What does it take to bring Greek drama to life on the stage? For a modern Anglophone audience, the first necessity is an English text. But translating for performance is not quite the same thing as translating for readers. The performance text has to make sense on its own, without recourse to footnotes, and it has to work for its immediate audience, without necessarily claiming to have the “timelessness” of the canonical original. The text also has to leave enough scope for the director and actors to make a play out of it: while the translator of a book text controls everything the reader will see on the page, the translator of a stage text only provides the starting point for fashioning what will be seen and heard on the stage.
In this rich, exciting book, Walton (henceforth W.) considers the history of translations of Greek drama into English. He includes both tragedy and comedy, and in his appendix even lists translations of the mimes of Herondas (though these do not figure in the study itself). W. focuses on “the special nature of dramatic translation, the differences between tragedy and comedy, and the variety of plays which claim to be ‘versions’ or ‘adaptations.'” (p. 6) He devotes individual chapters to Agamemnon and Oedipus the King, and gives another chapter to Medea
W.’s opening chapter sets out the theoretical background, assessing various theories of translation from the 18th century to the present. “The first systematic exploration of the principles behind translation,” he says (p. 14), are enunciated by Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, in 1790. Tytler’s “rules” call for “a complete transcript of the ideas of the original work” (p. 14, quoting Tytler) as well as a style that is both similar in character to the original and as graceful as an original work in the target language. Tytler seemed uncomfortable with what he perceived as excessive modernization, for example in a contemporary version of Plautus’ Amphitruo in which characters speak the London argot of the day. Other theorists, particularly some more recent ones, argue for versions that bring the play into the language and culture of the audience. In other words, the tension between foreignizing and domesticating translation is at least as important in the theater as it is for translating novels or poetry; the costumes, sets, and style of acting can also be either like those of the audience or like those of the (audience’s or director’s ideas of the) ancient Greeks. W. reminds us frequently that performance itself is a type of translation; indeed, when the tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, or Euripides were revived in the fourth century B.C., they were already being “translated” even though the words themselves need not have changed (p. 16).
Much of the book discusses specific translations, often juxtaposing several versions of the same passage. From these extended comparisons we get a good sense of the evolution of style. Eighteenth- and nineteenth-century translators often chose metered verse, sometimes with rhyme added in lyric passages. Not all of them handled these constraints gracefully. Translators are also restricted by the cultural norms of their own day, as they perceive them, so that, for example, when Jason in Medea refers to women’s sexual satisfaction and jealousy (l. 569-575), some translators “seem to have opted for something so tortuous that the sense disappears” (p. 130-131, specifically citing “[Gilbert] Murray, at his most quaint”) while it is not until the middle of the twentieth century that the word “sex” appears in the passage.
Translators also normally include stage directions, at least marking entrances and exits, sometimes also giving elaborate indications of setting and stage action. Because ancient Greek performance was in masks, the language of the plays often makes explicit a character’s reaction (as other characters call attention to it) or even the direction in which a character is looking (with deictic pronouns and so on). Modern playwrights generally put such information into stage directions. Should translators retain all the uses of “this” and “that,” and, if so, how might they preserve the contrast among the several demonstratives available in Greek? W.’s chapter 4, “Translating the Mask: the Non-Verbal Language,” considers possible solutions, analyzing in detail the recognition scenes from the Electra plays. Aeschylus, for example, has a form of
Stage directions, too, can give the translator’s entire mental picture of the play, or can leave space for the director and actors to flesh it out as appropriate in performance. In translations intended to be performed, W. strongly prefers the latter approach. A particularly extreme case is the treatment of the chorus in Prometheus Bound (p. 71-73). They are said to fly in and then must disappear along with Prometheus in the earthquake that ends the play. E. D. A. Morshead, in 1881, calls for winged cars for their entrance and has Prometheus buried in the ruins of the rocks at the end. Herbert Weir Smyth, in 1922, says that Prometheus and the chorus vanish from sight at the end— “not a great deal of help either to the would-be scholars of theatre history nor to the contemporary director,” comments W. (p. 72). Similar cases are the earthquake in Bacchae and, perhaps, the thunder precipitating the exit of Oedipus in Oedipus at Colonus, for both of which W. again quotes extensive, complicated stage directions. Of course, in a translation to be read, it may be appropriate to help the reader visualize the play, though even here “There is a difference between guiding the reader and dictating what may over-interpret an ambivalent action” (p. 74).
W. comments “There is always likely to be a gulf between those whose classical training demands a respect for the play on the page, in the context of the society of ancient Greece, and those for whom text is pretext, no more than a map from which they wish to create a landscape of their own imagination” (p. 15). In the final chapter, “When is a Translation Not a Translation?,” W. sets out a spectrum of approaches, starting with cribs meant to help students construe the Greek and proceeding past “faithful to the original but actable” to “original plays inspired by specific classical tragedies” and “translocations to another culture” (p. 182-183). Such a classification raises its own questions: some translations, for example, are fairly literal at some points, less so at others. But the larger question is “what need there is for any playwright to feel obliged to be faithful to the original, even were that possible” — “If the form of the original in performance is so adaptable, what is the point of making the text sacrosanct?” (p. 183). W. argues for “the right of a play … to a revision of emphasis in a new time and under different sensibilities and preoccupations” (p. 193). He concludes “Greek drama now forges links that are unique for a theatre which is open to a wider variety of cultural and performance dimensions than at any time in its history. This is exciting and productive for designers, directors, and actors; translation too needs to meet this challenge” (p. 195).
Finally, in an extensive appendix, W. catalogs all translations of Greek drama into English, from Lady Jane Lumley’s Iphigeneia at Aulis of about 1555 down to versions of several plays published in 2005. The list of published translations, running to over 70 pages, would already make this a valuable reference work; W.’s study of trends and principles in the history of dramatic translation is almost a bonus. The book is engagingly written and will be useful to anyone who reads, teaches, performs, or watches Greek drama in English. It is also a good introduction to the issues of translation theory, with extensive references.