Élan Reisner

Untimely Translations


Read afterthoughts to this piece from Michael Kinnucan.


Nothing like an economic crisis to put the humanities on trial. Budget cutters looking to amputate the dead weight of great books from our pre-professional institutions face off with the righteous defenders of the Geisteswissenschaften, who extol the virtues of the best that has been thought in the vain hope of stemming the tide of philistinism. These champions of culture do the best they can to persuade their fellow men that those dusty old texts are still worth studying: They offer timeless insight into the human condition! They presciently anticipate the particular challenges we face today! Studying them refines our aesthetic sensibilities! It trains us to be active and responsible citizens! It fosters historical consciousness!

All true, no doubt. And yet I can’t help but find the whole practice of apologetics a bit disturbing. For one, it concedes from the outset that the past has indeed passed, that it’s dead and gone, de-ceased, and that the study of, say, dead languages is at the end of the day a matter of trying to bring the dead back to life. The pertinent questions therefore remain in the sphere of possibility and feasibility: To what extent is artificial reanimation possible? What are its relative costs and benefits? This may seem like an obvious take on the scenario, but it seems to me to get things exactly backwards. The old texts persist. Even without digital archiving, they simply cannot perish. Though dead, they survive. The question is therefore not one of bringing the dead to life—of throwing them a lifeline and paying for their temporary life-support—but of putting the dead to rest. Since afterlife is a given, neglecting the textual corpus—letting the body rot—is an invitation to disaster. Re-reading the old texts is not an expendable possibility; it is the most dire of necessities. The funeral rites must be performed, the graves must be attended to. This is indeed an economic inconvenience, for it is just what the nomoi of the oikos, the laws of the household, demand.


Thus the past presents an impasse, as Antigone incessantly reminds us. On the one hand, what was no longer is, and thus need not be bothered over. That was then, this is now. Creon aims to show as much by leaving the corpse of Polynices unburied. So victorious is the present regime that it will not even expend the energy to put its vanquished competitor into the earth. On the other hand, since neglecting the past is itself a presentation, an exhibition (the disgraced corpse becoming ever more conspicuously present as its putrid aura envelops the living), evidently the past does need to be bothered over—lest it fail to pass.

But Creon’s mistake is not merely to neglect the past, but to prohibit it. He makes of the dead traitor an example of the law: Anyone who trespasses the law of the state, threatening the well-being of the living, is as good as dead. Antigone trespasses this law in order to correct it. She knows that the well-being of the living remains under threat so long as the living refuse the dead the rites of passage that would relegate them to the past. To neglect the dead their rites would be to trespass a law of a different order, the law that separates the living from the dead, without which there could be no political community—no common house or house of commons.

Unfortunately, such laws are—as Antigone says—ἄγραπτα [agrapta], “unwritten.” Because of this, they’re most liable to be overlooked and unwittingly trespassed. After all, how can one cite a law or demonstrate its authority if it isn’t written down? A physicist would answer that it depends in part on the law’s predictive power. So it is with the laws of the gods that Antigone invokes. Though unwritten, the laws are ἀσφαλῆ [asphalē], “unfailing.” What this means is that we come to know them not through their statement but through their effects. The criminal knows the law best, since each trespass marks the limit it crosses. Creon trespasses the law that the dead be delivered to the past, but he also makes it legible, tracing it with the blood of the living.


If, among the myriad custodians of the necropolis of cultural history, the task of this sacrificial trespass belongs to one profession preeminently, it is the translator. Translation, almost always an act of pious transgression, brings into view the impasse of the past. Sometimes, like Creon, the translator mutilates the text, leaving its limbs for buzzards and dogs, in strict adherence to the laws of his own language; at other times, like Antigone, the translator trespasses all transient conventions in order to tend to its body. Both crimes are inevitable, and both are necessary for the text’s ongoing passage.

The corpse of Antigone has been subjected to many such prohibited sacraments and lawful indignities. Perhaps it is our Sisyphean punishment to forever tend to the body of the heroine whose death we have so often and gluttonously repeated on stage since the late seventeenth century, when we got hooked anew on the play’s properties as an emotional laxative. Whatever the causes and nature of our addiction (I refer the reader to George Steiner’s magnificent Antigones), it has resulted in the multiplication of Sophokles’ play into innumerable unique translations (and counting), each more or less “faithful” or “creative” (i.e. unfaithful) with respect to the original, and more or less “readable” or “difficult” with respect to the language of the translation.

