Family Feuds

BRAD LEITHAUSER in The New York Times:


Translated by Anne Carson

Oresyie If this seems a somewhat flippant account of Agamemnon’s tragedy, as immortalized by Aeschylus in his “Oresteia” trilogy (458 B.C.), it is in keeping with the tone of Anne Carson’s new translation. Her Agamemnon is brash and slangy. When I was an undergraduate in the 1970s, the standard translation was Richmond Lattimore’s, published in 1953. Lattimore had labored mightily — perhaps too mightily — in pursuit of grandeur, achieved chiefly through high diction and a studious English reconstitution of Greek meters. Here, in a typical passage, the Chorus asks Clytemnestra about her husband’s possible return:

Is it some grace — or otherwise — that you have heard
to make you sacrifice at messages of good hope?
I should be glad to hear, but must not blame your silence.

And this is Carson’s rendering of the same passage:

So you got good news?
You’re optimistic?
Tell me, unless you don’t want to.

Defenders of Carson’s approach might point out that her plainspoken delivery has the advantage of sounding like something someone might actually say. Certainly, it’s hard to imagine anybody (anybody, that is, whose existence extends beyond the enchanted, concentric rings of a theater) talking as Lattimore’s characters talk. The play opens with a night watchman, lamenting the unchanging dreariness of his task. Here is Lattimore:

I ask the gods some respite from the weariness
of this watchtime measured by years I lie awake
elbowed upon the Atreidae’s roof dogwise to mark
the grand processionals of all the stars of night. . . .

What’s lost in this combination of metrical mellifluousness and clunkiness (elbowed dogwise?) is any sense of genuine exasperation. Here is Carson, where impatience emerges like a jab in the ribs:

Gods! Free me from this grind!
It’s one long year I’m lying here watching waiting watching waiting —
propped on the roof of Atreus, chin on my paws like a dog.
I’ve peered at the congregation of the nightly stars. . . .

More here.