You are on page 1of 9

Three Comic ‘Cruxes’ Judith Affleck

Introduction It was my co-editor, John Harrison, who was the inspiration behind the new series ‘Cambridge Translations from Greek Drama’. His background, like mine, has been in schools, but he changed tack mid-career to become Director of Drama rather than Head of Classics at Oundle. Since then he has continued to introduce Norfolk audiences to a range of exciting productions: ‘Loveknots’, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis, opened last night (16 January 2004). He had written a translation of Medea which he produced with a local youth drama group and was seeking a wider audience; more importantly, he felt there was a gap in ‘the market’ and was thinking in particular of accessible and reliable editions of Greek tragedy for drama groups or courses: he was concerned by the proliferation of translations verging on ‘versions’ and wanted to create a resource that was as true as possible to the original Greek, while being performable. These remain the two principal aims of our series. We have been fortunate in finding authors most of whom have experience of the theatre and of teaching, as well as of Greek. Four of these translations have been tried out on stage at some point in their genesis. Phil de May’s exciting Agamemnon translation is due to be staged by a professional theatre company a few weeks from now.1 There is nothing unique about our aims: they are common, of course, to a great many new translations, and, indeed, even within the series, the inevitable compromise between ‘speakability’ and ‘being true to the Greek’ is negotiated in slightly different ways. It is for other readers and performers to judge the published translations, but my personal view is that they make a distinct, fresh and very usable contribution to the wide range of excellent translations already in existence. I would particularly like to ‘plug’ the Agamemnon , which I have been using to teach this term. I’ve found it difficult to make the play accessible in translation to students

P. de May, Aeschylus: Agamemnon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003). Production by Foursight Theatre Ltd, Newhampton Arts Centre, Dunkley St. Wolverhampton WV1 4AN. 21

you are committed to being authoritative. but once you start to include them. tend to put them in. Ted Hughes’ recent version.Different Lights. yet to a greater or lesser extent modern translators. introduction to the Greek Theatre by Pat Easterling and surprisingly vexing guide to pronunciation! It is on the commentary in relation to the translation that I wish to focus first. but one which I feel highlights its potential value. Occasionally i t is possible to get round this: in Oedipus Tyrannus. Unlike the Penguins or Oxford World’s Classics series. he has created a volume that can be used with delight next to. neither importing or glossing-over metaphors or similes. Don Taylor. Halliwell. I wish to consider this first of all in respect of stage directions. I think Phil has captured with admirable clarity the rugged brilliance of the original and (like all translations in this series. it looks as if there are two excellent and accessible new translations of Agamemnon now available.2 (2003) 243-4. S. These are notable by their absence in the original Greek. Sophocles Plays 1: Oedipus the King / Oedipus at Colonnus / Antigone (London: Methuen. these are single-play volumes with a facing page commentary. Many are obvious and uncontroversial. a new and embryonic venture within the series. an index. sometimes in places where ‘direction’ may be highly subjective. Taylor.3 What is unique to this series is the format of the volumes. They also contain some illustrations. Different Hands: Working with Translations in Classics and Ancient History until now. Greece and Rome 50. the timing of the arrival of Oedipus’ children. though dramatically important. primarily of productions. in the version used in the BBC TV broadcast of 1986 states: The two young children. I am going to be discussing comedy primarily.2 leaving clear to the reader the modern poet’s ‘points of departure’ or ‘variations on a theme’. The underlining is my own. Antigone and Ismene. by remaining absolutely true to the original imagery. 22 . As my title indicates. little girls of perhaps six and eight. First Crux: Licence or Liberty? My first crux concerns the thin blue line that separates licence from liberty: poetic licence from ‘taking liberties’. very sensibly. 4 D. is vague. If Stephen Halliwell’s recent review in Greece and Rome of Chris Collard’s new Oxford World’s Classics Oresteia is anything to go by. in so far as we have been able). for example. 1986) 59. have already been led in…4 2 3 Aeschylus: The Oresteia A new version by Ted Hughes Faber and Faber 1999.

