Skip to Main Content

Bibliography of Classical Mythology (September 2023): Translations of Ancient Writers of Mythology

By Scott Goins and Barbara H. Wyman

Translations of Ancient Writers of Mythology

There are many English translations of works by Greek and Roman authors connected with mythology. Translations reflect both the translator and time in which the translation was done, since word choices must be made when bringing texts across from one language to another. It is understandable, then, that each generation seems to need fresh renditions of the major works. As time passes, what was once considered modern and fresh can lose its appeal. A welcome and relatively new development in the field of classics is translations from women. Many of these women give powerful and sensitive versions that contemporary readers will particularly appreciate. It would be impossible to give a complete survey of the topic in such a small space, but several recent translations are especially worthwhile.

Of the important early Greek mythographers, Hesiod is rarely translated into English, so the appearance of new translations of his work is noteworthy. In Hesiod: Works and Days the highly regarded poet A. E. Stallings has rendered a new translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days in heroic couplets, and it has received excellent reviews. Offering the whole Hesiodic corpus, along with a good introduction and notes, is The Poems of Hesiod: Theogony, Works and Days, and the Shield of Herakles, translated by Barry Powell. In contrast to the comparatively few English translations of Hesiod, new translations of Homer abound. Of particular interest are versions by two women, Caroline Alexander and Emily Wilson. Alexander renders a beautiful translation of the Iliad, accompanied by a fine introduction that covers poetics and the historical and cultural context of the poem. Alexander takes the conversation on the Iliad further in The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer’s Iliad and the Trojan War. Emily Wilson is celebrated as the first woman to translate the Odyssey into English. Her Odyssey is written in clear metrical lines and also has a useful introduction. At this writing Wilson’s Iliad is forthcoming, scheduled for September 2023 publication. The well-known scholar Peter Green has also published translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and both are accessible, accurate, and sensitive.

Also fundamental for mythology are the tragedies. Many translations of the major tragedians are available, but the Modern Library’s The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides is worthy of special mention. The collection is edited by Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm, both of whom contributed translations. This volume also includes new translations by other notables, among them Emily Wilson and Sarah Ruden. Another important English rendering is Aaron Poochigian’s Jason and the Argonauts, a translation of Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica (third century BCE). The first English translation of the Argonautica since the 1950s,1 Poochigian’s verse translation is modern, engaging, and easy-to-read.

For mythological literature from the Roman world, worthy of special mention is Sarah Ruden’s newly revised version of her highly acclaimed translation of the Aeneid, originally published in 2008. Ruden has rendered the Aeneid in pleasing-to-read pentameters in a line-for-line translation, which is quite a technical feat. As is the case with the Aeneid, there are several current translations of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, a title almost synonymous with mythology. Stephanie McCarter’s Metamorphoses deserves special note as the first translation by a woman in sixty years.2 Like Sarah Iles Johnston in her Gods and Mortals (mentioned above), McCarter intentionally highlights the sexual violence in the poem, using the word “rape” to translate various euphemisms found in Ovid’s poem and in other translations. A less known but important mythological work by Ovid is his Heroides, which comprises imaginary letters written by various mythical women to men who have caused them great grief. Ovid’s Heroides: A New Translation and Critical Essays, translated and edited by Paul Murgatroyd, Bridget Reeves, and Sarah Parker, offers a contemporary translation of the letters, in which each letter is accompanied by a preface explaining the mythical background and an essay offering critical remarks.

1. The Argonautica, translated into English by R. C. Seaton. Harvard, 1955.

2. The Metamorphoses of Ovid, translated and with an introduction by Mary M. Innes. Penguin, 1955.

Works Cited