Companion to the Translation of Greek and Latin Epic

Persistent identifier:


Our joint fellowship was awarded to aid our co-editorial project, A Companion to the Translation of Greek and Latin Epic (Wiley-Blackwell), a volume of collected essays that seeks to bridge the current gap between reception studies and translation studies with specific application to the genre of classical epic. From the outset, framing the discussion and organization of this volume has presented a considerable challenge, as the field we are helping to engineer is still in a formative phase, and no single methodology or theoretical approach immediately guides it. In our weeks of collaboration at the CHS, we restructured the volume to comprise sections titled Openings, Explorations, and Dialogues that will help maximize the impact of the several contributions and hopefully shape the emerging field of translation studies in classics.


Translation has a strange status within classical studies. On the one hand, we are deeply dependent on it, yet on the other, we seem almost wanting to disavow it. If the wider public cares about classical studies at all, it is because ancient literature finds its way into readily available and appealing translations. We regularly use translation in language courses as a form of competency testing. We regularly have to produce translations of passages for books and articles we write. Yet oddly within the field, we do remarkably little reflection on either the history or theory of translation as part of the general professional formation of a working classicist.  The resistance to thinking about translation is perhaps the predictable result of our source-culture focus; i.e., we are far more worried about establishing and interpreting the text of Homer or Virgil than we are about making it generally accessible or turning it into salable commodities. As guardians of the original texts, in a sense, we seem sensitive to “selling out” the old masters.

Our profession’s new focus on reception studies, however, gives us ample opportunity to pivot on this issue, since translation has always been a part of what we do. But it requires a turn in a new direction towards the target cultures of translation, i.e., the cultures that produce and receive the translation texts.  There is growing interest in translation studies in relation to classics, as evidenced by recent titles such as Translation and the Classic (Oxford UP, 2008), Complicating the History of Western Translation (St. Jerome, 2011), Roman Theories of Translation (Routledge, 2013), English Translation and Classical Reception (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of Tragedy (Princeton UP, 2017). Beyond the field of classics, there is a burgeoning interest in translation as a philosophical concept and a heuristic device that highlights dimensions of linguistic and cultural difference, such as the difference between past and present (See, for instance, Cultural Translation in Early Modern Europe [Cambridge UP, 2007], Dictionary of Untranslatables [Princeton UP, 2014], The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy [Routledge, 2018]).

Building on this work, our volume seeks to map the intersections of classics and translation studies, while also advancing their better integration. The latter task is pursued both by theoretical discussions of concepts such as equivalence, cross-cultural transfer, temporality of translation, and so on, and by exploring the historical presence of translations in the reception of classical texts. During our collaboration at the Center of Hellenic Studies we discussed this task between us and with contributors with the aim of achieving a balance between, on the one hand, orienting the newcomer to translation studies as applied to classics and, on the other, providing exemplary, state-of-the-art discussions and case studies on how translation is a central element in reception—but beyond that, also in the wider fields of literary and cultural theory, philosophy and comparative literature. The chapters not only comprise exemplary studies, but also raise controversies and problems inherent in the merger of disciplines, and advance in-depth theoretical considerations of the interfield of classical receptions and the study of translation.

Our joint fellowship allowed us to restructure the volume in order to both achieve greater conceptual coherence and highlight the theoretical categories discussed by it. The new structure of the volume is threefold:

Part one, Openings, includes three essays on translation from the viewpoint of translation studies, reception studies, and classics. The aim of this part is to explore key approaches to translation and reception studies that help break down the assumption of a universal and indisputable meaning of terms such as “translation,” “original,” “classical,” “reception,” while also directing readers to some fundamental debates pertaining to them.  The articles introduce readers who are unfamiliar with the field of translation studies to its basic terminology, while gradually amplifying the importance of a more complex and nuanced understanding of the phenomena under consideration, particularly with regard to the diverse practices of translation in both the ancient and modern world. The chapters will further point out how the three viewpoints underlying the companion intersect with one another.

