Lost in Translation
Our visit to the MFA and the Ancient Word Collections made me consider the various art I was observing as a medium of communication in which ideas and values could be transmitted without supplementary text. I then began to consider ancient plays from the Greek Empire and their ability to communicate certain messages without explicitly stating them. In other words, how did the playwrights convey their message to their audience through acting? What function did acting have in shaping the audiences’ understanding of the play?
The candlelit lab that I participated in last week intensified this curiosity. Essentially, the lab made me ponder on the concept of translation and how sometimes meaning can be lost in the process of trying to figure out what a text is trying to say. The lab took place in a dark room where the only source of light I had was a candle dimly lit next to my paper. Thus, it was very hard to decipher certain phrases as I could not clearly see what I was writing. The handwriting of the author was also an obstacle when trying to decipher the text. The extremely elaborate cursive lettering was something I was not used to, so I had trouble figuring out what some words were. While copying the original text by hand, I needed to leave blanks or write random words because I simply did not know what the text was saying, either because I could not see properly or because I could not understand the author’s handwriting. There are probably many burdens when it comes to trying to deduce a piece of literature. Considering my questions on understanding ancient playwrights, I wonder if translators encounter similar obstacles as well and if these obstacles affect the way a piece of literature is deduced. How much does an incorrect translation of a play influence our understanding of it? Furthermore, how does that affect the literature’s connotation in general for future generations?
My professor for my Greek Tragedy class has translated two Greek plays in English: “The Bacchae” by Euripides and “The Frogs” by Aristophanes. He told me that the most difficult part of translating these playwrights was selecting the correct words that accurately and successfully captured the real liveliness of the play. For example, the Greek word for “love” varies depending on which love you are talking about; the “love” for your country is different than the “love” you have for your mother, so you need to use the correct word for that “love” accordingly. My professor stated that if you do not use the correct word when translating, meaning can be lost. So in order to capture the same emotion portrayed by the actors, it is imperative to precisely understand the text.
It is important to know that this meaning is almost always clear and present in the acting of the characters. Greek tragedies were always the aesthetic norm at the time. Because they typically lamented on the responsibility of humankind, many people could relate to these tragedies on a personal level. So by having actual people act recite the plays, it further established a connection between the audience and the play. Greek tragedies describe the unpredictable forces we encounter in everyday life. They emphasize the emotions and events that are out of our control. They underscore that if we do not take responsibility for our own wellbeing, we will inevitably engage in overindulgence and recklessness. On stage, they would show child sacrifices, horrendous murders, cruel acts of revenge, and fatal consequences of human ignorance. These theatrical actions are what give the plays their significance. Thus, translating the play short of the playwright’s expectations could distort our understanding of it. This meaning can follow the play for years as more and more people begin to consider its meaning as legitimate (in their minds).
An example of this is Aeschylus’ The Oresteia (458 BC). The Oresteia is a collection of three plays—Agamemnon, The Libation Bearers, and The Eumenides—that is generally considered as a transition from dark ages full of bloodshed and cruel revenges to a higher form of society. Aeschylus’ message behind The Oresteia is that man cannot hope to be righteous if he is partaking in abhorrent activities, like murdering others in pursuit of revenge. The only way to end this cycle of violence is not by adding more blood into the equation, but by creating a new system of justice. However, adaptations and performances of The Oresteia across numerous countries had reflected their foregoing political climate or social controversies (Borodovčáková, p. 75). Although Greek tragedies like The Oresteia are powerful tools for expressing one’s disapproval of political oppression, these translations and enactments strip the play from its true meaning. No longer do we have a play that emphasizes the importance of a new rule of law, but a play that considers another angle: modern political and social debates. Various adoptions of the play have completely distorted Aeschylus’ purpose of The Oresteia: using it as an advocacy for aristocratic prerogatives (Borodovčáková, p. 75). I think it is absolutely imperative to correctly and accurately translate a piece of literature in order to preserve its true intention and meaning. Although meaning can be lost in translation, it is something we definitely need to make sure we are more aware of.
Borodovčáková, Martina. “Ancient Drama Today. Oresteia and Its Stage Forms.” Ancient Drama Today. Oresteia and Its Stage Forms, Institute of Theatre and Film Research: Slovak Academy of Sciences, www.sav.sk/journals/uploads/01221546SD0X-2015-73.pdf.