Barrett. Things are rather different in Sommerstein’s Aris and Phillips translation of 19967 : The “Muse of Euripides” comes out. I will return once more to celebrate the format of the CUP editions which.). which she will clash together to provide the accompaniment. his eyes on the castanet girl] ‘Yes. 6 A saucy looking dancing girl comes forward….there have been many times. 8 Sommerstein (n. Aeschylus pulls some Euripidean metrical stunt he asks Dionysus. in the heat of his brilliant parody of Euripides’ lyric passages.F. 1947) 203.H. 23 . she is an old and ugly woman. Watling. 7 A. Watling’s lead in the 1947 Penguin. ‘Did you notice that foot?’ to which Dionysus. unfortunately. we are hoping to encourage practical experimentation. Aeschylus calls to the ‘Muse of Euripides’ to make her appearance. These are the sorts of question that have to be resolved in production. but one aim of our series is to leave the text to speak as much as possible for itself and.5 At other times a commentator may be forced to show his or her hand – with varying results! In the thick of the poetic contest in Aristophanes’ Frogs (1306).Affleck : Three Comic ‘Cruxes’ Perhaps. at any rate. – as conveyed by Barrett – replies (1323) [erotically. Sophocles: The Theban Plays (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics.F. D. heavily made up and dressed like a prostitute. Not that either translation would be better off without stage directions (certainly not the Penguin. 1996) 139. In Barrett’s 1963 Penguin edition a stage direction suggests that.7) 274. Sommerstein (ed. She holds a pair of potsherds. anyway) . reading a comedy in class. Aristophanes: The Wasps/The Poet and the women/The Frogs (Harmondsworth: Penguin Classics. Sommerstein. Needless to say. doesn’t provide as neat a solution to every question! 5 6 E. in his notes. takes care to justify his decision. when one has felt desperately grateful to these imaginative insights for reminding us that the play is supposed to be visual and funny. 1947). This castanet girl/Muse dances and when. there is no erotic interest in the foot. he is following E.8 but his arguments remain inconclusive and comparison between the two ‘translations’ must leave an inexperienced reader. confused. Questions like this one about the appearance of the Muse are possible to address openly in a facing page commentary. as our preface indicates. The Comedies of Aristophanes 9: Frogs (Warminster: Aris and Phillips. what impudence!’.

If ever they are granted a chorus. “a quotation from Euripides’ Oeneus (fr. I think. 6) 29. Sommerstein. translating 94-5: Barrett first.565). There are only two kinds of poet nowadays. 10 The ‘Aeschylean’ Sommerstein first then. You never hear of them again. Different Hands: Working with Translations in Classics and Ancient History Barrett says in his introduction to his inspirational translations. but where the letter would kill the spirit. 11 Sommerstein (n.9 I have aimed at as close an approximation both to the letter and to the spirit of the original text as I could achieve. it has had to be sacrificed. 11 something undoubtedly ‘lost in translation’ with Barrett.” 10 24 . and those that live are bad. This is a very unfair exercise! Sommerstein himself. From which do we come away with a better understanding of Aristophanes? Round two. translating line 71-2: de/omai poihtou= deciou=: oi9 me\n ga\r ou)ke/t’ ei)si/n. displays two completely different translation styles in his contributions to Penguin Classics and Aris and Phillips.” Whereas the ‘Euripidean’ Barrett drops in: I need a poet who can write. coming down more often on the side of ‘the letter’. wrestling with the same problems. but Sommerstein reminds us in the commentary that Dionysus is quoting a line of Euripides. Despite the unfairness of comparing not-quite-like with not-quitelike. I’m going to place in the balance samples from these two giants of Aristophanic translation and see whether doing so helps us understand whether Barrett’s licence means he’s taken excessive liberties with the text. “for some are gone.Different Lights. 9 Barrett (n. Round one certainly goes to Barrett for performability and wit. suiting admirably each ‘house style’. what does their offering at the shrine of Tragedy amount to? One cock of the hind leg and they’ve pissed themselves dry. h1n mo/non xoro\n la/bh|. or whether his wit wins the day. conforms to the more ‘crib-like’ purposes of the Aris and Phillips series. a3pac prosourh/santa th|= tragw|di/a|. d’ o)/ntej kakoi/. the slick and the dead. I’m in need of a talented poet. with extraordinary versatility. 7) 163. to be fair: a4 frou=da qa=tton.

