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Faithless: Gender bias and translating the classics

Emily Wilson

University of Pennsylvania

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.

Session/Panel Title:

A Century of Translating Poetry

Session/Paper Number


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