Translating the Ancients: A Comparison between Non-classical and Classical Translations
Updated: Nov 6, 2022
Introduction and Methodology
In this essay I will examine the criteria used by reviewers to evaluate translations of classical poetical texts and whether the same or different criteria can be found in the reviews of non-classical translations.
To do this in a concise manner I have made the choice of only focussing on the comparison between reviews of what could be called classical poetical texts, and their non-classical counterparts. Furthermore, since the genre of poetry in classical literary studies is more commonly divided in three subgenres, namely epic poetry, lyrical poetry and drama, I have made the same distinction and will structure my examination accordingly. For each subgenre I will examine reviews of the translation of one classical text and one non-classical counterpart. By restricting this research to six translations, and only a handful of reviews per translation, I hope to be able to focus the discussion, i.e. skip the more ambiguous points of criticism but focus on certain arguments or remarks which seem to me to be particularly revealing about the criteria which the reviewer in question uses to assess classical and non-classical translation. While avoiding generalization, I will use these certain arguments and remarks to make deductions about the way in which translations are evaluated, whether or not these criteria differ from genre to genre, or from non-classical translation to classical. I will conclude by reiterating the observations I have made and will compare and contrast them across the different genres.
I will discuss reviews for the following texts: For the subgenre of epic poetry, I will examine reviews of The Odyssey translated by Emily Wilson and JRR Tolkien’s translation of Beowulf. For the subgenre of lyrical poetry, I have chosen reviews of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho and The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation. Edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto. For drama I have selected reviews of Anna Carson’s An Oresteia and Anya Reiss’s translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull. While I have attempted to assure a balance between the amount of reviews for non-classical and classical texts, at certain points there will be imbalance, as not every text was equally represented in the number of reviews. Furthermore, not every review mentioned in the bibliography will be discussed or mentioned, as some of the reviews provided little in the way of detailed or pertinent criticism.
Translations of the Epic
As mentioned above, I will first examine evaluations of epic translations by discussing reviews of Emily Wilson’s translation of The Odyssey. The first review I want to discuss is Charlotte Higgins’ review, published on The Guardian website on 8 December 2017. The review points out in the introduction that Emily Wilson’s translation is the first translation of The Odyssey done by a woman. The second paragraph further emphases the importance of this claiming the following:
“Emily Wilson’s crisp and musical version is a cultural landmark. Armed with a sharp, scholarly rigour, she has produced a translation that exposes centuries of masculinist readings of the poem.”
This leads us to deduce one extra-textual criterion for evaluating a translation, i.e. whether or not the cultural, sociological or political values found in the source text are handled by the translator in a manner the reviewer approves. In this case, the reviewer opposes sanitizing or justifying the misogynist and patriarchal undertones found in the original text:
“The poem contains foundational moments of misogyny, which Wilson does not soften, but is also rich and flexible enough to contain sophisticated female characters…”
“Whereas male translations have a habit, perhaps quite unconsciously, of letting Odysseus off the hook (he tried his best! He just couldn’t manage it!), Wilson is more attentive to the poem’s foldedness, its complexity.”
Higgins considers the transference of a work’s ‘problematic’ political or cultural undertones in its translation part of illustrating a work’s complexity.
On the aspect of style, however, Higgins lauds Wilson’s choice for alteration, namely to use an iambic pentameter, which is more commonly used for epic poetry in English, instead of the original’s dactylic hexameter. The same point is made by Gregory Hays in his review for The New York Times. Hays lauds Wilson’s return to the iambic pentameter and her choice to remain loyal the number of lines and thus to convert every line in Greek to one in English. Hays claims “The result is an idiom of great sparseness and simplicity,” Higgins, similarly, states of Wilson’s style: “clarity and cleanness are her watchwords; her epic voice is not one of grandeur or pomposity,” In this remark, we can observe how Wilson’s ‘clarity and sparseness’ are implicitly presented in contrast to ‘grandeur or pomposity’, with the former deemed the more preferable of the two.
In this implied contrast we can see the shadow of the debate between the domesticising and foreignising approaches of translation. However, it would be incorrect to label this purely as a question of domestication v. foreignisation, as it seems to be a question of the tone of the language itself, rather than its relation to the language of the source text. I will translate this contrast into one of traditionalising vs modernising, with the former representing the elevated, formal and decorous style traditionally used for ancient texts (cf. below), and the latter representing a style such as Wilson’s, i.e. one that forgoes a complex and ornate idiom in favour of mostly colloquial and plain language. Others have been even more explicit in presenting this contrast, such as Luke Slattery in his review published in The Sidney Morning Herald:
“There is a kind of decorous solemnity that readers raised on earlier translations might miss, but the more familiar English rhythm, combined with a more contemporary diction, seems to bring the poem closer to home.”
