Not long ago, I asked my colleague, novelist Kevin Wilson, what drew him to Ovid’s myth of Phaethon, which he had adapted in a story called “What Wants My Son,” published in 2013’s xo Orpheus—the same volume in which Madeline Miller’s “Galatea” first appeared. He replied that he was “grabbed” by the phrase he had taken as his title: what wants my son? These words appear in the 1717 collaborative translation by John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and others, as a loose rendering of Metamorphoses 2.31-34, where Phoebus sees the marveling Phaethon inside his palace:
He saw the boy’s confusion in his face,
Surpriz’d at all the wonders of the place;
And cries aloud, “What wants my son? for know
My son thou art, and I must call thee so.” (trans. Joseph Addison)
Wilson’s response confirmed my suspicion that his creative adaptation had its roots in a particular translation, as is the case for many creative retellings of ancient myth that have appeared in recent years. In the Penelopiad, for instance, Margaret Atwood notes that her “main source…was Homer’s Odyssey, in the Penguin Classics edition, translated by E.V. Rieu” (Atwood 197).
In the sphere of Latin poetry, Ovid’s Metamorphoses has inspired a plethora of writers, and again and again these writers reveal their debt to specific translators. Mary Zimmerman’s play Metamorphoses is clearly based on David Slavitt’s 1994 translation, which it often quotes in large swaths. Ali Smith, whose Girl Meets Boy offers a retelling of Ovid’s Iphis and Ianthe myth, is indebted to Mary Innes’ 1955 Penguin Classics translation. Not only does she quote Innes in the novel’s acknowledgments (“Carry your gifts to the temples, happy pair, and rejoice, confident and unafraid”), she also cited it in 2016 on the BBC program Desert Island Discs as one book she would bring with her to a desert island. Writer Nina MacLaughlin turned to Allen Mandelbaum’s English translation while penning Wake Siren: Ovid Resung, a series of tales told by the metamorphosed women of Ovid’s epic. She indeed credits Mandelbaum’s translation in her acknowledgments as having had “a lasting impact on my life” (MacLaughlin 342). Poet Paisley Rekdal has told me that she consulted three different translations, those of Rolfe Humphries, Allen Mandelbaum, and Charles Martin, while writing Nightingale, a collection that weaves Ovidian myth into poems that tackle themes of sexual violence, identity, and change.
Translation thus occupies a unique position that sits both between and across scholarship and creative writing. It is an act of literary reception itself, even as it fuels and informs other acts of reception, just as one work of scholarship fuels and informs other acts of scholarship. It is, moreover, grounded in the philological and linguistic study that has traditionally been central to the field of Classics, even as it seeks an audience among those without such training. It does not offer new readings in the same way as scholarship does, yet it indeed offers new readings at every turn and is itself, to quote poet and translator A.E. Stallings, a “special kind of deep reading” (Stallings). Translation is thus slippery, overstepping and blurring the boundaries upon which academia and the discipline of Classics have been built.
Translation, in other words, is an interdisciplinary practice, intersecting with multiple fields housed within the academy, such as Classics, English, Creative Writing, Comparative Literature, Foreign Languages, and of course Translation Studies, but also with “public Humanities”—the sort of work being done every day in museums, theaters, bookstores, coffee shops, and on social media. The transgressiveness of translation has made it hard to pin down and categorize: Is it an act of scholarship, or of creative writing? Does it generate new ideas, or simply relay the ideas of others? Is it subordinate to scholarly academic work (and thus a kind of service), or does it stand alongside the monographs so often valued in tenure and promotion decisions? And, of the greatest interest to me here, does the creation, evaluation, and workshopping of literary translation belong in the Classics classroom?
I view translation’s slipperiness as its best asset. As the root of the word suggests, translation builds bridges between different groups of people. Like creative adaptation, it brings Greek and Latin literature to new audiences, and is thus a key way to expand the field beyond its often exclusionary parameters—to “popularize” it, a word I use without any of the pejorative connotation with which it is often uttered. To embrace translation is indeed to correct past mistakes. Edith Hall has powerfully elucidated how, as Classics coalesced as a field, reading classical literature in translation rather than the original Latin or Greek became associated with the working classes, which, in her words, “produced a pronounced prejudice amongst most establishment scholars against being discovered studying the ancient authors even with the aid of a translation” (Hall 319). She goes on to describe being expelled from an Oxford lecture hall for daring to bring in a paperback translation of Sophocles—in addition to her Greek text, she hastens to add. This prejudice continues to be felt in both undergraduate and graduate classrooms, where translation is rarely considered beyond the literal renderings students produce to prove that they understand Greek and Latin syntax.
Interestingly, this exclusion of translation has occurred alongside the increasing inclusion of so many other subfields within “Classics,” frequently hailed as the original interdisciplinary discipline. Over the past few decades, Classics has woven together philology, linguistics, literary theory, history, archaeology, papyrology, epigraphy, digital humanities, art history, philosophy, women’s and gender studies, queer studies, studies in race and ethnicity, disability studies, reception studies, and more. And as each new field is folded into the “big tent” of Classics, our understanding of the material and literary artifacts of the past deepens. Literary translation is yet another pursuit ripe for incorporation into the ever-expanding idea of what an interdisciplinary Classics can be. Creative pursuits, after all, are also a part of the modern university and are often the most likely to overleap its fixed bounds and welcome in broader communities. To exclude such work from “Classics” dangerously narrows the parameters of a field that too often faces the chopping block.
