A Translator’s Take on the Black Lives Matter Movement
By Elizabeth Vo-Phamhi, Sara Chopra, Cate Simons
Although several weeks have passed since the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Tony McDade, and Rayshard Brooks, amongst countless others, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States continues to inspire many discussions among us students about how we can better address the issues of race and diversity in Classics. At Discentes, both individually and as a group, we have been joining our nation in long-overdue reflection and action, committing to creating an anti-racist future for our discipline. These efforts to educate ourselves, listen to others, and consider our role in the movement have led us to the question of how we can best work toward active anti-racism and amplify underrepresented voices in our field.
This summer, we have taken the time to read statements made by Classics departments across the nation. Many of these statements have inspired us, and all have given us cause to think critically about the long-standing issues of diversity and accessibility in the study of ancient Mediterranean languages and culture. In search of insight from a source closer to home, we asked members of our own faculty to share their thoughts, as classicists, on the Black Lives Matter movement. The first of these conversations, an interview with Professor Emily Wilson, appears below.
At Penn, Emily Wilson is a professor of Classical Studies and graduate chair of the Program in Comparative Literature & Literary Theory, as well as the College for Women Class of 1963 Term Professor in the Humanities. She was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2019 and a Guggenheim Fellow in 2020.
We are immensely grateful to Professor Wilson for taking the time to share her own detailed and thoughtful reflection with us, and we are excited to share her thoughts with you.
The statements made by Professor Wilson speak solely for herself and are not representative of the Penn Classical Studies department at large.
The Translation and Reception of BIPOC Voices in Classical Literature
The Black Lives Matter and Trans Lives Matter movements have been working in parallel at present. When translating, an awareness or understanding of racial and gender identity is crucial (and that’s why diversity in translators is so important), but race and gender are sometimes ambiguous in the text. Can you tell us about some instances where a character’s race, gender, and/or sex was ambiguous and how you typically go about addressing that?
I want to say, first, that I absolutely agree that diversity in translation is essential. It’s a very serious problem, for and within the discipline, that currently, published English translations of ancient Greek and Latin texts are overwhelmingly created by white people (a bias that you might expect, given that most people in US and UK classics graduate programs are white), and also (which you wouldn’t necessarily expect) by older cis-het white men (despite the existence of plenty of younger and/or female classical scholars). Literary translation in general isn’t male dominated (not surprisingly, because it’s not a well-funded or highly-valued field); but ancient Greek and Roman literary translation, which has more cultural caché, is. That’s a big problem in itself, and it’s a symptom of a broader interpretative and stylistic same-y-ness in how translations of these texts are produced (e.g. in the often unconsidered dominance of the stacked-prose style to translate metrical verse).
Anyone, of any gender identity or any racial identity, can internalize dominant social biases.
At the same time, we need to distinguish between a scholar or translator’s identity, and their/her/his interpretive assumptions; for instance, in looking at translations of Homer by women into other languages (such as French and Italian), I don’t really see evidence that female translators are always necessarily more aware or more thoughtful of gender issues than male translators are. Women are very often misogynistic. Anyone, of any gender identity or any racial identity, can internalize dominant social biases. That’s often an essential element in the continuity of any ideology. I know that I personally have identified as bi-mostly-cis-female my whole adult life, but I’ve become much more aware of gender issues than I was twenty years ago, because I’ve experienced more, I’ve read more, and my consciousness has changed. The same goes, mutatis mutandis, for my identity as a white person; I’m far more aware of my own white privilege than I was ten or twenty years ago. It’s complicated, and we need to be mindful of that complexity. We need classical translators with more nuanced social awareness, across languages and cultures, AND we need classical translators who are themselves from a much wider range of different social categories, and those are two intertwined but not identical desiderata.
Whenever I encounter syntactically gendered generalizations, I try to think very hard about whether the gendering is marked in the original or not.
