About Translations

So I’ve been thinking a lot about translations and various adaptations of various plays recently. Enjoy this nerd-tastic musing on such subjects, courtesy of my old college files, complete with actual sentences and textual references. BECAUSE WHY NOT.

Whenever a playwright sits and puts his pen to paper, there is a specific vision in mind. Perhaps there  is an intent to inspire or to encourage, to inform or to challenge— each work that a playwright creates uses specific dialogue and language to convey these ideas and emotions. However, there are thousands of people across the globe who seek access to these same ideals, and often, there is an existing  language barrier that prevents these works from being accessible by all people. It is in this situation that the translator and/or editor steps in, with the hope of making these scripts more easily read by translating them into local dialect and editing them for ease of comprehension.
However, there is a fine line between a “translation” and a “re-write” and the nuances between an “edit” and a “complete re-working” of the source material are often not well defined.  G.M. Cookson, author of “On Translating Greek Tragedy” wrote that “the true aim of translation is to transport us back to the poet, not to bring him closer to ourselves”. A translator or editor often has the leeway to edit however they may see fit, but with this freedom comes the danger that the original playwright’s message and intent will be lost somewhere along the way. If a translator or editor has an agenda to pursue, there is a possibility that the script may be tailored to fit that mode of thinking. After all, there is only one letter’s difference between “Thou shall” and “Thou shalt not commit adultery”.  Additionally, care must be paid when translating from the original Greek. Many explanations of the cultural and symbolic references present in extent Greek literature have been lost, so extensive research must be done in order to faithfully preserve the original motive of the playwright.
Even beyond the intent of the text as a whole, a specific character’s motivations and intents can be shifted and changed by clever translation and editing. The character of King Oedipus is a complex and challenging role that has many different layers within the text, and the growth of these relationships can be either ignored or explored according to the whims of the translator. It is fascinating to look at many different scripts and see which authors chose to delve into these relationships and expound on them, and which let these interplays lapse with the intent of furthering the story.
It is with this knowledge in mind that this paper has been written. There are over 25 extent translations of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex”, each with a different editor and translator, and it is the intent of this author to explore and identify major changes, discrepancies and voices in several of these scripts, in the hopes of illustrating the potential each translator holds in changing the tone and intent behind the words. The three scripts used are those of F. Storr, originally published in 1912, of Fitts and Fitzgerald, originally published in 1939, and a relatively new script, published in 2007 by Ian Johnson.
A thorough investigation of each script is an impracticality within these pages, so, instead, two of the major passages were chosen for examination. In each script, the first pivotal passage is the scene in which Oedipus declares his fateful curse on the perpetrators of the murder of Laius. This was used to explore the methodology behind translation and the differences in Oedipus’ character.
1.    “This proclamation I address to all:–If any knows the man by whom Laius, son of Labdacus, was slain, I summon him to make clean shrift to me. And if he shrinks, let him reflect that thus confessing he shall ‘scape the capital charge; For the worst penalty that shall befall him is banishment–unscathed he shall depart. But if an alien from a foreign land be known to any as the murderer, Let him who knows speak out, and he shall have due recompense from me and thanks to boot. But if ye still keep silence, if through fear for self or friends ye disregard my hest, Hear what I then resolve; I lay my ban on the assassin whosoe’er he be. Let no man in this land, whereof I hold the sovereign rule, harbor or speak to him; Give him no part in prayer or sacrifice or lustral rites, but hound him from your homes. For this is our defilement, so the god hath lately shown to me by oracles. Thus as their champion I maintain the cause both of the god and of the murdered King. And on the murderer this curse I lay (On him and all the partners in his guilt):– Wretch, may he pine in utter wretchedness!  And for myself, if with my privity he gain admittance to my hearth, I pray the curse I laid on others fall on me.”–F. Storr  (Orig. translated 1912)
2.    But now, Friends, as one who became a citizen after the murder, I make this proclamation to all of Thebans: If any man knows by whose hand Laios, son of Labdakos met his death, I direct that man to tell me everything, no matter what he fears from having so long withheld it. Let it stand as promised that no further trouble will come to him, but he may leave the land in safety. Moreover, if anyone knows the murderer to be foreign, let him not keep silent: he shall have his reward from me. However, if he does conceal it, if any man, fearing for his friend or for himself disobeys the edict, hear what I propose to do: I solemnly forbid the people of this country, where power and throne are mine, to ever receive that man or speak to him, no matter where he is, or let him join in sacrifice, lustration or prayer. I decree that he be driven from every house…” Fitts/Fitzgerald ( Orig translated 1939)
