Any translator of Greek tragedies for new audiences has to be bold.
I was intrigued by the boldness of Bryan Doerrie’s All That You’ve Seen Here Is God, a collection of new “versions” of four plays by Sophocles and Aeschylus. He translated them for Outside the Wire and Theater of War, two groups that give dramatic readings of plays for soldiers, prisoners, and health professionals. They also host discussions with the audiences. Doerries has translated Sophocles’s Ajax, Philoctetes, The Women of Traxis, and Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound.
His translations are spare and accessible, if lacking in the poetry of the Greek. The traumas of the heroes are vivid and moving to the military audiences.
Doerries explains that he is not interested in literal translation, though he starts with the Greek text. He writes that he is trying “to build a bridge between the ancient and contemporary worlds.”
Tragedy is an ancient military technology, a form of storytelling that evokes powerful emotions in order to erode stigmas, elicit empathy, generate dialogue, and stir citizens to action. When you plug a tragedy into a community that is ready to receive it, the story does what it was designed to do. Like the ancient Athenian audience in the Theater of Dionysus, the war-hardened Marines who gathered [at one of Doerries’s productions] knew the plays, not as representations of war and its aftermath, but as lived experience.
So often Greek tragedies do treat issues of war and its consequences. One of the most intense plays is Sophocles’s Philoctetes, in which the hero, Philoctetes, is abandoned by his fellow soldiers on an island. When Philoctetes stumbles into a shrine on the island, a snake (often a symbol of a god) bites him, and his screams and incurable stinking wound make him an unbearable companion and outcast. Odysseus, the trickster “intelligence” officer, advises the Greek kings, Agamemnon and Menelaus, to leave him behind when they sail to Troy. Only Philoctetes’s bow makes it possible for him to survive on Lemnos alone.
He is forgotten until nine years later a seer, Helenus, tells the Greeks that they cannot win the war without Philoctetes and his bow. Odysseus plots with Neoptolemus, the son of Achilles, to trick and abduct Philoctetes. But Neoptolemus reexamines his ethics after meeting Philoctetes. And there is a deus ex machina, Herakles, who intervenes and explains what must the Greeks must do.
Doerries’s stark translation of the words of the compassionate chorus is very effective. They know Zeus has been hard on criminals but Philoctetes has done nothing to deserve this.
But there is no story
I have ever heard
that matches the cruel
and meaningless fate
of this harmless man
who has done nothing
to deserve his pain.
I love this translation, but it is much simpler and shorter than the Greek. Here is a more literal translation of the same lines by David Grene, and the longer lines also look more like the Greek.
But I know of no other,
by hearsay, much less by sight, of all mankind
whose destiny was more his enemy when he met it
than Philoctetes’, who wronged no one, nor killed
but lived, just among the just,and fell in trouble past his deserts.
Grene captures the Greek more exactly, and naturally I prefer the poetry.
Sophocles’s Ajax is also a story of a hero who becomes an outcast due to illness. In Doerrie’s introduction to Ajax, he focuses on the hero’s “mental disintegration” and the resulting violence, which he compares to similar incidents of madness and violence among Iraq vets. (He cites an article in The New York Times.) After the prize of Achilles’ armor is given to Odysseus rather than Ajax, Ajax intends to kill Odysseus and his men. Driven mad by the goddess Athena, he slaughters cattle, believing they are Greeks. How can he bear the dishonor after he sees what he has done?
Doerrie’s translation is powerful. Ajax’s wife Tecmessa says,
Our home is
littered with cow
carcases and goats gushing
Although the translations are short and effective, it is the introductions that mark Doerries’s intentions: he is much more didactic than the Greeks. (Is this an American thing? Like Oprah?) In Doerres’s introduction to Aeschylus’s Prometheus Bound, the story of the god who stole fire for man and then was punished by Zeus, he emphasizes the likeness of Prometheus to men and women who work in maximum-security prisons. After performances for guards, social workers, and food-service workers in prisons, he says,
I have heard many audience members say, ‘I am Prometheus,” relating the stigma, societal judgement, and loneliness associated with their profession to the character’s solitary confinement.
The last play, Sophocles’s The Women of Trachis, is the least well-known. Heracles’s wife, Deianeira, is understanding when a beautiful woman, Iole, is brought home from the wars as “booty” (in both senses) for Heracles. But then, in the fashion of Medea, who sends her husband’s new bride a poison robe, she sends her husband a poison robe, which she has dyed with the blood of the centaur Nessus, who attempted to rape her and was killed by Herakles. Deianeira did not, of course, intend to poison her husband: Nessus told her the blood was a love charm. But in both cases of Deianera and Medea, it is a younger woman who inadvertently causes the tragedy. Burning with pain, Heracles wants his son to kill him.
The final lines of Heracles’s son’s last speech, addressed to Iole are missing from Doerries’s translation. I have an uncorrected proof, so perhaps the lines were restored. But Doerries reads this primarily as a play about euthanasia, and has presented it for health professionals. Perhaps for his purpose, the last lines were deemed unneccessary.
Doerries, the founder of Theater of War and the co-founder of Outside the Wire, is a talented writer, with a laudable approach to the classics. But I hope that university students still read the Greek and the more vivid translations by classicists This would, however, make a very effective text for a high school or a community college, in addition to Doerries’s target audiences.
Now, you’ve almost got me convinced I should read some classics!
The great thing about reading the tragedies is that they are shockingly beautiful but also very accessible. I’m sure you’d be hooked in a minute!:)
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I love the Greek tragedies. Mostly it is the Grene translations that I know. They were relatively new when I was a drama student and just coming to the plays for the first time. I have never really studied them as text but as dramatic works for staging. In a couple of weeks time the RSC are staging a reworking of Euripides’s ‘Hecuba’. I’m not sure if it is going to prove to be a translation or something looser, but I do know that they are going for a modern dress production because the intention is to draw the parallel with what is happening in to women and children in Syria. It is going to be a powerful event, I think.
The Lattimore and Grene series of tragedies is much closer to the Greek than are many translation, by design, I think. Grene is one of my favorite translators.
Doerries’s work is excellent, too, in the “less-is-more” school of translation, and I love the idea of his presenting these plays to unconventional audiences.
I would certainly love to see Hecuba. The Greeks are relevant to the age of modern warfare. One of these days I’ll go off for a cultural weekend.:)
These look fantastic, I will have to check them out. I tend to be partial to older translations that I am used to. There was also a new translation of the Bacchae this year from NYRB classics that was decent.
I love the idea that Doerries is performing dramatic readings of these plays, and this translation very much lends itself to that. I need to read new translations. I do have a Euripides by Anne Carson to read!
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