lecture

A different kind of translation.

Identifications
— women who translate
— classicists vs. writers (novelists/poets)
— dmōē

1. A page from a notebook Emily Wilson kept while translating the Odyssey (Geordie Wood for The New York Times Nov. 2. 2017).

Screen Shot 2018-09-20 at 6.55.35 AM.png

2. Emily Wilson, (2018) introduction to Homer’s Odyssey, p88-89:

“To translate a domestic female slave, called in the original a dmōē [δμωή] (“female-house-slave”), as a “maid” or “domestic servant” would imply that she was free. I have often used “slave,” although it is less specific than many of the many terms for types of slaves in the original. The need to acknowledge the fact and the horror of slavery, and to mark the fact that the idealized society depicted in the poem is one of slavery is shockingly taken for granted, seems to me [p89] to outweigh the need to specify, in every instance, the type of slave. I have also used the terms “house girl” and “house boy.” The analogy with a slave-owning plantation in the antebellum American South is certainly not exact, but it is at least a little closer than the alternative analogies — of a Victorian stately home or a modern nightclub. I try to avoid importing contemporary types of sexism into this ancient poem, instead shining a clear light on the particular forms of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text, which are partly familiar from our world. For instance, in the scene where Telemachus oversees the hanging of the slaves who have been sleeping with the suitors, most translations introduce derogatory language (“sluts” or “whores”), suggesting that these women are being punished for a genuinely objectionable pattern of behavior, as if their sexual history actually justified their deaths. The original Greek does not label these slaves with any derogatory language.”

3. Yung In Chae, “Women Who Weave.” Eidolon. Nov. 16 2017.

“Much fuss has also been made about Wilson’s translation of κυνώπις [kynōpis], which means ‘dog-faced’ but in a fairly capacious way. Helen uses it in reference to herself in Book 4 [Ody. 4.145], when Telemachus stops by Sparta while searching for news of his father. Robert Fagles makes Helen call herself a ‘shameless whore.’ Richard Lattimore and Walter Shewring both opt for ‘shameless me.’ Martin Hammond goes simple with just ‘whore’ and Anthony Verity settles on the more colorful ‘shameless bitch.’ This is Wilson’s version of the passage:

I never saw two people so alike
as this boy and Telemachus, the son
of spirited Odysseus, the child
he left behind, a little newborn baby,
the day the Greeks marched off to Troy, their minds
fixated on the war and violence.
They made my face the cause that hounded them.

By choosing ‘hounded’  — an English idiom — Wilson is essentially claiming that the ‘dog’ aspect is more important than the precise pitch of the Greek, and, in the introduction, she draws a connection between the ‘dog’ aspect and the ‘woman’ aspect. ‘The idea that women or goddesses, especially desirable ones who sleep with men outside marriage, are like dogs, or have doglike faces, recurs at several moments in the poem: Hephaestus uses the same term of his unfaithful, divinely beautiful wife, Aphrodite; the dead Agamemnon calls his murderous wife a ‘she-dog’; and the pretty slave girl Melantho is called a ‘dog’ by both Penelope and Odysseus,’ she points out [2018: 43].

Granted — as Wilson herself acknowledges — κυνώπις is not exclusively reserved for women; in that sense, it is not the exact equivalent of “bitch,” which she says “would be a misleading translation.” But the association nevertheless persists: “Women, more than men, are like dogs, because they are put low on the social hierarchy, and because they might be scarily capable of seeing through social conventions, and might refuse to stay in their place,” Wilson argues. “But the idea that it is not the woman or goddess herself, but her face, that is like a dog suggests that it might be male perceptions of women, rather than female desires themselves, that threaten the social fabric.” [2018: 44] (For those interested, Cristiana Franco has a book on this subject [available online via Mugar].)”

4. Yung In Chae, “Women Who Weave.” Eidolon. Nov. 16 2017.

“Wilson’s choice of ‘girls’ is glass but not mirror: it shows us the sexism of the times without implicating us too. Could a man have written The Penelopiad? Or have done what Wilson did in her translation? Maybe. But men had a monopoly on Homer translations for a long time, so they’ve had plenty of chances. And it hasn’t happened so far…As Wilson says in her New York Times profile, “all translations are interpretations.” To translate is not to dig for the One Rendering buried under the crusty layers of the original language. It is to peer at a cloth made during the day, unravel the fabric, then discover a way to weave it back together under a different light.

