A great poet does not so much meet the demands of his or her time but, granted unerring insight, discovers them. Such insight can bestow an enormous isolation that he or she may, of course, disguise, or, like Sophocles’ Philoctetes, choose to acknowledge, as in the archer’s confession to Achilles’ son, Neoptolemus, that his only friends are his unerring bow and the sounds of the crashing waves on the rocks. A great translator of the classical era, too, must be big-hearted enough to find lines equal to the lyric task of how the questions asked and answers offered by another culture and another time might shed light on his own. The Greeks, having abandoned Philoctetes on a remote island, will find that they still have need of his bow to win the Trojan War, because only that bow, even attached as it is to a man with a festering wound emitting a horrendous stench, will win that war. A great translator of the Greeks, the authors of our democracy, must be observant enough to discover the deficiencies of his own democracy, before addressing them with his translation. André Gide, for example, at variance and in cultural opposition with his own time, offered a Philoctetes where the terrible wound that goes with the unerring bow is carried by a writer, and like the writer, the great translator, too, can carry the writer’s wound of being unacknowledged, or receiving recognition only in the evening of his or her life, even while seeing and squarely meeting a need of his own time. Philoctetes’ bow, which came as a gift from Heracles, because only Philoctetes would light Heracles’ funeral pyre while he was still alive—and whose demise is the subject of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis—represents a vision of the polis in which conceptions of friendship, companionship, and success include civic duty.
When the deployment of rhyme in translation is actively discouraged, as it is today, because it does not meet the exigencies of the current, so-called poetry marketplace (an impossible hybrid!) and is deemed, because not pleasing to the contemporary ear, unable to meet the needs of the cultural moment, its virtue is obtained cheaply. The needs of the marketplace, artistically speaking, are superficial needs, and reflect, if anything, the kinds of needs that art must transcend. And yet these sort of market credibility questions remain the hobbyhorse of Prince Hamlet questions like to rhyme or not to rhyme, where our by-the-number-of-eyeballs market standard is argued for, despite the by-the-numbers market fare it so carefully assembles, where because our current poetry scene eschews rhyme, rhyme must be eschewed, when going against the current poetry scene is, at worst, a surface offense, an offense, moreover, to the very same kind of structural hegemony the original was most likely engaged in fighting against. If it seems that there is some kind of fallacy at work in the prevailing thinking in panels based on such questions—that the translations, or at least their relative importance, need to be graded not by artistic standards, but by the extent to which they reflect the predominant attitudes about what matters and what most definitely does not matter, has been left behind thank God—perhaps it is because there simply is no Richard Wilbur (who offered great rhyming translations of Moliere, Baudelaire, and Racine) among translators today, or to reach back, no Swinburne, who could make sublimity, not limerick, out of polysyllabic rhyme.
In satisfying only marketplace needs, the translator, no less than any other poet or artist, meets an evanescence he soon fills with himself, and when those self-projections are encouraged, soon all work that results from it, as well the principle stylistic devices enforced, become the literary equivalent of program music where the program is nothing more than what falls within the guardrails of sanctioned concerns. These questions and debates and panels are not discussing the needs of our age, and cannot, therefore, see translation as an opportunity to meet them, but rather as just another form of production to be locked out of meeting them, and to join the march, zombie-like, in lockstep against them. Rather than offering originality, they are more like covers, and just as we would not call most cover songs original, we should not call these kinds of translations art. An exceptional text requires an exceptional translator. The crime is that the great poets can’t control who translates them, and are often pushed into forced and ill-suited marriages, victims of literary entrepreneurs who hitch wagons to greatness and call them translations.
What then could the Ancient Greeks have to offer us? In Greek, the word for alien and guest is the same, and there has been renewed interest in Homer because of his newly discovered relevance to returning Iraq War vets and with that reassessment, one of Virgil’s Aeneid, too, once dismissed by the Academy as something of an imperialist’s wet dream, now all at once apt, because Aeneas, his father Anchises on his back, is fleeing a burning city, and therefore (because of the refugee crisis) suddenly deemed worthy of study. Ursula K. Le Guin, who died last month, called her book, Lavinia, published in 2008, a translation of the last six books of the Aeneid, but most classics are ignored, and because their worthiness is judged by their place on the ever-fluctuating political in-correctness index, students, who might profit from their reading—irrespective of the inappropriateness, say, of Sophocles’ supposed position on today’s fill-in-the-blank, make-no-mistake-about-it matter of utmost concern—are sold a bill of goods that provides educators, in their state-of-the-art-wired classrooms, the excuse to employ them as laboratories for teaching what to think, not how to think, for professions of empathy, rather than the demonstrations of it that come with reading books that offer visions of personhood as more than a placeholder for a point of view, and visions of community that venture for some meaning of it besides its contestability.
