More Oresteia

March 29, 2009

For those interested in Anne Carson’s new translation of three Greek tragedies — and a lot of the people coming to this blog lately have been looking into it — there’s a thoughtful review by Brad Leithauser in the New York Times Book Review of the translation. Leithauser is less delighted by some of Carson’s choices than other reviewers have been, finding the tone sometimes jarringly colloquial. And indeed, some of the examples he pulls are odd:

There are moments when her diction stoops so low I had trouble remembering I was dealing with men godlike in their splendor, as when her Agamemnon announces: “Count no man happy until he dies happy. / If I keep this rule, I’ll be okay.”

I think it is particularly the contrast, in this passage, between the elevated and antiquated structure of “count no man happy” with the irretrivably modern and casual “I’ll be okay” that makes it such an uncomfortable juxtaposition. For anyone who would argue that Carson’s project is precisely to pull the tragedy down to the human level, rather than have its characters “godlike in their splendor,” Leithauser makes a pretty compelling case otherwise:

As soon as characters in a Greek tragedy look merely life-size, any distinction between the soaring and the sordid tends to collapse. Agamemnon is a principal in the larger tale of the House of Atreus, which encompasses adultery, boastful murder, madness, cannibalized children, matricide — mere grisly grist for the tabloids, if it isn’t the stuff of immortal literature.

Still, Leithauser acknowledges the power of much of Carson’s language, and also wonders how the translation would work on stage.

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. . . .

It’s always difficult, in reading a review — particularly of a translation — to tell whether the  missteps noted are singular instances or endemic in the work, but Leithauser’s piece seems even-handed and attentive. And Carson’s work still appears to be a remarkable and innovative achievement.



One Response to “More Oresteia”

  1. […] More of our discussions of Carson’s Oresteia here, here, and here. Posted by exchangesjournal Filed in International Literature Tagged: Aeschylus, Anne Carson, […]

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