for me. just sinks. and one in which they cannot.Affleck : Three Comic ‘Cruxes’ According to one of the principles of our series mentioned above. the age of instructive poetry in a changing Athens was nearly over. 2. How much licence should a translator of comedy be allowed? Is it all right to slip in your own puns/add your own images? From an editor’s point of view. who was sent into action without body armour and shot dead. is easily paralleled in Frogs where the chorus complain that vital naval supplies that have ‘gone missing’(364)12 . but I don’t. The very topicality of old comedy quickly made it ‘history’– ironically. a public figure is attacked for constantly tweaking his appearance and alleged dalliance with boys (Cleisthenes 422ff) – all too familiar when we follow the cameras’ obsessive gaze on Michael Jackson.” 25 . as Dionysus’s mission in Frogs implies (1501-3). because I find it clever. since the most celebrated section of Frogs at the time of its victory in 406 was the highly topical parabasis. I should feel outrage at the importing of a dog-metaphor. for example. if they so much as get a chorus. 16 March 2004. as Barrett hoped. Crux two: topicality Again. sixty lines later. I don’t think Aristophanes does feel ‘old’ to us these days. Old Comedy became ‘old’ in the fourth century and stayed so for a long time afterwards. I want to approach this from two different angles: one in which facing page notes can probably help. as for the combination of the forthcoming vote on the funding of higher- 12 Quoting. a devastating report by MPs claimed last night. [they] disappear again pretty rapidly after pissing over tragedy just once. “The Ministry of Defence sent British troops into Iraq without enough kit – and it could have LOST us the war. true to ‘the spirit’. p. funny and. rules of thumb certainly seem easier to suggest in a translation that doesn’t also have to be funny. though three of the major stories in the news this week (10-17 January 2004) are utterly ‘Aristophanic’: the scandal of Geoff Hoon’s claims that British soldiers in Iraq were properly equipped set against the testimony of Sergeant Steven Roberts. from The Sun. Whereas Sommerstein’s.

1957). How do you translate w] ste/tlie (116)? ‘You’re crazy!’. a reminder that some of the modern comparisons we might rush to draw may be strained and that there are dangers in the superficial ‘domestication of otherness’. Patrons & Public) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.g. ‘By god!’. In this last Frogs example.. Sommerstein. make them laugh – or think. ‘You’re mad!’. C. Donald (eds. ‘You dare-devil’.). mate! (684-5) is easy to understand. Different Hands: Working with Translations in Classics and Ancient History education and the Hutton enquiry with its possible implications for Tony Blair. at line 70)? Capturing a register of language which both has pace and will stand the test of time is dead tricky. but a commentary can help stimulate discussion. Gillray Observed : The Earliest Account of his Caricatures in London und Paris (Art. The second aspect of topicality concerns the translation again: the language of contemporary humour itself dates quickly. Cleophon. stop them feeling excluded. Dickinson. 13 An excellent example of this can be found in the elegant and detailed explanations of James Gillray’s caricatures published in a contemporary German publication. and they’ll pass their shelf-life before reaching da shelf. schadenfreude at the imminent fall of one who has set his hop es of honour high … and has heard the warning of the fateful bird …next time – or next – you’re for it. It is often the simplest things that raise the biggest difficulties in a world where ‘P-lease’ can mean ‘no’. ‘wicked’ ‘good’ and ‘cool’ is a term of approval. would sound awkward (I think!) and rather pretentious to most people. What do you do with the ubiquitous nh\ Di 0 (3. ‘Three Comic Cruces’.)? Ignore it? (both Barrett and Sommerstein at line 3). 1999). and it may well be most effective to highlight some of those risky or imperfect parallels to draw people in. Dickinson14 . How colloquial can language afford (or afford not) to be? This talk was called ‘Three Comic Cruxes’ to highlight the way the correct. but put em on da page. to take a crude example. Sommerstein (e. 26 . Banerji and D. but the best way of dealing with it in production will depend on the audience. The very nature of topicality will mean that performance ideas of this sort will tend to arise from workshops and discussion between actors and director.Different Lights. In my opinion the best way for a text to deal with topicality must be by supplying good notes so that the reader feels ‘included’ in the humour 13 . 14 P. Aristophanes: Plays 2 (London: Oxford University Press.. 70 etc.g. Barrett. at line 70) and Barrett with a stage direction (e. was in fact executed in the following year. Ali G-isms may (still?) sound trendy.

