different? How do we treat people who are different from us? It’s a poem that’s about diaspora, immigration, emigration, travel, belonging, being at different places geographically and also being at different places spiritually and psychologically.

The story goes, that a decade after the fall of Troy, the Greek hero Odysseus has still not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca. For seven years he’s been stuck on an island, trapped by an infatuated nymph named Calypso with no crew, ship, or real possibility of escape. Back home Odysseus’ faithful wife Penelope, and unimpressive son Telemachus remain hopeful for the king’s return, even as rowdy suitors flood the palace, attempting to court the queen, and plotting to murder the prince. What follows is the long and winding journey of a complicated hero. Odysseus is a beguiling liar, a cheater, and a trickster. Compounded as he is by human desires and failures, he makes a perfect subject for classicist and memoirist Daniel Mendelsohn.

Daniel Mendelsohn: If you’re into literature business, I’m a professor of literature, I’m a writer. It’s almost reflexive that you’re going to think a character like Odysseus is great, ’cause he’s a great storyteller. That’s how he wins over people again and again. He lies, he cajoles, he tells a great tall tale to get his way. So we think, he’s so great.

Odysseus ensnares the imagination of those who love a good yarn, but his character isn’t always an easy sell. Take for example Daniel Mendelsohn’s father Jay, a mathematically-minded senior, who decided to take his son’s course at Bard College and reveled in the rebuttals. Mendelsohn Sr. was very hard to convince.

Mendelsohn: Everything I thought was great about him because he’s like a writer basically. Odysseus is like a writer. My father thought was terrible. He said, “How could you trust a person like that?” And you know what? It’s a great question. So to have this voice of opposition constantly speaking up in the class, was sort of enacting some kind of oedipal drama between me and my father. He was always challenging me. I was always having to sort of look over and deal with this Greek chorus.

Jay Mendelsohn, as Daniel writes of his father in his memoir, An Odyssey, forced the classicist to learn the story in new ways. This is what happens to everyone who rereads the poem. Personal circumstances shape the response.

Mendelsohn: That’s what great about these epics, and particularly Homer. Look, you are different too. The you who is reading it changes over time, just like the characters in the text.

AJC: Right.

Mendelsohn: So the me who read The Odyssey at 15, and then in college, and then intensively in grad school, and then when I started teaching. I have been different at every set. So when you’re young, you love the adventure and the cyclops and the whatever. Look this is what my whole book is about. Having my elderly father in the class with me, reading the parts about Odysseus and his elderly father, that’s the stuff I pay attention to now. Maybe when I was 22, I thought it was interesting but it didn’t speak to me. That also fathers and son—

AJC: You find who you are at that time as you read it?

Mendelsohn: Yes you are always finding yourself in the text, but because yourself changes, you are finding different selves and noticing different things.

But readers don’t evolve alone. Over the years, the story itself has changed with each new translation. Throughout her rendition, Emily Wilson engaged in both an interpretive act and a creative one. She pondered the Homeric question, “who indeed was the author of this poem?” Or was there more than one? She rendered the poem in contemporary language in iambic pentameter. She found new ways to manage repeating themes, and to offer narrative clarity.

Wilson: I want it to be absolutely clear what’s going on at every moment. I think there’s also a false perception that because it’s very old, it must be very difficult. Like the older it is, the more difficult it must be. So I wanted to use an English that would not be that difficult.

AJC: So it sounds like you’ve gone for the ABCs. Accurate, brief, and clear.

Wilson: Yes, um hmm, exactly, yes.

Every translation, Daniel Mendelsohn points out, makes the story new again. You might even say that each one is its own story.

Mendelsohn: I always like to think of all translations in a conversation with each other, because every translation, and I know this from my own experience, is a reaction to earlier translations. I could talk about every English translation in print, and tell you why there’s some wonderful thing about it that the other ones don’t have. And I don’t think any responsible translator would ever claim to have written the definitive translation, partly because our language keeps changing and Homer’s language is fixed. So 40 years from now, there will be a new kind of English language that it will need a new translation.

And so the Odyssey will continue to evolve. At once ancient and new, familiar and revelatory. A reflection of those who dare to interrogate it.