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On The Odyssey, Wingspan, Birds, and Women Who Break Boundaries

Did you know that, between the first English translation of The Odyssey in 1615 and the year 2017, every single translation was written by a man? Did you know that 93.5% of game designers are white men?

Classics scholar Emily Wilson was the first woman to translate The Odyssey. And her approach to it is wholly different than any of her predecessors. There is a sort of affinity for the characters, for the cadence, for the language, for the strictures of the form that are unlike any of the earlier translations. This translation profoundly changes the reader's experience of the poem, of the adventure, of the men and, especially, the women who populate the myth.

Ms. Wilson said, “I want to be super responsible about my relationship to the Greek text. I want to be saying, after multiple different revisions: This is the best I can get toward the truth.”

Elizabeth Hargrave, a former policy analyst at the University of Chicago and an avid birder, is one of the few women in game design (you can read more about the lack of women and non-white designers and the over-representation of white men in the industry, literally and figuratively, here). She recently launched a new game - sold out in its first, second, and third printings - called Wingspan.

There is a complexity and rigor to Ms. Hargrave's game design not often seen - she utilized data from a citizen-science project managed by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, among other technical sources. She built a spreadsheet that ran five hundred and ninety six rows by nearly one hundred columns. And then inflected it with her own perspective.

There are subtle and delicate choices to be made when you're building a game, just like when you're translating a many-thousands-year-old epic poem. We can't help but notice the rigor and nuance of both women's approaches and the ways in which that pairing - rigor + nuance (not to mention a complete mastery of the subject matter and deep reverence for accuracy) - forever alters not only their specific contribution, but also the entire landscape of their field.

As Ms. Hargrave told Geek Studies, "I tried to get a diverse set of birds from North America into the game, and a lot of the common ones. But some species definitely got a push just because I like them. Roseate spoonbills are only in a tiny corner of North America, but it’s the corner of North America that I grew up in, and I love them, so they’re in."

Ms. Wilson writes in the New Yorker about her translation choices and how they reflect her understanding of and approach to the female characters: "I read Homer’s great poem as a complex and truthful articulation of gender dynamics that continue to haunt us. The Odyssey traces deep male fears about female power, and it shows the terrible damage done to women, and perhaps also to men, by the androcentric social structures that keep us silent and constrained."

Not only is there symmetry in the singularity of each woman in her field, in each woman's technical decisions, in the way each woman brings creativity into the confines of the structure in which she works, but there is also a surprising symmetry in subject matter, too.

It's the birds.

Obviously, birds are entirely central to Wingspan - the game is about birds. But birds are pivotal in The Odyssey. Ms. Wilson talks about them this way:

"Athena repeatedly transforms herself into a bird of prey, whooshing up to the rooftops or surfing across the waves of the sea. The silenced slave girls are 'like doves or thrushes,' caught in a hunter’s net. Penelope, meanwhile, is like a 'pale gray nightingale' who 'sits among the leaves / that crowd the trees.' She can’t fly, but her warbling amounts to a 'symphony of sound.'”

"Birds in Homer are the ultimate image of speech and of freedom." And, in the exceptional examples that they set, Emily Wilson and Elizabeth Hargrave remind us of the power of both speech and freedom.


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