I am grateful to Australasian Women in Ancient World Studies (AWAWS) for bringing to my attention a recent article entitled “Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own”. The article was written by Emily Wilson and posted on the Guardian website on 7 July this year (see link below). I thought it would be useful to write a comment on this article, as a female classicist on the ground, as it were.
First and foremost, I welcome Wilson’s celebration of female scholars and translators in the field of Classics. Wilson remarks that in the past, “the study of ancient Greece and Rome was largely the domain of elite white men and their bored sons” and that, in present times, “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.”
Wilson’s remedy is to point to a smattering of translations of classical works by European women from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. She then jumps ahead several centuries to list a growing number of women who are not affiliated with institutions and have been publishing translations of Greek and Latin texts in the last two decades. Wilson applies a number of descriptive terms to these translations : from “wonderfully original”, to “innovative” and “stylish”.
As Wilson anticipates in her article, one is right to query whether the gender of a translator makes a real difference to the translation. In my view, a translation should be judged solely on its accuracy and its literary merits, not on the gender of its translator. It should not be derided simply because it was written by an ‘elite white man’, nor applauded because it was written by a ‘woman at leisure’. This is why, I think, Wilson reluctantly has to admit that “[n]ot all female translators would describe themselves as feminists and many female classical translators…do not see gender as a central element in their work.” I belong to the latter category.
In fact, I think that translations of ancient texts can provide a wonderful opportunity to apply objective standards of merit. A good translation is simply that, regardless of the gender of the translator, and classical scholars and teachers know a decent translation when they see it, be they male or female or other. Nor should a translator set about altering the translation of an ancient text in an effort to apply twenty-first century notions of gender. We have to deal with the text before us, even if the values reflected in it are not our own, and not from our times.
I really don’t know what Wilson is on about when she says: “the position of being a woman translating one of these dead, white men creates a strange and potentially productive sense of intimate alienation”. Apart from being utterly confused by Wilson’s oxymoronic phrase ‘intimate alienation’, I simply disagree. I am currently spending my time translating Theophrastus’ Characters (an ancient Greek text which, by the way, was written by an elite male philosopher of the fourth century who pokes fun at the elite white men who surround him). I am enjoying this work tremendously. I feel a great intellectual companionship with the author and a profound sense of shared humanity, values and social outlook. Gender is irrelevant to this intellectual affinity that transcends time and space.
Thankfully, Wilson is on much firmer ground in her lengthy and very positive review of Yopie Prins’ new book entitled “Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of tragedy”. This book sounds like it might be worth reading as “a study of late 19th– and early 20th-century female translators of ancient Greek tragedy.”
Wilson ends her long article with a plea that “more British and American women – including people who are neither “ladies” nor white – will begin to translate Greek and Roman texts into English.” Fair enough, but it’s a pity that Wilson fails to address her plea to Australasian classicists as well. It seems that we don’t exist in Wilson’s view. In fact, her entire article is focussed only on classicists from Europe and America. Wilson: there are many fine female classicists in Australasia too and many of us, believe it or not, are working diligently and productively on ancient Greek and Latin texts and translations. As female classicists, we might be able to dislodge the inherent gender bias in Classics, but what do we do about your geographical bias?
Link to article:
Kristin Scott Thomas in Sophocles’ Electra. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian.