Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Translation: The Art of Reconstructing a Text - Guest Post by Melissa, The Book Binder's Daughter

Today Melissa of The Book Binder's Daughter shares with us about the trickiness of translations!  Welcome, Melissa!

The first word of Homer’s Iliad in the Ancient Greek is menin, which translates to “anger” or “rage.”  Most translations of The Iliad in English do not begin with this word.  This has always bothered me because in an epic the first word is the most important as it sets the tone and the theme for the entire work.  When an epic is translated and the original Greek word is not used as its first, an important element of the epic seems to be lost.

Translation is really an art form and when given a text to translate no two people will come up with the exact same translation.  When translating from an ancient to a modern language it is impossible to come up with an exact, one to one translation.  My first reference to the Iliad is a good example of this.  Some have translated the word menin as “anger,” some have translated it as “rage” or “wrath”.  All of these choices are possible and none of them are the most “correct.”  But they are the closest we can come to giving the modern reader the feeling and tone of this Ancient Greek word.

When I am first going over a translation with my students, I try to get them to stay as close to the original Latin texts as possible.  This leads to awkward translations that most people would fail to comprehend.  Sometimes I have them write their translations on the board in class and then point to it and ask, “Tell me in your own words what this says.”  Silence ensues.  Cue the cricket sounds.  I then have them do what I call a “modern” translation of the text that is accessible to any reader, even one who is not familiar with ancient literature.

So how do we get to a translation that captures the spirit of the original work yet also appeals to modern readers?  This is something that is really hard to do.  In my experience a good translation is one which maintains the themes and nuances of the original work.  And of course this is always changing and evolving as our own language changes and evolves.  What appealed to someone as a good translation in the early 20th century will sound awkward and archaic to those of us in the early 21st century.

I was thrilled to see a new translation of Euripides Bacchae offered on Edelweiss.  This is one of the more difficult Greek tragedies to get a modern audience to understand.  It centers around the Greek god Dionysus and his attempt to transform the citizens of Thebes into becoming his devoted followers.  The young King Pentheus is conservative and is opposed to a religion that allows its members to free themselves from the normal restrains of civilization and embrace their natural desires.  In my opinion, the translator’s word choice and sentence construction (or should I say reconstruction) has captured the themes and subject matters of this tragedy, thereby making it intelligible to the 21st century reader.  

Thanks, Melissa!  Have a question or comment for Melissa?  Leave one below!


  1. Very interesting. I often don't think about the translations and how they may be misconstrued or simply misunderstood by a modern generation. Definitely food for thought!

  2. Excellent blog, explaining the complexity of accurately translating into modern language and modern people's expectations. Well done, Melissa.

  3. Thanks so much for the comments! I have been reading a lot of modern lit. in translation and realized the same issues I have with ancient texts apply to modern ones as well.

  4. Thanks Melissa, and the same art and tough work is implied in all translations, even in my translation jobs between the more common English-French


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