Do You Know How Patronizing ‘The First Time a Woman Translates Homer Is a Big Deal’ Sounds?

On a podcast, I heard a translator talk about translating from a ‘post-colonialist/de-colonised’ stance. He said:

To readers who question whether that sort of thing is important… well, it actually is. As folks probably remember, it’s a big deal when Homer is translated for the first time by a woman translator into English… it’s a big deal, because depending on the political approach, and the stance as an interpreter which the translator brings to the text, lots of things which seem to be unquestionable or assumed to be true – are changed.

You’re a woman who has read Homer in Ancient Greek. Surely this makes you feel included?

Wrong. It alienates me.

The fanfare around ‘first woman to translate Iliad/Odyssey into English’ ignores the long legacy of female classicists and Ancient Greek -> English translators, such as Edith Hamilton. I’m not the only one who feels this way: Emily Wilson, who was hailed as ‘the first woman to translate The Odyssey into English (which was published for a mass audience)’ says:

As the media focuses on Wilson as the “first female translator,” there is also the issue of tokenism, where one female translator may somehow represent all of them. “I worry about the way that it can potentially erase all the women,” Wilson says. “I personally have learned a huge amount from other female classicists, other Homerists; I don’t want it to be presented that I’m the only classicist that matters who’s female.”

Why did you add that bit about ‘which was published for a mass audience’?

I translated some sections of The Iliad into English when I was a teenager, before the media gushed over the ‘first’ translation of Homer into English by a woman. Was my translation publishable? Nope. Was it complete? Nope, it was very incomplete. But it existed.

Though maybe if I had done a complete translation and marketed it as a translation done by a teenage girl which offered a unique insight into Homer which no translator over the age of twenty could capture, a publisher might have bought it and sold copies. If that was not enough I could have added that I was rebelling against academic pressure by applying my study skills to something which did not improve my grades one bit. I got in trouble in my high school Biology class because I was studying Homeric Greek instead of listening to the teacher.

Such a translation might have said something about my high school experiences which no other translation would reflect, but I don’t believe it would’ve offered any insight into the Iliad which could not be gathered from other translations.

Are you sure about that? As a teenager, you were confused about Achilles characterization by 20th century English-speakers as an unbelievable because sulked/angsted in his tent instead of going into battle. You thought Achilles’ behavior made sense. Maybe teenagers do have special insight into The Iliad?

Haven’t all translators been teenagers at some time? Okay, some 10-year olds have translated Homer, but the vast majority of translators have personal experience with being a teenager. They should have access to that kind of insight.

Maybe if your teenage self had known there would be so much media fanfare when the first ‘official’ translation of Homer done by a woman was published, she would have completed a translation and tried to get it published.

My teenage self would have just concluded that the media/publishing industry is full of bullshit. At the time, many woman Homeric scholars were far more qualified than myself to make a translation. They still are.

Don’t you think it’s a good thing a publisher chose a translation done by a woman? Do you think it was better when all of the published English translations were done by men?

No, it was NOT better when women translators were rejected because they were women. Ancient Greek Studies has been a sexist field for a long time. It’s becoming less sexist, and the new English translations of Homer done by women reflect that. I celebrate that. But I fundamentally see it as a labor issue i.e. qualified women deserve the same opportunities as qualified men.

I don’t believe women can see/hear anything in Homer which men can’t see. Women may be more likely to notice certain things than men, but the men can notice those things too if they try. Coming back to that article about Emily Wilson:

Finally, the popular media depiction surrounding Wilson—although inspirational on the surface—perpetuates the notion that a person’s work may be entirely characterized by their gender. “Almost all of [the interviewers] ask how does being a woman affect your work? And of course, people never ask that of male writers,” Wilson says.

It’s like the myth that men don’t see messes as well as women. Men are just as good at seeing messes as women, the myth is just an excuse for making women spend more time tidying than men. I feel the same way about claims that female translators see something in texts which male translators can’t. Male translators may sometimes need a little guidance from women (and they are more likely to get that guidance when they have more female colleagues), but if the male translators refuse to see those things, it’s a choice on their part, not because they are incapable of understanding human nature.

I think the argument that women have special insight which no man can offer is especially dangerous since… how can I put it? Homer’s works are composed from a very masculine point of view. If we accept that one’s gender has a major effect on one’s translation work, and that women/men translators, no matter how professional or skilled they are, cannot bridge that gap, then the logical next step is that only men translators can fully convey Homer’s vision. I’m sure that argument has been used in the past to deny women translators publishing opportunities.

This translator talking on the podcast is male. Perhaps he wants an excuse for not taking into account women’s points of view in his own work?

I don’t think he intended to make that point. I think he would be shocked if someone suggested that. That said, he has been criticized for sexism. I partially disagree with the critiques of sexism in his work, but he must have seen some of them. They probably prompted self-doubt on his part. Perhaps it’s easier for him to throw up his hands and think that there are some things only women understand than to deeply engage with those critiques (which I’m sure is difficult, especially since not all women agree about those critiques).

How about this quote from the article?

In fact, while Wilson didn’t write her translation for a specific age group, she wanted it to be engaging for anyone ranging from 18 to 80.

