A Modern Translation

This Summer I’m taking a class called The Comic Spirit. Aside from learning about comedy, what makes the class enjoyable is that the professor makes the course very engaging. It helps that the class size is small, but I’m sure even during a regular semester the class would still be as engaging. We take the time to find and share a few clips online pertaining to the material we’ve covered thus far and mull over how the comedy works. Being a comparative world literature course, we are also required to read selected pieces of literature, including some of the classics. This is where I run into an impediment of sorts.

One of the required texts for the class is Aristophanes’ play Lysistrata. To be more precise, the text we are reading in class is actually a modern translation of the play. There comes a time in one’s life that a modern translation of a classic work might be helpful as a supplement in order to understand the text. In my opinion, I think students in high school would most benefit from such a supplement, and I feel that those at a more academic, college level should study a translation closer to the original text. In fact, the professor that taught my Shakespeare class this spring said that he did not want to use such texts like the No Fear Shakespeare series, which include a modern translation along side Shakespeare’s text, because it would be an insult to him, the class’s intelligence, and Shakespeare. He suggested that if anyone needed it that they have every right to use one for guidance, but urged them to refrain from bringing it to class. Those guides are best left at home, he said.

The editors of the class’s text, the Folger Library series,  did an exceptional job with including page by page footnotes anyway. I don’t think  that anyone really needed more help understanding the text. The professor selected many passages for close reading during class. So that is where I stand. I agree with the words of my previous professor, so now comes this issue with Lysistrata. Things I remind myself: It’s a different class, different genre, and a different professor who by the way has a different purpose.

Even though I am not a fan of “modern” translations, Douglass Parker makes a valid point in his introduction about his choices in translating the text:

It is interpretive rather than literal. It cannot be used as a by-the-line crib, but aims at recreating in American English verse what I conceive to have been Aristophanes’ essential strategies in Greek. To do this, fields of metaphor have often been changed, jokes added in compensation for jokes lost, useless proper names… neglected.

I suppose for the purpose of the class, it works. The point  is not to focus on the literal Greek text, but rather develop an appreciation of the content, comedy, and ideas within Aristophanes’ original play.

But sometimes I do run into the occasional line that makes me cringe:

Hello to you, Lysistrata. -But what’s the fuss? Don’t look so barbarous, baby; knitted brows just aren’t your style.

The diction is too causal, too American, too 60’s for me and am displaced.

I guess for the purposes of the class I can accept reading a modern translation. Others in my class actually really appreciate Parker’s translation, but I think that afterward I would like to revisit Aristophanes’ play and read a version closer to the original text.

– Jonathan Lugo

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