NPT: New Pagan Translation?

Next week we’re taking a look at theology from a Pagan perspective and as a result I’ve been wading through the classics. I’m finding it a bit frustrating, not because I have problems understanding the philosophers and theologians of ancient times, but because the translations seem off.

While reading through Sallust’s On The Gods And The World, I found the perspective was constantly shifting between a polytheistic and monotheistic viewpoint. While grappling with this it occurred to me that I had been frustrated before at translations of classics that seemed “off”. Why is this?

Well, for many, many years the classics were translated by Christian scholars, who often drew on Pagan philosophers and theologians in their own discussions of theology. Just as they used Pagan ideas to help formulate their own theology, when they translated the classics they did so with a Christian viewpoint. This is frustrating because it feels as if our philosophical and religious heritage has been hijacked to the point that it no longer has anything to do with the old Gods.

A good example of the way translations can skew the original work is Gilgamesh. Discovered in the 1870’s, this Pagan epic was fresh, original and unmarred by years of copying and translating. Even so, it fell victim to Victorian sensibilities. I tried to read Gilgamesh several times, but it didn’t grab me. One day a friend placed Stephen Mitchell’s translation into my hands, telling me it was worth a read as it wasn’t “bowdlerized”. Suddenly the story was fresh, lithe and deeply human. The story of Gilgamesh’s attempt to come to grips with death and the human condition hadn’t changed, but the translation breathed life into a saga that had been weighed down by a prudish modern perspective.

I know there are better translations of the classics out there but I am at a loss to find them. I haven’t found a site giving reviews of translations, or a Pagans guide to the classics, with certain translations recommended. My searches inevitably lead me to Christian websites, with Cicero and Plotinus filed by Luther and Calvin. My Greek is non-existent and my Latin limited to governmental terms or insults aimed at your genitalia, so I need a good guide to the classics that isn’t from a Christian, monotheistic or prudish perspective.

Maybe what I really need is a beacon as I peruse the bookshelves. Bibles come in different branded translations. Everyone knows the KJV stands for the King James Version of the Bible. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could peruse the shelves for classics marked NPT? The New Pagan Translation?

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  • P.G. Walsh’s translations (from the Latin) are actually quite good. His little paperback of Cicero’s “On the Nature of the Gods” is excellent. But he is no Pagan, and therefore he doesn’t get everything right, of course.

    For Plato, far and away the best translations in English are those by R.E. Allen, all of whose translations are also accompanied by very helpful commentaries.

    Allen Mandelbaum is also a very gifted and reliable translator — his Aeneid is wonderful. That work, btw, was considered a deadly threat to early Christianity, because no matter how many Temples the Christians destroyed, so long as people could still read Vergil they had access to “an inexhaustible source of precise religious information”:

    For Homer I actually like Stanley Lombardo’s translations. In addition to being a renowned classicist, he is also an excellent poet in his own right, and a trained Zen teacher, so he has a solid spiritual grounding outside of monotheism. Lattimore is good, too.

    As a general rule all references to the divine (capitalized or not, singular or not, male of female) have to be checked against the original. Sometimes this is hard to catch: for example, references to things “daemonic” in Greek are often translated as “spiritual”!

    Whenever you see the word “God” in a classical text translated from either Greek or Latin you can almost always substitute the name for a specific deity (quite possibly Zeus/Jupiter) or just change it to “the Gods” without changing the meaning at all. In fact, this is far more accurate than using “God” which has inescapable monotheistic connotations. Another alternative is to substitute “the Divine” for all occurrences of “God”.

    Oh, and Stephen Mitchell’s middle name is “Bowdler”. I’m just sayin’.

  • Kerry W.

    I was going to say — check with a classicist, or barring that, look in an academic bookstore. Classicists these days (and come to think of it, any professors of religion that I’ve known) are invested in accurate texts, and love them more if they get the poetry down too.

    There’s a huge series of classics — several linear feet of shelf space, with the original side by side with the translation, IIRC . . . and I can’t recall the name of it or the publishing house. IIRC, it’s the scholarly standard for quoting from. (I used to work for a Classics professor.)

    Maybe someone else here knows? Or it might be worth getting in touch with a Classics prof.

  • Beware of classicists. Many of them approach their chosen field of study the way entomologists employed by Orkin approach theirs.

    Examples: Mary Beard despises modern Paganism. G.W. Bowersock despises the Emperor Julian. Alan Cameron is a lying sack of %$^& who is much more of a propagandist than a scholar. Other names to distrust: James Hankins, P.O. Kristeller, Gregory Vlastos, everyone associated with the “Pagan Monotheism” meme.

    But here are a some of the “good guys”: Sarah Iles Johnston, Julia Annas, R.E. Allen, Charles Kahn, Walter Burkert, Jan Assmann, A.A. Long.

  • Cara Schulz

    From Robert Clark (Hellenic Recons Yahoo list)


    The Perseus website has a huge amount of Greek and Roman material in both Greek and English:

  • Cara Schulz

    (Continued – the spam filter is hating this)

    The Loeb Classical Library (Harvard University Press) has a great collection of Classical literature used as standard references in Classics Departments. Greek is on the left page and English on the right; they generally have good footnotes and index.

    Loeb Classical Library:

  • Cara Schulz

    Oxford University Press has a great Classical Studies section:

    Check out all the major University Presses, especially University of Chicago, Yale, Harvard, John Hopkins, Princeton, etc. What you shoul aim for is a translation that is as scholarly and unbiased as possible. There are many out there. Contemporary scholars are approaching their translations and research with a multidisciplinary approach based on how the ancient Hellenes understood their religion. It is quite wonderful! You mentioned Plotinus. The Christians have no hold over Plotinus; he certainly was not one of them. Read Pierre Hadot’s wonderful little book Plotinus: or The Suimplicity of Vision, The University of Chicago Press, 1998. In fract, read any and all that Pierre Hadot writes. He is working on a new translation of the Enneads.

    I hope this helps.


  • There is an Italian saying that every translator is a traitor. As someone currently studying Classics and suffering, seriously suffering (:P) through translating Latin classics into English, I have to agree. I look at popular current translations as i’m working through my own homework and the liberties that translators take are sometimes quite exceptional and to my mind, excessive (in that they lose the nuanced meanings of the original).

    It also seems that may of the translations tend to show the influence of a monotheistic worldview in ways that I feel seriously detract from the new reader’s understanding of the original material.

    the Perseus website is an absolutely godsend.

    Cara, thanks for the book recommendations!

  • daryl

    Arguably the best scholarly translation of Gilgamesh is that by AR George. You’ll find in both an easily accessible Penguin paperback edition (The Epic of Gilgamesh) and a more detailed scholarly work (The Babylonian Gilgamesh Epic). Stephanie Dalley’s translation in Myths from Mesopotamia is also good (and a little more earthy).

    With Gilgamesh it also pays to get a reasonably recent translation as new cuneiform fragments of the epic are being discovered and pieced together on a regular basis.