Different social In his last line of the screen-play he realises he’s left his confession in his cell. gender. Robert Hamer. The English like to think that Americans don’t understand irony. I thought it interesting that the biggest laugh from the National Theatre audience at ‘His Dark Materials’15 was when the clerk at the entrance to the underworld told the corpses to ‘Look alive’. 16 Quoted in the ‘Plot Synopsis’ for Kind Hearts and Coronets on http://www. this seems lamely amusing. if I may quote anonymously an off-the-web allAmerican analyst: In any American city on a terrifically hot day. whether you divide by age. one saying. in the American one. and perhaps hazard the query. Good luck to you. is said to have been told by Sir Michael Balcon. “You mean. of race – or almost anything else – find different things 15 Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials performed in the Olivier Theatre. In the version released in England the play ends ambiguously at that point. “Don’t you wish you had brought your overcoat!” which harmless jest is returned by the other with equal affability. ‘You are trying to sell that most unsaleable commodity to the British – irony. If you said that to an Englishman. 27 . The director of the classic Ealing comedy ‘Kind Hearts and Coronets’ (1949). two hitherto unacquainted men will speak to each other as they pass on the street. but not in the way the author meant it. but how far – and this is Crux Number Three – does humour translate? If this sounds like the beginning of an episode of ‘Sex and the City’. where he has been spending his final hours writing a frank account of his memoirs. in accordance with the production code of the day. your light overcoat?” Ironically.’16 There are two different endings to this film of amusing mass-murder in which the perpetrator of a sequence of calculated killings is arrested for one he didn’t do: both end with the prisoner’s reprieve and release from jail. I apologise. crime is seen not to pay: the film closes with prison officers finding Louis the murderer’s notes. The National Theatre: winter 2003-4.Affleck : Three Comic ‘Cruxes’ Crux three: Does humour translate? Speaking of which. Americans like to think the same of the English. Humour is culturally relative: we all know that. This could have come straight out of Aristophanes (in fact it very nearly does). he might stare at you blankly.

Perhaps I was wrong. but what about parody. but the only bit I cut from a production last summer of Aristophanes’ Knights was the drawn-out. as for the brilliant way they encapsulate contemporary impressions of ‘old-fashioned’ and ‘modern’: a Brittenesque sung performance of Frogs 1309-12: Sea birds Over the wavetops wheeling. how is the same market likely to take to even mild translations of some of the most explicit ‘jokes’ in Aristophanes? 28 . it would be interesting to analyse the types of humour that translate best: I’ve touched briefly in this talk on verbal wit. clever and. Splashing in the – Plashing in the – See how their feathers glisten in the sea-spray – at the JACT Greek summer school some years back was. One of the functions of humour is to reinforce identity. to some. ‘Bad taste’ jokes are good cultural dividers. visual comedy and political satire. It is here that Aristophanes probably seems most alien to our age of political correctness and gender-equality. In committing a translation to paper. No wonder ‘death jokes’ have such wide and timeless appeal! If there were time. chattering. suggesting one way we might understand how to ‘view views’ of Euripides’ frightening. what sort of tone is appropriate? Is skw=r a)ei/nwn (146) ‘ever-flowing Dung’ or ‘Non-stop Shit’? Given the reluctance of Cambridge University Press to put Ingres’ classic image of ‘Oedipus and the Sphinx’ on the cover for fear of offending ‘the American market’ by excessive exposure of male flesh. Wee birds! Wing tips dip. absurd modernity. I felt that it would have exactly the opposite effect.Different Lights. but. without wanting to lionise Barrett too much. for me. the epitome of suave modernity. desperately ‘unfunny’ masturbation joke (21-9) written to warm the original audience up. his pastiches are hilarious not so much for the resonances they have with those particular writers. I’m not a particular prude. making the massed assembly of the JACT Greek Summer School uneasy. Different Hands: Working with Translations in Classics and Ancient History funny. a major element in Frogs? Enough Euripides and Aeschylus survives for the agon section of the play to be gripping for a thirsty classical scholar.

Affleck : Three Comic ‘Cruxes’ Conclusion The whole exercise seems to me as fraught with dangers as Dionysus’ journey to the underworld. Judith Affleck Harrow School jpa@harrowschool. constantly changing. but it is of course vital that we don’t. for that 29 . stop trying to reclaim from the dead brilliant and challenging poets for our own.