Make it New While Keeping it Old

Amit Majmudar
July 16, 2012
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When it comes to translating a work that is, at once, radically different from what we are used to reading, as Greek tragedy is—both in its (multiple) tones/registers and its form—and intensely immediate, as Greek tragedy is, in its very recognizeable human emotions (though it presents them to us, as great drama often will, in atypically extreme manifestations), the translator must balance two opposing purposes: Conveying the there-and-then alienness, and conveying the here-and-now familiarity.

It’s a terrible demand we translation-devourers make: Make this immediate while still letting me taste its utter antiquity.

Either purpose has its justification and its appeal. And its telltale methods.

Colloquial or 21st century idiomatic phrases (often subbed in for an ancient Greek one), the use of contractions and words italicized for emphasis so that you can actually hear Elektra talking, the cutting-up of multi-line verse sentences to shorter sentences and sentence fragments—these serve the end of conveying the familiarity. (It just sounds better. More like how we talk.) Translating some odd locution literally and then explaining in a footnote what this may or may not have meant to Sophocles’s contemporaries, crazy indentation patterns superimposed on ancient playscripts that were actually written down as a single unpunctuated run-on sentence, labeling said crazily indented stanzas (launched into without warning by the Chorus) as “ODE,” “EPODE,” “ANODE,” “CATHODE,” or whatever, going almost-interlinear or going dictionary-literal at the expense of sense, sound, the English sentence, or all three—these convey the alienness.

Refusing to hear, much less convey, any lowering of register was the Victorian translator’s most common sin. Failing to rise where the original rises is the contemporary equal-and-opposite of that; our poets tend not to do elevated speech very well (hint: it’s because our poets don’t read the King James Bible as a stylistic exemplar anymore: this practice had its downsides, but it also has had its upsides, among whom we can count Milton, Melville, and, in our own time, McCarthy). Casting everything in Biblical-sounding (or Shakespearean-sounding) speech was actually a sin in the name of familiarization: Those Victorians were presenting a style of elevated or “tragic” speech for these characters that matched the kinds of tragedy-speak (Job; Lear) their audiences were most used to. We Americans frequently believe that a translation is most successful if it makes the people sound alive, just like you and me, not “wooden” (when we have historical evidence that Greek tragedy was highly stylized in its delivery). Though the conventions of naturalism, in a way, constitute a form of stylization in themselves. Translations made “for the stage” frequently cast all passages in a naturalistic everyday-speech mode because contemporary actors, in the absence of any contemporary dramatic poets, have very little or no experience delivering stage poetry outside of the sonorous-Shakespearean kind, which we, unlike the Victorians, accept only in Shakespearean contexts.

It will be interesting to see where the Bagg-Scully versions of Sophocles, which I have at my side, will navigate the Scylla and Charybdis (look, Ma! I made me a classical allusion!) of translatorese, estrangement and familiarization. Will they translate–or embalm–or modernize? An initial perusal suggests the third possibility, the violence that creates the illusion of life, as opposed to embalming, which produces the illusion of antiquation; what the best translations achieve is probably a kind of suspended animation. We shall see. I haven’t finished reading their versions. I do not write this to pass a critical verdict one way or the other, because I am not comparing these plays passage-for-passage to the ancient Greek; I write this to present the basis for a judgement.

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