Found in translation: how women are making the classics their own

Women have long been marginalised in the world of ancient texts, but female scholars and translators are finally having their say

If you look up the subject heading “female classicists” in the large research library catalogue at the university where I teach, a grand total of five books pop up – of which two are separate editions of It’s a Don’s Life by Mary Beard. Next up, alphabetically, is “female cleaning personnel”, which has a larger number of volumes devoted to it: six, with no duplicates, none by Beard. Predictably, there are no entries for “male classicists”. Male classical scholars are represented by the heading “classicists” – which counts more than 200 volumes. Like “female scientists” (42 volumes, as opposed to 303 for “scientists”) or “male nurses” (three to 377), “female classicists” is a category that has been assumed not to exist. (In fact, a handful of women are buried among the “classicists”; one can find here several studies of Victorian classical scholar Jane Harrison, including a fine one by Beard.)

For hundreds of years, the study of ancient Greece and Rome was largely the domain of elite white men and their bored sons. One might assume optimistically that things have changed. After all, women from a wide variety of backgrounds are now able to enrol at prestigious universities and colleges and learn Latin and Greek from scratch; knowledge of the ancient languages is no longer open only to men. But the legacy of male domination is still with us – inside the discipline of classics itself and in how non-specialist general readers gain access to the history and literature of the ancient world.

This is true of the blockbuster Hollywood imaginings of ancient Greece and Rome such as Troy, 300 and Gladiator – all male-directed films in which female characters exist primarily as eye candy. It is also true, less obviously, of the available translations into English of ancient Greek and Roman texts, most of which are still created by “classicists”. The works of dead, white elite men have largely been translated by living, white elite men.

There were learned female classicists all over Europe in the early modern period, including several Italian humanists. Anne Dacier translated Homer’s Iliad into French prose in 1699 and his Odyssey nine years later. Dacier’s well-informed, scholarly texts were widely read, not least by Alexander Pope, who used her French to produce his translations of Homer. In Britain, Lady Jane Lumley translated Euripides and, in the 17th century, Lucy Hutchinson produced the first complete translation into English of Lucretius. But Hutchinson’s work exists only in manuscript; like that of most British female classical translators before this generation, her work was largely unknown beyond her own immediate circle.

In the US and the UK, almost all the most prominent translators of Greek and Roman literature have been men, even as recently as 10 or 20 years ago – and even as academic departments of classical literature have moved closer to a more balanced gender distribution. There are a number of reasons for this dispiriting fact. They include the undervaluing of translation as a scholarly activity in the modern academy, which means that, in a world where women are already struggling for legitimacy in a historically male-dominated field, female classicists are not given a strong institutional motive to work on translations.

But now, at long last, we are beginning to see an outpouring of translations of Greek and Latin texts by women. Many of the most dedicated (such as Pamela Mensch, Sarah Ruden, Caroline Alexander and Josephine Balmer) have no institutional affiliation and are thus free from the pressure to produce work that “counts” for tenure. The Aeneid, perhaps the most canonical Latin text, was translated into English by a woman (Ruden) for the first time in 2009. The first English translation of The Iliad by a woman (Alexander) came out last year. This year marks the publication of the first female translation of five of Plutarch’s Roman Lives (by Mensch, who has also translated Arrian, Herodotus and five of Plutarch’s Greek Lives).

We are in a bull market, especially in the US, for new translations of classical texts. Many of these works are the first English versions by women. As well as The Aeneid, the prolific and versatile Ruden has produced wonderfully original versions of Aeschylus (The Oresteia), as well as Aristophanes, Apuleius, Petronius, Augustine and more. The list of English classical translations by contemporary women is distinguished and growing every year: it includes Susanna Braund’s Lucan; Diane Arnson Svarlien’s Euripides; Cynthia Damon’s Tacitus and Julius Caesar; Alicia Stallings’ Lucretius; Deborah Roberts’s Prometheus Bound; Janet Lembke’s Virgil and Euripides; Laura Gibbs’s Aesop; and Anne Carson’s innovative, stylish versions of Greek tragedies, as well as her Sappho (also now translated by Diane Rayor).

There have also been some marvellous female literary responses to classical literature in recent years – not translations, but rather imitations, riffs, remixes or acts of resistance, including Alice Oswald’s Memorial, Carson’s Nox and Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad – all three of which find in classical literature a precise, devastating way of speaking about loss, grief, guilt and rage.

Innovative, stylish versions of Greek tragedies … Anne Carson
Innovative, stylish versions of Greek tragedies … Anne Carson Photograph: PR

One might wonder whether the gender of the translator makes a difference that can be discerned on the page. Not all female-translated texts are marketed as such; the Amazon listing of Mensch’s The Age of Caesar lists Plutarch and James Romm (the classicist who wrote the footnotes) as the primary authors. Not all female translators would describe themselves as feminists and many female classical translators, like almost all their male counterparts, do not see gender as a central element in their work. Mensch’s colourless prose is not noticeably more conscious or critical of the gender identities of Plutarch’s violent elite Roman men than that of other contemporary translators (such as Robin Waterfield, whose fine Oxford World’s Classics translation came out in 1999).

Regardless of intentions, however, female translators often stand at a critical distance when approaching authors who are not only male, but also deeply embedded in a canon that has for many centuries been imagined as belonging to men. The inability to take classical texts for granted is a great gift that some female translators are able to use as a point of leverage, to shift the canon to a different and unexpected place. Ruden once commented that “women are good at translating classics” because it puts them in a typically “feminine” position of abjection, always yearning for an eternally absent male figure: “it’s like developing a relationship with God”. But even for atheists, lesbians or women who just don’t feel that way about Virgil or Homer, the position of being a woman translating one of these dead, white men creates a strange and potentially productive sense of intimate alienation.

