In the New York Times (I chopped a couple of paragraphs from the end here). It discusses, though not quite directly, the role that translation has in how a work is received.
There must have been occasional intervals, during the decade-long siege of Troy, when the Greek commander, Agamemnon, suffered pangs of self-pity. But for Agamemnon, in retrospect, the Trojan War (still, after all these millenniums, the most potent symbol we have for a seemingly endless conflict) was a cakewalk. His real problems began only after he returned home to his wife, Clytemnestra, who dispatched him almost before he’d had time to change his sandals.
If this seems a somewhat flippant account of Agamemnon’s tragedy, as immortalized by Aeschylus in his “Oresteia” trilogy (458 B.C.), it is in keeping with the tone of Anne Carson’s new translation. Her Agamemnon is brash and slangy. When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, the standard translation was Richmond Lattimore’s, published in 1953. Lattimore had labored mightily — perhaps too mightily — in pursuit of grandeur, achieved chiefly through high diction and a studious English reconstitution of Greek meters. Here, in a typical passage, the Chorus asks Clytemnestra about her husband’s possible return:
Is it some grace — or otherwise — that you have heard
to make you sacrifice at messages of good hope?
I should be glad to hear, but must not blame your silence.
And this is Carson’s rendering of the same passage:
So you got good news?
Tell me, unless you don’t want to.
Defenders of Carson’s approach might point out that her plainspoken delivery has the advantage of sounding like something someone might actually say. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine anybody (anybody, that is, whose existence extends beyond the enchanted, concentric rings of a theater) talking as Lattimore’s characters talk. The play opens with a night watchman, lamenting the unchanging dreariness of his task. Here is Lattimore:
I ask the gods some respite from the weariness
of this watchtime measured by years I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to mark
the grand processionals of all the stars of night. . . .
What’s lost in this combination of metrical mellifluousness and clunkiness (elbowed dogwise?) is any sense of genuine exasperation. Here is Carson, where impatience emerges like a jab in the ribs:
Gods! Free me from this grind!
It’s one long year I’m lying here watching waiting watching waiting —
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my paws like a dog.
I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars. . . .
Any attempt, like Lattimore’s, at steadily elevated diction runs the risk of windy bombast. But there’s a hazard, too, to what Carson is doing: the possibility of a fatal diminishment. As soon as characters in a Greek tragedy look merely life-size, any distinction between the soaring and the sordid tends to collapse. Agamemnon is a principal in the larger tale of the House of Atreus, which encompasses adultery, boastful murder, madness, cannibalized children, matricide — mere grisly grist for the tabloids, if it isn’t the stuff of immortal literature.
Confronting these two polar versions of Agamemnon, a reader may search out a middle terrain, like that presented by Robert Lowell, whose respectful streamlining of Lattimore appeared in 1978. Here is Lowell’s opening of Aeschylus’ trilogy:
I’ve lain here a year,
crouching like a dog on one elbow,
and begged the gods to end my watch.
I’ve watched the stars. . . .
And the Chorus’s inquiry about Agamemnon’s return:
Have you heard good news, or is it only
hope that makes you light the altars?
We would gladly hear you, but accept your silence.
Lowell’s vision of Agamemnon the man (described in a stage note as “kindly yet terrifying, a natural ruler, very practiced and alert at it, yet invincibly and almost willfully blinded to his danger”) feels consistent with the clipped yet graceful, brisk cadences of his translation. Each character is doubly enclosed, within a web of words and the larger web of fate, and yet language and destiny feel like complementary aspects of a single reality.
This was what I failed to find, to my frustration, in Carson’s translations: a feeling of a composite whole. There are moments when her diction stoops so low I had trouble remembering I was dealing with men godlike in their splendor, as when her Agamemnon announces: “Count no man happy until he dies happy. / If I keep this rule, I’ll be okay.” (Lattimore’s kingly king seems much more satisfying: “Call that man only blest / who has in sweet tranquillity brought his life to close.”)
Carson’s choice of diction presents many puzzles. Why does Clytemnestra’s lover seem to quote Scripture? Why, if speakability is Carson’s aim, would she have one of her characters declare, “Look at him, look how he drips unhealth — shudder object!” Why would Helen be referred to — distractingly, jarringly — as a “weapon of mass destruction”?
Similar vagaries of pitch arise through Carson’s decision to replicate Aeschylean word-coinages, where two words are compounded into one. Some of these prove quite effective (“a certain manminded woman,” “Time stood like a deathmaster over me”), but others sound whimsical and look cumbersome (“griefremembering,” “allenveloping”). Unfortunately, in our time (the ancient Greeks were spared some indignities), such coinages smack both of Madison Avenue and a blog-clogged cyberspace in which most punctuation has been sucked into a black hole. When Carson has Clytemnestra declare, “Make his path crimsoncovered! purplepaved! redsaturated!” the reader naturally replies, “Fuhgeddaboutit.”