Tiffany Fong examines the importance of women-centred interpretation in a culture of translation that favours male superiority.
It’s hard to say when I developed an [un]healthy obsession with Greek and Roman mythology, but it must have been due to one of the countless illustrated books you can find while wandering through the library. Like with many other readers, the author Rick Riordan proved to be a highly effective catalyst for me exploring mythology while showcasing the differences between Roman and Greek myth. Until I began forming a niche interest in translation and translated stories, I never considered that Greek and Roman mythology must have been translated works as well.
In 2017, Emily Wilson was celebrated as the first woman to translate Homer’s Greek epic, The Odyssey, into English. Unheard of during its time, the poem explored the stories of women and slaves, demographics that were heavily overlooked in literature during that time. Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey inspired conversation on how an individual’s social context and gender identity impacted the manner in which they interpreted Greek classics. In fact, The Odyssey has so successfully captured the imagination of the Western canon that it has approximately 60 English translations, with 12 of them produced in the last decade.
In his 1860 series of lectures, Matthew Arnold stated that the “translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities… that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct; that he is eminently plain and direct… in his matter and ideas; and finally that he is eminently noble.” Authors of Western classics generally prioritise these values, meaning that new barriers are created for both female writers and non-Western authors, who often value non-linear structures and ambiguity.
Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey paid careful attention to metre, modern language and the subtle changes to word choices that were more accurate to the original Greek meanings and, in doing so, exposed how much of our understanding of Greek mythology is framed by patriarchal values.
Translating a body of work always contains deliberate choices and a value judgement from the translator. Should a phrase be translated literally? Should the syntax and rhythm of the sentence be preserved? Is it more important to keep ambiguous language, even if it may make the translated sentence harder to read?
Julie Candler Hayes stated that the work of translation enabled women to engage in intellectual debates. Despite this, women were restricted to translating their contemporaries, while the classics were left to men, due to the perceived importance of their role in nation building. To translate a work is to interpret a work, and the interpretation of a work is explained in the preface and commentary, allowing female translators to engage in criticism.
One significant issue with translations is that translators often choose English words which are ‘correct’ according to the dictionary they refer to, rather than words which engage with the broader context of the story. It’s due to this issue that important subtexts are often lost. Wilson’s translation revealed the stories of those who surrounded Odysseus: his wife Penelope, the nymph Calypso, the witch Circe, and even the slaves in his household. This provided a new way to think about, and engage with, characters who had often been overlooked.
Odysseus’ twenty year journey home is often framed as a series of temptations and challenges that he must overcome. However, it cannot be denied that Odysseus was free to have sex with whomever he desired; meanwhile Penelope was expected to stay home and remain loyal to a husband whom may or may not be dead. Due to this expectation, when he returned home to find the palace filled with suitors vying for Penelope’s hand, he ordered for them all to be slain. While Penelope refused the suitors, the slaves had not and Odysseus ordered his son to kill the “sluts - the suitor’s whores!” However, Wilson noted that the young female slaves would not have been able to refuse these powerful men, and the translations that refer to them as “sluts” and “whores” failed to convey the true context and circumstances these slaves found themselves in.
In an essay she wrote for The Guardian, Wilson noted that “the legacy of male domination is still with us - inside the discipline of classics itself and in how non-specialist general readers gain access to the history and literature of the ancient world.” Upon reading Wilson’s translation and her essays, I began critically thinking about how male perspectives have shaped many of the canonical texts we have in English. However, as a person of colour, I am also aware of the influence of elite white institutions have over shaping perspectives.
Retellings of The Odyssey (c. 6th century BCE), from a female character’s perspective are abundant, including Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (2005) or Madeline Miller’s Circe (2018). Collectively, they seek to place women at the forefront of Greek mythology and provide a different perspective to the stories which have been passed on till now. However, Wilson’s choice to provide a new translation of an original source text strikes me as more radical than a retelling of Greek classics. Rather than reinventing an epic poem that has existed for thousands of years, Wilson revisits the original text for a contemporary audience, shining a light on why we continue to read and study the texts.
While writing this article, I began thinking of a conversation I had with my father when I was young. I had been complaining about studying Shakespeare in school, as I couldn’t wrap my head around Elizabethan English and eventually got tired of it. After hearing my complaints, my father said to me, “the reason why Shakespeare is so widely studied and read today is because his plays reveal something about human nature and human emotion.”
When engaging with texts in their original language, it is open to a reader’s unique interpretation. However, the specific choices made when translating a work mean that we engage with a text through the translator’s interpretation before adding our own perceptions to it. So, whether it be male orators shaping narratives typically told to a male audience, or privileged men translating ancient texts, it is important to question stories we think we are intimately familiar with and consider how the voices of women and those with less social power are ignored or undermined.