Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'To Say the Same Thing in Different Words': Politics and Poetics in Late Victorian Translation from Modern Greek

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

'To Say the Same Thing in Different Words': Politics and Poetics in Late Victorian Translation from Modern Greek

Article excerpt


Against a backdrop of Victorian academic gender politics, the woman warrior from War of Independence folk songs emerged in British women's writings. After a close reading of a translation by Elizabeth Edmonds, Modern Greek is reviewed as a contender for the New Woman's Classics.

Key Words: Modern Greek Studies, Translation, British women writers, Gender politics


"Well, we have beaten you now thoroughly with our new phalanx of Amazons," cried the master of Trinity, "you have heard of the honours gained here lately by a mere girl, although, to be sure, I must own that she came out best in the classics."

"I have no interest nor any curiosity whatever in respect to your female phalanx. If you reckon upon that you will sustain a crushing defeat."

"But, I tell you, this girl's papers were a perfect revelation as to a woman's powers."

"Pshaw! At what sacrifice?"


"Yes. I venture to say that she wears spectacles, is sallow, and--"

"And what?"

"Forgive me, friend, round-shouldered." (Edmonds, 1888: 3)

This discussion between two male academics opens the two-volume novel Mary Myles. The book deals with the post-Cambridge life of the eponymous heroine, a lady Classicist. Mary Myles is an excellent scholar, we are told, condemned to the life of a governess. While it is lushly written and the plot in many places verges on the ridiculous (by the end, Miss Myles has accumulated multiple marriage proposals), the gender politics at play beneath its apparently frivolous surface set the scene for this essay. The novel's heroine was loosely based on Agnata Ramsay, who was placed alone in the first class degrees for Cambridge Classics in 1887. (2) Although Edmonds presents these women as exotic and offers them up for ridicule, we should not allow this to distract us from the persistent whisper beyond the text, that her work has more to say about the native politics of women's education. Despite giving voice to the opinions expressed by the male academics, there is little doubt that Edmonds had her tongue firmly in her cheek. Perhaps the derision exhibited by the dons seems ludicrous to a modern reader, but Margaret Homans, in her study of language and female experience in nineteenth century women's writing, attests similar male attitudes to women's education:

[Y]he nineteenth-century view [...] [was] that too much reading (to say nothing of writing) would unfit women for their proper duties, because, on the assumption that there is a finite quantity of bodily energy, the increased demand for blood by the brain during an adolescent girl's education would divert nourishment from the reproductive organs. (p. 160)

For the male academics in Mary Myles, women compromised their physical beauty by intellectual endeavour. That they are said to be 'sallow' and 'round-shouldered' suggests a sickliness; the Homans extract expresses this as a lack of fertility brought on by the pursuit of academia. The 'Amazons' are mocked by the male academics, their achievements belittled; their education has been bought at the cost of their femininity. While the 'Amazon' title is complimentary in that it suggests prowess in one area of life, an implicitly unflattering undertone of otherworldly size or vitality indicates that it is meant sarcastically. Nevertheless, Edmonds speaks of female classicists in their own vocabulary, as a 'phalanx of Amazons'. Both these words are Classical terms, one from the realm of myth, the other firmly based in historical fact. The OED defines 'phalanx' as: '(Ancient Greek Hist.) a line or array of battle; spec. a body of heavy-armed infantry drawn up in close order, with shields touching and long spears overlapping. Now also more widely: any compact body of troops, police, etc.' Amazons were female warriors. The Ancient Greeks gave the etymology as a--(privative alpha)--[TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII], literally 'without a breast', as the women were reputed to have removed their right breasts to free up their bow-arm. …

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