5. Emily Wilson, interviewed (with Sarah Ruden) by David Kern in Forma Journal. March 3 2018.

“We also need to factor in all the other social factors that often make it hard to be successful and productive while being female. It’s still the case that women, including highly educated and successful women, and even those with partners or husbands, tend to spend a lot more hours per week on childcare, eldercare, and housework than their male peers. I’m the single mother of three wonderful and time-consuming daughters; unlike many of the successful male classical translators, I have never had a wife who could pick up the kids and make dinner.”

6. Emily Wilson, interviewed (with Sarah Ruden) by David Kern in Forma Journal. March 3 2018.

“The task of translation has now become its own kind of obsession—the question of how exactly to create a coherent, readable English text/poem/play that has its own kind of magic, and that responds responsibly to the original, without trying to inhabit an intermediate ground between Greek or Latin and English, but makes sense in its own terms. It’s a very difficult and very interesting kind of work, and I learn a great deal not only about the originals I translate, but also about the English language.”

7. Emily Wilson, interviewed (with Sarah Ruden) by David Kern in Forma Journal. March 3 2018.

“You create a binary between love and fear, which doesn’t entirely make sense to me. There’s a great essay by Stanley Cavell on the avoidance of love in King Lear. Cavell argues that in that play, and also in life, love itself is very often what we’re most afraid of. Instead of love, which involves being able to meet the eyes of another person, and recognize and be recognized by them, we hide behind false love or false words or shame or narcissism. Cordelia’s sisters express false love with their rhetorical excesses, and Lear chooses that false love, because he is scared of the intimacy of telling the truth.

For me, translation is definitely an act of love, both for the English language and for the original language and original text. Part of what that love means is being willing to be unashamed about what I can’t say or do in English.”

8. Dan Chiasson, “The Classics Scholar Redefining What Twitter Can Do.” The New Yorker. March 19 2018.

“On March 8th, International Women’s Day, when McDonald’s flipped its arches and Vladimir Putin expressed “our enchantment” with women’s “beauty and tenderness,” Emily Wilson, the classics scholar and translator of Homer, spent part of the day on Twitter. In sentences whose measured clauses stood out in the cascade of blurted takes, she wrote:

In the ensuing tweetstorm, Wilson discussed one of the most casually brutal passages in Homer, when Telemachus, Odysseus’ son, acting at his father’s command, executes twelve slave women who slept with the suitors vying to marry Penelope, the queen, during Odysseus’ long absence. Wilson has not been shy about calling out prior translators of the poem, dead and alive.”

9. Dan Chiasson, “The Classics Scholar Redefining What Twitter Can Do.” The New Yorker. March 19 2018.

“Regardless, Wilson’s presence on Twitter is quietly revolutionary, a new kind of experience for readers, poets, translators, and really anyone who likes to watch knowledge take shape in an open format, its seams exposed. Like-minded people sharing their obsessions were the soil in which the larger Internet once grew; those transactions, commercialized and monetized, remade the world, with infinite ramifications downstream, some miraculous, some horrible.”

10. Dan Chiasson, “The Classics Scholar Redefining What Twitter Can Do.” The New Yorker. March 19 2018.

“Translation is a little different: the range of choices is narrowed, the criteria for choice more transparent. Any time we see a phrase next to the alternatives that it beat out, we learn something, not merely about literature but about the normally veiled process of selection by which literature, word for word, is constituted. This makes the art especially suited to having its mechanism unmasked. Wilson is the most prominent translator I know of to have exposed her choices to something like public scrutiny: her prominence, in this instance, really matters, since in Twitter terms it gives her more followers, more potential interlocutors.”

11. Mary Beard, Women and Power (2017: 8):

“My aim here is to take a long view, a very long view, on the culturally awkward relationship between the voice of women and the public sphere of speech-making, debate and comment: politics in its widest sense, from office committees to the floor of the House. I am hoping that the long view will help us get beyond the simple diagnosis of ‘misogyny’ that we tend a bit lazily to fall back on. To be sure, ‘misogyny’ is one way of describing what’s going on. (If you go on a television programme and then receive a load of tweets comparing your genitalia to a variety of unpleasantly rotting vegetables, it’s hard to find a more apt word.) But if we want to understand – and do something about – the fact that women, even when they are not silenced, still have to pay a very high price for being heard, we need to recognise that it is a bit more complicated and that there is a long back-story.”

Standard