I'm relatively a beginner at mythology, but what difference does a different translation make?

As per this post

Only a single translation of a given passage is offered[, which could lead to a different idea].

Well, when I learn french, some people in my class may get some words or syntax wrong, but the class gets the general idea.

Two translations would come from the same primary source, so there shouldn't be much confusion, right?


5 Answers 5


First, it should be noted that this question is not particular to mythology: the same problem appears in history and literature as well.

Second, we should note that using a translation is always a secondary or tertiary choice for the serious scholar. When doing a study of a text, it is always preferable to be able read it in the original language. If that is not possible, it is best to be able to ask someone who can read it to clear up any uncertainties.

Gibet has given some very good examples of the different styles of translations possible - tending towards to get the sense behind the words right, or transmitting an idea of the poetry. Mario gives a good example of how there might be translation difficulties also in prose.

So, what translations should we use? Are we interested in a bigger picture ("What will happen at Ragnarök?")? Then we might make do with any reasonably accurate translation. Are we interested in some detail ("Did Loki give birth to a monster?")? Then we might need something that gets the sense of the text right. Are we perhaps interested in the language used to describe someone (an important issue when seeking Christian influence in Norse mythology)? Then we certainly would need the original, or at least several different translations that aim to be as literal as possible.

As an example when you would need to consider all of these is Norse poetry. It is notably convoluted, using both a meter, with alliteration (and sometimes rhyme), and kennings, mythological allusions that sometimes goes in several stages. Here is a site that analyses Þórsdrápa. Just browsing it will quickly let you see how difficult it would be to translate it and still keep some remnant of the original form.

To summarise: it is not always necessary to consult several translations, depending on what question you are interested in. However, it would be a serious mistake to use any given translation as if it were perfect and dependable in every detail.

  • 2
    Just wanted to add that Perseus has Germanic texts in addition to Classical: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…. Someone interested in the Volsungs, for instance, can now access the source text with vocabulary links.
    – DukeZhou
    Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 15:06

Interesting question. I should say that for Latin and Greek I am not so sure the translations are all that different (I invite anyone to demonstrate the contrary). Now it would if either Solsdottir or Andejons could do what I will do here with Norse myth.

Here, I will give something I know well: a Sumerian text passage with the ETCSL translation a translation by Samuel Noah Kramer and a translation but Thorkild Jacobsen.

First Sumerian is an old quite unmastered language different from a lot of modern languages due to the distance we probably miss a lot, including the fact Sumerian texts was probably sung and music does not carry well on stone table.

ETCSL version:

Enlil's commands are by far the loftiest, his {words} {(1 ms. has instead:) commands} are holy, his utterances are immutable! The fate he decides is everlasting, his glance makes the mountains anxious, his ...... reaches (?) into the interior of the mountains.

Jacobsen's version:

Enlil, his orders august
into the far yonder,
his words holy,
his unalterable utterances
into the far
his lifting up the eyes taking in the mountains
his raising
of eyebeams
scanning the highlands's heart

Kramer's version:

Enlil whose command is far-reaching, whise word is holy, the Lord whose pronouncement is unchangeable, who forever decrees destinies, whose lifted eyes scans the lands, whose lifted lights searches the heart of all the lands.

Let's take a look at Jacobsen translation. Very poetic in nature, one has to remind Jacobsen's classic book is "Treasures of Darkness" that helps to see the esoterical nature of this man and the poetic feeling of his translation.

Now let's compare with his friend/rival Samuel Noah Kramer's version. It is translated in prose, the vocabulary less rich, no more the "his" alliteration, but a who/whose alliteration.

The ETCSL version is giving a compromise, the vocabulary is less rich than Jacobsen's one, no more inversion, but the 'his' alliteration is back. let's compare (line 4 of the original) :

  • ETCSL: his utterances are immutable
  • Jacobsen: his unalterable utterances
  • Kramer: the Lord whose pronouncement is unchangeable

Now let's take a look at those lines 3/4 and precisely the Sumerian original:

  1. igi il2-la-ni kur-re di-di
  2. jic-nu11 il2-la-ni kur-cag4-ga igi jal2
  • Line 3 igi illania
  • Line 4 ilani ... igi

In all versions the alliteration present in the original Sumerian is rendered a little bit differently, the choice of vocabulary and placement of the words is different, we are going from: his unalterable utterances to the Lord whose pronouncement is unchangeable.

