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Gained In Translation

Last summer I found myself faced with a mammoth task: the translation of the entire text of Oedipus at Colonus from Greek to English to be projected as subtitles at the Ancient Theater of Epidaurus. Having never translated anything more artistically complex than my friends’ breakfast orders or my mother’s conversations with our landlord, I panicked and fell down a rabbit hole of translator’s statements, trying to understand how real translators thought about their texts and the languages they were working with. I have no proper academic knowledge of Greek – just native fluency and primary schooling – and even less academic knowledge of Ancient Greek, so the first translator statement I read, a detailed 50-page introduction to The Persians (the only English-language book I had at my disposal for most of the summer), scared me. I did not understand the poetic tradition Sophocles was writing in, and I certainly could not recreate it in English, especially in the single week I had been given for the task. Despair was setting in until a discussion with a colleague reminded me of Sarah Ruhl’s translation of Three Sisters, and the path forward became clear. 

Like most theater students, I have read and seen Chekhov’s Three Sisters perhaps too many times, and never in the same translation. Each reading of Chekhov has always been preceded by a discussion of his stylistic approach to playwriting — his distaste for melodrama, his idea of comedy, and his commitment to realism — but what I heard never aligned with what I read. Ruhl’s translation was the first translation of Chekhov that ever made me truly understand the sentiments that Chekhov’s work is supposed to communicate, which is unbelievable considering that Ruhl does not speak Russian. Her translation was actually an adaptation, pieced together from existing translations and occasional in-the-moment assistance from Russian speakers. She never read the original text, and yet she captured what Chekhov was going for (or at least what I was taught he was going for) better than any of the linguists and Russian scholars whose translations I’d read before. Ruhl’s lack of Russian skills forced her to focus on the intent of the work instead of its language, which created an entirely unique and unquestionably successful final product.

When translating, we have a fear of losing something. I spent multiple hours agonizing over how to translate the diminutive form of Greek nouns (ex.: “Elenitsa” from “Eleni”) to English, which doesn’t have a diminutive form (you would have to say “little Eleni” or “dear Eleni,” neither of which are a good approximation). Modern Greek is vastly different from English, especially when it comes to sentence structure, and that’s where my real challenge lay. 

A man stands on a stage, flanked by two younger women.
Alexandra Aidini, Dimitris Katalifos, and Angeliki Papathemeli in Oedipus at Colonus at the 2023 Athens Epidaurus Festival; photo by Thomas Daskalakis.

Oedipus at Colonus is written using poetic structure, with each line containing a complete or partial thought. The lines were to be projected one by one, with the English translation projected directly below. From a translation perspective, this means that each line must communicate the same thing in English as it does in Greek, which is practically impossible to do in a way that is consistent with the grammatical standards of the English language. I found myself having to sacrifice matching between lines, culturally-specific terms, and the occasional grammatical rule in order to create a translation that could be easily understood by our vast English-speaking audience, who also had to split their focus between projection screens and the stage. Many things were lost, but many things were also gained. Had someone else done the translation, specifically someone whose Greek is stronger than their English, (as was the original intention) we would not have been able to provide over half of our audience with a translation that was consistent with both their linguistic tradition and their language. By replacing Greek sayings, phrases, and humor with their English equivalents (though that’s a strong word), I gave the audience a way into the text that they otherwise would not have had.

Much like Chekhov, Sophocles has been required reading in my schooling more than a few times, and I’ve read Oedipus Rex in at least three translations, none of which were particularly compelling. I first encountered Nicholas Rudall through Associate Artistic Director Gabrielle Randle-Bent’s course – What Makes a Classic Theater: from Core Mission to Concept – last spring. Much like Ruhl’s Three Sisters, it was eye-opening. Greek plays can be something of a slog when read on the page. The inherent musicality of the way they are meant to be delivered is difficult to recreate in writing and even harder to picture while reading, which makes most translations feel far too long and far too slow. Until Rudall, this had been my experience with translations to English. Greek translations (because Modern and Ancient Greek are not mutually intelligible) never seemed to have these same problems, likely because Greek speakers have a much more personal understanding of Ancient Greece and its language than even the most talented English-speaking scholar. Reading Rudall’s translation felt like reading Greek. I could connect my experience of reading the Greek Oedipus at Colonus to my experience reading Rudall’s Antigone more clearly than I’ve ever been able to connect the two languages.

This is not to say that Rudall wrote a direct translation. In fact, his version is probably as far from it as possible. What Rudall did was write an Antigone whose style was as recognizable to an English-speaking audience as more direct translations to Modern Greek are to a Greek-speaking audience. Language is one of six Aristotelian elements of drama, and as far as I’m concerned, the one that is most prominent in Antigone, so a bad (or flat) translation is dead on arrival. If the language is not compelling, neither is the show, and then you might as well not watch it. Rudall’s Antigone is worth the watch, and more impressively, worth the read. Like Ruhl’s Three Sisters and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey (which I have not mentioned thus far but which a lot of UChicago students have read), Rudall’s Antigone sacrifices the particulars of language, direct translation, and the more inaccessible aspects of scholarly thought in the name of a much greater goal: connection with the audience. 

Antigone does not belong to academics or creatives, it doesn’t even belong to Greeks (although many of us still wish it did).It belongs to everyone. To revolutionaries, to the youth, and to everyday people. Yet many translations do not prioritize that. They create an Antigone that is not appealing to the very people who are most prepared to be impacted by it, and that’s a waste.

Rudall’s Antigone is not that kind of Antigone, and neither is Gabby’s. Court’s Antigone is for us, all of us (who speak English anyway), and that is clear at its most basic textual level.

Eleni Lefakis is a third-year undergraduate studying Theater and Performance Studies at the University of Chicago. She currently serves as Outreach Chair for University Theater at UChicago’s Executive Committee and manages Occam’s Razor, UChicago’s independent improv comedy group. Outside of UChicago, she has worked as a production fellow for Lykofos Productions in Athens, Greece and as an artist-in-residence at Teatro del Presagio in Cali, Colombia.

Posted on January 12, 2024 in Productions

1 response on “Gained In Translation”

  1. Lucrezia says:

    Such an interesting and thought provoking response to a challenge you faced. You have made such an exciting addition to the academic debate of translation.

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