On reading Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey, Georgia Poplett started to consider the misogynistic history behind language and the way translated words have been used to harm and heal womxn.
My grandmother picks up pieces of language and puts them into her mouth.
She turns them over, a vendor testing produce at a market; she rolls them against the backs of her teeth, tastes the weight. She has to think, now, more carefully about her words. Every so often, the meaning splinters beneath her tongue, which is bewildering. Sometimes the word rematerialises, like an aftertaste; at others, it’s replaced by another – not always suitable – alternative.
Watching her war with it, I wonder: what, exactly, does it mean to lose a language, not only as a human being, but as a womxn?
I have always found the particular intersection of language and womxnhood to be a strained junction. Language is often analogised as a jungle, a thorny collective of dangerous and forbidding ground, with multilingualism acting as a lamplight or machete. This, perhaps, is what I am getting at: language is sword-sharp, double-edged; it heals and it hurts. It clarifies. It cuts. Additionally, womxn in particular have always battled with words; not only their own, but the ones which are used to contain them.
I am strongly reminded of this as I reread Emily Wilson’s 2017 translation of Homer’s Odyssey (W.W. Norton & Company). It seems laughable – and baffling – that Wilson’s is the first translation of Homer’s epic into English by a woman in almost three thousand years since its composition. Wilson foregrounds her consciousness of this dubious triumph in an introductory translator’s note:
I try to avoid importing contemporary types of sexism into this ancient poem, instead shining a clear light on the particular forms of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text, which are partly familiar from our world. For instance, in the scene where Telemachus oversees the hanging of the slaves who have been sleeping with the suitors, most translations introduce derogatory language (“sluts” or “whores”) […] The original Greek does not label these slaves with any derogatory language.
Wilson’s Odyssey is lyrical, songlike. But beyond the mechanical delight of her composition, her translation extends beyond a legacy of linguistic choices informed by normalised misogyny. George Chapman’s translation, four hundred years earlier, appears to be partly, if not primarily, responsible for this misnomer. His was certainly one of the most influential translations into English, revered in such subsequent literature as John Keats’s On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer, and preceded a volley of translations which each incorporate their own specific brands of misogyny.
This is not to say, of course, that the Ancient Greece of Homer’s original text was any kind of paradisal Herland. However, what Wilson emphasises is that this particular aspect – that of the slaves’ naming – was not a deliberately misogynistic judgement call, and in fact that to do so exculpates Odysseus’s violent purge. The original Greek is “dmoe”, meaning maid or servant (which Wilson modified to “slaves”, in order to more accurately reflect the characters’ enslaved status). What Homer himself objectively states is that these womxn slept with the suitors. However, to refer to them as “sluts” or “whores” betrays the possibilities of sexual coercion and abuse faced by womxn in their position. These slurs serve no purpose other than to shame and in some way, to blame them for their own savage deaths.
While I cannot speak for other-language Odyssey translations, through this jumping-off point it is certainly possible to trace an identifiable pattern of misogyny inherent within the English language. One of the earliest written testimonies to be translated into English is the Old Testament, a text which pivotally punishes the first act of womxn’s disobedience by expulsion from Eden to a subterranean plane. However, there exist texts which suggest Eve’s transgression was not, in fact, the first. According to Jewish mythology, Adam’s first wife was Lilith, who – upon refusing to submit to him – was transformed into a cave-dwelling, infanticidal cannibal. Having spoken the syllable “No” to her husband, Lilith banished herself to a subterranean nowhere-place, separated from both Eden and the language whose purpose she hijacked for her own right of refusal.
To paraphrase Luce Irigaray: language is coded as masculine, leaving the feminine to be found lurking in and amongst it, in an aptly Lilithian form. The androcentric order – that is, the hegemony which places value on the male and his associated domains – has historically wielded language as a weapon over the heads of womxn. Arguably, Chapman’s whores became the benchmark until Homer’s Odyssey was (and continues to be) re-examined by later scholars.
The Pre-Raphaelites were a notable group who revived an interest in female key players from classical and mythological texts, including Lilith. This is a particularly fascinating convergence given the period’s developing preoccupation with phrenology. From 1814-15, Johann Gaspar Spurzheim toured throughout the UK and USA, distributing ideas about how features of the external cranium could provide insight into internal processes and characteristics. Phrenology rapidly became a breeding ground for misogynist and racist ideologies under the guise of science. It lent a physical credence to the fallacy that female brains lacked the size or scope of a male’s, and were in fact unfortunately predisposed to emotional hyperactivity because of the supposed enlargement of the occipital cortex, indicating conjugal and domestic proclivities.