While respect is shown for the more traditional ‘decorous solemnity’ seen in older translations, the preference here is explicitly a modernising approach, which according to the reviewer has the potential of bringing the poem closer to home. a final example of this can be found in Anndee Hochman’s review for Broadsheetreview.com
where after lauding the ‘robust modern acuity’ with which Wilson has rendered the text (again in explicit contrast with previous translations such as those of Robert Fagle and Robert Fitzgerald) Hochman quotes Wilson’s translation notes to elaborate on the usage of plain language:
“She also uses plain language. “The notion that Homeric epic must be rendered in grand, ornate, rhetorically elevated English has been with us since the time of Alexander Pope,” Wilson explains. She adds that her goal “was not to make Homer sound ‘primitive,’ but to mark the fact that stylistic pomposity is entirely un-Homeric.”
In this quotation we see the most explicit rendering of the juxtaposition between the traditionalising and modernising approaches. Among reviewers of Wilson’s translation, there is a clear consensus on the merits of her modernising approach. The modernising approach seems to be more inviting than its alternative, and therein lies its appeal. However, the modernising approach is not preferred in every context, as we will observe in certain reviews of translations of drama.
In Comparison: Beowulf
JRR Tolkien’s approach to translating Beowulf could be seen as more or less the opposite of Wilson’s, i.e. an approach which prefers a traditionalising approach to a modernising one. In fact, Tolkien went even further than merely upholding an elevated, ornate diction, but instead went for the full foreignising approach by translating as close to the original Anglo-Saxon as it is possible to do without making the translation incomprehensible for people unschooled in Old English. One example of this is Tolkien’s choice to preserve the original reverse clause-order and syntax. While this translation was originally written in 1926, it was published in 2014. And was mostly criticized for doing the opposite of translations like those by Seamus Heaney. Critics like Jeremy Noel-Tod and Kathy Waldman have criticized Tolkien’s translation for being “bogged down in academic minutiae” and generally choosing correctness over readability. This is an example of foreignising going further than the critics’ taste prefers, i.e. when the choice to preserve the stylistic and syntactic taste of the original comes at the cost of readability of reader engagement.
Translations of the Lyrical
If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho
I have chosen to discuss reviews of Anne Carson’s If Not, Winter: Fragments of Sappho, not only the reviews in question illustrate certain criteria used to judge poetic translations, but also because some of them, discuss the issue of ‘restoration’ and how it pertains to translation. The review which discusses this issue is John D’Agata’s review, which was published in The Boston Review. About Carson’s choice to use brackets to signal lost verses, D’Agata remarks:
“Think of Carson’s brackets in If Not, Winter as a free space of lyrical adventure and the translation becomes immediately less a document of broken texts than an experiment in trust and imagination, as if each bracket were a flag that Carson was raising to signal us to run up and take over the baton. In her decision to give us less in her translation of Sappho, Carson has actually made the text ultimately more generous, and in this way has granted readers the pleasure of imagining their own versions of Sappho.”
He contrasts this with previous translations of Sappho, such as those by Mary Barnard and Guy Davenport that do not acknowledge the unknowability of the lost passage, but instead give their own speculative interpretation of what was written in the damaged places. D’Agata implicitly rejects this approach by noticing Davenport’s use of the word ‘becomes’ when talking about translation Sappho’s poems, implying the inherent link between restoration and transformation. Instead of this D’Agata lauds Carson’s approach (explained in her own words as: “ The more I stand out of the way, the more Sappho shows through,”) as being selfless and faithful. Other reviewers have similarly praised Carson for allowing the reader to imagine what originally stood there by indicating the gaps and have the original Greek on the facing page, instead of having the translator’s speculation thrust upon them as the only correct interpretation. The merits of Carson’s style of translation were most specifically discussed by Dimitrios Yatromanolakis, who commended Carson for her attention to detail, her unwillingness to reconstruct or poeticize and her ability to capture the polysemic state of Sappho’s fragments as well as the echo of their original language. This speaks to a more general preference to the translation of poetry being a transparent act, whereby ‘faithfulness’ stands for the translator’s duty neither to poeticize nor to transpose word-for-word, but find a way to remain true to both a poem’s original form, as well as its sense.
