Translating Myth

Cover of Translating Myth, edited by Ben Pestell, Pietra Palazzolo and Leon BurnettTranslating Myth, a book I edited alongside Pietra Palazzolo and Leon Burnett has recently been published by Routledge/Legenda, in Legenda’s Studies in Comparative Literature series.

It collects fourteen essays on different aspects of myth and translation, from literary translation of Blakean mythopoeia to the cultural translation of Oedipus in Cameroon.

I’m very pleased with the finished result: it’s a handsomely produced volume with carefully-reproduced illustrations, and, most importantly, some excellent critical readings.

As an academic book, it is, lamentably, prohibitively expensive (even with the 20% discount), but I can unreservedly recommend that you order it for your local academic or public library. An e-book is also available.

Some more information (blurb, table of contents) is on the Essex Centre for Myth Studies site, and ordering information, a preview, and so on, on Routledge’s site.

These comments from the introduction (by Pietra and me) on Giuseppe Sofo’s chapter on the further translations of Derek Walcott’s Odyssey are indicative of the tenor of the book:

The reader is led through this recent journey of Odysseus, from English to Italian and from the Caribbean Sea back to the Mediterranean. At the end of this stage of its travels, the myth has changed while retaining its essence. It has survived the transaction between oral and written forms, just as it remains identifiable through translation across languages and cultures. Thus the process we describe at the start of this introduction, which Odysseus himself implicitly identified when hearing the song of Demodocus, is shown throughout this volume to be infinitely varied, generating vital and ever-renewing debate.

A myth glossary

Glossaries and dictionaries of mythological figures and themes are abundant, but I haven’t come across a comprehensive glossary of myth theory (if you know one, please pass on the details). While we wait, I’ve been slowly assembling one for my own use. I shall, from time to time, post the more complete entries here, collected under the category ‘Myth glossary’.  For the first entry, I have started at the beginning; but as it’s a glossary of theories, not myths, when I say ‘beginning’, I don’t mean the beginning of myth, but the beginning of the use of the word ‘myth’.


muthos [mythos / μῦθος]

The Greek word muthos is the root of our word ‘myth’, but its meaning is not the same. It appears around 300 times in Homer where it does not have the special modern significance of a legendary, or sacred utterance. ‘Myth’ in that sense was not a distinct category in Homer’s time. Jan Bremmer, foremost scholar of Greek religion, often cites a definition of the Homeric muthos from R. P. Martin’s, The Language of Heroes: it was, ‘a speech-act indicating authority, performed at length, usually in public, with a full attention to every detail’. By the fifth century BC, Greek writers used muthos to denote a fiction, in contrast to the historic truth of logos [λόγος]. Pindar records ‘Yes, there are many marvels, and yet I suppose the speech of mortals beyond the true account [τὸν ἀλαθῆ λόγον] can be deceptive, stories [μῦθοι] adorned with embroidered lies’. Herodotus reports a ‘silly’ muthos about Heracles. Thucydides made absolutely clear the separation between truth and myth, claiming the veracity of his historical accounts, and assuring his reader ‘will not be disturbed either by the lays of a poet displaying the exaggeration of his craft, or by the compositions of the chroniclers [the prose-writing λογογράφοι] that are attractive at truth’s expense; the subjects they treat of being out of the reach of evidence, and time having robbed most of them of historical value by enthroning them in the region of the fabulous [τὸ μυθῶδες].’ In the famous discussion in Plato’s Republic about types of literature [logos] which are either true [alēthēs] or false [pseudos], muthos is the name given to stories told to children which are untrue (although they contain elements of truth). Similarly, muthos was the word given by Aristotle to describe the fables of Aesop, and the plots of tragedy and comedy. Therefore, we recognize a shift from the archaic muthos of authoritative speech to the classical muthos of a story which is fabulous and untrue.

Several Greek compound words also have echoes in the modern derivative forms: mythology and mythological, mythography and mythographer, and mythopoeia and mythopoesis. The Homeric verb muthologeuō [μυθολογεύω], to relate verbatim, has a more familiar counterpart in the later form muthologeō [μυθολογέω], to tell tales such as those of Homer, first attested around the fourth century BC by Isocrates. Two related nouns, muthologia [ἡ μυθολογία], a fiction, and muthologos [ὁ μυθολόγος], a teller of legends, are not found before Plato. The Republic also apparently coins muthopoios [ὁ μυθοποιός], the composer of fiction, and subsequently we see the verb muthopoieō [μυθοποιέω], to relate or invent a fable, and two connected nouns for the making of such stories: muthopoiēsis [ἡ μυθοποίησις] and muthopoiia [ἡ μυθοποιία]. Thus the lovely muthopoiēma [τό μυθοποίημα] found in Plutarch and Aelian. Finally, the muthographos [ὁ μυθογράφος], writer of legends, is mentioned by Polybius. From -logos, to -poios and -graphos, there is a movement from the teller, or relater of muthos, to the composer or inventor of them, and to the one who writes them down. The living speech of Homer moves into – and competes with – historical record.


