Polytropos: Your Turn to Serve


Reading a very interesting article about Emily Wilson, the first female translator of Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad.  My first thought was that this was not possible.  None? No female classicists to tackle it ever?  Apparently not.

Wilson’s first book “Mocked With Death,” grew from her dissertation. She explores the concept of mortality in classical traditions.  “Wilson’s study is also frequently touching. It is about the broadest of human inheritances: our constant awareness of all that we will lose, are losing, have lost.”  Deep.

I particularly love how she has radically reinterpreted the idea of polytropos.

“The prefix poly,” Wilson said, laughing, “means ‘many’ or ‘multiple.’ Tropos means ‘turn.’ ‘Many’ or ‘multiple’ could suggest that he’s much turned, as if he is the one who has been put in the situation of having been to Troy, and back, and all around, gods and goddesses and monsters turning him off the straight course that, ideally, he’d like to be on. Or, it could be that he’s this untrustworthy kind of guy who is always going to get out of any situation by turning it to his advantage. It could be that he’s the turner.”

And here is the opening as she translates it:

Tell me about a complicated man.
Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost
when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,
and where he went, and who he met, the pain
he suffered in the storms at sea, and how
he worked to save his life and bring his men
back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,
they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god
kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,
tell the old story for our modern times.
Find the beginning.


This article is, in the end, about treating the idea of ‘translating’ with more respect.

What a translation is doing — and what it should do — has been a source of vigorous debate since there were texts to translate. “I’m not a believer,” Wilson told me, “but I find that there is a sort of religious practice that goes along with translation. I’m trying to serve something.”

So often I have tried to get this simple idea across in my own work with multimodal texts.  I am trying to serve and honor what someone else has shared. 

And I think that translation is often the best way to understand what a person intended.  Even if that understanding is ‘off’, the translation still holds.  This makes for a much broader view toward creative work.  Translation is creation and, if such, it is not derivative at all. Find the beginning and relate and translate the tale.

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