However, some aspects of Carson’s approach to extra-textual context have been criticized. For example, Emily Wilson said the following about Carson’s priorities:
“For Carson, what matters is Sappho's poetry, not her gender or her sexual orientation. But Sappho's words themselves are not gender-neutral. Carson's translation of Fragment 31 does not make clear what is clear in the Greek: the beloved and the first-person speaker are both female. "It seems that she knew and loved women as deeply as she did music," Carson remarks in her introduction. "Can we leave the matter there? "The answer, obviously, is no. Sappho is the first surviving female author in the Western tradition, and most of the critical and imaginative responses to her life and work have treated her gender and sexuality as the most important facts about her.”
It is clear that a translation, which focusses on the poems alone, and translates them thus, without an attention for historical context, is not universally agreed upon as optimal. Later in this essay, we will observe further such arguments, as certain reviews argue that detaching a literary work from its original historical context by modernising as well as translating robs the text of some of its potency, leaves the text poorer.
In Comparison: The Word Exchange
A different, but equally well-received approach than that of Carson’s is found in The Word Exchange, wherein Anglo-Saxon poems where translated by a variety of authors and in a variety of styles, some more faithful than others. While, some have decried this variety of translation approaches, and the lesser faithfulness of some, others, such as Maryann Corbett and Michael Dirda have praised this diversity of approach. The former in particular stating that:
“All the translations are by contemporary poets—you won’t find Pound’s “Seafarer” here—and their ways of getting at the essence of a poem are as different as their ways of making poems generally”
We can a discern a difference in evaluation to Carson’s approach of transparency of translator, whereby the translator of poetry must first and foremost get to the essence of the poem, rather than to its formal and stylistic aspects. Michael Dirda contrasts this approach to the approach mostly used in academic translations, which he describes as off-putting and stiff. Furthermore, he indicates that a translation should be an incentive for further discussion and contemplation:
“The poet's formulation of a thought is not likely to be the grammarian's, which indicates that the serious student will need to appreciate both. But I am of the opinion, as are the editors and poets represented in this collection, that a poet's rendering is where the discussion of the poem needs to begin and that is the very great service the book provides.”
Translations of the Dramatic
While Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho’s work was generally well-received and lauded for its elegant yet simple language, her translation of the dramatic trilogy surrounding the house of Atreus was more controversial and divisive.
Carson was lauded for remaining true to Sappho’s words, both their form and their sense. However, many of the criticisms now levelled at her An Oresteia criticize her for doing the opposite and straying too far from the original. These criticisms were most elaborately discussed by Brad Leithauser and Joshua Billings. Leithauser opens his critique by calling Carson’s rendering of Agamemnon ‘brash and slangy’, but goes on to further qualify his claim. While he admits that Carson’s idiom might be more realistic, more believable in being someone’s actual words (in contrast to, for example, the decorous speech of Richmond Lattimore’s translation), he feels it to be rather unfitting when uttered by mythical and stately figures such as Agamemnon, in his own words:
“Any attempt, like Lattimore’s, at steadily elevated diction runs the risk of windy bombast. But there’s a hazard, too, to what Carson is doing: the possibility of a fatal diminishment. As soon as characters in a Greek tragedy look merely life-size, any distinction between the soaring and the sordid tends to collapse. Agamemnon is a principal in the larger tale of the House of Atreus, which encompasses adultery, boastful murder, madness, cannibalized children, matricide — mere grisly grist for the tabloids, if it isn’t the stuff of immortal literature.”
Another point of criticism echoed by several reviewers is the way in which Carson’s colloquialisms are placed next to more ornate forms of speech. Alexis Sokolski writing for The Guardian, for example, found the contrast between the usage of Aeschylean aphorisms and colloquialisms and modern-day idioms to be distracting and jarring. Leithauser observes a similar dissonance in Carson’s usage of Aeschylean compound word-coinages, stating that:
“Similar vagaries of pitch arise through Carson’s decision to replicate Aeschylean word-coinages, where two words are compounded into one. Some of these prove quite effective (“a certain manminded woman,” “Time stood like a deathmaster over me”), but others sound whimsical and look cumbersome (“griefremembering,” “allenveloping”). Unfortunately, in our time (the ancient Greeks were spared some indignities), such coinages smack both of Madison Avenue and a blog-clogged cyberspace in which most punctuation has been sucked into a black hole. When Carson has Clytemnestra declare, “Make his path crimsoncovered! purplepaved! redsaturated!” the reader naturally replies, “Fuhgeddaboutit.”
And Joshua Billings even goes as far as refer to Carson’s text as ‘Schizophrenic’. In these criticisms lies an issue we have observed before (i.e. the modernising approach of translation losing some of the traditional grandeur, previously associated with translations of classical texts). The modernising approach was generally seen as successful when it was done by Emily Wilson, but Anne Carson’s version of it seems to be more controversial.
