The summer break gives us a chance to look back at some of the events that slipped by without comment over the past year. Chief among these is the book launch event held for Translating Myth in November. Co-editor Ben Pestell has shared his report of the day.
Translating Myth Book Launch
British Centre for Literary Translation, 16 November 2016
Report by Ben Pestell
Last November, the British Centre for Literary Translation at University of East Anglia hosted a book launch event for Translating Myth (edited by Ben Pestell, Pietra Palazzolo, and Leon Burnett of the University of Essex Centre for Myth Studies). The connection with the BCLT was both practical and aesthetic: its academic director, Duncan Large, chairs the editorial board of Legenda’s Studies in Comparative Literature series, which published Translating Myth; but, moreover, it encouraged us, as editors, to interrogate the limits and success of our interpretation of translation.
Following Duncan’s genial welcome and opening of the event, Pietra and I jointly introduced the book. Pietra outlined the boundaries between literary translation and cultural translation, elaborating a theory proposed by Leon of translation as accommodation. This highlights the role played by the translated text in the broader cultural environment of the new language. Literary translation – rather than envisaged on a trajectory from source to target – is conceived as a dialogue across cultures: translation influencing and transforming the receiving culture.
For my part, I reconsidered the interpretation of the term ‘myth’ in the book. Even within literary studies, the book shows the diverse ways myth can be handled, for example, in Harish Trivedi’s consideration of the distinct historical responses in Europe to Greco-Roman and to Indian myths, the latter exoticised and regarded distastefully.
Following our introduction, we heard from Giuseppe Sofo, who wrote the final chapter in Translating Myth. Giuseppe’s chapter concerns the multiple stages of translation involved in taking Derek Walcott’s theatrical version of the Odyssey a step further into Italian. In each stage – Homer’s, Walcott’s English, and the Italian translation – keen attention must be paid to language and dialect. Giuseppe’s deft handling of the multiple voices at play made him an ideal speaker at the BCLT. The topic of his paper was ‘Myth, Translation and the Art of the Impossible’, in which Giuseppe stressed that the reproduction of stories is a survival strategy as vital to humanity as physical reproduction, and reflected on the contradictions of invisibility and exposure in the process of translation.
After a short break, Tom Rutledge of UEA delivered his formal response to the book. Extending the traditional opposition of mythos and logos, he considered history as a dialectical foil to mythos. To illustrate this, he chose some telling examples from the book: the citation of Odysseus’ praise of Demodocus’ ‘accuracy’ in his myth-telling song of Troy; Demeter’s new historical locus in the versions of her myth; Yeats as symbolising the nationalising of mythology and the mythologisation of nationalism; and Heaney as personalising the mythological and mythologising the personal. Tom focused on Christina Dokou’s chapter on Timothy Dwight’s early American epic, The Conquest of Canäan (and chided me a little for under-rating Dwight with my glib ‘epic fail’ gag). Part of Tom’s research is into early modern receptions of Virgil, and he wondered what the inclusion of Virgil’s Aeneid – the great historical epic – could add to Christina’s view. Tom noted the tension between epic and mythology in the idea of historical epic: that is, he perceived Christina’s claim of epic as a language of the powerful to be in tension with the idea of myth which so often, he argued, is the site for representing violence suffered.
The proceedings came to a close with a round-table discussion chaired by Leon. For this we were also joined by Sharihan Al-Akhras who wrote a perceptive chapter in Translating Myth which studies the middle-eastern mythical and religious influences on Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the process, we returned to the vexed nature of translation, and Leon mentioned the three categories of translation formulated by Novalis in the eighteenth century. The categories are grammatical (grammatisch), transformative (verändernd) and mythical (mythisch). The latter is elaborated as a form of imaginative cultural communication from an original which need not exist in reality, is not necessarily verbal, and which enriches the target culture. Mythical translation delivers not the actual work, but the idea of it. This allusion to the non-existent or invisible original aptly summarised the direction of much of the day’s discussion. At this point, the wine was opened, and the event’s chronicles leave the written record and return to the oral tradition.