Emily Wilson

Emily Wilson is a professor of classical studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Her translation of the Odyssey appeared in 2018.

Old Comedy anticipated modern sci-fi, and shows like The Good Place, in its willingness to carry out fantastical thought experiments (talking frogs, a city of birds, a singing chorus of metaphysically inclined clouds, or, weirdest of all, women with real political power), and considered their social and political repercussions. Like pantomime or Punch and Judy, it included formulaic riffs on falling over, violence and cross-dressing. But the lush comic hip-hop of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B is one of the most useful modern analogues, because it illustrates the core element of Old Comedy that is most often obscured in contemporary Anglophone translations – the flow. Aristophanes, like the creators of ‘WAP’, was a musician, songwriter, choreographer and poet, and his linguistic effects depend, like theirs, on the artful manipulation of rhythm and sound in words and imagery. The poetic affinity between rap and Old Comedy is explored in Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, a hip-hop adaptation of Lysistrata set on the South Side of Chicago.

Ah, how miserable! Three New Oresteias

Emily Wilson, 8 October 2020

These dense plays are concerned with a transition from a world of mystery to a world of history, from war to peace, from myth to reality, from aristocratic households to the democratic society of contemporary Athens. They describe the triumph of law over personal vendettas and revenge, and show the direct violence of the axe and the sword giving way to the buried structural violence of law and social institutions. They provide an implicit justification and celebration of recent Athenian history and the current political regime: in real life, the political and legal structures of democracy had replaced the old system of rule by tyrants, and there were still powerful aristocratic men in Athens who favoured oligarchy over democracy. But most fundamentally, the trilogy uses all these interwoven narratives to tell a story that justifies the triumph of men over women. The institution of the all-male democratic law court, presided over by its male-biased judge, is presented as the only possible solution to the endless violence of the earlier world.

Ave, Jeeves! Rom(an) Com

Emily Wilson, 21 February 2008

When the Romans won wars, they brought home large numbers of enslaved foreign prisoners, to work the fields, mills and mines of the countryside, and to provide an enormous range of domestic services for wealthy city-dwellers. Slaves did the hard labour, but they were also essential for all the things that made a rich Roman’s life comfortable. Most of the work we would classify as part...

Most of us, it seems, tend to think of the ‘hero’ as someone who never hesitates. As soon as he has made up his mind, he acts. But in Hesitant Heroes Theodore Ziolkowski identifies texts central to the Western canon – the Oresteia, the Aeneid, Parzival, Hamlet, Wallenstein – which show heroes who hesitate at the moment of decision. He argues that each of these works...

So Caucasian: ZZ Packer

Emily Wilson, 1 April 2004

The epigraph to Drinking Coffee Elsewhere comes from Alex Haley’s Roots: ‘The histories have been written by the winners.’ The implication is that this collection will give us the voice of the losers. But ZZ Packer looks like an outsider only if you concentrate exclusively on racial identity. She went to Yale and then to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Her writing is more...

Tongue breaks: Sappho

Emily Wilson, 8 January 2004

Some time around the ninth century, Sappho’s nine books were irrecoverably lost. We have some tantalising scraps, single lines and short quotations, but only one complete poem – the ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ (Fragment 1), which is quoted by Dionysius of Halicarnassus. A few longish passages from other poems have been preserved in other authors: the most famous is Fragment 31...

From The Blog
14 July 2018

Reports have been circulating in the press of a discovery at Olympia of 13 lines from very early in Book 14 of the Odyssey, inscribed on a clay tablet. These reports all seem to be based on an announcement by the Greek Ministry of Culture and Sports; various muddles in the English press reporting, such as calling Book 14 a ‘rhapsody’, can probably be blamed on Google Translate. The report also claims that the clay tablet, which the archaeologists are said to have provisionally dated to Roman times, ‘probably before the third century AD’, is ‘extraordinarily unique’ (πέραν της μοναδικότητάς), because it ‘may perhaps preserve the oldest known extract of the Homeric epic’. Hordes of newspapers have repeated the claim. There are plenty of papyri of parts of the Iliad and the Odyssey that are far older than the third century AD, however, including the first ever discovered, a piece of papyrus housed at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which dates to the first half of the third century BCE. There are even earlier bits of Homer on other materials, such as a line from Odyssey 9 on a potsherd found in ancient Olbia (in modern Ukraine), dating to the fifth century BCE.


Macaroni in a Pot

21 October 2021

Emily Wilson writes: Translating comic poetry from one language and culture to another is an extremely difficult task. Any­one who attempts to convey the vast range of registers in Aristophanes, from the ridic­ulous and vulgar to the high-falutin’ and lyrical, is to be commended. In our vis­ions of Aristophanes’ gushing flow of ling­uistic inventiveness, Stephen Halliwell...
I am grateful to Colin Burrow for his kind review of my translation of The Odyssey, along with those of Peter Green and Anthony Verity (LRB, 26 April). But I would like to point out a feature of the review that reflects some problematic contemporary Anglo-American attitudes to literary translation. Burrow notes that, like many other translators of Homer (from Chapman to my contemporaries), I do some...

Should a translator try to shine a light through the fog or to replicate it? What makes that question so hard to answer is that fog isn’t all there is in The Odyssey. Wary manoeuvrings through the...

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How much weight​ should we give to unpleasant revelations about the private lives of thinkers? It partly depends on what kind of thinker we’re talking about. When it was discovered a few...

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Socrates in his cell, drinking hemlock. Cato at Utica, disembowelling himself not once but twice. And Seneca, with cuts in his arms and legs, waiting for the blood to trickle out of his...

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Into Extra Time: Living too long

Deborah Steiner, 23 February 2006

So great was the Greeks’ concern with living too long – what Emily Wilson calls ‘overliving’– that they had a cautionary myth about it. The immortal rosy-fingered...

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