The Problem of Untranslatability

Sophokles’ Antigone, in a new version by Anne Carson, has already been hailed as ‘a marvellous new translation… that crackles with canny colloquialism and insight’ (The Arts Desk). Currently on stage at The Barbican starring Juliette Binoche and directed by Ivo van Hove, Antigone is an iconic Greek Tragedy in which familial love and duty clash with politics and law, wreaking destructive consequences. Here Carson explains the difficulty in translating words and ideas from one language into another without losing rich subtext present in the original.  

Let me share with you the problem of untranslatability. Two examples.

At line 943 of this play Antigone utters her final words as a living person and exits to her death. She has just sung her own funeral dirge, unusual girl that she is, and the dirge ends with her summary statement of what she did wrong, the reason why she is condemned to die. Her tone is raw, astounded and sad, yet also unshakable. It makes no sense to her that things worked out the way they did, still she remains clear about the moral quotient of the situation. She expresses all this in a sentence that is almost a paradox:

I was caught in an act of perfect piety (943)

Surely piety is not a criminal act in which one is “caught”? Surely piety is a good thing? Surely the community that outlaws an act of perfect piety is a community that has tipped over the edge into nonsense? Antigone stands poised on this edge, holding onto sense.

Her wording emphasizes the precariousness of the moment: it is top-heavy with meaning. She has loaded two cognates of the same word (noun, verb) on top of one another in a way that is standard rhetorical procedure in Greek but sounds overdetermined in English, as if to say:

I have been completely pious in committing an act of complete piety

Both noun (eusebia) and verb (sebizo) derive from the Greek root seb-, which refers to the awe that radiates from gods to humans and is given back as worship. Everything 9781783198108related to this root has fear in it. But eusebia is a fear that moves as devotion – a striving out of this world into another and a striving out of another world into this. A kind of permanent elsewhere* located “in” human being.

Now consider the English word “piety”. Can we hear in it any flicker of the original sacral force of eusebia? Derived from an Old French word for “pity”, the word “piety” came over into English c. 1540 as a term for religious devotion or “moral vertue” (OED). In modern usage it seems to me to lack the depth and dread of the Greek word – perhaps English has lost touch with true religiosity. Our pieties are more a matter of protocol than dread. And where eusebia always implies ritual action, “piety” represents a mood rather than a pressure to act. Nonetheless, there we are. I could not find, I do not know, a different or a better translation. The actor who speaks line 943 on stage will evoke the permanent elsewhere of our longing for the love of gods by drawing it up from her own voice and being.

Second example.

The ancient Greeks did not like mixture. (Forgive this blatant generalization – translator’s notes are, by their brevity, blatant). Dirt, in the ancient definition, is matter out of place. The poached egg on your plate at breakfast is not dirt, the poached egg on the floor of the British Museum is. Dirt is matter that has crossed a boundary it ought not to have crossed; dirt confounds categories and mixes up form. Its name in Greek is miasma, whose basic sense is “defilement” or “impairment of the integrity of a thing.”

Throughout the play Kreon makes clear his preference for pure categories: friend, enemy; patriot, traitor; winner, loser; good, bad; me, them. The final scene of the play forces him to recognize the miscegenation of all these and to see his own boundaries penetrated by everything bad. Recognition is expressed in the language of dirt. As he holds his son’s dead body in his arms he asks,

O filth of death
who can clean you out (1284-5)

And a few lines later, standing over the body of his wife:

now I am perfectly blended with pain (1311)

It is Aristotle’s dictum that a tragic plot is most effective when the recognition and the reversal happen at one blow. Certainly that happens here. But let us probe a little deeper into the effectiveness of Kreon’s recognition/reversal. The word he uses at 1311 for “perfectly blended” is a compound of the basic verb “to mix” and the prefix syn-, meaning “with.” This verb is meant to remind us of all the horrific comminglings that made the house of Oidipous famous, and of which Antigone is a product. But more importantly, it reminds us that Antigone herself was the champion of “withness” from the beginning of the play until her death. Her defiant announcement to Kreon:

I am someone born to share in love not hatred (523)

contains two verbs that begin with the same prefix: synechthein (“to hate with”) and synphilein (“to love with”). Withness is Antigone’s morality, Antigone’s desire, Antigone’s disaster. She begins the play yearning to join her brother in the grave:

one day we’ll lie together in the grave he and I side by side (75-6)

And her final lament brings her to a tragic recognition:

I’m a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren’t I

not at home with the dead nor with the living (850-1)

Withness – reversed – is nowhere.

Translation cannot convey the complex interactions of this metaphorical system or the inevitability of the catastrophe to which it leads. Antigone and Kreon stand opposed to one another instinctually, in the very morphology of their language, in the very grain of the way they think and speak. Sophoklean tragedy has a quality of tidiness that can be terrifying. He tucks in every stray thread. Or rather he makes it seem that each of these threads was always already woven into the same net. Why did anyone think they could escape

* The term “permanent elsewhere” is borrowed from Judith Butler’s discussion of Hegel in Antigone’s Claim (New York 2000) p. 43.

Tickets and backstage tours for Antigone are available from The Barbican’s website
Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone is available from Oberon Books’ website


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s