Notes and Review - The Odyssey (Homer) (Wilson translation)


I heard about this new translation on the Ezra Klein show. Madeline Miller made a very convincing pitch for why this book is relevant today, and why everyone should read this book; especially, the new translation by Emily Wilson. I was looking for something complex to read, that would keep me occupied for the 5 day extended vacation from May 2nd to May 7th (here in Japan). That was my main reason for picking this book up.

The story was simple, it was told at a beautiful, exciting clip. The story moves forward with this incredible, hard-to-believe speed. I am glad I read this book!

The story is fairly simple: Odysseus goes to Troy to fight alongside the Greeks against the Trojans. He’s cunning, and extremely shady; he comes up with several clever, “fox-like” plots throughout the story. Every time that he is despairing and cornered somewhere, he comes up with some kind of way to trick the person who has captured him and get out and get back to Ithaca, the place where he was king before he left for Troy.

At home, his wife Penelope and his son Telemachus are waiting for him. Well, sort-of. Telemachus is a child (although he is 20) and doesn’t really have much of a spine. Penelope definitely wants him to return, but it also feels like there are moments when she does not really want him to return. She’s never really happy throughout the book; even when he comes back and they are re-united, he tests him and then is happy that Odysseus is back; she is very mysterious and does not clarify her position to anyone. And finally, the villains of the story are the suitors: A group of obnoxious young men who are trying to win Penelope’s hand in marriage. They have somehow entered Odysseus’ house and have started having daily feasts there (???) The concept of someone entering your house just because you are not home and eating from your larder and having a great time in your absense is hard to comprehend. Perhaps it was something that was quite common in Ancient Greece? Exactly how they gained access, and established themself in Odysseus’ house is never made clear. They are there at the beginning of the book, and they are an obnoxious bunch.

Odysseus is also very popular with the ladies. Every female character he meets in the story immediately falls for him and wants to keep him tied up wherever they live. Calypso is the goddess who has a lot of power and tries to take his freedom and give him immortality instead; Odysseus is not down. Circe hangs out with him for about a year; then he decides that he wants to leave. Why he didn’t decide to leave early, if he really wanted to see his wife and son, is never explained.


This book has a lot of dichotomies. Odysseus wants to get back home, but he’s always having a good time wherever he lands. He shows urgency at some points in the story, but the 1 year he spends with Circe “in her bed” is pretty hard to explain away.

Penelope wants her husband to come back home, she wants Telemachus to be safe and to mature into an adult. She doesn’t take any steps towards either end. She is very good at weaving apparently, so she is weaving in her room and weeping into her bed. No concrete steps though.

Telemachus wants to become a man, but he’s the most spineless character in the whole book. Every time that someone wants him to do something or decide something, he simply defers to the other person. The most glaring example of this that frustrated me was the one in which Odysseus has finally vanquished all the suitors and asks him to suggest some kind of way to avoid a confrontation with the suitors’ families. Telemachus replies promptly:

Telemachus said warily, “You have to work it out. They say you have the finest mind in all the world, no mortal man can rival you in cleverness”

Odysseus was not fishing for compliments man.

And finally, the dichotomy when describing city sackers and pirates.

Strangers, who are you? Where did you sail from? Are you on business, or just scouting round like pirates on the sea, who risk their lives to ravage foreign homes?

This was a pretty jarring line for me. “Risking your lives” is something that we always associate with something noble: like joining the army or becoming a doctor. “Ravaging foreign homes” is obviously very bad and not noble at all. To put both of those in the same line and frame a question is very hard to digest.


This book isn’t very long. It’s written in “iambic pentameter” and you can recognize the rhyme in most places, but it doesn’t read as a poem. It read likes prose. It’s extremely fast-paced. That was the highlight for me. I was able to finish reading this in about 3 days. I was reading slowly and taking notes and making sure that I wasn’t missing anything important. Even still, the pace was fast enough that I often ended up reading for 2 hours without noticing the time or page numbers.

I found Madeline Miller’s pitch for the book on the Ezra Klein show podcast and her review of the book very useful to understand the goal behind this translation.

One of the things that Homer has in the original is this incredible forward motion. It’s an exciting, exciting read. Wilson wanted to keep that galloping speed. – Madeline Miller (10:15, Ezra Klein Show, 2020-04-23) – Podcast


But of course, the English of the nineteenth or early twentieth century is no closer to Homeric Greek than the language of today. The use of a noncolloquial or archaizing linguistic register can blind readers to the real, inevitable, and vast gap between the Greek original and any modern translation.

– From the translator’s note. Wilson gets it absolutely right! I have always wondered why we must use antiquated English in our translations; she does a great job of explaining why that’s not useful and serves only to drive people away from reading literature that they would find interesting.

There are some really good portions in the poem. I really like the ones in which the characters are talking about their hatred for one another, or how something that the other character just said was so stupid that the person shouldn’t even consider talking ever again.

We suitors will keep eating up your wealth, and livelihood, as long as she pursues this plan the gods have put inside her heart

– The impunity in this statement from Antinous (probably) is incredible. How can you even say that, man!

Strangers, who are you? Where did you sail from? Are you on business, or just scouting round like pirates on the sea, who risk their lives to ravage foreign homes?

Do not be enraged at me, great goddess. You are quite right. I know my modest wife Penelope could never match your beauty. She is a human; you are deathless, ageless. But even so, I want to go back home, and every day I hope that day will come. If some god strikes me on the wine-dark sea, I will endure it. By now I am used to suffering – I have gone through so much, at sea and in the war. Let this come too.

As you know, divine Calypso held me in her cave, wanting to marry me; and likewise Circe, the trickster, trapped me, and she wanted me to be her husband. But she never swayed my heart, since when a man is far from home, living abroad, there is no sweeter thing than his own native land and family.

– This line was an articulate description of how I have felt every time I have moved away from a place I lived in for a long time. (moving to a new city when I was 10, moving to college when I was 17, moving to Japan when I was 22)

So you must never treat your wife too well. Do not let her know everything you know. Tell her some things, hide others. But your wife will not kill you, Odysseus. The wise Penelope is much too sensible to do such things. Your bride was very young when we went off to war. She had a baby still at her breats, who must be now a man. he will be glad when you come home and see him, and he will throw his arms around his father. That is how things should go. My wife prevented my eager eyes from gazing at my son. She killed me first.

– This is Agamemnon giving advise to Odysseus. It’s a strange thing to say; he was burned pretty bad by his wife, but still.

Scowling at him, Odysseus said, “Fool! I did not do you wrong or speak against you. I am not jealous of another beggar receiving gifts, however much he gets. This doorway can accommodate us both. Do not hog all the wealth; it is not yours.20 You seem to be a homeless man, like me. Gods give all mortal blessings. Do not stir me to fight or lose my temper. I am old but I will crack your ribs and smash your face to bloody pulp—then I will have a day of peace tomorrow; you will not return here to the palace of Odysseus.”

Fighting words; “I will crack your ribs and smash your face to bloody pulp” => this is so much better than an action scene.