This paper examines the huge gender disparity in contemporary literary translation from Greek
and Roman texts into English, despite the fact that more women than men receive PhD's in
classical studies (IHE 2017), and identifies two main causes.
The first is a failure of institutions (academy, press, publishing industry) to support and nurture
women translators. At the same time, readers, scholars and students enable the unexamined
gender biases of male translators. Translation is undervalued in the elite academy: we are
often told that a translation will not get you tenure at an elite college or university (cf SCS Panel
on Outreach, 2016). Publishers are often unwilling to hire female translators because the
academics whom they consult for recommendations do not question the status quo.
Moreover, reviewers treat male and female translators differently. My test case is recent
translations of Homer: e.g. Pelliccia on Green and Powell's Iliad translations, which made no
comment about gender and did not mention Alexander's more-recent Iliad (Pelliccia 2017).
Contrast the reception of Wilson's Odyssey (Wilson 2017): reviewers and interviewers almost all
emphasized the translator's gender identity and expected her to have a particular interest in
the female characters; few showed much interest in her scholarly and poetic interests. There is
a pressure on women classical translators to represent the entire female perspective, while
men classical translators are imagined to have no gender identity at all.
The second cause is an endemic denial within Classical Studies about the fundamentally
interpretative nature of literary translation, which entails blindness to the fact that the
translator's gender identity can matter for her or his work. This leads many within the discipline
to assume that the gender disparity in translation is unimportant. "Translation" means
something distinctive for classics students. Many complained at the NYT claim that Wilson was
the first woman to "translate" the Odyssey into English: after all, thousands of women every
year translate little bits of Homer in class or for exams (see comments on Mason 2017). This is
unparalleled in the usage of the verb "translate" in other language areas: students do not think
they are "translating" Camus in French class, unless they are being asked to produce a literary
translation. This confusion is so widespread in Classics that students and even their teachers
equate translating with reading, and often fail to realize that actual comprehension is possible.
This leads to a failure to recognize that literary translation could mirror the experience of fluent
reading, rather than that of laboring through an incomprehensibly foreign text in order to
convert it into the "translation" (as if the original were a puzzle, with an English translation as
its solution). Many titles in the Loeb Classical Library and Aris & Philips are extremely stiff and
archaizing, and both series are unapologetic about the fact that they ignore the literary form of
the original, translating verse as prose, making no effort to echo tone or style or effect
(examples from Loeb Odyssey: Dimcock/ Murray, 1919/1995). The same is true of many standalone
translations (e.g. Verity 2012, 2017; Powell 2014; Lattimore 1950 and 1965).
Contemporary classical translators are often proud of their own clumsiness, as if the inability to
write English guaranteed the writer's knowledge of Latin or Greek (cf. Wilson 2013).
Translations in strikingly unidiomatic English are often touted as "faithful" or "purist". This
practice is a problem in itself, and it also encourages blindness to gender and other social roles.
The work of elderly white men is seen as simply conveying what the original says (Wilson 2018).
I give examples of gender bias in the work of several male translators' work, focusing on
passages from the Odyssey, contrasted with the same passages translated by Wilson 2017.
I end with suggestions of what needs to change, starting with nurturing a more thoughtful and
critical attitude in our students and ourselves about the inter-relationship of gender,
translation, language, power and truth.
A Century of Translating Poetry