Emily Wilson: Language and the Arts of Storytelling

Emily Wilson: Language and the Arts of Storytelling



Today’s guest is Dr. Emily Wilson, a professor of Classical Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Emily is famous for excellent translation of The Odyssey, the first known complete translation by a woman in English. 

In this interview, we explore the history of language, the significance of stories, and subtleties of translation. First, we talk about the history of language and the differences between illiterate societies that communicate through speech and literate societies that communicate through the written word. As you’ll discover, the differences are surprisingly large. 

We also talk about the art and challenge of translation, how language shapes perception, the Greek gods, gender roles in The Odyssey, and end with a discussion on the future of communication. 

What are the challenges of translating an ancient story? How does Emily think about truth and originality?

Finally, we discuss the shift in language from orality to literacy and the future of communication.

Show Topics

1:48 Emily’s first interaction with The Odyssey

4:16 The meaning behind The Odyssey and the meaning of what life is, what home is and how life is shaped by your experiences with other people

4:36 How The Odyssey and ancient stories caught Emily’s attention

5:17 Emily’s escape from home and her transition from living in England to moving to USA

7:12 How Emily’s interest sparked in fiction, the classics and comparative literature

8:38 Why Paradise Lost is such an important piece of classic work to Emily

10:46 The effect living away from home has had on Emily and the comfortable and uncomfortable balance that intrigues her

11:36 Emily’s interpretation of Paradise Lost and how it made her question how to read tragedy differently

14:52 Emily’s outlook on how The Odyssey was written and the different theories on Homer

17:44 Telephone, one liners, and the preservation of messages.

19:06 Emily’s take on how proverbs are able to live through centuries, such as “to be or not to be” and how oral performance tricks can make them stay in people’s memories

23:48 The Odyssey’s history and how it existed in both written text and through oral performance

25:36 Why spoken repetition has such a strong resonation within people’s minds for years and how it creates shared cultural memory

27:40 Ancient Greek cultures didn’t see their heroic characters as perfect individuals. 

29:57 Emily’s opinion on why The Odyssey and The Iliad have become so monumental in history

33:52 How Odysseus and Athena use technical problem solving in The Odyssey

36:28 The changes in culture and hospitality from ancient Greece to today and how it’s passed on to generations

38:32 The strategy Emily used to translate the ancient story from Greek to English

39:54 Emily first challenge in her translation started on Book Nine, where she struggled to ensure there was the insight into the feelings of both the cyclops and Odysseus

42:28 How a word translation in one part of the story can influence the rest of the story

44:16 How the language you speak changes your perception of the way you see the world

45:40 Who Emily translated The Odyssey for

47:25 Where Emily sees the future of language and communication

49:37 What happened as a direct result of literacy and the changes in geometry and abstract thinking with philosophy and the origins of the universe that followed

53:08 How The Odyssey impacted Emily’s career, writing and life



“It can be a journey that’s about looking for a home but also trying to escape from home. I grew up in Oxford and I went to college there and it was too much home. I wanted to find a different kind of place that was not the same as the place I grew up in. I felt kind of cycled being in the same place my whole life.”

“I think [fiction] can give you different kinds of human experience and make you feel things you don’t feel just reading non-fiction. It can make you explore human potential and see through other people’s eyes. Exploring different mindsets and forms of thinking that come from reading in a different language.”

“I’m interested in the question of how to feel at home and not at home at the same time. I like that feeling of being comfortable and also not comfortable. There’s a belongingness that’s not quite there and I like that sense that it’s not quite there in a way that isn’t me personally. It’s because of different cultural contexts overlapping over each other and never quite fitting.

“However hard you work to create a text that is equivalent to the archaic poem translated, it’s not going to be the same text. If I was speaking ancient Greek or ancient Latin, the conversations would end up being different because the language we could use and the concepts we could use would all be different concepts. I don’t think that means that people from different cultures can’t communicate or the translation is impossible. It’s still a full awareness that every single word is going to be implying a totally different world view.”

“I think it’s interesting to see the massive shifts we’re going through right now where people can communicate in text speech and emoji speech and these sub-dialects of English that didn’t exist five years ago. It’s fascinating how there are certain parallels between the shift from being a totally oral culture to a primarily literate culture which happened in the transition from archaic to later periods of ancient Greece. You can see looking back to that earlier technological communication shift how it got tied up with other political and communicative relationship shifts. How people understood themselves, their own history and started changing as a result of this communication difference. Things are unpredictable about what new forms of communication are going to emerge.”

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To listen to other episodes or learn more about the North Star, you can connect with me directly at perell.com and you can always reach out on Twitter at david_perell. And if you enjoyed this episode, you’ll like Tyler Cowen’s perspectives on travel, the economics of culture, the rise of China and the secrets to better learning in our episode called Two Blundering Fools.