Poetic Language and Corporeality in Translations of Greek Tragedy

Stephe Harrop, David Wiles
2008 New Theatre Quarterly  
Theoretical Introduction IN HIS ADVICE to the playwright about the process of working out the lexis or language, Aristotle urges three things: (1) the writer should place the scene before his eyes; (2) he should as far as he can work out the schemata or 'gestures'; and (3) he should feel the emotions of the play. 1 If this is how the Greek playwright worked, what of the translator? Can the trans lator of ancient drama simply concentrate on the words, without thought as to how those words were
more » ... those words were once actively made, or should the translator of words somehow enter into these three dimensions of the writing process in order to produce an acceptable equiva lence? We wish to argue for the second propo sition on the grounds that lexis and schemata should be indissev erable. Stephe Harrop is currently using conventional and perform ance-based research methods to explore the relationship between text and movement in some poetic adaptations of Greek tragedy. This paper sketches a theoretical basis for that project, and offers some preliminary conclusions. The embodied nature of language appears to be entirely neglected in theoretical discussions of translation, yet for purposes of recreating Greek tragedy on the modern stage it seems to us that there is an urgent need to address the problem. We begin with two propositions about translation that derive from a generation exposed to the shock of modernism, when the umbilical link between the artist and classical tradition seemed to have been cut. First, Walter Benjamin, in relation to the task of translating Baudelaire, called attention in 1923 to the problem of poetry. A poem, he argued, cannot be defined in terms of how the ideal reader will respond to its meaning. For what does a literary work 'say'? What does it communicate? It 'tells' very little to those who understand it. Its essential quality is not statement or the imparting of information. Yet any transla tion which intends to perform a transmitting func tion cannot transmit anything but information -hence something inessential. This is the hallmark of bad translations. 2 The translation of ancient tragedy is often considered at a linguistic level, as if the drama consisted simply of words being written, spoken and heard. This article contends that translation for the stage is a process in which literary decisions have physical, as well as verbal, outcomes. It traces existing formulations concerning the links between vocal and bodily expression, and explores the ways in which printed texts might be capable of suggesting modes of corporeality or systems of movement to the embodied performer. It sketches some of the ways in which the range of possible relationships between language and physicality might be explored and understood, drawing upon recent practice-based research into the work of three modern poetic translators of Greek tragedy. Stephe
doi:10.1017/s0266464x08000055 fatcat:t7hcqsd275ecldc56uoem65i3a