Translating the Classics

We have been taught by Lawrence Venuti and Antoine Berman that translators have an ethical responsibility to the "otherness" or "foreignness" of the translated text.  But the questions of the translator's ethical and stylistic responsibilities look quite different, I will argue, in the case of ultra-canonical texts versus those from literary cultures that are, in the Anglophone world, more marginalized.  Moreover, questions of translatorly (in)visibility, and of domesticizing versus foreignizing modes in translation, may require quite different responses for very ancient texts versus contemporary ones.  Anachronism is inevitable in the translation of ancient classical texts, since no modern languages were co-existent with ancient Greek or Latin. 

I will discuss the specific challenges of translating a metrical poetic text, whose meter is not native to the English literary tradition.  I wanted to convey the regular rhythm and musicality of the original, so that the reader could feel its music in her own body. I also kept to the same number of lines as the original, to echo its rapid pacing.  I used, for the most part, a clear, direct register, to reflect the simple syntax of the original.  These formal decisions were part of a larger set of goals: to convey the accessibility of the Homeric poems, which emerged from an oral folk poetry tradition; to invite readers to be engaged in the story, the characters and the rhythm of the lines; and to make visible the difficult, fascinating, complicated questions raised by the poem, and thereby invite critical thinking about the marginalization of subordinate characters within the poem.  It seemed to me that awareness of social and narrative complexity might be achieved more easily if the language itself were not too complicated.   In my translation of the Odyssey, as in my earlier translations of dramatic texts, I hoped to pay attention to the multi-vocality of the poem, constantly thinking about each character's distinct perspective, voice and point of view.   In my talk, I will juxtapose some of my choices for particular scenes and passages of the poem with those of other translators, focusing especially on the moment when Telemachus hangs the twelve slave women who have been raped by the suitors, or have slept with them: the text is crucially ambiguous about questions of the women's consent, capacity for consent, and agency.    Many translators have tended to simplify the poem's ethics, for instance by presenting the slaves not as slaves but as "servants" or "housekeepers", and framing the narrative in terms of the elite male characters.  I will emphasize that each detail of a translator's choices can make a huge difference in terms of interpretation and point of view.

Translators in general should ideally be chameleons, shifting our voices and perspectives both within a single multi-vocal text, and from one text to another.  But in the most canonical literary fields, there may be a risk that one particular type of interpretation or translation, and a limited subset of possible translators and interpreters, can dominate over others.  The field of anglophone classical translation has been very much dominated by elderly white men, even though the fields of classics, and of literary translation, are not nearly as imbalanced.  I will suggest some reasons why this might be the case, and give some reasons why we might need more diversity, both in how classical translators approach their task, and in the people who work as classical translators. 

 
 
 

EMILY WILSON

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Emily Wilson is professor of Classical Studies and graduate chair of the Program in Comparative Literature & Literary Theory at the University of Pennsylvania. Wilson attended Oxford University (Balliol College B.A. and Corpus Christi College M.Phil.) and Yale University (Ph.D.). In 2006, she was named a Fellow of the American Academy in Rome in Renaissance & Early Modern scholarship. In 2017, she became the first woman to publish a translation of Homer's Odyssey into English.