Reflecting on Translating Myth

As announced earlier last month, the Creative Literary Studio will work on themes around the ideas of translation, writing and rewriting, revisitation, version, imitation and adaptation… every practice which ‘makes’ texts. We would like to investigate, explore and play with these practices in different contexts. By looking at verbal and nonverbal texts, source and target texts, and also textual drafts, our wish is to point the spotlight on the journey made in the creation of texts.

For the next few months our theme is the translation of myth. This post is a way to initiate a discussion about what it means to translate myth, and we hope you will take part in it.

To start with, dictionaries usually give the definition of myth as an ancient story, often a fiction, created to explain events in the natural and human world, a belief shared by a group of people or by a particular culture (or cultures), which through storytelling, storywriting, storypainting, has been recounted, handed down and therefore transmitted across temporal and cultural spaces. The key word here is ‘mythopoeisis‘. Mytho-poeisis (from the Greek poiein meaning to make, to create) re-creates ancient stories. The (re-)creation of a myth is indeed a creative act, as creative as translation. As a matter of fact, myth and translation are intimately linked because myth is a mode of translation connecting spatiotemporal contexts. Reflecting on mythopoeisis then represents an opportunity to deepen our understanding of the myth-making process as well as any text-making process (be it written, oral or pictorial).

In ‘The Task of Speaking Time and Space’, Jill Scott draws some interesting links between myth and translation, shedding light on some paradoxical aspects shared by both.

What all myths have in common is the narration of a particular story, ancestral, half true, invented, unreliable yet powerful. A first paradox is that myth is certainly thought to be a ‘misrepresentation of the truth’ and yet ‘it is laden with the powerful truth-value’ (Scott 2004, p.59).

In the same way, translation is commonly viewed as a misrepresentation of the ‘original’ text, nevertheless, in translation, the values of contemporary socio-cultural contexts are embedded in the translated text and exert a power on their audience.

The double nature of myth is explained by the fact that it represents the search for the origin and like myth ‘translation is haunted by the myth of origin’ (Scott 2004, p.59). The belief in an ‘origin’ seemingly binds any translator to the impossibility of translation. An original is already a translation, both in the postmodern sense of the illusion of the original – since all textual material has been previously reworked and recycled – and at a processual level – whereby thoughts need to be translated into practice and ideas into texts or objects. Moreover, translation is never transparent, nor is a myth.

On the other hand, translation is not an ‘impossibility’, as discussed by Walter Benjamin in ‘The Task of the Translator’. Actually, translation is a demand of ‘survival’ inherent any text (written and oral in the case of myth): ‘translation [of works of world literature] marks their stage of continued life’ (Benjamin 1992, p. 73). Benjamin also refers to ‘growth’, so that a translation would mark the stages of a constant development. This development may take any direction either towards growth/progress or towards decay. In any case a new translation transforms itself, and the preceding one, losing sight of any possible ‘origin’.

The survival of texts and therefore of myths throughout time and space occurs via translation, into other texts ­– oral, aural, written and pictorial. This process of textual recreation is summarised in the notion of mythopoeisis mentioned earlier, which ‘seeks to incorporate new social configurations into a larger story of humanity’ (Scott 2004, p.59).

Another intriguing twofold aspect of myth is that it attempts to address the universal questions (‘Who am I’, ‘Where do I come from’) by enacting human drama, which is nonetheless set into new sociocultural configurations. The ‘universality’ of these questions has been explained with the notion of ‘mytheme’ (developed by Lévi-Strauss and Structuralist thinkers). Mytheme is the narrative core of a myth, that irreducible element shared by many myths across a variety of cultures. Mytheme is then translated into myths, into specific contexts which make it relevant to the people who recount it.

And yet, however universal, a myth holds different meanings and produces different impressions, interpretations, within each of us. Perhaps it is the renewable ‘wild energy’ of myth which ‘mythopoesis seeks to harness … to translate and transpose it onto a new context in a careful balancing act between origin and invention. It maps its past and its future in the creation of a new text’ (Scott 2004, p.63)

But what are the reasons why we engage with myths? And most importantly, how do we reinterpret them? Please, do send us your thoughts and views on this subject.

We have received our first translation on translating myth. The contributor is Alex Valente from the University of East Anglia, who has translated into English one of the Cesare Pavese’s Dialoghi con Leucò (1947). We warmly invite to read it by clicking here on Translation and Other Writings or use the top menu. We are waiting for your comments!

Finally, have a look to the previous posts for events and news linked to the theme of translating myth. The following blog on the cultural sightings of myth is also worth a look:

Cultural Mythology: Myth, Culture and Consciousness


Benjamin, W. (1992) ‘The Task of the Translator’, in R. Schulte and J. Biguenet, 1992, 71-82.

Scott, Jill (2004) ‘Translating Myth: the Task of Speaking Time and Space’ in Translation and Culture: Bucknell Review, (ed. Katherine M. Faul) vol. XLVII, no.1, pp. 58-72.


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