Some of this is definitely due to its apparent inconsistency, i.e. Carson seeking to both incorporate Aeschylean, decorous coinages, and deliberately foreignising speech and idioms and modern-day idioms and colloquialisms. However, this does not account for the reviewers, such as Brad Leithauser, who find the usage of modern idiom ill-fitting for Greek tragedy, regardless of its specific application.
If I were to be asked my interpretation as to why modernisation of epics seems to be more acceptable than that of drama, I would provide the following explanation: (which may come across as far-fetched to many) to me it does not seem entirely out of the question that the preference (by some) of a foreignising approach in theatre, instead of a domesticising one (seemingly the most preferred in lyrical and epical poetry) has something to do with the prevalence of William Shakespeare.
In English-speaking countries, Shakespeare is perpetually taught, performed and enjoyed, not only for its plot, its historical importance, but also and in large part for its language, which not only has the potential for being mystifying due to its rich poetical style, but also due to its archaic syntax and idiom. However, in spite of this, Shakespeare’s language is rarely modernised and mostly performed in its original form. It is my belief that this may have partially conditioned English-speaking theatregoers to accept theatrical diction as distinct from its lyrical and epic counterpart, which most usually lies close to contemporary common speech. However, this is mere speculation on my part, and unsubstantiated speculation at that.
In Comparison: The Seagull
Anne Carson’s Oresteia was primarily criticised for its language, how it usage of modernising idiom could be found to be ill-fitting of the stately and grave content of Greek Tragedy, and how its inconsistent application makes it even more jarring.
Anya Reiss’s translation of Chekhov’s The Seagull seems fraught with similar issues, although not on the level of language, but on the level of content and context. It has been criticized for the way in which it has been modernised, at the cost of the original historical context. Clare Brennan, for example, commends Reiss’s “clear, lively and refreshingly unfussy” language, but criticizes her incorporation (or lack thereof of historical context:
“All of these elements would make this a fabulous production – if Chekhov had been writing about interpersonal relationships unconnected to the world beyond. He's not. In focusing on dialogue and ignoring context, Reiss lays waste to the characters' defining hinterland. It's easy, for instance, to raise a laugh by having the money-obsessed Medvedenko (a winsome Tom McHugh) discuss mobile phone tariffs. In the original, though, this sole breadwinner for a large family is expressing anxiety about the rise in the price of staple food. The character might be funny, but his worries are not. Women characters suffer most from insufficient reimagining. The courage and determination Nina displays, for example, in trying to forge a life dedicated to a dream – in leaving home to become an actor, living in sin with Trigorin, having an illegitimate child – are extraordinary in 19th-century Russia. This is not the case today. Wrenched from reality, the characters, however lively, become inconsequential; sets of behaviours without depth.”
As mentioned above, this is similar to some of the criticisms levelled at Anne Carson’s translation of Sappho and even at her an Oresteia, i.e. redacting the work’s original historical context leaves certain aspects of it feel shallow, inconsequential, lacking of the socioeconomic and historical background they hinted at in the original text.
Other reviewers, such as Stewart Pringle, have criticised the translation for not modernising enough, throwing in surface-level nods to contemporary culture, but letting the dialogue be fraught with the tensions of its original nineteenth century setting:
“Set nominally on the Isle of Man in what could just about be the 21st century, Reiss’ version makes only the most modest and superficial nods to its contemporary setting. Characters walk on stage listening to iPods and puffing on Pall Mall blues, but when they open their mouths the production is sucked back a hundred years and only the occasional, rather desperate mention of mobile phone contracts make any effort to anchor it in the here and now. There is the briefest allusion to the cult of celebrity, but it’s never explored in any depth or pursued to its logical conclusion. Trigorin still yearns to be Tolstoy, Konstantin still anticipates the symbolists, nothing new is sought out or skewered: having been tasked with reimagining the play it would be fairer to say Reiss has changed the desktop theme.
Modernisation aside – and it pretty much sweeps itself aside – we’re left with a competent but unengaging production of The Seagull that too frequently confuses understated for inert.”
This speaks to the danger in modernising as well as translation: modernising its aesthetic, its language, its style, but leaving its content and context to be woven in with its original historical setting. As seen with Anne Carson, this can create a dissonance and inconsistency and give some readers or audience members the impression that the translation is lacking in tone in comparison to a more traditionalising approach.
As we have illustrated in the course of this essay, translating literary text has more aspects to it than merely the choice between domestication and foreignisation. There is also the question of tone and style, whether or not translations should try to replicate the source text’s idiom or incorporate contemporary and modern phrases and lexicon. And there is the question of the original historical context, whether or not it should be acknowledged, incorporated or abandoned in favour of a modernisation.
