Thursday, December 8, 2011


I would like to start out by talking about the art of translation.  The translation that I read was awful.  What I tend to look for in a translation is 1) readability with minimal sacrificing of 2) the intended meaning of the original writers.  Ideally, 3) also beautiful.  That is why I am more likely to read, say, Robert Pinksy's translation of Dante's Inferno than one by an academic who is focused on accuracy.   I look for the Apple Computers of translations.  Elegant, user-friendly, without limiting one's options intellectually.

It might not surprise you to know that I have had friends so pedantic as to be anti-translated material.  Their argument is that one is not reading, say, Aeschylus, but rather, in my case, one is reading the work of E.D.A. Morshead.  I understand the argument, but that does not change the fact that I want to read Aeschylus.  Also, barring one's self from reading anything translated from another language is barring one's self from an awful lot of great literature, as well as penning one in with the danger of ethnocentrism.  But it is true that unless you're reading Oscar Wilde, chances are you are not going to read the actual literal words of the actual literal original author.

I tend toward thinking of translations as grey areas.  Attempts at a completely literal, word for word translation from one language into English are sort of bi-path into communicating with someone to whom English is their second language (albeit, their mastery of the Queen's English is helplessly in the hands of a second party.)  If we're talking about something like, say, The Message, which is a contemporary paraphrase of the Bible, I am willing to say that one is not really reading the Bible.  But that is purely my opinion and being aware of the grey area of translation, it is hardly a hill I would choose to die on.  In other words, I wouldn't read it, but I also wouldn't be so pompous and divisive as to tell someone who does that they are not really reading scripture.  To make a long point short, I think it's important to know the issues and limitations inherent in reading translated works, and I think it is important to read them anyway.  If anything, I think in a lot of ways it broadens the options presented to the reader of a work rather than limiting them.

All of which was unfortunate in this case.  As with so many great works of antiquity, it is a rip-roaring good soap opera with buckets of blood.  Lamentably, I spent a great deal of my time trying to figure out what they were talking about.  I do not wish to brag, but I am an exceedingly intelligent man.  It shouldn't have to be like that for me!  There are other translations out there available to me and I don't feel compelled to limit myself to Dr. Eliot's choice in this instance (even though I am limiting myself to Dr. Eliot's overall choice for the next few years.)

So, here are a few thoughts, without writing any papers for the seemingly endless line of students who plagiarize my blog:
- We see in Clytemnestra's tempting of Agamemnon to walk on the red carpet a Hero With a Thousand Faces moment with echoes of The Fall in Genesis, right down to the similar results.
- Agamemnon is an enviable part.  Much like Tartuffe, I kept imagining the actor having both the glory of being billed as the title character and a great deal of time to read backstage.  I experienced that firsthand when I played in Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado as the title character.  You show up mooing about with Cassandra, you schlepp up the red carpet, and half an hour later you bellow "O! I am slain" from out your dressing room door.  You'll be in the pub by 10. 
- Sure, Aegisthus is squatting in Agamemnon's house and cuckolding him, but the apple didn't fall too far from the tree.  Just ask Cassandra. 
- Speaking of Cassandra, we have a divine invasion in the play.  I can't decide if the power to see future events but not have anyone believe you until it's too late is a horrible thing or the best thing ever.  I know what the play wants me to believe.  And it doesn't end so well for her.
- Aside from failing the Bechdel Test, I have a difficult time with discerning Aeschylus' view of women.  The two in this show are strong women, but not exactly positive role models.  Actually, upon reflection, it is difficult for me to discern a protagonist in this piece aside from, arguably, The Chorus!
- The Chorus has a more solid Fourth Wall in this show than in some other Greek works.  In fact, they are heavily emotionally invested in the action, to the point where they nearly take it upon themselves to effect justice.

I did enjoy the experience of reading this play, but, again, I am fairly certain I am going to seek out a more readable translation for the balance of The Oresteia.

1 comment:

  1. I know what you mean about translations, either literal or in the spirit of the work. A fine balancing act. There are some dreadful translations around and it can make all the difference between enjoying and understanding or not. Having a smattering of a language can help.

    This the same Agamemnon who pops up at the apotheosis of 'The Garden of Cyrus' when the worthy doctor struggles to stay awake-

    'Though Somnus in Homer be sent to rouse up Agamemnon, I find no such effects in these drowsy approaches of sleep'.
    - Homer's Iliad II:6