Now to your actual question! In general, it’s hard to generalize: I think translators do have to consider every text or every passage case by case. The same solutions won’t work everywhere. It depends on the overall approach of the text, the translator’s specific goals, the style and feel of the original, the specifics of a particular sentence, and so on. But here’s one general rule: I am generally very much aware that the words brotos and anthropos in ancient Greek are masculine in form (-os ending), but both appear, rarely, with a feminine pronoun on occasion, so they were clearly not understood to refer exclusively to male people. Similarly, it’s common in both ancient Greek and Latin to make generalizations using masculine plural pronouns; it would be hard to translate a sentence like “Everybody likes social justice” into ancient Greek without using a subject that would be masculine in form. The masculinity of these phrases isn’t necessarily marked, because there’s no gender-neutral term for “everybody” in ancient Greek. But in English, we do have the option of using gender-neutral language for generalizations about people. Arguably, in contemporary English, it feels very marked to use masculine language for phrases that are supposedly inclusive (e.g., “Mankind likes social justice”, or “All men like social justice”, when you mean “All people”). The degree to which those formulations feel marked will depend on other stylistic features too, such as whether the text is generally archaizing or not, and different readers will have different feelings about the same linguistic formulae. Some of that is under the writer or translator’s control, and some of it isn’t. Whenever I encounter syntactically gendered generalizations, I try to think very hard about whether the gendering is marked in the original or not. A couple of examples: at the start of Book 5 of the Odyssey, when the goddess Dawn brings light to “mortals”, brotoi, I used “mortals”, because it covers everyone, as presumably the original does (sunlight isn’t exclusively available to male people). The word brotos is used later in that same book of the poem to refer to somebody female. I’ve looked at a few other English translations of this line, and it’s pretty striking how many of them make it masculine (e.g. Fagles: “mortal men”; the Loeb, “mortal men”; etc. Maybe this is partly because a lot of translators try to save time by looking at other translations). Mostly, I suspect the reader of my translations isn’t going to notice that I’ve thought hard about the pronouns, and that’s just fine. A lot of the work of a translator has to happen behind the scenes, and that’s as it should be. I don’t want every choice to feel neon-brightly noticeable, or for the reader to feel manipulated. One instance where I made a choice that I think readers may well notice, which is somewhat marked, was in the great scene in Odyssey 4, where Helen is mixing drugs to take away everyone’s vulnerability to pain and grief. Her concoction is said to be so powerful that anyone who drinks it won’t cry, even if their/her/his mother dies in front of them/her/him. I spent a really long time worrying about the pronouns there. I didn’t want to use “his” mother/ father /brother, because then Helen isn’t including herself, which feels to me like too much of a continuity error; surely she’s taking the drugs too; she has things she wants to forget. I considered pluralizing the whole thing (“people who take it”), but it felt less precise, less focused on individual experience, and I felt that the loneliness of grief, even collective grief, and of drug experience, even when the drug is taken in a group, was important for the passage. I almost went with “their”, singular — which I think would be a reasonable choice, but I found it hard to formulate in a way that wasn’t ambiguous. In the end I went with “her”, because I liked how it kept the focus on Helen, even while generalizing. I figured it’s ok if, just occasionally, in a scene about a very powerful, semi-divine female character, I push the reader to wonder why we’d think of “his” as an acceptable gender-neutral pronoun, and not “her.”
I think it’s essential for translators[…] to try, whenever possible, to use language that isn’t unthinkingly reinforcing modern prejudice, or importing modern prejudice onto the different prejudices of antiquity.
On race: this is tricky in different ways. Race and ethnicity were individuated in different ways in Graeco-Roman antiquity. Slavery wasn’t racialized in the way it was in the US. Nobody in ancient Greece or Rome thought of themselves as “white.” Many ancient GR texts use/ exploit/ draw on/ interrogate/ engage with ancient ethnic stereotypes and prejudices about non-Greek or non-Roman peoples, and/or those who don’t speak Greek or Latin; those stereotypes are related to modern ones, and modern ones have sometimes drawn on the ancient ones (on which, see Edward Said on “orientalizing”, and Martin Bernal on the representations of Egypt, ancient and modern); but there are differences. I think it’s essential for translators to think about those continuities and those differences, and to try, whenever possible, to use language that isn’t unthinkingly reinforcing modern prejudice, or importing modern prejudice onto the different prejudices of antiquity. That means thinking about what modern prejudices are, as well as about ancient ones. So, for example, in creating my version of Book 9 of the Odyssey, I felt very conscious that this is a text about a quasi-colonial encounter, between an indigenous person (the Cyclops) and an armed invader, who perceives his culture as superior to that of the native inhabitant — in ways that the listener or reader might find dubious. I’m including both ancient and modern listeners. The Homeric text is very complex in its presentation; Odysseus, the unreliable narrator, isn’t at all obviously a good guy; he shows up on the Cyclops island having just slaughtered a whole city (the Cicones), and with trickery in mind; the Cyclopic people are, despite what Odysseus inconsistently suggests, not godless or lacking in customs or norms. Odysseus is very clearly an unreliable narrator, and there’s a fascinating slipperiness about the narrative perspective. The shifting points of view in Homeric poetry are, to me, one of the most deeply fascinating features of these great texts. I wanted to make sure that my language didn’t dehumanize the Cyclops (so, for instance, I make sure he’s called “him” and “the man”, anthropos, not, as in the Fagles version, “the monster” or “the savage”). I have noticed that first-time readers, even the brilliant Penn undergraduates I’ve taught, often seem to gloss over the ethical and narratological complexities of this encounter. So I also tried to make sure nobody can skip the Cicones episode, by titling the book “A Pirate in a Shepherd’s Cave” — in contrast, for example, to Fagles’ “In the One-Eyed Giant’s Cave”, which suggests, debatably, that we’re looking only through Odysseus’ perspective, and that the indigenous cave-dweller is unambiguously a fairy-tale monster, not a person. The Cyclops is very terrifying, because he eats people; but he’s not a monster. He’s a person, and he’s defending himself and his home against invaders—which Odysseus also does, when he slaughters the suitors of his wife. Translators always use paratext as well as the text itself, to make interpretative decisions.
