Translating Myth: Re-wording the unseen knowledge

Translating Myth
Edited by Ben Pestell, Pietra Palazzolo and Leon Burnett.
Legenda 2016, hardcover $120.00 kindle $37.22 ISBN978-1-910887-04-2 (hbk) 978-1-315-54320-8 (ebk)
Reviewed by Drs. Susanne van Doorn, edited by Christian Gerike.

Translating Myth is a book that attempts to scientifically define myth. Or at least, come to describe 5 aspects of it: how to translate it, how to create it, how to establish it in a a new country, how to sing its poetry and how myth is related to politics. The book clearly establishes that myth can not be measured nor captured, but it is only possible to study the ways in which one can enter the realms that display myth to an individual.

Translating myth: introduction

Translating Myth has the ambitious goal of covering as many aspects of translating myth as possible. “Throughout the book, “translation” is broadly interpreted in order to emphasize the various modes by which a myth is carried over from one cultural context to another“.


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In a world where edited books are plentiful, all the contributing authors need to provide another vision on  the main theme. Does Translating Myth succeed in this? It does, even though I miss consistency in the five parts composing the book. It jumps around from continent to continent, from poet to poet, from century to century. And unfortunately, our century is missing.

Divided into five parts, three chapters each, this book offers a broad range of concepts related to translation. Translations in language, in medium: from written language to art, in time: from one century into another; and in space: from one continent to another. I will cherry pick a quote from each of  the five parts, giving you  brief insights into this book and then I will summarize the pro’s and cons.

Translation and myth across languages, media and cultures

The first part, Translation and Myth Across Languages, Media and Cultures,  focuses on the translation of myth from one culture to another and on the translation of myth from one medium to another. In the chapter “Accommodating the Primordial: Myths as Pictorial Storytellings” Leon Burnett, former Director of the Centre for Myth Studies at the University of Essex, gives a definition of myth that really resonated with me:

“There is however, another sense of myth, which lacks plurality, one that is implicit in the title of this volume, Translating Myth. Like the word poetry, myth in this second sense possesses no natural plural and cannot be preceded by an indefinite article. It is more a condition of life, a mode more than a text” (page 28).
A scientific book about myth that acknowledges that it is trying to define the unspoken. I was charmed on the spot.

William Blake’s myth

The second part: William Blake’s Myth takes us back to 17th-century England. William Blake acknowledged that he had to compose his own myth. Throughout this book there are many people mentioned who made an effort to compose their own myth: Goethe in Faust, Jung in the Red Book, Yeats in his poetry about Ireland. This part carefully defines all the stages Blake went through. It is both challenging and intellectually stimulating to read it. It is the part of the book that really pays attention to how mythology is connected with authenticity.


Europe a Prophecy British_Museum


In the first chapter of this part, “The Evolution of Blake’s Myth: Urizen’s Multiple Identities,” author Sheila Spector emphasizes the importance of vision in myth. “Having throughout his life experienced visions, and believing his prophecies to have been the product of divine dictation, Blake rejected the notion that the only sources of valid knowledge are experience and logic. Consequently, his composite art was driven by two fundamental questions: first, how is it possible that exoteric religion, being predicated on reason, could displace the esoteric, based on visions derived from the innate gnostic faculty, and second, how can we, in the material world, restore vision to its originally intended prominence?” (page 63).

 Myth in Early United States Literature

The third part, “Myth in Early United States Literature,” explores why America has no myth. This was a bit surprising for me as European. For me there is a clear American myth: the hard-working self-made man. Another myth we learned about America in history class, was that America was the great melting pot of cultures.

By Unknown – University of Iowa Libraries Special Collections Department [1], Public Domain.

Christina Dokou, assistant Professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Athena, suggests the reasons for the absence of the myth.

“One could well argue that the vastness of the American land, the diversity of its experience and its constituent peoples, is such that one cannot allow a single voice to encompass and define American identity.”

So now we know that a myth is connected with the collective unconscious as much as it is connected with the own identity of an individual. But how are they connected? How do they relate to each other? We are going to find out in the next part of the book.

Myth in Modern and Contemporary Poetry

The fourth part, Myth in Modern and Contemporary Poetry, embraces poetry as a way to connect with symbols. The symbols are retrieved from what psychiatrist Carl Gustav Jung has come to call the collective unconscious.

Cartoon found on hannafairytales.wordpress.som


Rached Khalifa, Professor of Irish and English literature at Prince Sattam Bin Abdulaziz University, says this  in his chapter “‘I have no speech but symbol’: National and History in Yeats’ Poetics of Myth and Myth-making”:

“Myth is structured like the unconscious or the dream-work, in the Freudian sense. It rests on the distortion of literal meaning through symbolism, itself governed by the mechanisms of condensation and displacement” (page 167).

Myth in New Political and Cultural Environments

The last part is called Myth in New Political and Cultural Environments. In the last chapter, (Re)writing and (Re)translating the Myth: Analysing Derek Walcott’s Italian Odyssey, author and translator Giuseppe Sofo encourages us to attribute our own meaning:

“Rewriting and translation share the possibility of changing what already exists” (page 230).

Image found on Make-Your-Own-Fantasy-World



What is the verdict: to buy or not to buy?


  • I must admit that I love the book and that I understood so much more after I had finished it.
  • Even though there is not a lot of attention in the book for dreams and the mythology derived from them, there is enough attention for the principles that underly dreams and their interpretation that I consider this book a very worthy complement to your library.
  • The book is very clear about the fact that we all have the same archetypical notions in our head that construct myth. But it never embraces the idea of a mono-myth. A mono-myth is the assumption made by Joseph Campbell that mythology follows one pattern: the story of the hero.


  • It is not an easy readable book (English is not my mother language). The language in the book is rather scientific, and the writers assume that you know and have read the poets they talk about.
  • Another point to be aware of is that it is rather pricy, although the kindle version is much more affordable. If you can afford it, buy it, you will not be sorry.
  • I missed a chapter about the modern myth in politics, taking place in America right now with the Titan fight between Hillary and Trump.

More about me, Susanne van Doorn:
Mindfunda Mythology



What is Mindfunda about?

My name is Susanne van Doorn, I am a Dutch psychologist, blogger and author. I have been working with psychology, dreams and mythology ever since I finished my study in psychology at Tilburg University. I made this independant site to share insights, and recent scientific articles about the brain, dreams, and mythology for use in your personal life.

This posting is categorised as Mythofunda:
“Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths” Joseph Campbell used to say. This part of Mindfunda shows you how your personal mythology can create peace in your life.

Read more about Mindfunda here, or visit our Courses Page.

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