Not Just Gardening: Kimberly Johnson’s Translation of Hesiod

English professor Kimberly Johnson explains her recent publication, a translation of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony, which debuted in April 2017.

PROVO, Utah (Apr. 17, 2017)—Kimberly Johnson, BYU professor of English, loves to translate Ancient Greek and Roman texts. When confronted with the work of Hesiod, the first poet to have reflected from the first-person perspective in literary history, Johnson wanted to be sure to preserve the structures and organization of his poems. Her translations of Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony explore the stories that these ancient verses relate while maintaining their poetic complexity.

“I find translation relaxing because I do not have to come up with new content,” Johnson said. “I get to play with words and make them sound beautiful; it’s a challenge but lots of fun.” After completing her translation of Georgics, Johnson was looking for something new to work on and chose Hesiod’s long poems Works and Days and Theogony. Her translation was published in April of 2017.

Hesiod was a Greek poet whose writings are dated to around 750 to 650 B.C.E., roughly contemporaneous with Homer. His Theogony tells the stories of the gods, Johnson explained, “Who they were, what their disagreements were, and how the gods of Olympus came to rule. . . .The fact that we know the names and stories of the Greek gods is largely due to him. He compiled all the stories together.”  

Johnson was also drawn to Hesiod’s other long poem, Works and Days, because of its thematic similarities with Virgil’s Georgics. “I wanted to translate another long poem about gardening, like the Georgics,” said Johnson. “Of course, Hesiod’s Works and Days is not really about gardening, just as Virgil’s Georgics is not really about gardening. There’s a lot of subtext to both.”

Though they were writing at around the same time, Homer and Hesiod focus on very different things. “Homer gives the Greeks this aspirational model of manhood. He becomes a towering figure because of the way his poems embody Greek values and Greek culture,” commented Johnson. “Hesiod doesn’t presume to speak for a nation. His writings are more personal.”

The putative occasion of the Works and Days is the squabbles between Hesiod and his brother over their inheritance, rather than a description of farming practices. Hesiod also reveals details from his own biography in the work, including describing his father as an immigrant from Asia Minor who settled in Ascra, a place Hesiod complains of in his poem as “shabby in winter, sordid in summer, spectacular never.”

Though Hesiod’s writings are personal, it is almost impossible to verify what his life was actually like. “It gives a good window into human life, not just heroic but human life in Greek antiquity.”

Johnson said, “We take [Works and Days] as biography in the absence of other documentary evidence, but how much Hesiod was making up or creating for narrative effect, who’s to say?”

Hesiod’s tales of the gods and his own life, passed on through generations, continues to inspire scholars like Johnson in their explorations of the Ancient World. “[To think of] Hesiod’s Works and Days as a farming manual in verse would be to overlook its rich complexities,” Johnson said, “His work touches on everything.”  Such complexities make Hesiod “a good ambassador for the ancient world, where heroes were complicated, petty, weird, superstitious, or pious.” She concluded, “[Ancient Greeks] weren’t just the noble heroes of the Homer epic.”

Hannah Sandorf Davis (B.A. Art History and Curatorial Studies ’17)

Hannah covers new publications for the English Department for the College of Humanities. She is a senior pursuing a degree in art history with a minor in art.