In this context, the work of womxn writers has often been diminished by the category of womxn’s writing, although this is gradually undergoing a reclamation. George Bernard Shaw famously despised the novella, a genre especially associated with womxn-authored texts (primarily because of harsh copy editing and an unwillingness to waste paper, when surplus pages could easily be axed by the lead protagonist dying in childbirth, for example – the discussions between Jo March and her editor in Greta Gerwig‘s 2019 adaptation of Little Women come to mind). Even now, the works of writers such as Ann Radcliffe are only just re-entering the academic fore as complex and intelligent texts in their own rights.
So excluded was the nineteenth-century womxn from the arena of language that writing was seen as a symptom of sickness in and of itself. It signified an alarming and impertinent propulsion from the domestic sphere into the public one. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s masterpiece, The Yellow Wallpaper (1892), narrates one woman’s descent into actual insanity as a result of the rest cure – a tortuous ‘treatment’ designed to combat hysteria, depriving womxn of speech, solid food, and movement for a sustained period. Arguably, the rest cure was shorthand for re-establishing wilful womxn back into domesticity, and away from male-governed spaces of public speech and language. (It is noteworthy to mention here, however, that depriving a patient of reading and writing materials was largely par for the course in nineteenth-century medicine: Keats was forbidden to read poetry while he recuperated from tuberculosis in the early 1820s.) Nevertheless, the relationship between womxn and words – and in particular, womxn who write their own – has always been a fraught subject.
Translation weaves together the misogyny of the English language with the interpreter’s interpretations, in a manner akin to the weaving of Penelope’s tapestry. This misogyny may either be highlighted or perpetuated depending on the unique worldview of the translator, as in Wilson’s case. However, call us what you may, womxn across the world continue to rethink language and utter it on their own terms. It is particularly fitting that this series has taken place over the course of one of the most significant health crises of the twenty-first century. So much of womxn’s writing has been historically linked to sickness, in all its definitions; this time, it comes forth from sickness.
Dementia is the sickness which takes language from my grandmother. Despite this, like the whores and the heretics and the hysterics, she directs her energy into other forms. She dances. She sings. She laughs.
My grandmother is losing her language, but womxn speak in other ways.
About Georgia Poplett
Georgia (she/her) is a writer and Piccadilly-based bookseller about to complete her MFA in Creative Writing. Born in Kent, she now lives amongst the Gothic spires of North London. Her research considers the mythology of the mother, as well as medical humanities and magical realism. She writes fiction but is still working on the money and a room of her own. She is currently working on her first novel about postpartum psychosis. Follow Georgia on Twitter @GeorgiaPoplett
This piece was commissioned for Life in Languages, a series conceived and guest edited by Elodie Rose Barnes
Language is our primary means of communication. By speaking and writing, listening and reading, by using our tongues and our bodies, we are able to communicate our desires, fears, opinions and hopes. We use language to express our views of the world around us. Language has the power to transcend barriers and cross borders; but it also has the power to reinforce those demarcations. Language offers a form of resistance against oppression, yet it can also be used to oppress. Language has the power to harm or to heal.
In these times of shifting boundaries and physical separation, when meaningful connection has become even more important yet seemingly difficult to attain, language has become vital. The words we choose to read, write, and speak can bring us closer as individuals and as a collective. During lockdown, unable to travel, I’ve found myself increasingly drawn to reading works in translation from all over the world – not only for the much longed-for glimpses into different cultures and ways of being that I cannot experience in person (for the time being, at least), but because they offer new words, new viewpoints, new ways of expression. Grief, loss, uncertainty, anger, hope, joy, love: these are universal emotions. Finding my own feelings mirrored in the writing of womxn from all across the world, from different times and different situations, across generations, is a massive comfort. It’s also led me to examine my own relationship to language and languages: what I read, how I write, the roots of my communication, and how that’s changing today.
In this series for Lucy Writers, I’ll share some of my personal reflections on how language has shaped my life and writing, and review some of my favourite works in translation written and/or translated by womxn. Writing on works written and translated by the likes of Natasha Lehrer, Jen Calleja, Saskia Vogel, Leïla Slimani, Sophie Lewis, Deborah Dawkin, Khairani Barokka and many more will feature in Life in Languages.
Elodie Rose Barnes, Guest Editor of Life in Languages
Submissions are now closed for this series. Read all work for Life in Languages here.
Feature image taken from the front cover of Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey (Norton, 2017).