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Translating Divine Action in Greek Drama

Mary Lefkowitz

Wellesley College

In the first half of the twentieth century it was common practice to translate an unspecified theos as “God,” in an attempt to bring out a supposed commonality between Greek religious thought and the monotheism of their own times. But in the last half-century the significant advances in understanding polytheism have shown why creating such supposed commonality is at best misleading, if only because it might lead a reader to assume that Greek gods shared with the Judeo-Christian deity a commitment to further the general welfare of mankind.  A rendering such as “the god” or even “Zeus,” serves to remind the reader that the poet and his audience did not have access to religious texts that assured them of divine providence or hope for the future. Prophecy, with all its obscurities and uncertainties was the only means of determining what might happen, but as the dramas clearly illustrate, it was only too easy for mortals to misinterpret such signs as the gods might choose to send. For that reason, in my translations I try to indicate, either by stage directions or with footnotes, that readers can understand the importance of omens and prophecies, and not try to imagine that they are mere superstitions.

Explaining the meaning and importance of ritual provides another major challenge for the translator. In translations without footnotes, such as the 1958 collection Greek Plays in Modern Translation (1958), the editor Dudley Fitts avoided coming to terms with the extended ritual summoning Agamemnon’s ghost in Aeschylus’ Choephoroe by replacing it with Sophocles’ Electra, which focuses on the emotions of its central character, and keeps the gods in the background. Fitts claimed that “thus the trilogy is, as narrative, preserved,” without observing that he was at the same time preventing his audience from understanding that the rituals enacted in the drama help both the audience and Orestes understand why it is necessary for him to kill Clytemnestra. Here footnotes and stage directions help to explain the significance of libations, grave offerings and other unfamiliar beliefs and practices.

I believe that translators need to pay special attention to the presence of the divine in human action, even though as modern readers we may instinctively prefer to treat references to the Greek gods as metaphorical. For example, when the chorus of Sophocles’ Electra sings of the Erinys “coming, with many feet, many hands, hidden in a cruel ambush… with feet of bronze” (399-401), I observe in a note that they are predicting how the gods will see that Agamemnon’s death is avenged, by using the many feet and hands of Orestes and Pylades, of whose presence the chorus and Electra are yet unaware, at the same time indicating that the gods will work (as they often will) through the agency of human beings.

I also seek to treat divine epiphanies with the respect that an ancient person might have given them, and not characterize them as purely mechanical, demeaning or even ironic. When gods appear at the ends of dramas, it is not merely to tie up loose ends, but to illustrate the power of the gods, however undeserving the human characters receiving their beneficence might seem to us to be. For example, Apollo’s intervention ex machina at the end of the Orestes, is not “illusory,” or the god “stupid,” as William Arrowsmith argued in the introduction to his translation in the Chicago Complete Greek Tragedies (1958). In practice, the god’s predictions about Orestes’ exoneration vary only in a few details from the prophecies given to Orestes in Aeschylus’ Eumenides, and the god’s sudden intervention brings order to the chaos the human characters have created. After all, Orestes was Euripides’ most popular play in antiquity. We do not know why, but the god’s message, with “its final tonic chord of satiety and satisfaction” may have had something to do with it (West 1987, 28).

Session/Panel Title

Translating Greek Tragedy: Some Practical Suggestions (workshop)

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