I realize I haven’t answered the LBGTQ part of your question. I’m honestly not sure that I have a good translation example for that. Generally, I think that there’s potential for some really useful and interesting shaking up of modern norms about gender and sexual orientation, by looking back to the different individuations of norms in antiquity. To take just the Odyssey as an example: on one level, it’s the most revoltingly hetero-normative narrative you could imagine, with the Odysseus-Penelope marriage at the center. As a translator, rather than a creative imitator, I can’t rewrite it to make Penelope run off with Calypso, or Telemachus come out as a woman. That would be fun, and illuminating, but it’s a different project. But I can remind readers that the most prominent character in the poem, the one who controls and micromanages the plot, is gender-ambiguous; Athena uses “she/her” pronouns, but more often appears as male than female, and her female guises are presented as just as much performances as the male ones. The Odyssey looks one way if we read it as the story of a cis-het male elite enslaver; it looks another way if we read it as a poem about the self-glorifying plotting of a gender-ambiguous divinity. Both are valid readings, but the first has a lot more debatable dominance within current US culture than the second. But most of this isn’t really about translation at all; it’s about what happens in the classroom, and about how we frame the text in critical analysis and scholarship. To speak just a little about my Odyssey translation, because I’m trying to be a good student and answer the question: I was happy my publisher let me put the Cretan Blue Ladies on the cover, and owls to mark the book breaks, because I felt those elements of iconography invited a more destabilizing Athena-centric reading of the poem, and a reading focused on relationships, including relationships between goddesses and women, and women with each other, rather than the lone male “Hero’s Journey” framing that’s implied by the usual Odyssey iconography, which is a picture of a ship.
In a similar vein, what role do you believe translators and translations play in making sure that translated texts retain and represent diverse individuals in ancient literature?
It seems to me that scholars, translators and teachers of ancient literature — I’m all three, and I think they’re related activities — need to make visible, and critically interrogate, the enormous lack of diversity in the texts we have, rather than pretend it’s there when it’s not.
“Ancient literature” from ancient Greek and Rome means, on the whole, texts created by and for elite male enslavers. So I think it’s problematic to say that these texts inherently have, or represent, anything other than the perspective of the male enslavers who created them. A student in one of my classes, having absorbed this point, commented that trying to figure out the real-life perspectives of ancient Athenian women from ancient Athenian drama is a bit like trying to research the experiences of C19 Black Americans, using only the texts of blackface minstrel shows; that would be an absurd thing to do. It seems to me that scholars, translators and teachers of ancient literature — I’m all three, and I think they’re related activities — need to make visible, and critically interrogate, the enormous lack of diversity in the texts we have, rather than pretend it’s there when it’s not. So, for instance, I very much wanted to make sure that the enslaved characters in the Odyssey, and other texts I’ve translated (like the ongoing Iliad, as well as Seneca/ Sophocles/ Euripides/Plato), were visible, and that readers of the translation wouldn’t be able to miss the fact that this is a text about an enslaving society, and it traces the gaps and inequalities between enslavers and the people they enslave, as well as between mortals and immortals, men and women, etc. The Homeric poems might be a special case, because many different voices went into their creation; they’re folk poetry, oral poetry, and it’s at least possible that enslaved people would have heard them, even sung them, even participated in the formation of these narratives. We can’t prove it one way or another. But even so, I’d be very wary of the idea that, say, the presentation of Eumaeus or Eurycleia — the “good” enslaved characters in the Odyssey — really tells us much about the actual lived experiences of enslaved people in archaic Greece. The representation of those characters in this poem tells us a great deal about the particular forms of doublethink ideology that sustained the institution of archaic and ancient forms of slavery, such as the (abhorrent) idea that “good” slaves love being enslaved, and happily align their interests entirely with those who are depriving them of freedom — so that, for example, Eumaeus insists on calling Odysseus, his enslaver, his “brother.” As a translator (and as a teacher, scholar, writer of the introduction to the poem, etc.), I wanted that horrible nexus of ideas to be visible, so it can be consciously interrogated.
