I am currently in my fourth semester at my MFA program, and for fun, I took an Old English class. Since I’m a Tolkien nerd, this class is a delight, even if I doubt I will ever use the information in my career. Even though this column is often about my frustration with academia or the Ivory Tower, this Old English class is nearly the epitome of the Ivory Tower—something so archaic and useless to everyday life that the only place to study it would be in the ghostly halls of academia. Yet, here I am, a hypocrite and totally enjoying the earliest form of the language I’ve studied on the page for over a decade.
Since my undergraduate years, I’ve held a yearning for the old European myths, particularly Norse mythology. Through Neil Gaiman’s bibliography for American Gods, I found and devoured The Norse Myths: Introduced and Retold by Kevin Crossley-Holland. This book led me to other ancient texts, including poems I now study in my Old English class such as “The Wanderer” and “The Seafarer.” Forces combined this February when Neil Gaiman’s retelling of the Norse myths was released and currently sits on my desk until I have a devoted span of time to read it. As I study translations of Old English texts and practice translating myself, a pattern emerges. Men. So many men.
But why? My Old English class is evenly split when it comes to gender (even though my program is not), and the professor is a woman. Yet, male scholars have written all the textbooks. I reviewed my bookshelf of translations of Norse myths, collections of folklore, and books of scholarship—overwhelmingly male. Are there truly so few translations of mythology and classic literature by women or has academia failed me by simply not supplying them?
I fell down the Google hole but didn’t have much luck. The clearest list came from an imprint of Hackett Publishing’s classical studies catalog, but men far outweighed the few women in the field. The texts they translated were often women-centered classics, such as Euripides translated by Diane Arnson Svarlien. Surveying the classics imprint of Penguin, their Legends of the Ancient Norse series containing five titles were all translated by men. While the Penguin website proved impossible to navigate for the purpose of this blogpost, again, men seemed the go-to option, even in their newer editions.
The one place I regularly see women’s names pop up is fairy tale translations, such as Maria Tatar’s excellent and numerous titles. Penguin gets on board with their Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of Hans Christian Andersen being translated by Tiina Nunnally. If this observation is true, then that’s some weird sexism for you. Perhaps the gender disparity is because ancient epics are usually conceived as have to do with the deeds of men (I would argue otherwise), while fairy tales allows more room for female characters.
All of my “research” his pretty slap-dash, so dear reader, I would like to hear from you. Do translations of classic literature by women exist with more abundance? Is there a weird gender gap between the classics and fairy tales? And why? Does any of this matter today? I’ll try to come up with my own observations for next month.