Ruden and Carson are able to reimagine English sentences and English poetry through their tense, difficult encounters with Greek and Roman literature. The most highly praised male classicist translators of our era – such as Robert Fagles – write with a confident exuberance, often expanding or adding to the original. Female classical translators have tended to approach the original more gingerly, with more careful discipline. The spare, tightly rhythmical pentameter of Ruden’s Aeneid contrasts favourably with the loose, haphazard beats of most of her male rivals. Alexander’s Iliad mirrors the length and redundancies of the original, providing a welcome reminder of how distant Homer’s world is from our own. Many female classical translators, such as Mensch, seem to find themselves drawn to a “foreignising”, markedly uncontemporary style, as if to shore up authority in a world where they (we) may still be seen as interlopers and to demonstrate “fidelity” to the dead male original.

Why put oneself in this difficult, alienating position? Why would female classicists even want to translate these dead white men? Yopie Prins addresses this question in Ladies’ Greek: Victorian Translations of Tragedy, her splendid new study of late 19th- and early 20th-century female translators of ancient Greek tragedy. Her complex answer is tied up with the history of women’s education. In a cultural context where knowledge of Greek and Latin was an essential marker of elite social status, women needed to demonstrate their capacity to cross this intellectual barrier. Prins gives a fascinating account of the importance of Greek tragedy in translation and theatrical production in the colleges of higher education for women that emerged in this period. Sophocles’ Electra, for example, was staged by women at Girton College, Cambridge in 1883 and at Smith College in Massachusetts in 1889 and played an essential role in their demonstration to the world of their intellectual seriousness.

Yopie Prins.
Splendid new study … Yopie Prins. Photograph: PR

Why was tragedy so important for women of this period? Prins gives a nuanced response to this central question. She shows that part of the answer concerns the social roles for women that are modelled in Athenian tragedy. Some of these plays – Antigone and the Sophoclean Electra in particular – could be moulded to fit repressive contemporary ideals of womanhood, since their heroines demonstrate selfless devotion to dead male family members. The students of Girton and Smith who performed Electra were showing off their intellectual capacity, but at the same time they were defusing any political threat; the choice of play reassured their audiences that classical education for women would reinforce their sense of duty and subjection.

On the other hand, as Prins says, these plays could be read more than one way. She has done a huge amount of careful archival work, which she uses to show that the process of staging these productions contributed enormously to the community identity of the new institutions: they were performing not only their “high moral tone”, but also their “self-reliant, self-respectful bearing”, and their closeness to one another. Antigone was, as Prins reminds us, a massive influence on the work of George Eliot, who read the drama in terms of opposition between “individual and society”; it is a play about political resistance as much as duty.

Euripides’ Bacchae is the subject of Prinns’ final chapter. In it, she shows how the idea of wild women who dance in nature formed an essential model for “female aesthetes”, including Harrison and contemporary female choreographers, including Eva Palmer-Sikelianos, who found in Euripides a way to legitimise their own rejection of traditional ways of being a scholar, a dancer, or even an embodied woman. Greek maenads were the model for a new, uncorseted way of moving, leaping and dancing. Euripides’ Hippolytus – in which Phaedra falls in love with her stepson, who wants to remain asexual – was read by John Addington Symonds in male homoerotic terms (since Hippolytus rejects heterosexuality), but the play was reread by his correspondent, a young student and poet named Agnes Robinson, as a way to discover her lesbian desires, through the thwarted, impassioned desire of Phaedra.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who translated Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as a young woman
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who translated Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound as a young woman. Photograph: Hulton Getty

However, Prins’ principal interest is not women’s social, sexual and political fight for liberation, but rather their attempt to negotiate constraints and freedom on the page. The myths of Io and Prometheus were, for these women, symbolic of their own struggle to find mobility within the constraints of translation and Victorian literary norms. Greek tragedy was associated with the desire to find space – on the page and in life – for reason and emotion and to remake English poetic language in a modernist or proto-modernist mode. As a young woman, Elizabeth Barrett Browning made a melancholy, stuffy, diligently rhyming translation of Prometheus Bound – a play that presumably spoke deeply to this immobilised invalid – and returned to the play 23 years later to create a far more expansive and fluent version.

The work of translation could turn from a bond to a mode of literary and conceptual freedom. The “spell” of Greek, for Virginia Woolf and many women of her generation, lay in its near-unintelligibility: it was a language that drew attention to the “foreign element” that is present in any language and thus facilitated a shift away from Victorian poetics. In her reading of the modernist poet HD (Hilda Doolittle), Prins shows brilliantly that the attempt to translate Euripides’ lyric meters into English enabled her to invent a new kind of free verse in English.

The context in which contemporary women produce translations of ancient Greek and Latin is very different from that of the Victorian and Edwardian “ladies” studied by Prins. There is now a far larger textbook market for classical translations to be read in university courses, which imposes its own constraints on the translator. But there is something inspiring about looking back to the female classical translators of a century ago, because they took the process of translating Greek so seriously. They knew how much was at stake, not only for their status as intellectuals, but for their artistic and literary vision. They knew that an encounter with this alien language and culture could help them move, feel, think and write differently.

We can only hope that, in the coming years, more British and American women – including people who are neither “ladies” nor white – will begin to translate Greek and Roman texts into English. Perhaps then more of us will begin to shed the Promethean chains of translationese to show a new generation of readers what these texts, translated by classicists who are also women, can sound like – and how this alien, alienated encounter can help reshape our own language.

• Emily Wilson’s translation of Homer’s Odyssey will be published in the autumn by Norton.

• This article was amended on 10 July 2017 to give Diane Arnson Svarlien’s full name.

Emily Wilson

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