Consider, for example, the fate of one of the most famous lines in Antigone, the opening sentence of the famous “Ode to Man” (ll. 332-3):

πολλὰ τὰ δεινὰ κοὐδὲν ἀν-
θρώπου δεινότερον πέλει.
(polla ta deina kouden an/thrōpou deinoteron pelei.)

Translations of this line vary considerably. David Grene’s “authoritative” 1991 translation in many ways preserves the gnomic simplicity of the Greek:

Many are the wonders, none
is more wonderful than what is man.

This austere rendering stays exceptionally close to the diction and syntax of the original. πολλὰ (“many”) τὰ δεινὰ (“[are] the wonders”) κοὐδὲν (“and nothing”) ἀνθρώπου (“than man”) δεινότερον (“more marvelous”) πέλει (an emphatic “is”).

Now compare Grene’s “faithful” minimalism with the “poetic license” taken by R. Potter in his 1808 translation:

Where’er we turn our curious eyes,
Wonders through all the works of nature rise;
But Man the chief. …

The iambic foot dominates Potter’s verse, and here it also seems to collude with a hasty over-interpretation that deprives the line of its original suggestiveness. The undefined and indeterminate δεινά become the wonderful and ubiquitous works of nature. That man is δεινότερον than all δεινά just means that he is nature’s master. Potter obscures the kinship between the two Greek terms (δεινότερον is a comparative form of the adjective δεινόν, the singular form of δεινά) in order to jump ahead to his interpretation of the ode’s true theme: man’s subjugation of the natural.

Bracketing the question of “translating” versification (which I leave to more attunèd ears than mine), the principle issue is the meaning of δεινόν and its related terms. Potter and Grene both translate δεινά as “wonders.” Grene, obedient to the letter, translates δεινότερον as “more wonderful.” Potter, obedient to (his interpretation of) the spirit, translates δεινότερον away, traducing the integrity of the δεινόν family in order to advance his take on the ode’s theme.

But by avoiding the strict translation of δεινότερον, Potter is actually better able to preserve a sense that “more wonderful” obscures. In Greek, the adjective δεινόν has a range of significations, which roughly arrange themselves around two poles. At the positive pole, it means “skillful,” “clever,” or “wonderful” at a skill, as when one is “wonderful with words.” In the middle range it conveys a sense of power or might colored by an aura of strangeness. “τὸ συγγενές τοι δεινόν,” says Hephaestus, explaining his reluctance to bolt Prometheus to the fateful cliff: “kinship, I tell you, has a strange power.” At the negative pole, δεινός means “fearful,” “terrible,” “dangerous,” “awful,” etc. It is difficult not to read this signification in Creon’s haunted words as the play climes towards its climax, as he finally considers the possibility of having made a mistake (ll. 1096-7):

τό τ᾽ εἰκαθεῖν γὰρ δεινόν, ἀντιστάντα δὲ
ἄτῃ πατάξαι θυμὸν ἐν δεινῷ πάρα.
(To t’eikathein gar deinon, antistanta de
atē pataxai thumon en deinōi para)

To yield is terrible.
But by opposition to destroy my very being
with a self-destructive curse must also be reckoned
in what is terrible.
To yield, would pierce me deep; but to oppose,
With keener agonies would pierce my soul.

δεινός, then, is an essentially ambivalent term. It thus presents a particular problem for a translator. I like to think of it as sliding along the rails that connect “awe” to “awful” and “awesome” and “terror” to “terrible” and “terrific.” “Wonderful” certainly conveys a sense located somewhere on the semantic railroad, but selecting its positive sense sanitizes the term of its darker possibilities. If man is “more wonderful” than everything, as on Grene’s translation, what could possibly be horrible about him? How could he be, as on Friedrich Hölderlin‘s translation, “ungeheuer,” monstrous? (“Ungeheuer ist viel. Doch nichts/ Ungeheuerer als der Mensch.” “Much is monstrous. Yet nothing/ more monstrous than man.”) Behind the wondrous δεινός looms a threatening negativity, a discomfiting otherness. It’s no surprise that Martin Heidegger translates the term as “unheimlich,” uncanny, a term that Heidegger, echoing Freud, uses to suggest a strangeness right at the heart of the familiar, a disquieting otherness within the familiar hearth. (For an English translation of Heidegger’s translation of the ode, cf. Introduction to Metaphysics, pp. 156-158. His rendering of the first line is “Vielfältig das Unheimliche, nichts doch/ über den Menschen hinaus Unheimlicheres ragend sich regt,” which offers its own interpretive difficulties. Translators Gregory Fried and Richard Polt render it: “Manifold is the uncanny, yet nothing/ uncannier than man bestirs itself, rising up beyond him.”)

