Translating Myth: The Task of Speaking Time and Space

By Scott, Jill | Bucknell Review, January 2003 | Go to article overview

Translating Myth: The Task of Speaking Time and Space


Scott, Jill, Bucknell Review


To hear significance is to translate. --George Steiner

A text lives on only if it is at once translatable and untranslatable. --Jacques Derrida

MYTH is a mode of communication, which is by its very nature always already a translation. These primeval texts of humanity reach both backwards and forwards from and into diverse cultural narratives, illustrating social identities and complex configurations of community. Myth is not translation in the strictest sense, that is, the rendering of a text from one language to another? Rather, its function is to bridge one spaciotemporal context to another and to grant continued and renewed significance to a time-tested cultural narrative. In Walter Benjamin's theory of criticism, the task of the critic is not to describe the work of art within its own time, but to describe his time within the context of the work of art. So it is with myth as with Benjamin's work of art--the translation from one epoch to another involves letting myth speak a people and a time.

The purpose of this essay is twofold. First, it will examine the interrelations of mythopoesis and translation, whereby mythopoesis is defined as the creative means by which myth achieves its translation to new times and spaces. (2) I will argue that myth and translation share many fundamental debates such as the problem of originality and authenticity, the role of the foreign and the familiar, and the lasting nature of the text. Second, taking specific examples from the Greek myth of Electra in adaptations by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, and Ezra Pound, I will present the case that Attic tragedians and modern dramatists alike use mythopoesis to demystify myth and to undo the "myth of origin."

Translation simultaneously refers to and denies the authority of origin, and myth shares this same paradox. Myth is often viewed as a suspicious misrepresentation of the truth, a belief echoed in Max Muller's famous dictum: "Myth is a disease of language." (3) Yet myth is also often laden with the powerful truth-value that comes from its mystical, supernatural elements and its inherent associations with the origins of all literature and culture. Like translation, myth is haunted by the "myth of origin." Mythopoesis in turn denies this privileging of origin. All mythopoesis can be seen as an attempt on the part of myth to transcend its own roots through translation.

"A good translation is like a pane of glass," writes Norman Shapiro, "you notice that it's there when there are little imperfections." (4) This view of translation as faithful servant to an authentic original advocates the highest degree of fluency and transparency in the target language. However, it contradicts the project of mythopoesis, which seeks to incorporate new social configurations into the larger story of humanity. In The Translator's Invisibility Lawrence Venuti calls this obsession with transparency a blindness to the important ideological and political aspects of translation. Transparency is perhaps a form of blindness, but it is also a form of silencing--translations must speak their differences as a sign of the other, the previously unknown. The question of whether to translate allowing the foreignness of the original language to permeate the new text or to assimilate cultural as well as linguistic difference is central to debates in translation theory. The flavor of the arguments may be contemporary, taking into account the concerns raised by post-colonialism and theories of alterity; however the debates are as old as the notion of translation itself.

The practice of translation has been haunted by the shadow of taboo and prohibition, from the question of how and whether to translate Homer to the controversy surrounding the translation of sacred texts into the vernacular, to the philosophical postulations of the German Romantics and the cultivation of a national spirit through language. But before we pursue any of these aspects in depth, let us begin with a consideration of what we understand to be a translation. …

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