3.    I now proclaim the following to all of you Cadmeians: Whoever among you knows the man it was who murdered Laius, son of Labdacus, I order him to reveal it all to me. And if the murderer’s afraid, I tell him to avoid the danger of the major charge by speaking out against himself. If so, he will be sent out from this land unhurt—and undergo no further punishment. If someone knows the killer is a stranger, from some other state, let him not stay mute. As well as a reward, he’ll earn my thanks. But if he remains quiet, if anyone,through fear, hides himself or a friend of his against my orders, here’s what I shall do—so listen to my words. For I decree that no one in this land, in which I rule as your own king, shall give that killer shelter or talk to him, whoever he may be, or act in concert with him during prayers, or sacrifice, or sharing lustral water. Ban him from your homes, every one of you, for he is our pollution, as the Pythian god has just revealed to me. In doing this, I’m acting as an ally of the god and of dead Laius, too. And I pray whoever the man is who did this crime, one unknown person acting on his own  or with companions, the worst of agonies will wear out his wretched life. I pray, too,that, if he should become a honoured guest in my own home and with my knowledge,I may suffer all those things I’ve just called down upon the killers. –Ian Johnston (Orig. Translated 2007)
At first glance, it would seem that the slight variations in these texts are merely stylistic choices and have no real bearing on the original texts. However, upon closer examination it becomes easier to see the differences in approach and methodology each writer took in working with the challenging character of Oedipus. From in the opening sentences, there is a vast difference in all three texts. For example, there is an inherent examination o f Oedipus’ opinion of his position of power over his subjects that takes three separate positions.
In the Storr translation, the people are not given a title, instead, Oedipus proclaims his speech “to all”. This abandonment of personal connection is intensified within the next lines, as Oedipus identifies himself as holding the sovereign rule, but withholds any message of commiseration or empathy towards his subjects. There is an interesting juxtaposition present in the Fitts/ Fitzgerald translation in that it is only in this version that Oedipus transfers any sort of relationship upon the people of Thebes, calling them “friends”. However, immediately after wards, he reminds the people that he is not a true citizen of Thebes and only became one after the murder of Laius. However, later in this same passage, Oedipus declares that  he “takes the side of the murdered king”, implying that he is loyal to his adopted city. In the Johnston version of the script, there is a feeling of ultimate separation and power– he calls his subjects “you Cadmeians” and adds his loyalty to Laius only as an addendum to his loyalty to the gods.
The treatment of the Theban people is unique in each translation- In Johnston’s version, Oedipus commands them, “every one of you”, to enact his decree, whereas in the Fitts/ Fitzgerald translation, they are addressed as “the people”, becoming a unit rather than a group of individuals. This removal of personal identity is an interesting position taken by the translators— if Oedipus does not recognize the people of Thebes as people, and rather as simply an entity that must be appeased, it raises an interesting question about Oedipus’ position on their humanity; whether or not their suffering is recognized as cause for genuine concern or merely as a means to appear as a great savior to a plagued mass.
It is interesting, however, that in each version of the text, Oedipus’ declaration that the curse will fall upon his own head should he find himself harboring the criminal is unanimously a brief, toss away line.  In the Fitts/ Fitzgerald version, Oedipus declares “As for me, this curse applies no less, if it should turn out that the culprit is my guest here, sharing my hearth”, and then immediately moves on to instructing the people to carry out his will. There is little acknowledgment that he may hold some burden of guilt in the matter, and the possibility of him being the actual criminal is completely ignored. (Ironically, of course, he is  in fact the perpetrator of the crime).
There is additionally an element of hubris that is usually associated with the character of Oedipus, and it is through specific choices made by the translators that this fatal flaw is revealed. In the Storr translation, he out-rightly calls himself “the champion” of Thebes, in Johnston’s version, he reminds the Theban people that he is, in fact, king and goes on to call himself a “ally” of the gods even before his loyalty and duty to the old king (and therefore, reveals his priorities and primary concerns: easing the gods before solving the mystery).
However, Oedipus’ fatal hubris is none so evident as it is later in the script, when Jocasta begs Oedipus to stop questioning his lineage and he still insists on delving deeper into his past.
1.    Let the storm burst, my fixed resolve still holds, to learn my lineage, be it ne’er so low.  It may be she with all a woman’s pride thinks scorn of my base parentage. But I who rank myself as Fortune’s favorite child, the giver of good gifts, shall not be shamed.  She is my mother and the changing moons my brethren, and with them I wax and wane.  Thus sprung why should I fear to trace my birth? Nothing can make me other than I am. (F. Storr)