Translation can attract students who are drawn to literature in more creative ways than the field has traditionally embraced, and it can push all students into new modes of reading and interpretation. Indeed, translation compels students to make interpretive choices as they consider style, tone, and verbal nuance. How better to understand, for instance, the effects of Greek and Latin meter than by attempting to replicate those in another language? How better to understand the power of alliteration, enjambment, and word play than by dreaming up their translated equivalent? Hillary Yip’s translation of Cicero’s Somnium Scipionis 15-18 in this volume, for instance, seeks to communicate “how poetic Latin prose is” and deftly walks the line between meeting the demands of the target language and mirroring the balanced symmetries of Ciceronian syntax that play an important role in relaying the work’s cosmic vision. Translation furthermore compels us to ponder a work’s key themes and bring them into dialogue with our own time. Maia Lee-Chin’s creative reimagining of Apollo’s attempted rape of Daphne poignantly draws out the themes of power, sexual violence, and voyeurism in Ovid’s Metamorphoses while connecting these to modern constructions of race and beauty. Such acts of translation effect in readers a critical encounter with the past and present at once.
Creative translation, above all, can be fun—an antidote to the rote tediousness that some students can experience in a language classroom. When I teach Horace or Catullus, for instance, I encourage my students to take up creative translation themselves and to write in-depth notes on their work that explain their formal choices, interpretations, and goals. These exercises let students become more personal, more playful, and more experimental with texts than scholarly writing has historically allowed. Carl Lewandowski’s translation of the Franks Casket in the current issue, for instance, playfully indulges his longstanding fixation with crafting and polyhedra and also illuminates the connection between objects and texts that often gets severed in traditional scholarship and less experimental forms of translation. At a time when Greek and Latin enrollments have been plummeting, getting students to experiment with language and to appreciate its artistry in novel and personally meaningful ways should be primary goals.
My own turn toward translation had much to do with the liberal arts environment in which I work, which has allowed me the freedom to forge my own interdisciplinary path. I regularly teach in Sewanee’s Interdisciplinary Humanities program, collaborating with colleagues from departments such as Philosophy, Art History, Religious Studies, and English. Indeed, much of my teaching is to students who will not major in Classics or proceed to graduate work. After these students graduate, their engagement with classics will likely entail reading translations and adaptations rather than producing specialized scholarship—some may even continue to engage creatively with the classical past by translating and adapting ancient works themselves. I am convinced that my task as a professor of Classics is to foster such engagement—in addition to training my students in the more traditional modes of scholarship, I hasten to add.
In such an environment, it has been easy to let the traditional parameters of Classics blur, and to write for a variety of audiences both within and outside of the academy. Yet such blurring has not always been encouraged or welcomed within the field or within institutions. When I first began work on my Horace translation several years ago, I excitedly told a colleague at a different institution about the project, to which they replied, “We would offer you gratitude, but not tenure,” words now indelible in my mind. Even within my own liberal arts context, I did not dare to undertake translation until after I published a traditional scholarly monograph and cleared the hurdle of tenure and promotion. Such sidelining of translation when it comes to what “counts” as academic work only places translation further out of the reach of the students who are the future of the field and the many contingent faculty members who are its backbone. The influential critic Daniel Mendelsohn, currently at work on a translation of the Odyssey, has indeed spoken of abandoning the field so that he could write creatively about Classical material for broad audiences. As he recently told Foteini Dimrouli of The Oxonian Review, “I made the conscious decision to abandon the academy and to write” (Dimrouli). Many other successful translators, such as A.E. Stallings, Aaron Poochigian, A.M. Juster, Caroline Alexander, and Diane Arnson Svarlien, have (for whatever reasons) created space for themselves outside of the traditional bounds of the academy.
If creatively-inclined students do not see their own professors engaged in translation, adaptation, or public writing, they too might feel there is simply no room in the academy for the kinds of writing they love to read and to produce. As a field, we risk alienating the very students from whose excitement, creativity, and intelligence we stand to benefit. Yet I am cautiously optimistic that, as Classics continues to redefine itself, more space will open up inside of institutions of all sorts for translation and other forms of writing that engage creatively with antiquity. The very existence of a journal like Ancient Exchanges speaks to the increasing visibility of translation of ancient literature—and importantly sets the translation of Greek and Latin material side-by-side with that of other ancient languages such as Hebrew, Old English, Classical Chinese, Classical Japanese, and Classical Arabic. My hope is that such fostering of translation will help build a broader and more robust field of Classics that flourishes within, beyond, and across the academy’s often arbitrary divides.
Dimrouli, Foteini. “An Interview with Daniel Mendelsohn.” Oxonian Review. May 11, 2022.
Translation & the Classic. Ed. Lianeri, Alexandra and Vanda Zajko. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 315-40.
Stallings, A.E. “Miss her, Catullus?” The Poetry Foundation. Sept. 20, 2007.