Letter from the Editors

What makes something a “classic”?

In academic spaces, this word is often used to mean a work of literature that has withstood the passage of time and the complex forces of canonization. A “classic” text is one that likely exists in multiple languages thanks to translation and often has a long history of retranslation. A work whose title may be recognized even by those who have never read it—a work read in schools, with graduate seminars and scholarly studies devoted to it. A work that has been around so long that it is woven into the very fabric of language, of literature, of culture.

To some, the word “classic” may bring other things to mind, like its resonances with related words in English—classroom, classification, perhaps even classism. These cognates remind us that when we call something a “classic” we often mean that it can be categorized according to certain established rules and conventions. To call something a classic is to say it is knowableperhaps, even, that it is known. In this sense, a “classic” isn’t far from a “cliché”—something so familiar it has come to be predictable, as if no other interpretation can be offered.

In this issue of Ancient Exchanges, we find some new definitions of the classic. In curating these fifteen pieces, we were struck by how they all push the boundaries of what a classic—and, by extension, what translating a classic—can look like. Together, they invite us to encounter the classics as if for the very first time.

Opening this issue, Aya Labanieh revisits a love story made famous by retellings across languages in her project of translating the Arabic poems that represent the tale's origins. Others transform classic poems through creative retranslation, like Kathryn H. Stutz’s cento-style treatment of Sappho, John Gribble’s fresh take on an imperial anthology of Japanese waka, and Stephen Boyanton’s intricate new versions of traditional Chinese verse forms. In a dramatic translation of the Homeric Hymn to DionysosEmma Pauly ventures into the familiar waters of a classic with a focus on the in-between-ness of the god and the genre. Vibrant excerpts from Vergil’s Eclogues and Georgics, translated by Kristina Chew and Mackenzie Leonard Hilton respectively, encourage readers to explore the canonical poet’s lesser-read works and be transported to an idyllic pastoral landscape.

Still others introduce us to works of obscurity, even anonymity, inviting us to take part in the invention of new classics. Such are the two translations in this issue from Old English, the one a charm translated and performed by Jacob Riyeff, the other a pair of anonymous laments collaboratively interpreted by translator Gnaomi Siemens and artist Morag Eaton. Likewise, the comparatively obscure works of classical authors Seneca and Philostratus are brought to new life in vivid translations by Mark Thayer and Kevin Solez respectively. Asking if prolifically translated and retranslated Bible verses can still be read anew, Christopher-Rasheem McMillan’s exploration of translation through dance and interdisciplinary scholarship reminds us that meaning is made, not just found, in the act of interpretation. Further blurring the lines between translation and interpretation, Fletcher Nickerson reimagines the Bacchae through a combination of text and image that incorporates the play's long history of translation and adaptation as part of the source material.

In our second “In the Classroom” feature, Rebecca Hanssens-Reed advocates for play and the development of an adventurous translation pedagogy, encouraging teachers and students alike to approach classics beyond the prescribed conventions and clichés of tradition and previous translations. As a final bookend to this issue, we are honored to eavesdrop on Eve Romm’s conversation with Daniel Mendelsohn about the pleasures and challenges of translating a classic of the stature of the Odyssey.

If our first issue reflected on the act of departing, in Passage we find ourselves adrift, open to destinations not yet imagined. Along the way, we are guided by Morag Eaton’s “The Sea-Ways Sewn,” which encloses the fifteen pieces in this issue and resonates with their themes—journey and renewal, storms and seas, and encounters with the fearsome powers of nature. So, too, does this landscape offer many ways into thinking about the role of the translator, embodied at once in the creatures flying free from the currents of tradition and in the crashing wave itself, a potent symbol of the creative power of translation. Its visual resonance with the great wave of yet another classic invites our imagination across not just centuries but oceans and continents, as do the passages included in this issue.

As we continue to grow this project and the range of languages and literature we represent within our pages, we thank you for accompanying us on the journey, which has already taken us to places we could not have imagined. We hope that you will likewise be transported by reading Ancient Exchanges, and we wish you safe passage along the way.

the Ancient X team

Adrienne Rose
Laura Moser
Echo Smith
Lindsay Vella
Hannah Kent