As we have seen, Potter’s translation forsakes the common root of δεινά and δεινότερον, or at least seems to do so on the level of its diction. But on a rhetorical level, Potter’s text implies the connection with an uncanny specificity. For the phrase “κοὐδὲν ἀνθρώπου δεινότερον πέλει”, Potter gives us “But Man the chief.” But chief of what? Potter remains mute, and his muteness carefully preserves two possibilities. The first possibility is that man is chief of nature, master of its many δεινά. This is the interpretation that the first half of the ode seems to illustrate (ll. 346-52):

A cunning fellow is man. His contrivances
make him master of the beasts of the field
and those that move in the mountains.
So he brings the horse with the shaggy neck
to bend underneath the yoke;
and also the untamed mountain bull...
He knows to tame the herds that wander wild;
    The stiff-maned horse obeys his hand,
    Bends his strong neck to his command,
And the reluctant mountain bull grows mild.

On this account, man is the lord and master of nature as a whole, whose awful wonders (δεινά) he transcends and commands.

The second possibility is that man is the chief δεινόν of nature. In other words, man remains a member of the class that he strives to dominate. The ode’s second strophe emphases just this inexorable membership (ll. 359-61): (Greene:) “He has a way against everything/ and he faces nothing that is to come/ without contrivance. Only against death/ can he call on no means of escape...” Mortality binds man to the realm that he strives to master. That man is δεινότερον than all other δεινά means that he is the exemplary δεινόν of nature, i.e. δεινόν par excellence. His distinguishing feature, as a δεινόν, is thus not that he is the master of nature, but that he alone aspires to master himself, to rend himself from death. The final antistrophe of the ode suggests that this is the common aim of medicine and statecraft, and an aim not altogether impossible, provided that man honor the νόμους χθονὸς θεῶν τ᾽ ἔνορκον δίκαν [nomous chthonos theōn t’enorkon dikan]—the laws of the earth and the justice of the gods he has sworn to (366). Depending, the political animal can end up “ὑψίπολις” [hupsi-polis] or “ἄπολις” [a-polis], high-up in a city or cityless (370).

Nothing is δεινότερον than man; he is chief of nature’s δεινά, because he alone can devise and lay his own laws. But this strange power does not remove him from the sphere of nature. His highest achievement, the city-state, remains grounded in and beholden to the laws of nature, and paramount among these is that family members bury their dead, safeguarding their passage back into the earth. Potter’s text disobeys the law that translations ought to adhere as closely as possible to the diction of their original, but his trespass permits the passage of the ambiguity that charges his “poetic” choices with a thematic and even allegorical significance.


The author of the latest translation of Antigone in English, the ever-fascinating classicist-poetess Anne Carson, is acutely aware of her own implication in the drama she depicts. Her translation shows every sign of the most deliberate infidelity: she bastardizes the text’s name (Antigonick), boils down whole scenes into Beckettian vignettes, interpolates dialogue about Hegel and Brecht, and even introduces a bizarre character of her own (Nick: “a mute part [always onstage, he measures things]”). And yet these instances of obvious infidelity are juxtaposed with evidence of the most zealous, even fanatical, devotion to the original: she spells the names of her characters in the Greek, instead of the conventional Anglicized, style; she adorns her book’s back-cover with the most reverential and authoritative praise for the Sophoclean masterpiece that anyone could possibly conjure up (“The Antigone [is] one of the most sublime and in every respect excellent works of art of all time.” — G.W.F. Hegel, Aesthetics); and she laces her flights of fancy with the most attentive renderings of Greek passages. Antigonick‘s aesthetic design reinforces this tension: surreal illustrations on translucent pages overlay and obscure the handwritten capitalized text, evoking both the mental palimpsest of the reader’s imagination and the physical palimpsests all-too familiar to paleographers. The result is a strange sort of rigorous impiety, philologically and aesthetically, which resonates deeply, dissonantly, with the tragedy it adapts, and is all the more poignant in light of the text’s autobiographical dimension (Carson’s previous work, Nox, was an epitaph for her brother).

