One of the reasons I love translation is that it truly is pulsing, living, evolving field. Sometimes, people assume translating from one language to another is mainly plugging in the correct corresponding word you find in a dictionary. Throw in the proper adjustments of grammar and you’re done. But as I’ve written on this blog before, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
When presented a text, whether it’s advertising copy for the last Gillette razor with seven blades (or whatever number of blades it’s at now), or a centuries old novel, the translator imprints his/her own personality, experience and prejudices into that translation.
No text can ever be perfectly copied over to another language. It’s impossible. There’s always a beautiful turn of phrase that must be amended, a lyrical flow that must be changed. Even if a translator conveys the spirit of a text exceedingly well, that spirit is open to interpretation and will emerge in a different body, so to speak. This interpretation is subject to the varied eras, languages, capabilities and intents of the translators.
This fact was on my mind as I read about a highly publicized new translation of the ancient Greek classic poem The Odyssey, which was published in English this month. What’s so special about this translation? It’s the first ever English translation of the text by a woman. Her name is Emily Wilson, a British professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Like many other lovers of The Odyssey’s incredibly imaginative blend of drama and adventure, I wondered why a woman translating a poem that’s been around for millennia was such a big deal.
Turns out, it makes a huge difference. In the New York Times, Wilson talks about the challenges of translating ancient Greek: “The fact that it’s possible to translate the same lines a hundred different times and all of them are defensible in entirely different ways? That tells you something.”
Its open-endedness is both a blessing and a curse. How to know which specific translation to choose? It’s a matter of opinion and focus:
Wilson translates The Odyssey into contemporary English. For example, “Sing to me of the man, Muse” becomes, “Tell me about a complicated man.” It’s a conscious decision to strip The Odyssey of its impenetrable academic vibe, to let the story simply speak to modern day readers. Elsewhere, Wilson often highlights certain characters as the slaves they were, rather than the chambermaids and servants described in other texts.
Wilson also gives special attention to neglected characters. The King of Ithaca, Odysseus, is the eponymous protagonist, and much of the epic concentrates on him, his male crew and several male gods. But there’s also female characters: his wife Penelope, patiently waiting 20 years for his return from war, the goddesses Athena, Circe, Calypso…etc. Where other versions of The Odyssey interpreted those female characters a certain way, as women in a patriarchal society, Wilson highlights their desires and motivations with a modern understanding.
This latest version of The Odyssey is a reminder of the important role a translator has to be. A translation is almost a new work in of itself, building on the original text, not merely a copy. In that way, even a nearly 3,000 year old text stays alive.