That made me laugh. It’s a good thing I could read Homer without a translation when I was 17, because apparently I was too young for Wilson’s translation.

Emily Wilson’s translation did not even exist when you were 17.

Then it’s an especially good thing that I did not need a translation.

Let’s get back to the translator from the podcast.

The translator on the podcast implies that all women have the same political/interpretive stance. That is so not true. Among English-speaking women who learn Ancient Greek might be Marxist radical feminists, Hillary Clinton fans, or conservative Christian mothers who homeschool their children because they disagree with what is taught in public schools. Suggesting that ‘woman’ is a coherent political/interpretive stance… is a way of ignoring women.

Why don’t you demonstrate your skill at translating Homer as a woman?

Fine. I translated this snippet of the Odyssey especially for this blog post:

“κλῦθί μευ, αἰγιόχοιο Διὸς τέκος, Ἀτρυτώνη·
νῦν δή πέρ μευ ἄκουσον, ἐπεὶ πάρος οὔ ποτ ̓ ἄκουσας
ῥαιομένου, ὅτε μ ̓ ἔρραιε κλυτὸς ἐννοσίγαιος.
δός μ ̓ ἐς Φαίηκας φίλον ἐλθεῖν ἠδ ̓ ἐλεεινόν.”

“klûti meu, aigiókhoio Dios tékos, Ātrǖtōnē;
nûn dē pér meu ákouson, epei páros oú pot’ákousās
rhaioménou, hóte m’ érraie klutos ennosígaios.
dós m’es Paíēkās pílon elteîn ēd’eleeinón.”

“Hear me, aegis-bearing child of Zeus, unwearied one,
Now listen to me, when you had not listened before
To myself the shipwrecked, when the famed earth-shaker shipwrecked me.
Grant my dear and pitiable self passage to the Phaeacians.”

I doubt this translation is a masterpiece since I only spent five minutes on it. I do recommend reading the original text aloud (which is why I spent an additional five minutes transcribing it into the Roman alphabet). If you find anything that is special about that translation because I am a woman, please let me know in the comments.

Up to this point in the podcast, I was listening to this translator talk about post-colonialist/decolonised translation with curiosity and an open mind. But when I heard that comment, “It’s a big deal when Homer is translated for the first time by a woman translator into English,” my immediate reaction was to ditch postcolonialism/decolonised translation.

That’s not fair. Maybe everything else he says about postcolonialist/decolonised translation is correct.

You’re right, it’s not fair. Postcolonialism/decolonised translation probably does have useful points. But isn’t one of the purposes of that stance to make marginalized demographics feel included? If I felt alienated by this when I belonged to the marginalized demographic (women who read Homer), can I trust this stance to make other marginalized groups feel included? I think a much safer stance it set aside ideological stances to listen with humility and curiosity, rather than intentionally try to fit things into a particular ideological framework.

This translator was honest about not knowing Ancient Greek and not being an expert.

Yes, and he said something during the interview which nobody who had studied Ancient Greek for even a few hours would say. But since he admits himself that he’s ignorant about Ancient Greek, maybe he… should have not used that example in support of his particular translation ideology. Or at least done the research before he invoked that example. That’s why I wrote that blog post last week to explain the importance of context when making judgments about translators.

Since this was just one remark in a really long podcast… aren’t you making too big a deal about this? If this guy had thought about it for even half as long as you spent writing this blog post, or even read anything Emily Wilson had to say about her experience translating The Odyssey, he probably would not have made that remark at all.

That’s why I’m not giving his name or linking to the podcast. I don’t think he should be personally given too much grief for this one remark. But the sentiment is much more widespread than this one off-hand remark. This particular remark inspired this blog post, but I would not have bothered writing this whole post if I had not encountered a lot of other remarks which express similar ideas.

You’re missing something big.


Have you read any English translations of Homer?

I’ve read a few snippets of The Iliad in translation.

That’s it?

I’ve probably run into a quote from an English translation of The Odyssey once in a while.

If there is some special quality which varies based on whether the translator is a man or a woman, how would you know if you’ve never read the translations?

Ummm. I’m familiar with some English pop culture interpretations of Homer?

Too far removed. This translator probably has read multiple English translations of Homer in English. He knows more about what’s in those translations than you do. Maybe before you criticize him, you should read those English translations.

That… urk. No. I don’t want to read English translations just to research whether there is a true different between woman and man translators (especially since I’d have to read some of the amateur translations to make a good comparison).

Since you’re not willing to read English translations, maybe it’s time for you to practice some humility and admit that, just maybe, this guy on the podcast knows something that you don’t?

I’m still opposed to the idea that women have some mystical quality they bring to translation which no man can capture.

Sara, am I hearing you try to fit something into your pre-existing ideological framework rather that listen with humility and curiosity?

Yes, yes you are. Damn it. I am a hypocrite.

So the moral of the story is, don’t be a hypocrite like me. Please actually do listen with humility and curiosity rather than jump to conclusions based on your ideological framework.

1 thought on “Do You Know How Patronizing ‘The First Time a Woman Translates Homer Is a Big Deal’ Sounds?

  1. Pingback: I Supported Changing the Dutch Translator of Gorman’s Poetry. Why Do I Oppose Changing the Catalan Translator? | The Notes Which Do Not Fit

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