Consider Carson’s translation of the first sentence of the Ode to Man (her translation of the whole ode is available, sans formatting, here). Forsaking the positive significations of δεινός, Carson renders the line, “MANY TERRIBLY QUIET CUSTOMERS EXIST BUT NONE MORE/ TERRIBLY QUIET THAN MAN.” In characteristic fashion, Carson incorporates a strict translation of an original term with an invented image. Δεινός becomes “terribly quiet customer,” an epithet that relates both to the motif of ominous silence, which Carson develops throughout the work, and also to an image of man as consumerist-animal, a contemporary cliché that frames Carson’s interpretation of the ode’s theme: man’s domination of nature reappears in techno-consumerist terms (AND EVERY TUESDAY/DOWN HE GRINDS THE UNASTONISHABLE EARTH.../.../EVERY OUTLET WORKS BUT/ONE/: DEATH STAYS DARK...). But besides “updating” the original sense into an accessible contemporary idiom, Carson’s translation also works an effect upon the language and imagination of its readers. In this context, the word CUSTOMER recalls for us its forgotten etymology: the “customers” of an establishment are beholden to its “customs.” That man is a terribly quiet customer (the most terribly quiet of the terribly quiet customers) prompts us to ask whose customs it is the Chorus is talking about. Of whose establishment is man a customer? Like Potter, Carson remains suspiciously, suggestively, silent.

In one typical but extreme instance, Carson’s zealotry as a translator goes so far that she leaves a Greek term almost entirely untranslated. The context, of course, is no coincidence. The blind prophet Teiresias translates for the impious king the augurs of his coming ruin:


Carson’s “Bebarbarizmenized” “translates” Sophokles’ βεβαρβαρωμένῳ (bebarbarōmenōi), a term that derives from the word βάρβαρος (barbaros, whence “barbarian”), an onomatopoeia that Greeks applied to anyone who didn’t speak intelligible Greek, whose language sounded like the senseless bar-bar-barking of dogs. Here, instead of translating the word according to its dictionary meaning (“a barbarous or outlandish sound”), Carson coins a pseudo-Greek neologism that enables her not to translate at all—or rather, to let Teiresias do the translating. There is perhaps much in common between Creon, guardian of the state but blind to the laws of the gods, and ourselves, the custodians of a textual tradition that we know not how to heed.


One final remark on the theme of statecraft. Plutarch mentions that on the Acropolis, between the temples of Poseidon and Athena, there stood an altar to Lēthē, goddess of oblivion. By sacrificing on this alter, Athenians hoped to placate the enmity between their patron deities, to bring about their mutual amnesty (not-memory), an institution that held sway in civil and international warfare beginning with the Athenian amnesty of 403 BC and ending with the Treaty of Versailles. Now, instead of the principle of consensual forgetting, it’s the principle of permanent remembrance that dominates—or rather, prohibits—peacemaking. By touting the slogan “never forget, never again,” we actively forget that remembering is easier than forgetting, and fool ourselves into believing that permanent remembrance deters the repetition that it causes. The chorus knows this. In their opening ode, the old men of war-torn Thebes hail the arrival of Nikē, goddess of Victory, who promises to establish “forgetfulness of these wars” (ll. 150-151). When Creon announces that the traitor is not to be buried, he refuses his city the prize of forgetfulness, forestalling the arrival of the present, holding his city back in a state of war. Antigone’s trespass restores the natural order of time.

We are accustomed to understanding “translation” (from the Latin trans-latio, “to carry across”) as the conveying between languages of an original sense by means of an equivalent sign. But perhaps another way taking it, another metaphor of translation or translation of metaphor (the Greek equivalent of translatio is μετα-φέρω [metapherō]) is as the bearing of the dead—not from the past to the present, recollected from oblivion, but from the present to the past—the translator as a ferryman of Hades, granting the dead passage across the River Lēthē.

We who accompany the passage end up somewhere else, neither exactly in time nor out of it, but somewhere in the difference. This, I take it, is why Carson has consecrated her translation not to Lēthē but to Nick, the god of slight but tragically decisive differences. Her chorus tells us whither translation brings us: between too late and too soon, we end up “IN THE NICK OF TIME.”

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