Domestication or Foreignisation
We have observed that contemporary critics seem to prefer a domesticating approach to the language of epic poetry and lyrical poetry, as foreignizing approaches seem to associated with uninviting language, stiff and unimaginative translation and pedantry concerning grammatical correspondence at the cost of reader engagement. However, foreignising does seem to be mostly accepted when it the transference of aphorisms or coinages, i.e. when it is used for the purpose of indicating the poetical verbosity of the source text, not for the purpose of correctness or literalness. There is of course, the issue of whether a translation should merely be a translation or if it is allowed to be more: (In case of a damaged source text) a reconstruction or an adaptation (to modern sensibilities).
Modernising or Traditional
We have observed, however, that the rendering of tone and style is a more contentious point among critics. Reviews of epics and poetry generally seem to prefer more simple, plain and inviting language. In other words, an approach of transparency, whereby the translator’s goal must be to remain as true as possible to the original poem’s essence, and to avoid bombast or needlessly poeticising, and thus let the original shine through as much as possible. However, simplification of language is not preferred by everyone. And while deliberate bombast, overly grand and ornate language is mostly frowned upon nowadays, some critics widely prefer luscious language than its stripped-down counterpart in some cases (as we have seen, particularly in translation of Greek Tragedy) because such ornate language seems to be more in tone with the stately figures and the gravity of the plot. In either case, what critics mostly seem to agree upon is that the tone of the translation must be consistent. Combining traditional aphorisms, coinages and turns of phrase with colloquialisms and modern idioms seems to be mostly regarded as jarring and distracting.
Translation of Context
Lastly, we must discuss the way in which translations must handle the historical context. This is the most disputed of the issues, as there are many possible consequences for improperly transposing the original historical context of a text. In general, sanitisation seems to be mostly regarded as unacceptable, and if a historical text contains traces of problematic sentiments and ideologies such as racism, homophobia, misogyny etc. it seems to be mostly accepted among critics and translators that these aspects should not be shunned or redacted. If, however, the translators seeks to acknowledge these aspects explicitly and discuss them, this seems to accepted as well. By contrast, changing the historical context for the purpose of a modernising translation seems to be less of a clear-cut issue. Some would argue that any contextual alteration or redaction is damaging to the text, leaving as lesser than it originally was. Others would argue that replacing some historical references with more contemporary ones with similar connotations is in the service of the reader, and allows for an experience closer to that of the audience for which the source text was originally intended.
It seems to me that the translators of classical texts face much of the same questions and issues as those who translate non-classical texts. And similarly, many of the criteria used to judge the merits of a translation seem to be the same for classical and non-classical translations. However, due to long tradition classical literature has of commentary and translation there is still somewhat of a subconscious divide between the classical and the non-classical. Since the figures of Roman and Greek literature have long occupied prestigious places in the canon of world literature, translation of their works comes with a lot more baggage than does translating any other text, and few translators find themselves compared to as copious a number of predecessors as do those who translate the work of the ancient Greek and Romans. Many of the reviewers critiquing the contemporary translations of classical texts were themselves educated in the classical languages and their tales, and carry with them the impressions left by the translations through which the classics were first brought to them. Perhaps, it would be argued that all translations must be judged on their own merits. However, we could also ask if such a thing is even possible, given how due to education, many translations are already ingrained in the critics’ mind and have thus permanently changed how the critic reads and evaluates whatever translation is now added to the list.
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Dirda, Michael. “’The Word Exchange’ Book Review: Old English Poetry Isn’t Lost in Translation. The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/entertainment/books/the-word-exchange-book-review-old-english-poetry-isnt-lost-in-translation/2011/02/16/ABHw0nQ_story. Accessed 7 December 2018.
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Hays, Gregory. “A Version of Homer that Dares to Match Him line to Line.” The New York Times, www.nytimes.com/2017/12/05/books/review/odyssey-homer-emily-wilson-translation. Accessed 7 December 2018.
Higgins, Charlotte. “The Odyssey Translated by Emily Wilson Review- A New Cultural Landmark.” The Guardian, www.theguardian.com/books/2017/dec/08/the-odyssey-translated-emily-wilson-review. Accessed 7 December 2018.
Hochman, Anndee. “Odysseus Returns.” Broadsheetreview.com, https://www.broadstreetreview.com/books/emily-wilsons-new-translation-of-homers-the-odyssey. Accessed 7 December 2018.
Hone, Prudence. “The Word Exchange: Anglo-Saxon Poems in Translation Edited by Greg Delanty and Michael Matto – Review.” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/feb/26/word-exchange-delanty-matto-poetry-review. Accessed 7 December 2018.
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