Camila Aline Zanon

Camila Aline Zanon : Untranslatable “monster”: re-evaluating the words for “monster” in early Greek sources and their translations

      The noun “monster” and the adjective “monstrous” in Western modern languages are frequent renderings for several words in ancient Greek, such as teras, pelōr/pelōron, kētos, phēr, thēr, thespesios, depending on their referent. Some of these words are linked to a semantic field related to the natural world while others are connected to the semantic field of divination. Although the word “monster” in several Western modern languages has the Latin monstrum in its origin, it has seldom kept the connection to the semantic field of divination through its history and does not convey in its modern usage the meaning of a message or a warning sent by the gods in order to be deciphered. A contextual analysis of the usage of those words in Homer and Hesiod showed that their translation as “monster” or “monstrous” is dependent on a prejudgment of the referent as being regarded a monstrous creature, while translated differently when the referent is not preconceived as a monstrous being, like a god or a hero, for instance. On the one hand, it begs the question of the appropriateness of rendering those words as “monster” in modern languages and it leads to compare what the exact idea being conveyed by them in the poems of Homer and Hesiod and by the word “monster” in modern languages. On the other hand, it reveals how much that rendering can influence modern readers of the poem towards a conception of those beings that might be different from the original idea. Based on these issues, terms like “portent” or “prodigy” would be more suitable renderings for the Greek words originally related to the semantic field of divination, while the words connected to the natural world should be translated by terms also related to that semantic field in modern languages. Making use of the cognitivist theory proposed by Lakoff & Turner (1989) in which they explore the different worldview conveyed by language in its connection to how a society organizes their world (Lovejoy’s Great Chain of Being) as well as Wittgenstein’s perspective on categorization, the paper intends to explore, by means of the modern category “monster”, issues of translation between languages not only distant in time from one another but linguistic systems that express different ways of organizing the world.

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Zanon, C. A. “Where the Wild Things Are: Challenging the Monster in Homer and Hesiod”. In: Béthume, S. and Tomassini, P. (ed.). Fantastic Beasts in Antiquity: Looking for the monster, discovering the Human. Presses Universitaires de Louvain, 2021, p. 11-26.

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