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Representing Greek Meter

James Romm

Bard College

This paper investigates changes in the metrical choices made by translators when dealing with the iambic trimeter of tragic speeches and dialogue.

The evolution of Greek tragedy in translation has followed a clear trend in the past fifty years:  Lines of dialogue have become shorter and less metrically uniform, as the goal of producing a “dramatic poem” (the phrase comes from the foreword to Oxford’s “Greek Tragedy in New Translations” series) has predominated over that of drama per se.  The increasing ratio of white space to print, seen in the works of poet-translators like Anne Carson, Ted Hughes and Seamus Heaney, has reached a new extreme with Bryan Doerries’ 2015 All That You’ve Seen Here is God, where most lines of Sophocles and Aeschylus are shortened to three or four syllables.   This trend has gone largely undiscussed despite the enormous change taking place in a modern reader’s experience of Greek tragedy.  As lines have shortened and lost uniformity, looking more like choral odes than dialogue, the lyric and emotional quality of the plays has crowded out the more discursive side that is best expressed in the iambic trimeter lines of the original.

Aristotle famously remarked in the Poetics that iambic trimester was closest of any meter to normal spoken rhythm, and that ‘prose’ conversations sometimes accidentally slipped into it.   The conversational cadence of iambic trimester lines was strongly set apart, in performance, from recitative passages and kommoi, both of which used music, and choral odes which also employed dance, to heighten emotion and quicken pace.  These distinctions are badly blurred in many modern translations, some of which actually render choral odes in a longer, more uniform line than dialogue – reversing the original relationship of these two elements with regard to formal restraints.   Various motives explain this shift, as expressed by the translators themselves:  A desire for ‘speakability’ or ‘performability;’ a striving for ‘modern’ effect; an emphasis on poetry over dramaturgy (as expressed in Oxford’s “dramatic poem”).  Looming over their creative process, though unacknowledged, is the ghost of Shakespeare, a historical phantom inevitably summoned if they choose to put dramatic dialogue into iambic pentameter -- as ever fewer choose to do.

In my own translations I have chosen to use strongly metrical blank verse in our own translated plays and insisting on the same in those we commissioned.  This verse form, it seems to me, is easily recognizable to readers and therefore any departure from it, in kommoi and odes, is instantly felt – an essential point, I believe, if the boundary lines between sung and spoken Greek are to be made meaningful to non-Classicists. Uniformity of line length also seemed to us an important goal, just as it would be in a translation of a Homeric epic.  Indeed, the iambic line (unlike the dactylic) does not permit resolution and is always twelve syllables long; this formal restriction, again contrasting markedly with the fluid, ever-changing meters of sung passages, gives tragic dialogue its characteristic stateliness and elevation, qualities that are inevitably diminished when line length is allowed to vary widely within a single speech or stretch of stichomythia.

As to the ghost of Shakespeare, we chose to welcome this phantom rather than banish it, mindful of the historical circumstance that the Elizabethan dramatists first chose iambic pentameter for their own plays in imitation of the Greek and Roman tragedians. 

Session/Panel Title

Translating Greek Tragedy: Some Practical Suggestions (workshop)

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