Can a translation of Sophocles locate the unspoken and suppressed in our culture? If the Greeks largely created the world we live in—institutionally, at least—is it possible they might have an answer for our current cultural, artistic, and political predicaments? When we construct a translation from the Greeks, irrespective of our evaluative judgments, and whether it be Homer or Plato or Sophocles, it might help to remember, whether we like it or not, that we were translated out of their original. To quote the Gospel of John, in the beginning was the logos, so our purported distance from antiquity is more like a veil. Ezra Pound translated Women of Trachis and found in it, he said, “the highest peak of Greek sensibility registered in any of the plays that have come down to us,” and now Keyne Cheshire offers a version of the play, selected by The Word Works International Editions for its annual volume devoted to translation. That Cheshire teaches Classics at Davidson College, consistently ranked as one of the top ten liberal arts colleges in the country, immunizes him against one criticism of Pound’s translation because Pound, who was not a Greek scholar, did not see fit to bend over backwards and kick around any of his ideas with such scholars. Nevertheless, even if Cheshire’s translation were to appear totally achieved in English, with little straining to incorporate all the Greek, and no seeming betrayal of the original beyond, of course, the inherent violence of carrying any language over into another, the fact remains that the astonishing original is rarely met on its own terms, and whether translated by poet or scholar or iconoclast, the original’s soul is always the subject of so strict a fate. Even the greatest translations, through few faults of their own, fall short, but all translations are disasters when, instead of trying to mirror the soul of the original, mirror instead the wishes of the translator to meet the literary marketplace of the day.
Cheshire’s version, and vision, for the reader of the play is compelling enough to include it in any Septuagint of Sophocles’ translations. It is activated by its title, Murder at Jagged Rock, which suggests an outpost, or an outcropping from civilization, that calls not so much for rhyme, as for jagged syntax, and just as the Greek temples stood between the ordered, bounded city-state and the wild savagery outside that city, Cheshire’s location presents the classical themes of negotiation between the beastial and the ordered in every person and therefore, to the Greeks, in every city, with the untamed forces pushing from below, the highest forces radiating from above, order and chaos in conversation. The subject of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, Heracles—“Herk,” in Cheshire’s translation—while one of the Greek’s titanic civilizing figures, is also beset from below—is laid low, in fact—by indiscriminate, uncontrollable lust, a different sort of “god” that leads him to criminal behavior, the kind encountered in today’s reports of similarly larger-than-life figures like Harvey Weinstein, Charlie Rose, Donald Trump, Al Franken, the giants of Silicon Valley venture capitalism, and other men of power whose strength and machismo do not shield them from inappropriate behavior—behavior found, or not found, depending on the standard invoked, worthy of censure. It is behavior whose impulses were organized and represented on the architecturally precise pediments of the Greek temple, but that made for slaves nonetheless, including Sophocles himself, who was said to have lamented that he was not released from its bondage until the very end of his very long life.
Isaiah Berlin used an Archilochus fragment about a hedgehog and a fox to discriminate between history’s greatest thinkers in order to offer insight into Tolstoy’s demise, and at the Translatable event, an Open Mic Celebration of International Translation Day hosted by the DC-Area Literary Translators Network, and which opened the third annual Confluence Translation Conference at Montgomery College, Cheshire recited and translated, because the solar eclipse had just occurred on August 21, a lesser-known fragment about the poet’s reaction to the total eclipse he witnessed in 648 BC, a poem Cheshire recited despite, or, perhaps, because of, the eclipse’s often reported overview effect in which, for observers, national and ethnic boundaries suddenly vanish, and a shared awe that transcends language, like Tolstoy’s vision for humanity, descends, an awe that is said to require no translation. Cheshire tried to pass out the poem at Davidson—which was just outside the path of totality —just as the eclipse was approaching, but the students shrugged him off, perhaps because they had never heard of Archilochus or, perhaps, as Annie Dillard has written, because seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.
The setting of Cheshire’s translation of Women of Trachis in the Wild West may appear, at first, overly, even overtly, familiar, but the setting’s very familiarity as an American mythical stomping ground comes to serve, for the reader, as the transparency overlaid the original that allows in the totality, paradoxically, of the original’s strangeness, a strangeness without which it could not be necessary to our time. The translator who does not know the original’s language, its culture, and its culture’s influences, must always choose blindly which version of his own language he will utilize to mirror the original. There will be a difference, to cite extremes, between a translator whose own writing is inflected by the complex syntax of Henry James and another by the distillations of Ernest Hemingway. Language is itself an aesthetic medium, so in any translation subtle rhythms have to be bridged; to convey the music is to convey the meaning, and the music runs to the very “place” (Trachis, the Wild West) where the play occurs (in the reader’s mind). In Cheshire’s version, we see that translation to another time need not mean, as it often does, conversion, picking winners and losers, making inchoate alterations—at least not when a scholar of Ancient Greek, having lived in that language, and most importantly, prostrated himself before its great themes and drawing religion from them, tries to capture what he is captured by.
