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Maryland Odyssey Project Brings Classic Text to Life, Inspires Creative Responses by Baltimore Students

It took almost 3,000 years for a female scholar to translate one of Western literature’s most famous stories into English, but it hasn’t taken long for Emily Wilson’s version of The Odyssey to make a big impact in a handful of local public high schools.

Wilson’s recent translation of The Odyssey is helping bring Homer’s epic to life for a new generation of readers with a perspective reviewers describe as accessible and “refreshingly modern.” Now, the Maryland Odyssey Project – a fiscally sponsored project of Strong City – has made this fresh take on a classic available to local students, who are approaching the text in innovative ways.

The force behind the Maryland Odyssey Project is Amy Bernstein, an independent consultant and self-described “socialpreneur” who specializes in discovering and developing artistic and cultural projects. Back in 2017, Bernstein was reading about Wilson’s translation in The New York Times and was inspired “to take a modern, accessible translation of an epic text that a lot of kids study anyway, and give them access to something that seemed more relevant.”

With Strong City’s backing, Bernstein began writing grants which she says “succeeded beyond expectations,” winning funding from Maryland Humanities, the Onassis Foundation USA, the Society for Classical Studies, and the Mitzvah Fund for Good Deeds (administered by the Baltimore Community Foundation). The grants have allowed the Maryland Odyssey Project to place the books in three schools so far, reaching 132 students in grades 9, 10, and 11 at Bard Early College High School and City Neighbors high schools in Baltimore City, and Carver Center for Arts and Technology in Baltimore County.

The Odyssey tells the story of the warrior-king Odysseus and his 10-year journey home to Ithaca after the Trojan War, encountering many adventures and dangers along the way. The poet Homer’s epic tale has been rendered into English about 60 times over the centuries, but this version by Wilson – a British classicist based at the University of Pennsylvania – is the first such translation by a woman.

“There’s so much that Emily Wilson brings to the text – for example, she talks more openly about enslaved people, and women’s ability to make their own decisions,” Bernstein says. “She’s still working with what’s in the original, but every translator puts it through their own lens, making choices. Also, she wrote the whole thing in iambic pentameter, which is much closer to modern-day speech.”

Although the Maryland Odyssey Project does not prescribe a specific curriculum for teaching The Odyssey, Bernstein says high school students have responded to Wilson’s translation in a variety of creative ways. Students at Bard Early College were inspired to develop a mashup up of The Odyssey with the Broadway musical sensation Hamilton, which can be seen in this video. At City Neighbors, students responded to the text by creating a series of cartoons. And at Carver, students did a rap-like performance reminiscent of the cadences of Greek chorus.

“It’s definitely the translation for our age, and the students have really found their way into the material,” Bernstein says.

The Maryland Odyssey Project was launched in October 2018 with a reading by Emily Wilson at the Enoch Pratt Free Library’s Govans Branch to a packed house that included students, teachers, and a panel of classics scholars from Johns Hopkins University, Morgan State University, and McDaniel College. The project got another big boost when it was featured in the Winter 2019 edition of Humanities, the magazine of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Bernstein says the fiscal sponsorship provided by Strong City makes possible the work of cultural entrepreneurs such as herself. “Strong City really opens the door to opportunity for culture-makers like me, who couldn’t otherwise do the work we’re trying to do,” she says. “Their support has emboldened me to embark on even more ambitious work. It’s a tremendous asset.”

Bernstein would love to see the Maryland Odyssey Project expand to additional schools and school systems, but does not currently have the means to make that happen. However, she’s excited that the three schools that now have the books will be able to use them to expose new students to Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey year after year.