A review of The Iliad translated by Emily Wilson

Reviewed by Joshua Claybourn

The Illiad
by Homer
Translated by Emily Wilson
Norton agency titles
October 2023, Hardcover, 848 pages, ISBN-13: 978-1324001805

In the ever-evolving landscape of classical literature translations, Emily Wilson’s fresh rendition of The Iliad stands as a monumental achievement, eliciting both widespread acclaim and pointed critique. Lauded for its meticulous fidelity to the original Greek, its rhythmic cadence, and its carefully chosen lexicon, Wilson’s work has reinvigorated a text that has captivated readers for millennia.

Yet, not everyone is singing its praises. Some detractors argue that her translation leans too far into contemporary sensibilities, accusing it of being overly “woke” or suggesting that it imposes modern concerns onto an ancient, revered text. While it’s undeniable that classics like The Iliad can resonate with today’s issues, the question arises: How far should a translator go in making a text relevant to modern readers without distorting its original essence? This tension between timeless wisdom and contemporary relevance forms the crux of the debate surrounding Wilson’s groundbreaking translation.

One of the most striking aspects of Wilson’s work is her use of gender-inclusive language. She translates the Greek word “andres” as “people” or “mortals” instead of the traditional “men.” Critics argue this choice not only alters but also dilutes the text’s original meaning. Wilson, however, counters that the term “andres” is open to multiple interpretations and that her gender-inclusive approach aligns more closely with the text’s spirit than a male-exclusive translation would.

Another point of contention is Wilson’s modern tone. Critics claim her use of contemporary language and colloquialisms feels anachronistic and undermines the epic’s grandeur. Wilson, however, defends her choices as a deliberate strategy to make the text as engaging and accessible as possible for today’s readers. She argues that the essence of The Iliad is not compromised but rather revitalized through language that speaks to a modern audience.

To contextualize Wilson’s work, it’s useful to compare it with other seminal translations. Robert Fagles’ 1990 version is renowned for its poetic beauty but leans into archaic language that may challenge some readers. Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 rendition is highly respected for its accuracy and readability but lacks poetic flair. Robert Fitzgerald’s 1974 translation, while less literal, captures the original’s spirit and rhythm, making it a compelling read. Wilson’s translation finds a middle ground: it’s more faithful than Fitzgerald’s but more poetic than Lattimore’s, offering a balanced choice for readers who seek both fidelity and readability in their epic journey through The Iliad.

In summary, Emily Wilson’s translation of The Iliad is a tour de force that navigates the fine line between faithfulness to the original and contemporary relevance. While some critics accuse her of excessive modernization, these criticisms often overlook her intent: to make this epic tale accessible to a broader audience without sacrificing its original integrity. For anyone interested in delving into this cornerstone of Western literature, Wilson’s translation comes highly recommended, serving as a testament to the enduring power of ancient stories in our modern world.

About the reviewer: Joshua Claybourn is author or editor of several books, including the forthcoming Our American Story: The Search for a Unifying National Narrative and co-editor (with William Bartelt) of Abe’s Youth: Collected Works from the Indiana Lincoln Inquiry. Claybourn has published widely on legal, political, and historical topics in such periodicals as The Hill, The American Spectator, American Thinker, alone with several regional periodicals. He has also appeared as a guest on CNN, MSNBC, and NHK. Visit the him online at JoshuaClaybourn.com.