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Translating the Voices of Tragedy’s “Other” Women: Theresa Has Kyung Cha’s Dictee and Seneca’s Phaedra

Kristina Chew

University of California, Santa Cruz

Dictee (1982) by Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, a seminal text in Asian American literary studies and Korean studies, presents a model of how to integrate the study of Asian American literature in Classics.  Dictee incorporates elements of classical myth with figures from Korean history, parts of the Catholic liturgy, passages from the autobiography of St. Thérèse de Lisieux, and stills from Carl Theodore Dreiser’s 1928 film The Passion of Joan of Arc to present themes of sacrifice, exile, love and redemption (Lewallen 2009, Wolf 1986).  Cha was a filmmaker and performance artist and Dictee performs the Asian American reception of classical literature via text and image.  Visual artifacts of words written by Korean children on the walls of mines where they were forced to work, an anatomical diagram of the organs of speech production, and photographs of Korean revolutionary Yu Guan Soon and of Cha’s mother as a young woman convey how elements of classical myth are personalized and envisioned as ways to present aspects of Asian and Asian American history.  Dictee begins with the presentation of a poetic fragment attributed to Sappho that was written by the author and integrates classical myth into its structure, with each of its sections based on one of the Muses — or rather, on eight of the Muses.  In place of Euterpe, Muse of the flute, Cha substitutes a Muse of lyric poetry and of her own invention, Elitere, a name which carries connotations of selectivity and of being “elite” and of Demeter, the goddess who figures prominently in one of the longest sections of Dictee, Erato (Chew 1997).  Greek and Latin literary texts and myths are inhabited by many foreign and often eastern, “Oriental,” and “Asiatic” (or “Asian”) female voices including Medea and Phaedra, whose portrayal in Seneca’s tragedy echoes that of Virgil’s Dido (Fantham 1975, Trinacity 2014).  Following Cha’s use of Greek and Roman myth and poetry in Dictee and through an analysis of my own practice in translating Seneca’s Phaedra, I seek to show how it is possible to recover the voice and sensibility of “other” women — of women identified as foreign and barbarian — in ancient texts (Hall 1989).  Greek and Roman authors present exoticized portraits of foreign women and translation of texts like Phaedra can, just as Dictee, critique and revise the representation of those whom more and more readers of classical literature see not at all as “other” but as ourselves (Wilson 2018).

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Classical Reception in Contemporary Asian and Asian American Culture

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