Again, not all of this can or should be done through translation. As a translator, my interpretative and linguistic choices can enable and activate particular readings, but I can’t tell the reader what to think or feel. A lot of the work has to be done by teaching and scholarship. But I know you’re asking about translation because that’s my claim to fame! And I do believe that there’s a recursive loop between the work of translators and that of scholars and teachers. I wore a different stylistic and generic hat when I was writing the introduction to the Odyssey, compared to the multiple poetic hats and voices I wore for the translation; but the work of one informed the other.
There may be a continuity between what I’m saying here about making slavery and inequality visible, and one of the big interventions of “critical race studies”: instead of constantly looking as if through an uninterrogated white gaze, or (in the case of antiquity) as if through an uninterrogated male-Graeco-Roman gaze, to consider the representation of the “other”, the “barbarian” or “the slave”, or “the woman”, we could turn that gaze around, and consider how whiteness is formed, or how masculinity is formed, or how, in the case of archaic Greece, a social structure of Greek-male-warrior-enslaving privilege is formed. The representation of the Cyclops or of the enslaved characters might not tell us much about actual ancient indigenous people, or actual ancient enslaved people. But it sure tells us a lot about the social ideologies of male elite archaic Greek speakers, if we’re willing to ask questions about that.
What is giving you hope as we look back over a year which has already brought us a lot of challenges?
I’ve been inspired by the scale of the BLM protests across the US and across the world (including also in my native UK). It’s exciting to see some statues of enslavers coming down, and I hope that’s going to be part of a larger cultural reckoning with the uses and abuses of history in our time. I’m aware at the same time that toppling statues and renaming buildings isn’t going to do anything much to address deep, longstanding inequalities; statues can be toppled overnight, but it takes a lot longer to fix inequalities like mass incarceration, inequities of housing and schooling, and massive economic inequalities. Plus, a lot of the racial and gendered inequalities that were already entrenched in this country (and around the world) have got much worse with the pandemic. The virus has killed many more Black and brown people in the US than white people. It’s been terrible for people in prisons, and in low-income housing, and homeless shelters. It’s had a far greater impact on workers in factory and service industry jobs than people with plush jobs like mine, much of which can be done online. The lack of in-person schooling and childcare is going to have a huge negative impact on a whole generation of women and kids, especially lower-income families.
I’m given hope by the thought that a lot more of us, scholars of the ancient GR world, do finally seem to be ready for some real interrogation of the ways our field of study has been intertwined with racism and white supremacy and sexism and classism; more classicists seem to be willing now, versus even a few months ago, to have those hard conversations and think about the necessity for change.
I realize I’m not managing to be hopeful. Well, I hope that the need to do online teaching is going to make many of us, including me, much more intentional about how we practice pedagogy, and ideally push us/ me to make some changes in how I manage in-person classroom time, whether it’s virtual or not. Plus, within the study of ancient Greek and Roman cultures specifically, I’m given hope by the thought that a lot more of us, scholars of the ancient GR world, do finally seem to be ready for some real interrogation of the ways our field of study has been intertwined with racism and white supremacy and sexism and classism; more classicists seem to be willing now, versus even a few months ago, to have those hard conversations and think about the necessity for change. We’re more willing now, I think, to acknowledge not just that classics has been claimed or co-opted by alt-right groups as part of “western civilization”, aka white-supremacist-history, but also that racism, as well as classism and sexism, are problems deeply entrenched within the discipline (even in the way we configure its name—“classics”?—and boundaries— why aren’t ancient Israel, ancient Egypt and ancient Persia part of Classics?). I feel at least a little bit hopeful that those hard conversations are at least beginning to happen. I know that when I was an undergraduate studying classics at Oxford, a long time ago, race, slavery, gender, class and sexuality were never mentioned by any of my (all white, all male, mostly cis-het) tutors. I remember writing sub-New-Critical essays about the marvellous imagery of the Oresteia, and never discussing, at least not with my tutor, the fact that the trilogy is a virtuosic defense of exclusionary politics and patriarchy. The discussions I had with friends at the college Women’s Group seemed to be on a different planet from what I encountered in any of my official education. I’m hopeful that students, like y’all, are asking these questions about race and gender and sexuality right from the start. Thank you for doing this and for being here; you give me hope.
If you are a faculty member interested in joining this conversation with Discentes, we would love to hear and broadcast your thoughts. Please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cate Simons (College ’21) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Languages and Literature) and minoring in Fine Arts.
Sara Chopra (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies, Consumer Psychology, and Ancient History.
Elizabeth Vo-Phami (College ’22) is a student at the University of Pennsylvania studying Classical Studies (Classical Civilizations) and Cognitive Science.