Part two, Explorations, includes six sections, each of which is centered on some key concepts for the volume.

a) Philology, Textuality, ‘Transformission’

These chapters approach the topic beginning at a familiar baseline for classical studies: the philological realties of ancient and medieval manuscripts, the conventional framework of “equivalence” for assessing translation, the formal implications that stem from choosing a specific meter for poetic translation. But the point of the chapters is to move the reader quickly beyond the familiar baseline into richer ground. For example, the internal glossing and lexical aids adhering to the textual tradition of Homer reveal there is always already an internal process of translation going on in the textual transmission. As we can see in delving into manuscript material (much of which remains unpublished), the medieval Italian readers of Virgil were encountering vernacularizations deeply marked by Dante’s Divine Comedy, which exerted a profound influence on how Virgil was received and interpreted. The early English translators of Homer were very much involved in a publishing venture, having a large role not just in the literary content of their translations, but also the format and marketing of them as commodities; they founded a business of epic that continues very powerfully to this day. Such scenarios help us to rethink, even from a familiar perspective of traditional philology, how translation can be framed, leading us to confront its antiquity, temporal disruption, and intersection with material and market forces that reach well beyond questions of simple literary equivalence.

b) Agency

The translator is an agent of transformation in many ways, creating intersections of time, language, culture and even gender through the process of making a translation. The essays of this section frame the translator’s agency from different perspectives. One compares how the strategies of Gavin Douglas and George Chapman enlist their readers in collaboration, drawing them in to a project of meaning-making that shows the great challenge of the pioneering translation, which breaks new ground in the target language. Another shows how the agency of women writers became activated through an emergent culture of translation in Renaissance Italy, giving access to the classical tradition to those excluded from formal education. A third explores the pivotal role of Anne Dacier in not only translating Homer into prose, but also arming the Homeric text with a panoply of critical observations to secure his literary status in the face of contemporary criticism. A final chapter focuses more specifically on gender and translation in more recent work, discussing the new horizons of agency for women translators.

c) Communities

Translations constitute new communities through expanding the readership for ancient texts, communities that are invited to reflect upon their own investment in these works as they take form in the target language. Chapters here deliberately explore more radical scenarios, situated far from the typical centers of Western culture: the complex synergies of medieval Irish translation of Virgil and Statius, the surprising translation of the Odyssey into Ladino by a Greek Jew and survivor of the Shoah, the translation of epic into the minority languages of Spain (Catalan, Galego, Aragonese, Basque) as acts of resistance to the dominant Castilian culture, the emergence of a distinctive translation culture for the Odyssey in Brazil, the challenges of bringing western epic into the sphere of Mandarin. These chapters challenge the picture we often get that epic translation is a matter reserved for elite and established dominant languages, or that epic is a conservative genre inherently replicating or justifying Western colonialism and imperialism.

d) Temporalities

A genre that both preceded and influenced the growth of historiography in antiquity, classical epic has been variously linked to time and history.  The genre itself contains very different temporal schemes, from past tales seen from a vaguely defined present (Homer), to mythic representations of pressing contemporary political realities (Virgil), to the epicization of history itself (Ennius, Lucan, Silius Italicus). The chapters here explore some of this temporal complexity introducing target cultural concerns. One traces the complex temporalities of reception between Renaissance Italy and Spain in relation to epic, whereby both the translation of ancient epic and the production of new epics are seen as co-processes. A first temporal paradox lies in how emergent modern epics exert a powerful influence on the translation of ancient epic, such that we can speak quite sensibly of Dante and Ariosto’s influence on Virgil and Homer. But we can also talk about divergent temporalities of reception as the Spanish, in imitating Italian literary forms and priorities, rapidly assimilate epic within a remarkably foreshortened timespan and overtake their Italian models. Another article addresses the strange disparity between Russia’s ability to produce a successful and canonical Homer, while repeatedly failing to adequately address Virgil’s Aeneid; the explanation lies in the cultural synchronicity of Romanticism in the moment of forging a hexameter poetic language for Homer, versus the prosaic, novelistic eras in which Virgilian translation was attempted, when the period of great linguistic creativity had passed.

