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The Classics in Modernist Translation, edited by Miranda Hickman and Lynn Kozak

Reviewed by Holly Ranger, Institute of Classical Studies

The Classics in Modernist Translation, edited by Miranda Hickman and Lynn Kozak. London: Bloomsbury, 2019. £85.00. ISBN: 9781350040953.


In its central thesis and thematic concerns, The Classics in Modernist Translation (2019), edited by Miranda Hickman and Lynn Kozak, is heavily indebted to Steven Yao’s Translation and the Language of Modernism: Gender, Politics, and Language (2002). Yao’s book demonstrated that an engagement with ancient literary and material culture via experimental translation practices was fundamental to the ideological discourses and formal innovations of Anglo-American modernist literature. Hickman and Kozak acknowledge this debt, and Yao lends a brief foreword to the volume, ‘The Classics, Modernism and Translation: A Conflicted History’. His foreword recounts the founding insult that engendered the historical antipathy between classicists (defenders of philological rigour in the name of ‘fidelity’) and modernists (defenders of the impulse to ‘make it new’): William Gardener Hale’s catalogue of Ezra Pound’s ‘howlers’ in his Poetry review of Homage to Sextus Propertius. This anecdote sets the scene for the book’s claim to bridge this disciplinary divide by defining and introducing ‘a developing, intersectional area of study […] which we call “classical modernisms”’ (2).

            That an academic study of the modernists’ experimental translation practices as translation is felt to necessitate the creation of a new subdiscipline is symptomatic of the ways in which translation remains heavily policed in Classics (big C). Heedless of the feminist and cultural turns of Translation Studies in the twentieth century, which redefined the processes and products of literary translation, twenty-first-century Classics scholarship and pedagogy suffers from an obsession with what may be termed ‘extreme foreignisation’. A trope of the Ancient Greek or Latin translator’s preface, for example, is the apology for the mutilation in English of Homer’s incomparable Greek; and students sit translation examinations that assess their ability to replicate rather than creatively recreate the rhetorical devices and characteristics of the ancient source texts. One consequence of this obeisance to ‘objective’ philology is that discussions of translations of ancient texts have fallen under the umbrella of ‘reception studies’, a field which in turn has attempted to categorise and demarcate ‘translation’ from ‘adaptation’, and ‘refiguration’ from ‘appropriation’. Hickman and Kozak’s use of ‘translation’ as an ‘organizing concept’ (4) in The Classics in Modernist Translation, and their refusal to delineate the ‘various forms’ (4) of translation, is significant. It evidences the beginning of a long-overdue disciplinary shift in classical scholarship from catalogues of translators’ mistakes towards an appreciation of the critical and creative work of the experimental translator.

            The book is organised into three main sections, with essays clustered by writer(s) and their particular ‘emphases’ (5). Central essays on the pre-eminent Anglo-American modernists (Ezra Pound, H.D., T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Laura Riding and W.B. Yeats) are bookended by two standalone chapters. The first, contributed by Elizabeth Vandiver, discusses The Poets’ Translation Series founded in 1915 by Richard Aldington and H.D., a poetry imprint which exemplified ‘the modernist commitment to translation and the often maverick spirit in which their experiments with translation […] were pursued’ (5); the last is a collaborative essay in which English scholar Marsha Bryant and Classical archaeologist Mary Ann Eaverly discuss ‘how their work with modernist classical reception has entered the museum and the classroom’ (6). In an afterword to the volume, J. Alison Rosenblitt reflects on the impact of modernist translations in twentieth- and twenty-first-century poetics. In the spirit of bridging the divide between classicists and modernists, the editors have assembled contributors from Classics, English Literature, Translation Studies, and Comparative Literature; one essay is by a poet. In addition, each of the three main sections is appended by a ‘Respondent Essay’, written by scholars chosen to foster a cross-disciplinary dialogue between classics and modernist studies: Michael Coyle, Eileen Gregory, and Nancy Worman, respectively.

            Part I, ‘Ezra Pound on Translation’, comprises three essays dealing with Pound’s translations of Homer’s Odyssey. The essay by George Varsos on Pound’s Cantos argues that ‘[e]xpressions [in the Cantos] such as “eternal and irrepressible freshness”, or “life and afterlife”, should not be misread as instances of conventionally hyperbolic rhetoric’ (22) but – via Walter Benjamin – should be reread as metapoetic commentary on Pound’s translation practice. Massimo Cè’s essay explores the linguistic and stylistic consequences for Canto I of Pound’s use of a Renaissance Latin translation of Homer’s Odyssey by Andreas Divus as the source text for his Homeric allusion; and Demetres Tryphonopoulos and Sara Dunton explore the dense allusive structure of Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, and Pound’s use of classical prosody as a medium for allusive play and textual transmission.

