Quick Post: A note on translation and procrastination

Procrastination, gentle reader, makes me productive in every way except the ways in which I ought to be.

I’m not joking.  I have three books that I need to read by tomorrow, an essay with a deadline that is rapidly approaching, a stack of audio that I should edit, I need to clean out my bedroom, and a shortlist of job applications I need to submit… but the weather is inviting, and there’s a nice cafe down the road, and I have three new books that I’d like to pour over, and there are some movies I’d like to watch at the cinema.  I want to write short stories and then delete them so that nobody can see how bad they are.  I bought some letter paper a few weeks ago, but it’s too large for writing letters, so I might draw on those instead.  And I love reading essays.  I want to be a better essayist, but I keep succumbing to the self-doubt that I’m dull and turgid.  Maybe I’m the only person left who still gets excited by essays.  I want to print out old literary essays on cheap pamphlet paper and slip them into friends’ letter boxes, leave them on colleagues’ desks, tuck them into books at the library for complete strangers to discover.

Of course, I’m not actually going to do this because I haven’t completely lost my biscuits yet.

One of my ongoing procrastination projects is translating the Oresteia.  The quick run down is that Agamemnon is the dude who ran the campaign for the Greeks in the Trojan War.  In order to get good winds to send his fleet to Troy, he sacrificed his daughter Iphigenia.  His wife (and Iphigenia’s mother) is Clytemnestra and she is, understandably, pissed as shit about this turn of events.  So while Agamemnon is off fighting the Trojan War for a decade, Clytemnestra runs the city-state like a total boss and sits on her rage as it boils away inside her.  She starts an affair with Agamemnon’s blood-enemy (his cousin who also murdered Agamemnon’s father, Atreus) and plots how she’s going to kill Agamemnon.  This kicks off another round of vengeance killing as the son of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra has a duty to avenge his father but also a duty not to murder his mother.  He resolves this conflict by murdering the hell out of Clytemnestra and her new lover.  Clytemnestra’s ghost sends supernatural beasts — the Furies — after Orestes to avenge her death, but the gods intervene and decide to have a trial to decide Orestes’ guilt.  He’s acquitted, and everybody lives happily ever after (except for the people who were already dead).

That’s the quick version.  Aeschylus tells this story over three plays (‘The Agamemnon’, ‘The Libation-Bearers’ and ‘The Orestes’) and, even then, relies on the audience knowing most of the story already.

So what should my task be?  Should I translate faithfully every word of Aeschylus’ play into English, line by line, beat by beat?  That last part is perhaps the trickier question because it speaks to the bigger question: am I trying to reconstruct a Greek play in English language?

Greek plays are basically poetry recitals (sometimes, as in Aristophanes’ Frogs, they turn into rap battles).  It’s a feature they sort of share with Shakespeare’s plays, where the lines fits a poetic structure.  In Aeschylus’ case, it’s probably more accurate to compare him with opera: one character sings a great big slab of dialogue and then another character responds with a little bit of exchange between.

That’s all by the by.  What’s really important is that nobody really goes to see theatre for the poetic structure anymore.  You know it.  I know it.  Nobody really goes to listen to the ti-ti-tum of Shakespeare.  Hell, half the time, you are lucky if the actor understands what they are saying and what they are trying to convey by saying it.  If they get the rhythm of the words right, you’ve got yourself an added bonus that, frankly, you don’t even really care about.

Should I translate the Oresteia or should I rewrite it?  Perhaps I should just write Mark Fletcher’s Oresteia, a novel where Clytemnestra is more antihero than witch and where the court case (the best bit, trust me) takes up the vast majority of the action.  Would anybody care if the extremely long and boring watchman’s speech at the start of ‘The Agamemnon’ were edited out?  Does the Chorus really add much to the narrative by waffling on about some random crap?  Does a modern audience get as much out of a particularly Aeschylean phrase as it would out of a contemporary idiom?

The New York Review of Books has an article discussing two new translations of Homer’s The Iliad:

The very first line of the Iliad forces any English-language translator to decide immediately and to declare conspicuously whether he would rather be caught betraying his poet or his own language. The opening word, mēninwrath, is the subject of the long poem that follows, but not of the long sentence it begins. This word order in the original creates a markedly stylized but not a strained effect. Poetic Greek can bring off putting the potent single thematic word first and then proceeding to other parts of the sentence, placed in an order that satisfies the demands of rhetoric and versification. Not English, where “man bites dog” means that man bites dog and not the other way around. Homer’s translators and imitators must either invert English’s natural preference for putting the subject first, or else forfeit the emphasis Homer has given the word “wrath.”

But who cares?  Personally, I think starting off a translation on ‘Wrath’ is the right way to go.  This is an epic, 22 book poem about one teenager getting so majorly pissed off that he becomes a monster and even fights a goddamn river (my favourite bit).  It’s not Achilles’ minor upsettedness that he will sleep off.  It’s Achilles terrible rage, an inhuman anger that becomes the stuff of legend, a primal vengeance that inspired a poem that would engage some random Australian procrastinating on a Monday afternoon several thousand years later.

But I return to the question: who cares?  Sure, I think ‘wrath’ is the way to go, but for whom are we translating?  For people who don’t read Greek and want to know what Homer had to say about Achilles and his mega-pissedoffedness?  I don’t think they care.  Are we instead translating for people who don’t read Greek and we think (probably correctly) that there is something relevant in Homer for them and their lives?  If so, then we shouldn’t waste time thinking about the opening word mēnin and should instead be wondering whether that relevant part of Homer is best translated by spending even five minutes thinking about the opening word mēnin.  What is the point of The Iliad and how can we convey that to new audiences?  How can we engage the wider public with the best that has been thought and said?

Personally, I think it’s by getting Achilles’ line from Book 22 back into common lingo language: ‘Implore me not, you dog, by knees or by parents’.

But more seriously, I think it’s by thinking more about the act of translation being a process by which we grapple with the meaning behind the text and presenting that to a new audience in a way that is accessible to them.

I saw It last week and it is shit.  It’s so bad.  I need to write a review about it but, in a nutshell, my complaint is that it tries to project the surface aspects of a novel on to the screen.  With so many novels being written as if they are screenplays, it is understandable that this should happen.  Harry walks across the room and delivers some dialogue.  Voldemort picks up his wand and delivers some dialogue.  Then they fight and here’s how it will look if the CGI team gets it right.  Then Harry delivers some dialogue and Voldemort responds.

What I really wanted from It was something richer about what Stephen King was trying to convey (if anything) in his novel and how that essence speaks to us today.  What scares us today?  Is it the same as that which scared us when we were children?  What is the nature of fear and where does it come from?  Is it something inherent in us?  Are we taught to give familiar shapes to the authentic, ageless fear that lives in the void behind our eyes, beyond our words?  What is the link between horror and rationality?

In effect, what I wanted was a translation of It.  I’m a busy man who has a lot of procrastinating to do.  I don’t have time to read Stephen King novels.  Give me a movie that captures the idea behind the book and turn that into a movie.  Set fire to the words of the novel and dazzle me with lights on the screen.

I’ve bought some new boxes of tea, but I can’t drink them until I do the dishes.  Okay, dishes.  You win.

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2 thoughts on “Quick Post: A note on translation and procrastination

  1. So now you find yourself in a position where you aren’t even procrastinating by doing those other things. You are procrastinating your procrastination by writing a blog post about procrastinating. 🙂
    As for the translation, do both. One for the libraries and one for the Hollywood blockbuster movie script that makes you millions and lets you retire to do all those other things you’d rather be doing.

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