e) Medium

Whether we think of the Oxford or Teubner classical text, or rather of a modern translation, the default condition in thinking of classical epic is “the book.” Yet we know this is deceptive, given the oral and aural performative modalities of ancient literature, the inherent techniques of visualization in epic, and the rich collateral influences of the visual arts in perpetuating and commenting on the epic tradition already in the ancient world. This section focuses on diversifying our understanding of medium in translation by extending our gaze to illustration, translation for modern performance, and the intersemiotic translation to film. When we speak of ancient epics as “source texts,” these transfers to visual media and performance serve to remind us that ancient epic can be the source of many things beyond the hexameter verses of its form.

 f) Transvaluations, Transgressions

The “trans” in translation has often been seen in normative terms as an innocuous effort to bring something across the barrier of language. But the process can equally be seen as transformational in a more dynamic sense: a transvaluation of the suppositions behind the canonical genre and its high cultural associations, a transgression of literary, political, social and even gender norms supposedly upheld or enforced in epic poems, but also the transvaluation of canonical interpretations of classical epic. Chapters here explore the ways the translation of epic goes well beyond the simple replication of a high cultural good. Whether it is the untimely translation of Lucretius in modern Greece as a way of interjecting socialist and Nietzschean ideas, or the stumbling manner in which epic content circulates around the world beyond the confines of the literary texts, these chapters reveal the space of ancient epic as much more refractory and contentious than the old notion of the “literary classic” allows. Finally, a chapter on the translation of epic in the imperial context of nineteenth-century Britain explores a complex network of translation practice which not only legitimizes the imperial imaginary, but also becomes a crucial tool for national self-scrutiny, for the critique of empire, and for mediating fears about empire’s failure.    

Part three, Dialogues with Translators. This section comprises interviews with some key translators who have shaped the recent past of translation for the epic genre. The focus of this section is to allow the experience of working translators to bridge the gap between the theorization of translation and reception on the on hand, and the realia of production on the other.  The translators represented here are Stanley Lombardo, one of the first classicists in the USA to make a career of literary translation in academia; Emily Wilson, the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English; Herbert Jordan, who has published complete translations of Homer and represents a long line of non-professional translators; Susanna Braund, translator of Lucan and eminent scholar of translation in her own right; and with Jinyen Liu, a team of Chinese translators working to render Ovid into Mandarin. Many of the themes reflected in the articles resurface in these dialogues, allowing the reader to see their relevance to working translators.

The book concludes with a coda featuring a dialogue between the two editors seeking to raise broader theoretical questions and map future directions in the field.


Burke, Peter, and R. Po-chia Hsia. 2007. Cultural Translation in Early Modern Europe. Cambridge, Cambridge UP.

Cassin, Barbara, ed. 2014. Dictionary of Untranslatables: A Philosophical Lexicon. Princeton, Princeton UP.

Gillespie, Stuart. 2011. English Translation and Classical Reception. Chichester, Wiley-Blackwell.

Lianeri, Alexandra, and Vanda Zajko, eds. 2008. Translation and the Classic: Identity as Change in the History of Culture. Oxford, Oxford UP.

McElduff, Siobhán, and Enrica Sciarrino, eds. 2011. Complicating the History of Western Translation. Manchester, St. Jerome Publishing.

McElduff, Siobhán. 2013 Roman Theories of Translation: Surpassing the Source. New York, Routledge.

Prins, Yopie. 2017. Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of Tragedy. Princeton, Princeton UP.

Rawling, J. Piers, andPhilip Wilson. 2018. The Routledge Handbook of Translation and Philosophy. New York, Routledge.