One Thing We Don’t Seem To Talk Enough About: Translation
The next time you hear someone lament the decline of classical studies, think about this simple fact: since 2000, the number of new translations of Homer published in the English language is 27—and that’s not counting graphic novel or juvenile versions. Nor does that count reprints of well established translations by Richmond Lattimore, Robert Fitzgerald, Stanley Lombardo, or Robert Fagles, not to mention the “classic” translations of George Chapman or Alexander Pope, or the conveniently available (i.e., out of copyright) prose of Samuel Butler. Most of us are aware of some of these new works: Emily Wilson’s Odyssey (Norton, 2017) has become a cause célèbre; she now tweets criticisms of her male predecessors—but also shares clips of Mark Ruffalo reading her work, has been featured in the New York Times Magazine, and has written for The New Yorker. But very few of us—myself included, until I did the numbers—are aware of the full, voracious extent of the English-language market for classical epic. This is curious because somewhat notoriously, the anglophone world translates much less than other language domains; the Brazilians and Italians by contrast have a brilliant translation market, showing a greater appetite for foreign literature than we have. Yet how are we to account for this extraordinary literary production in a genre now considered unviable for modern poets? If Homer could collect royalties, he’d be richer than J. K. Rowling!
The work my colleague Alexandra Lianeri, Assistant Professor of Classics and Translation Theory at the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and I have been doing tries to address the strange blind spot that developed in classical studies with regard to translation, which led us to co-edit A Companion for the Translation of Greek and Latin Epic (Wiley-Blackwell). We consider this blind spot strange because translation has always been a part of the pedagogy of classical philology, though it was approached in fairly simplistic terms, largely geared to monitoring linguistic competency. Until fairly recently, translation itself was not considered a viable fulltime focus for academic classicists (Stanley Lombardo seems to have been one of the first in the US to make an entire career of it), though of course it is an integrated part of the scholarship of classical studies (we all produce translations in our books and articles). Many established classicists of the past engaged in literary translation, and many still do, though usually after doing “serious work” of scholarship to get tenure. But we still seem to have some trouble in framing an appropriate discussion of translation or developing a nuanced way to approach its history, its relation to classical reception, its challenge to how we think about classical texts, its creative relationship to contemporary literature, and even its relationship to the book trade, where—as we can see from the numbers—business is booming. At best, what we have is a routine for the roll out of new translations, which are reviewed in superficial ways, declared the Homer or the Virgil we have all been waiting for, and then recommended (or not) for course adoption or casual reading.
Alexandra and I would like to change how we engage the considerable riches the history of translation affords us as well as the compelling questions about language, meaning, agency, community, transvaluation and temporality that the act and reception of translation present. Our Companion focuses exclusively on Greek and Latin epic since a genre-specific approach facilitates a much broader discussion in terms of both diachronic and synchronic approaches. Classical epic is one of the most translated literary genres in the world, and has often been the center of important discussions of translation, so it makes a good case by itself for any exploration of literary translation. Even with such a specific focus on genre, however, we can’t begin to exhaust the topic or cover every relevant inch of it. Like other Companion volumes that seek to integrate and constitute new fields (A Companion to Classical Receptions (Wiley Blackwell, 2008) being the most relevant case in point), this volume is not a handbook to a field that exists so much as an invitation to help create one. But given the vitality of classical epic in translation in the new millennium and its centuries-long history, we have every reason to feel it’s a field worth investing in. Moreover, classical scholars have a lot to contribute to the contemporary discussions of translation studies, and we should definitely join the conversation.
Richard Armstrong is Associate Professor of Classical Studies in the Honors College and The Department of Modern and Classical Languages at the University of Houston. He received his BA from the University of Chicago and his M. Phil. and Ph. D. from Yale University. He has published extensively on the reception of ancient culture, translation studies, and the history of psychoanalysis. He is the author of A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Cornell) and coeditor with Paul Allen Miller of the Ohio State UP series, Classical Memories / Modern Identities. His forthcoming publications include Companion to the Translation of Greek and Latin Epic (Blackwell) with A. Lianeri, and Theory and Theatricality: Classical Drama in the Age of Grand Hysteria (OUP).