translation services

The Translation of the Odyssey: A Landmark in Translation Services – Part I

Making Translation Services History

When Professor Emily Wilson of the University of Pennsylvania released a new translation of The Odyssey by Homer in late 2017, many in the translation services community wondered why a new translation was necessary. Yet many failed to recognize the significance of the moment, as Wilson’s version of The Odyssey represented the first translation of the epic by a female scholar. Using her unique perspective as a woman, Wilson produced a translation designed to highlight the inequities present within ancient Greek society. For instance, instead of deliberately downplaying the institution of slavery that characterized Odysseus’ society, Wilson lays bare the issue by referring to Eurymedusa, a female laborer working at Princess Nausicaa’s palace, as a “slave” rather than as a “chambermaid” or “nurse” as used in earlier translations. Clearly, Wilson intended to update The Odyssey for the modern era by focusing on cleaning previous translations of language that obscured the more problematic aspects of the story. Wilson’s revolutionary approach gained considerable praise (Columbia University just decided to use her translation over a famous version by professional translator, Richmond Lattimore).  For her efforts, Wilson recently received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship to continue her work in the field of global translation services.


Origins of The Odyssey

This latest chapter in the story of The Odyssey demonstrates that despite the story’s age, it remains a work of great vitality and resonance. Telling the story of Odysseus’ trek back to his home of Ithaca after the Peloponnesian War, the poem chronicles the many challenges that the protagonist faced during his journey. Yet how did this epic tale come to be? Legend has it that the epic likely originated as a performance piece developed during the 8th century B.C.E. by a blind poet named Homer (although some have argued that the poem has multiple authors). By the 5th century B.C.E., Athenian kings ordered the copying of Homer’s work onto scrolls to preserve the epic for posterity. These texts provided the basis for papyrus scrolls dating back to the 3rd century B.C.E. found in Alexandria, which represent the oldest known fragments of The Odyssey.


Translating the Epic

The Odyssey wasn’t translated into modern languages until the dawn of the Renaissance in the 15th century. Prior to this time period, professional translating hardly existed as a field and few people possessed the knowledge to translate documents from ancient Greek into European languages. It was only the fall of Constantinople in 1453 that brought Greek scholars to Europe and with them, the scrolls of The Odyssey. From these scrolls, the first printed edition of The Odyssey was produced in Florence in 1488 and edited by a Byzantine scholar named Demetrios Chalcondylas, a landmark achievement in the work’s history. Yet this edition was created only for the scholarly elite. The first accessible edition of the work emerged thanks to the efforts of Aldus Manutius who printed the work in Greek in the port city of Venice. Although many people could not read Greek, this edition proved vital in popularizing Homer’s work among Italian scholars who knew the language, thus setting into motion the translation of The Odyssey into the various European languages by language service companies.

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