2.    Then let it break, whatever it is. As for myself, no matter how base born my family, I wish to know the seed from where I came. Perhaps my queen is now ashamed of me and of my insignificant origin—she likes to play the noble lady. But I will never feel myself dishonoured. I see myself as a child of fortune—and she is generous, that mother of mine from whom I spring, and the months, my siblings, have seen me by turns both small and great. That’s how I was born. I cannot change to someone else, nor can I ever cease from seeking out the facts of my own birth. (Johnston)
It is with great frustration that many readers encounter this passage. It is clear that Oedipus has not yet grasped his true lineage, and thereby has no understanding of his fate, but there is a feeling of helplessness that occurs when reading theses lines, no matter which author has penned them. The steel of Oedipus’ resolve does not falter in any author’s telling, but the Storr translation is particularly  interesting in that Oedipus still holds onto his pride, ranking himself as the “favorite” child of fortune.
The Johnston translation is unique in that, thanks to a simple word choice, there is a window into the private life and mind of Oedipus. In this section, he identifies his origin has “insignificant” (a break from his constant reminders of his kingly status) and also insults Jocasta,stating that she likes to“play the noble lady”– implying that she is not as queenly as she might seem.
While these textual choices may seem slight to some, these are huge revelations in terms of the overarching plot and carry important implications into  subsequent character interactions.
“Shamed” , “Dishonoured” Both authors use these synonyms to describe Oedipus’ feelings on discovering his low birthright, but the placement of these words in context belies yet more about Oedipus’ character. In the Johnston adaptation, Oedipus’ insistence that he will not be dishonored comes before the reference to fate, implying, perhaps, that Oedipus is using his view of “mother fate” as justification for his feelings, whereas in the Storr translation, it comes after, enforcing the hubristic qualities of Oedipus and his affirmation of himself as Fortune’s “favorite” child. This sentiment is echoed in the previous sections as well, when Oedipus declares in Johnston’s translation that “In doing this, I’m acting as an ally of the god and of dead Laius, too.”. Here, there is no need to justify his actions, but yet he feels the need to reassert why he is choosing this course of action.
The qualities of new discoveries within this specific character are incredibly important to each adaption and serve as best proof of their individualism. In Storr’s translation, we are presented with an Oedipus who is proud and formal, determined to maintain propriety and is stalwart in his belief in his utter royalty. In the Fitts/ Fitzgerald version, we see a slightly warmer Oedipus who is concerned for his people —however, it would seem to this Oedipus that appearances are, perhaps, equally important. The sense of nobility in his speech is plain, but there is an interesting undercurrent of unease. In Johnston’s adaptation, he presents a separatist Oedipus who is all business, but Johnston chooses to explore an Oedipus who is, perhaps, slightly insecure and seeks approval from the people he rules.

All of these separate and specific examples become part of a greater whole when utilized in
conjunction with an understanding of the importance of viewing each script as a separate entity, in
which each author has merged his own unique voice with the original intent of Sophocles.
An average audience member may not have the time or interest to delve so deeply into the text, but as an exploratory reader, it is vital to search for new answers and new possibilities.  In fact, much of the motivation behind all new adaptations and translations is this constant quest to better understand these texts. If, as Johnston alludes, Jocasta only “plays” the noble lady, is she an ineffective ruler or wife? Is Oedipus content in this relationship? What then, is the greater implication of Jocasta’s suicide and maternal relationship to Oedipus? The purpose of translating and adapting texts is not to destroy the original author’s intent, but rather, to perhaps utilize a new method of thought in order to provide a new generation with a relevant script. It is (admittedly) easy to view Greek tragedies as stuffy and boring, but this is part of the challenge that modern playwrights take on when formulating new versions of Greek texts: bringing these timeless tales into a modern light. Perhaps Cookson said it best: “It must be  said of the translator, as it it said of the inspired teacher, that the mind of the master dwells within him, that he has received the word— he is not the mere pool that reflects a star, its splendor penetrates him, and is regendered, with a lesser glow, but in the heat of his soul.”

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