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A portrait of Peter Auger at the University of Birmingham

Feminist translation sounds suspect. This is because most readers pick up English translations of classic works like the Odyssey because they want to read what Homer thought and felt, not what the translator wants to tell us about the work.

Feminist retellings, however, are literally a different story. Not bound to being ‘faithful’ to the original, they can rewrite male-authored classic works to reflect the experience of women across time, offer a critique of the original text’s values, and support equal representation and access in how classic tales are read today (to follow a loose definition of ‘feminist’).

Retellings of Greek myths are particularly in vogue. Jennifer Saint’s Ariadne (2021) and Pat Barker’s Women Of Troy (2021) follow on from the success of Barker’s Silence of the Girls (2018)¸ Natalie Haynes’ A Thousand Ships (2019) and Madeleine Miller’s Circe (2018). As Miller has said, ‘this tradition of retelling stories is as old as Homer himself, and Homer himself actually came out of oral tradition. And so – why not me?’.

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Texts from centuries earlier in English literary history help us think about what ‘feminist translation’ might offer (even though Hilary Brown, a Birmingham colleague, has rightly questioned how far early English translations should be regarded as proto-feminist). Isabella Whitney, the first women to have a poetry collection printed in English under her name, translated into verse a set of prose maxims by Sir Hugh Plat. Whitney’s Sweet Nosgay (1573) seemingly supplements the original by changing pronouns to make the maxims more inclusive and adding mordant touches such as the observation that love turns men into ‘noddyes’ (fools). Another kind of feminist translation offers a new perspective through prefaces or notes. Margaret Tyler’s Mirrour of Princely Deedes (1578) contains a prefatory note that explains why it’s fine for a woman to translate a Spanish romance.

Though both kinds of translation have their uses, neither sounds inviting for readers who don’t want to feel they are reading a translation. More attractive, perhaps, is how Emily Wilson describes how her English Odyssey (2017) responds to sexism in the original. Although her translation does not herald itself as the first full English translation by a woman, Wilson has subsequently written about it as a feminist project (in a volume edited by another Birmingham colleague, Elena Theodorakopoulos).

In her translator’s note Wilson writes that she avoids ‘importing contemporary types of sexism into the ancient poem, instead shining a clear light on the particular frames of sexism and patriarchy that do exist in the text’, There are two separate aims here: to reflect the ‘sexism and patriarchy’ of the original while avoiding ‘importing contemporary types of sexism into the ancient poem’.

Underlying this view is the truism that every literary translation shines a tinted light on the original. In this view, new translations are needed to evade the filters and biases of old ones. The theorist Walter Benjamin is more positive, contending that it is ‘translation which takes fire in the eternal continuing life of the works and in their ceaseless renewal’. By extension, then, we do not just need new translations by women and by feminists, but by others from diverse backgrounds who possess insights unavailable to the older white men who have so often translated such works.

Here, then, is a possibility for feminist translations that general readers might value. Re-translations, like retellings, have the potential to expand our sense of what classic works of literature might mean to us today, and so help them grow through time.

At the College of Arts and Law, we explore what it means to be human – in historical and cultural contexts, within ethical and legal norms and through languages and communication.

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From 27 October 2021, a new lecture will be broadcast on the University’s YouTube channel, every Wednesday at 13:00 GMT.