The idea lying behind is the same, but the way it is rendered is quite different, especially when you compare the quite poetic nature of Jacobsen's version with the very earthly Kramer's version.

So when you are confronted with poetry, should you try to render in verse or in prose, should you use modern metric, or not, should you try to render the alliteration the tone of the words or the general sense, should you show your own skill at poetry (as Jacobsen) or a clear translation how do you pick your vocabulary. The prose is always easier to render just because you miss the poetic alliteration most of the time (does not mean translating prose is easy...). That is why different translations can have a different feeling hence DukeZhou's remark. That is true nowadays with let's say Shakespeare translations that you will find in prose or verses.


While Gibet is completely right, there are far more elementary issues hidden.

Basically whenever someone has to read or listen and interpret a story there might be differences, which in the end can change the whole content, especially while translating.

Let's take a short, modern English sentence:

He was done.

What does it mean? Especially with a lack of context this can vary quite a bit. Did he finish something? Or did he stop, because he couldn't get himself to complete it?

As a native speaker, you might have a different idea on what's obvious or preferred when using a specific term. Translators often don't have that advantage.

Also words can change meaning over time. A popular example coming to my mind would be men "knowing" women in the Bible. Someone in school today could interpret it just as that. They knew each other. But when the initial translation was made it meant they were impregnated. Quite a difference, don't you think?


Regarding the variance of Ancient Greek texts, I strongly urge anyone with an interest to compare the Pope, Lattimore, Fitzgerald and Fagles Iliads. The variance of translation will be immediately apparent.

Although the stories are all the same, details may differ due to the degree of license taken by various authors in translating. Thus a question like "The repertoire of the Sphinx" cannot be definitively answered without going to the source text.

Ancient Greek is highly irregular, having lost the digamma, but still being subject to the digamma, in the conjugation of verbs, for instance. Although there are now superior electronic lexical resources, which make determining the roots of words a trivial task, in the past, even the recent past, this was very arduous works, and scholars needed a profound understanding of the language to advance the scholarship. The further back you go in time, the less accurate Ancient Greek translations are going to be, which is why newer translations are always favored for mythological research purposes. (Richmond Lattimore is often held up as epitomizing accuracy and elegance in Ancient Greek translation.)

Latin is much more regular, and words can be more easily directly translated. However, like Ancient Greek, Latin has a vast number of noun and verb forms, and utilizes staggeringly complex clause structures, which can create ambiguity, especially as ancient texts have little in the way of punctuation.

For instance, the Loeb Metamorphoses presents a translation originally from 1916 that is nearly word for word, although Goold notes in the preface that "there was much which in the recent light of scholarship called for amendment." [Ovid Metamorphoses, Miller, F.J., Harvard University Press, 1994]

Goold also note the variance in the Latin source texts, and the possibility of two Ovid versions, which raises another important issues:

At the deepest level of scholarship, one must consider not just a single source in the original language, but all competing sources in the original language, for a given text.

For instance, the miraculous rescue of Iphigenia at Aulis is widely believed to be an interpolation [see note 102].

Thus, to understand the Euripides play at anything more than a cursory level, you need to be aware of the scholarship regarding the source texts.

On a personal note, I've known at least one theology student who turned away from Greek because it raised too many questions regarding interpretation of the texts.


All good answers.

For consideration: Look at the Bible. How many versions are there? I stopped counting at 75. There are probably over 100 easily. Which version should you believe?


Romans 3:28

This passage sparked the Reformation. Martin Luther added an extra German word for "alone" (alleine or alleyn) after the phrase: "justified by faith": "So halten wir nun dafür, daß der Mensch gerecht werde ohne des Gesetzes Werke, alleyn durch den Glauben." This reflected Luther's view that man is justified (saved) by faith alone, and that salvation comes only from faith. The Roman Catholic Church (and Eastern Orthodox Church) taught that man is justified (saved) by faith and good works.

NAB For we consider that a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law.

Holman For we conclude that a man is justified by faith apart from works of law.

NIV For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.

NRSV For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law.

Translation can spark a revolution. So yes, it does make a difference.

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