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Finding Ourselves in Translation by Sophie Park

Updated: Jul 13, 2020

One of the defining features of a classical education is learning an ancient language. In many ways, this is a good thing, but it is also a barrier. Until the widespread publication of translations in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (including Bohn’s Classical Library, the Loeb Classical Library, Penguin Classics, and Oxford World's Classics), ancient Greek and Latin texts were essentially “the exclusive province of those who read” the original languages (Braund). Many classical scholars were quick to dismiss translated texts as poor substitutes for their primary sources, but translations are nothing to scoff at. 

For classicists in particular, they “not only reflect cultural trends but also affect the development of literature and the formation of canons”, but they highlight the impact of “earlier readings in a complex process of mediation and interpenetration and superimposition”, and have generally encouraged “the democratization of knowledge and culture” (Braund). A translation will never be a perfect rendering of a classical text, but can still be a legitimate way to engage with the original.

The opening lines of Hesiod's Works and Days from a manuscript in Greek. Copied probably in Italy, bound in contemporary limp goatskin - now in Houghton Library, Harvard University

The Challenges of Translating

The process of translation is more complex than simply plugging in one word for another. Sometimes modern English lacks an exact equivalent of certain ancient words, whether because of its technical definition (e.g. the word atomus in Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura) or because it represents a concept that does not exist in contemporary Anglophone cultures (e.g. pietas in Virgil’s Aeneid) (Braund). On a syntactically broader scale, both ancient Greek and Latin have specific grammatical constructions that sound very strange when translated into literal English, yet often convey certain nuances in their original language (such as genitive or ablative absolutes). 

On top of that, space and time separate English translators from the cultural context of classical texts. Despite any similarities we notice between our cultures and those of ancient Greece and Rome, it is impossible to divorce ourselves from our own lived experiences and adopt a Greek or Roman psyche entirely. There is plenty to gain by acknowledging our own backgrounds and connecting them to our study of the ancient world, and anyway we cannot perceive ancient Greek and Latin the same way the Greeks and Romans did. Most people writing in these ancient languages spent their whole lives listening and speaking them, and what modern readers engage with as written texts were often auditory experiences, such as speeches, stage performances or poetry readings. As Virginia Woolf puts it in ‘On Not Knowing Greek’:

Chief among these sources of glamour and perhaps misunderstanding is the language. We can never hope to get the whole fling of a sentence in Greek as we do in English. We cannot hear it, now dissonant, now harmonious, tossing sound from line to line across a page. We cannot pick up infallibly one by one all those minute signals by which a phrase is made to hint, to turn, to live.

These challenges may seem daunting, but they also make classics an exciting, variable, and rewarding subject.

Translation as a Point of Access

The study of translation inevitably raises this question: “is it a vehicle of culture, or a betrayal of culture?” (Braund). Implicit in this query and its numerous variations are “issues of cultural superiority and inferiority that seem impossible to separate from the phenomenon of translation” (Braund). Although translations have had a profound influence on the western, the language we use to describe translation often suggests suspicion and hostility. Part of this animosity stems from the inescapable reality that, no matter how faithful to the original the translator wishes to be, a translation will never be the same as an original text but there is also an element of snobbery at play.

When we read translations, we do not have to wade through the ambiguities of a foreign language, a process that requires time and resources. Learning ancient Greek and Latin has historically been a privilege of the few, a mark of intellectual and social elitism, which means that classical-language texts have been largely inaccessible to the majority. As such, those who have had access to classical literature hold a monopoly over the interpretation and perception of this extensive body of ancient knowledge, and thus possess a disproportionate degree of control over how we think about classics.

The wider availability of translations has started to level the playing field. Many modern translations include detailed notes that match the rigor of traditional commentaries, and the range of translations also allows readers to think critically about the choices each translator has made. 

More generally, “translation has the potential to expand our individually limited perspectives by opening up other cultures—whether those of the Arab world or the Far East or the Indian subcontinent. Reading other literatures in translation can be the first step towards understanding and tolerating difference” (Braund). Although ancient Greek and Latin are important parts of classical studies, classicists can still begin to engage in serious scholarship without years of language training under their belts.

Why Translators Matter

One of the contentious aspects of translation is the unavoidable filter created by the translator. Just as a portrait of a person is not the same as the actual person’s appearance, so is a translation different from an original text, and that is in large part due to the artist's unique perspective. The language of a translated text “is necessarily full of echoes and associations” that are not present in the original (Woolf). This becomes abundantly clear when we think about the recent surge in translations produced by women.

Despite the growing access to higher education, “the legacy of [white cisgender] 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” (Wilson). When people judge the quality of a translation, they often hold the translations of white cisgender male translators as the standard; when other people challenge that assumption, they face more obstacles.

An interesting example of this is the perceived effort put into translation by (white) men and women. As Bess Myers explains:

“Classical translation is labor, and this labor is more valued and seen as somehow more authentic when men perform it. The reality is that translators who are men are no more at risk of being seduced by the beautiful, unfaithful translation than translators who are women are of starting emotional affairs with their texts.”

If we compare reviews for the translations of male and female classicists, men tend to receive praise for their “confident exuberance, often expanding or adding to the original” (i.e. they get points for dancing with “the beautiful, unfaithful translation”) while women “have tended to approach the original more gingerly, with more careful discipline” (Wilson). In short, women have to prove their scholarly legitimacy with a tight translation but, just as Myers mentions, a man’s translation is not necessarily truer to the original than a woman’s.

Sometimes, classical studies requires students to develop an unmediated interpretation of a text, but when it is useful to use a translation, it is important to acknowledge the impact that a translator’s background has on their work. 

Dan-el Pedilla Peralta has been very vocal about studying classics in context: “What I want more than anything else is to slay the idea that one can be a ‘good classicist’ in a hermetic container, and to shove into the deepest precincts of Hades the fantasy that Classics can be practiced at a comfortable remove from social and cultural situatedness.” 

If we want classics to survive, we need to confront how exclusionary it has been and is, and work towards making it more inclusive. An effective approach is to examine who has access to classical texts, and translation is an integral part of that conversation. A twenty-first century woman like Emily Wilson has lived a different life from the men who translated the Odyssey before her, so the choices she makes in her translation resonate differently and result in a fresh interpretation of the story, expanding a vibrant dialogue between modern audiences and an ancient text. Hopefully, in the future, we will see more diversity among our translators, from whom we can draw inspiration and gain a new perspective.

Discover images or digitalised versions of manuscripts through the British Museum


Braund, Susanna. “Translation.” In The Oxford Handbook of Roman Studies, 188–200. Oxford University Press, 2012.

Chae, Yung In. “Women Who Weave.” EIDOLON, November 16, 2017.

Gold, Lucia, and Pedilla Peralta, Dan-el. “The Colorblind Bard: An Exchange.” Dispatch (blog), August 31, 2017.

Myers, Bess. “Women Who Translate.” EIDOLON, August 5, 2019.

Wilson, Emily. “Found in Translation: How Women Are Making the Classics Their Own.” The Guardian, July 7, 2017.

Woolf, Virginia. “On Not Knowing Greek.” Berfrois, June 28, 2018.

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