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2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes
Translation and the Classics

by Prof. Dan Curley, Classics

The word “translation” derives from the Latin verb latus, meaning “carry,” and the prefix trans, meaning “across.” The idea of carrying across is helpful when we consider the job of the translator, who must bring a work from one language into another. The translator has a dual responsibility. On the one hand, he or she must be faithful to the words of the original author; on the other hand, he or she must use the words of the intended audience. The process is seldom smooth, with the translator being forced to compromise at almost every turn. Some translators of Greek plays, especially scholars of ancient drama, attempt word-for-word, line-for-line renderings; their efforts, although they have the virtue of being literal, are often ill-suited for actual performance. Heaney captures the form and meaning of Sophocles’ poetry without slavishly reproducing it. His Burial at Thebes preserves the essence of the Antigone yet allows it to live and breathe on the modern stage.

The tension between a translation's faithfulness to the original and its allegiance to a new audience speaks directly to the question of why we should continue to read the so-called classics.Antigone is a classic in two senses. In the first, more general sense, it is an outstanding piece of literature that has stood the test of time. In the second, more specific sense, it is a work of classical Greece, meaning that it was produced in Athens during the fifth century BCE and has endured to the present day. However, this secondary meaning differs little from the first, since the fifth century was an outstanding era for Athens and other Greek city-states. To say that a work has stood the test of time suggests that it has survived the ravages of history unscathed and intact, and that it retains its original greatness and significance. Yet, given the specific performative context of tragedies like Antigone, how can a play performed on a particular day of a particular festival in a particular year within a particular city-state before a particular audience have the same significance for us? The answer, of course, is that it cannot. Although it is possible for us to know and even sympathize with the values and ethics of the ancients, we are not the Greeks. We have our own values and ethics, which define us and color our efforts to understand and interpret. A classic, then, must have something to say to each generation of audiences; it must be open to reinterpretation and reinvention, or else it becomes little more than a relic of a former age. Rather than take the greatness of a classic at face value, we should strive to find new ways to reaffirm its greatness. By this standard, Antigone, which has weathered almost twenty-five centuries of interpretation, shows no sign of being anything other than a classic.