            Part II, ‘H.D.’s Translations of Euripides: Genre, Form, Lexicon’, opens with an essay by Anna Fyta, who argues that H.D.’s translation and rewriting of Euripides’ Helen and Stesichorus’ Palinode to Helen in her Helen in Egypt works as a ‘meta-palinode’ which ‘negotiates with, and muses on, the nature and boundaries of the palinode’ (65) – ‘meta’ here signalling H.D.’s self-consciously theatrical, arcane, and philosophical translation practice. Jeff Westover’s chapter on H.D.’s Ion examines her translation through the lenses of psychoanalytic theory, ritual practice, and feminist translation theory; he reads H.D.’s translation of Euripides as a Godardian ‘transformation’, ‘producing something new in an English text that reflects her concerns as a twentieth-century woman’ (77) – a member of ‘the race of women’ (78). Catherine Theis compares Euripidean music and mysticism in the work of H.D. and her contemporary Robinson Jeffers; and Miranda Hickman and Lynn Kozak contribute a chapter on H.D.’s translation of Hippolytus. Hickman and Kozak explore H.D.’s use of the play’s Aphroditic erotics to critique the discourse of shame in Euripides’ text vis-à-vis female sexual desire, and to reformulate the chaste goddess Artemis (a Victorian archetype of femininity) in a mode which incorporates eros as empowering for feminist thought.

            Part III, ‘Modernist Translation and Political Attunements’, includes essays on the feminist, public, and nationalist concerns in the ‘functionalist’ (5) translations of Riding, Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats. Anett K. Jessop continues the feminist concerns of the preceding chapters in her discussion of Laura Riding’s Lives of Wives and A Trojan Ending. Riding’s ‘translations’ propose ‘an alternative historiography in which women’s power is exerted through dimensions of their lives “untranslatable” for men seeking to understand women through their own frameworks and terms’ (136). Leah Flack’s essay examines the valency of the Homeric Sirens in Ulysses and The Waste Land. Flack suggests that the tantalising yet dangerous figure of the Sirens reveal Joyce and Eliot problematising to a far greater extent ‘the ideals of authority and mastery that have so often been applied to modernist writing and […] their project of reimagining the classical tradition for the twentieth-century’ (144). Mattias Somers examines Eliot’s Sweeney Agonistes as an instance of high modernism’s engagement with ‘low’ Aristophanic comedy, an element of anglophone modernism overlooked by dominant critical accounts of the ‘profoundly serious enterprise’ of Eliot and his peers (155); Somers treats the ‘Aristophanic’ as a paratextual term which reveals much about Eliot’s relation to comedy and his use of the ‘primal ritual’ (166) of ‘savage comedy’ (167) to revitalise modern literature. Part III’s exploration of the ways in which modernist translations respond to ‘cultural problematics of their moment’ (5) concludes with Gregory Baker’s essay on W.B. Yeats, Sophocles’ Oedipus, and Irish nationalism.

            Nancy Worman’s respondent essay to Part III tentatively points to one significant failing of the volume. Namely, that while the translations of H.D., Riding, Joyce, Eliot, and Yeats are treated as politically-engaged works, Pound’s translations are treated discretely and apolitically – despite his completion of the later Cantos while interned near Pisa, convicted of treason for his pro-Fascist and antisemitic radio broadcasts. This fault reflects a failure in Classics more broadly to fully reckon with problematic uses of classical literature and culture, which it continues to dismiss as ab-uses. Worman’s essay on the relations between politics and aesthetics urges ‘heightened awareness about how we handle modernist writers in our present moment. The cultural politics of new nationalisms, with their shadings of racism and misogyny, make it all the more urgent that humanists call attention to such shadings in the traditions they study’ (187).

            The volume is of topical and methodological relevance to classical reception scholars and students, and will be useful for students and scholars of English Literature seeking to better understand an important group of intertexts for the Anglo-American modernists (all Ancient Greek is translated). While the essays exclusively discuss modernist translations of ancient Greek source texts, this is, as Hickman notes in the volume’s introduction, reflective of the Hellenism of many modernist writers’ work, and the volume lays solid foundations for future research on modernist engagements with Latin source texts.