- Found in Translation: Greek Drama in English
The history of Greek drama in English repeats, with a signal difference, the perennial strife between the claims of a dramatic text to be read and performed. For there is of course a double form of translation at issue: from one language to another, and from page to stage. This latter J. Michael Walton calls 'the translation beyond translation, the translation from language into drama'. Given the enormous distances involved – of language, history, and cultural context – the Greeks pose a particularly rich and knotty instance of the difficulties of 'translating' dramatic texts, influentially sketched back in 1980 by Susan Bassnett in Translation Studies.
The story Walton tells and the questions at which he worries away receive an early imprint in the isolated instances that have reached us from the sixteenth century: the young Lady Jane Lumley's unpublished version of Euripides' Iphigeneia at Aulis, and the better-known Jocasta by George Gascoigne and Francis Kinwelmershe, performed at Gray's Inn in 1566 and published in 1572. Unlike Lumley's dutiful work, this latter qualifies as translation only in the most generous sense, being loosely based on Euripides' Phoenician Women via an Italian version by Ludovico Dolce. Walton's sympathies tend in this instance away from the theatrical opportunists towards Lady Jane, who 'deserves some rehabilitation' on the strength of 'an original and remarkable piece of work'. Though this approbation may be too strong, the contrast itself is exemplary. Elsewhere Walton notes the practice now commonly adopted by theatre companies of employing two writers, one with knowledge of the original language who supplies a 'literal', and the other without, who turns it into a performable text. The predicament to which this tactic bears witness lies at the heart of Walton's subject. As he puts it: 'The plays have been torn between undramatic scholars and unscholarly practitioners.'
His book is packed with useful, accurate, and sometimes surprising information, including an extraordinarily conscientious appendix listing 'All Greek Plays in English Translation'. The main body of the work is a series of studies of exemplary difficulties – the language of the [End Page 94] Agamemnon, the non-verbal 'language' of gesture and action, the terms turannos and daimon in Oedipus Tyrannus, the rendition of deceit and duplicity, the difference in cultural values affecting the representation of women. He writes particularly well about the Alcestis, focusing to fine effect on the scene between Admetus and Pheres, 'a battle royal' between father and son, and on the shifting cultural attitudes towards the significance of the bonds between father and son and husband and wife – a consideration which he rightly notes affects a substantial number of Greek tragedies. There are also good chapters on comedy, both on the history of Aristophanes and Menander in English, and on the particular challenges they pose the translator, as for example the stealthy dramatic complexity in Menander 'lurking beneath the surface of apparently innocuous dialogue'. Like Chekhov, perhaps, or, better, Alan Ayckbourn – 'the line between pathos and the ridiculous is as finely drawn in both'.
His book is however debilitated by the wearying frequency with which he intones all-too-familiar commonplaces: 'The translation of a stage work as a piece of theatre rather than as a piece of literature needs to take into account that the finished article on the page is barely half way there', and so on. True, true: but scarcely worth repeating so often, nor enhanced by well-meaning but laborious analogies such as this which immediately follows: 'Butterfly eggs don't turn directly into new butterflies. They evolve through stages from larva to the torpid chrysalis before the new image can emerge. Is a dramatic translation anything more than the static but necessary pupa?' In case we are in danger of forgetting, we are regularly informed that literal fidelity to the ancient texts may not make for the best theatre but on the other hand the creative licence claimed by translators and directors and designers may wreak havoc with the complexity...