You are here

Out of Joint: Anachronism and Timelessness in the Translation of Greek Tragedy

Emily Wilson

University of Pennsylvania

This paper aims to examine the ways that anachronism is currently feared, used, avoided and understood in Anglophone translations of Greek tragedy, and to interrogate current assumptions about anachronism. 

English translations of ancient Greek tragedies are inevitably anachronistic, in that they move these plays into an entirely non-ancient time.  Words and phrases that are felt as anachronisms are those that are more strikingly modern than the other (also modern) language around them.  Disruption is uncomfortable, and may interrupt an immersive reading experience. But discomfort can be a good thing.   Lawrence Venuti (Venuti 1995) has famously inveighed against the Anglo-American assumption that translations should be smoothly "domesticizing" as opposed to "foreignizing". Anachronism might seem like a domesticizing move, but it can also work to shake the reader out of complacency, and in this sense it can “foreignize (Venuti 1998).

Venuti's theoretical work is well-known, but it is not clear how much effect it has had on translation practices; the trend in classics has largely been towards more colloquial versions, which some have seen as vulgarizing (cf. Mendelsohn 1998).  I argue for a clear distinction between vulgarity and anachronism; the former is out of place, but the latter can be useful.  There is a dangerous current expectation that tragedy must be timeless (cf. discussion of Auletta 1994 in Rourke 1995).  I argue that it is a good thing to shake readers out of this prejudice, and occasional anachronism can serve the useful purpose of making readers aware of time.  Deborah Roberts has rightly noted that anachronisms and archaisms come in several different types, which may be both anachronistic and archaic, but may also create richer meaning (Roberts 2007).  In this paper I further explore the ways that anachronism can make visible or invisible our temporal distance from Greek tragedy.

Versions of Greek tragedy which make extensive use of anachronism (e.g. Harrison 1991; Heaney 1991; Carson 2015) tend to be understood as "imitations" not "translations".  Certain kinds of anachronism seem to have become less acceptable: Gilbert Murray's Euripides makes extensive use of capital-G "God", as well as medievalizing language ("coif", "raiment": Murray 1943).  The later Bacchae of Paul Roche is anachronistic in its translation of the language of divinely-induced madness into the terms of then-contemporary psychoanalysis: we are told that Pentheus has been "brainwashed" and the bacchants are suffering from "hysteria" (Roche 1998).   More recent text-book translations tend to make less prominent use of anachronism, But is it just a colloquialism, or also an anachronism, for Euripides' Jason to say that women are happy "if everything goes well between the sheets" (Svarlien 2008)?  Did the Greeks have "sheets", and if not, how exactly does this kind of anachronism differ from the "hysteria" or "God" types?

I will set this background against my own choices, focusing on cases where I was tempted to use anachronism, and discuss why I sometimes revised the passage to make the translation seem less anachronistic, and sometimes not.  I argue that the reminder of a modern parallel through anachronism can sometimes be effectively jarring (as in calling Helen "Miss Sparta" (for Tro. 870, τὴν τάλαιναν), inviting comparison with modern beauty pageants and also evoking their negative connotations).  I will include detailed discussion of religious language, considering what might be lost and what can be gained, by using terms that may seem anachronistically reminiscent of Christian or Judaeo-Christian terminology in the translation of Greek tragedy.  My (occasional) use of religious anachronism may seem similar to Gilbert Murray's (much more extensive) uses of Christianized language, but my purposes are different from his.  If Athena is "the Virgin" (Trojan Women 561), or Dionysus declares "I am GOD" (at Bacchae 22), the momentary evocation of Christian terminology -- like other occasional anachronisms -- may create a disturbing awareness at the combined closeness and distance of the world of Greek tragedy from our own times. 

Session/Panel Title

Translating Greek Tragedy: Some Practical Suggestions (workshop)

Session/Paper Number


Share This Page

© 2020, Society for Classical Studies Privacy Policy