References (dates are approximate)

Martin quoted by Bremmer in Greek Religion, 56
Pindar (522-443 BC), First Olympian Ode, 28-29, trans. Diane Arnson Svarlien
Herodotus (484-425 BC), Histories 2.45
Thucydides (455-400 BC), History of the Peloponnesian War, 1.21, trans. E. P. Dutton (amended)
Plato (427-347 BC), Republic 376e-377a (muthos), 394b (muthologia), 392d (muthologos), 377b (muthopoios)
Aristotle (384-322 BC), Meteorology 356b (Aesop), Poetics, passim (drama)
Homer, Odyssey 12.450-53 (muthologeuō)
Isocrates (436-338 BC), 6.24
Diodorus Siculus (C1 BC) 1.92 (muthopoieō), 1.96 (muthopoiia)
Strabo (C1 BC-C1 AD), 1.1.19 (muthopoiia)
Plutarch (AD 46-120) Moralia 2.17a
Aelian (AD 175-235) On the Nature of Animals, 7.29.
Polybius (C2 BC), 4.40.2

Helpful web resources for this entry are the Perseus Digital Library and Thesaurus Linguae Graecae.

Myths in Crisis

Myths in Crisis coverI have a chapter in Myths in Crisis: The Crisis of Myth, a new collection edited by José Manuel Losada and Antonella Lipscomb. Prof. Losada embodies the highly energetic centre of mythic activities in Madrid, which include a biennial conference, Amaltea, an open-access journal of myth criticism, and the ongoing work of Asteria: International Association of Myth Criticism. The book, Myths in Crisis, like the journal, conference, and websites, is trilingual – Spanish, French and English.

The book contains an impressive array of work on the presence of myth since 1900. As I understand the double crises of the title, the book addresses both the declining status of the mythical in contemporary life, and – where myth is found – its utilization as a colourful garnish, stripped of substance.

My chapter is called ‘Poetic Re-enchantment in an Age of Crisis: Mortal and Divine Worlds in the Poetry of Alice Oswald’, and looks in particular at Oswald’s collections Dart and Memorial. Oswald seems to me to be at the confluence of poetic concerns with classical mythology and with ecology, so she fits the theme perfectly. Some people I spoke to were put off by the ready populism of her verse, but I’m quite taken by the spare and lucid renderings of lines from Homer’s Iliad in Memorial. Compare these versions of the great, astral epic simile which concludes Iliad VIII.

ὡς δ᾽ ὅτ᾽ ἐν οὐρανῷ ἄστρα φαεινὴν ἀμφὶ σελήνην
φαίνετ᾽ ἀριπρεπέα, ὅτε τ᾽ ἔπλετο νήνεμος αἰθήρ:
ἔκ τ᾽ ἔφανεν πᾶσαι σκοπιαὶ καὶ πρώονες ἄκροι
καὶ νάπαι: οὐρανόθεν δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ὑπερράγη ἄσπετος αἰθήρ,
πάντα δὲ εἴδεται ἄστρα, γέγηθε δέ τε φρένα ποιμήν:
τόσσα μεσηγὺ νεῶν ἠδὲ Ξάνθοιο ῥοάων
Τρώων καιόντων πυρὰ φαίνετο Ἰλιόθι πρό.
χίλι᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἐν πεδίῳ πυρὰ καίετο, πὰρ δὲ ἑκάστῳ
εἴατο πεντήκοντα σέλᾳ πυρὸς αἰθομένοιο.
ἵπποι δὲ κρῖ λευκὸν ἐρεπτόμενοι καὶ ὀλύρας
ἑσταότες παρ᾽ ὄχεσφιν ἐΰθρονον Ἠῶ μίμνον.

Chapman (viii. 486-497) translates: The Trojans sat,

And spent all night in open field. Fires round about them shinde.
As when about the silver Moone, when aire is free from winde
And stars shine cleare, to whose sweete beames high prospects and the brows
Of all steepe hils and pinnacles thrust up themselves for showes
And even lowly vallies joy to glitter in the their sight,
When the unmeasur’d firmament bursts to disclose her light
And all the signes in heaven are seene that glad the shepheard’s hart;
So many fires disclosde their beames, made by the Troyan part,
Before the face of Ilion and her bright turrets show’d.
Fiftie stout men, by whom their horse eate oates and hard white corne,
And all did wishfully expect the silver-throned morne.

Oswald (Memorial, 65):

Like little campfire stars lit round the moon
No wind at all
Under an upturned glass of air
Exact black rocks show clear
And the world simplifies into cliffs and clefts
On nights like this
Light is unspeakable it is breaking out of heaven
And every star openly admits to god
Making the shepherd glad.

Chapman’s Homer is unassailable, but where translators often euphemize the Greek aspetos as ‘unmeasured’, ‘endless’, or ‘boundless’, Oswald opts for the dictionary form, unmediated: ‘unspeakable’, ‘unutterable’ (the dictionary being the Liddell-Scott-Jones Greek-English Lexicon). The decision to forego poetic licence invigorates Homer’s language in English and conveys the terrible awe of the numinous.