Since times and places like Trachis and the Wild West do not really exist, exist only in the reading about them, even the translator who draws religion from the voice of Sophocles properly begins with an offering of familiar symbols to bring public expression to the yearnings buried and hidden beneath the now machine and robot-like expression of those same symbols in order to recover the power they once possessed as representations of shared communal yearnings, paradigms for a language of amazement that might break through their now mechanical, zombie-like Facebook-Amazon-Apple-Netflix-Google (FAANG)-sanctioned and encouraged numbing iterations, so that, through him, the poet of the birthplace of democracy might offer us a new way of looking at ourselves, one where success cannot be determined or demonstrated except in terms of citizenship and contribution to the community. Since Sophocles offers the reader a vision where to be a good person is also to be a good citizen, in a time when the boardrooms of FAANG—whether or not one of them hosted ads paid for illegally with foreign currency, or another was really just a platform for hate speech—are the almost exclusive influence of how Americans see and think about each other. When one of their own, a California senator and erstwhile great supporter, finally said, “I must say, I don’t think you get it,” to their assembled counsel at a recent Congressional hearing (their CEOs were too busy to attend), her words were conveyed with the feeling that it was already too late, that their golden halos were being seen for what they really were, that the statement was constructed by one of the manipulated, in the sadness and tragedy of belated knowledge.
The play begins with Deanna’s description of her earliest exposures to the contagion of indiscriminate lust from various unacceptable suitors, her “awful fear of getting’/ Hitched” signaling not only the insecurity and instability these suitors represented as marriage partners, but the insecurity she will inherit from those experiences when even the right man comes along. To Sophocles, marriage, like the management of all things that affected the polis, represented a balancing act between the lower and higher forces, and so even the home front could address the precariousness of the community’s control over opposing forces. The visions Deanna describes at the outset of the play, and that appear before her in the fiendish, grotesque, and horrifying shapes she could not completely comprehend when young, can be seen as the sexual apotheoses of those lower powers:
Real old sayin’ folks just love to rattle off:
you can’t tell about a person’s life until
they’s dead — can’t tell if it was good or bad, that is.
Well, I know my life. Ain’t gone off to Dead Land yet,
but I know mine is hard luck mixed with misery.
Even back in Sidersville, the home of Daddy,
Enos Vintner, I’d an awful fear of gettin’
hitched if any girl in them parts ever did.
I was wooed then by a river. Sorrows River.
Kept askin’ my daddy for my hand, takin’ on
these three shapes — first a bull a-stampin’ back and forth,
then a coilin’, writhin’ snake. Third, a man,
neck-down a man, neck-up a bull, with all that river
water just a-gushin’ out his scraggly beard.
That’s the sort of husband I had in the offin’.
Ill-starred, I was, and day and night I prayed to die
fore ever drawin’ nigh that savage monster’s bed.
But in the nick of time, to my great joy, along
comes Hercules Leroy Kilman, storied son of God
and Alcmene . . .
Cheshire read this passage aloud during his keynote address, entitled, “Translating the Undead,” where he discussed the perception of classical Greek as a so-called dead language, its flesh, he said, fallen off the bones, and his understanding of his own job now as a matter of reattaching that flesh. Here are the same opening lines, translated by Hugh Lloyd-Jones, in the Loeb Classical Library edition of the Women of Trachis:
There is an ancient saying among men, once revealed to them, that you cannot understand a man’s life before he is dead, so as to know whether he has a good or bad one. But I know well, even before going to Hades, that the one I have is unfortunate and sorrowful. While I still lived in the house of my father Oeneus, in Pleuron, I suffered painful affliction in the matter of my wedding, if any Aetolian woman did. For I had as a wooer a river, I mean Achelous, who came in three shapes to ask my father for me, at some times manifest as a bull, at others as a darting, coiling serpent, and again at others with a man’s trunk and a bull’s head; and from his shaggy beard there poured streams of water from his springs. Expecting such a suitor as that I was always praying, poor creature, that I might die before ever coming near his bed. But at the last moment, and to my relief, there came the famous son of Zeus and Alcemene, who contended with him in battle and released me.
Cheshire has received the imprimatur of a Harvard’s Loeb Classical Library Foundation grant and is currently at work translating Aristophanes’ The Birds and Homer’s Iliad. He can discourse on the original, intended meaning of hamartia but also seems capable, in his translation, of deciphering the meaning of our own. In Pound’s translation, Pound found, among other references, a nod to the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Judges, and something he thought was of such supreme importance—both to Sophocles and presumably, to his own time, that he rendered Heracles’ dying epiphany, when he finally comes to understand the oracle that was to foretell his life, the oracle given at Selloi’s oak—that he rendered it in all caps, “SPLENDOUR / IT ALL COHERES,” perhaps to signal that Hellenic notions of life, translated to his audience, meant that they need not be beholden to Biblical notions of justice, with their moral and ethical reckonings, because their opposite, forces of fate, controlled, to which his audience’s ratiocinations were irrelevant. But he is heavy-handed, and to accomplish his ends, which included his obsession with the poison of Usura, he also significantly slighted Deanna’s lines and role. His translation begins:
“No man knows his luck ‘til he’s dead.”
They’ve been saying that for a long time
but it’s not true in my case. Mine’s soggy.
Don’t have to go to hell to find that out.
I had a worse scare about getting married than any
girl in Pleuron, my father’s place in Aetolia.
First came a three-twisted river, Akheloos,
part bullheaded cloud, he looked like,
part like a slicky snake with scales on it
shining, then it would look like a bullheaded man
with water dripping out of his whiskers, black ones.
Bed with that! I ask you!
And Herakles Zeuson got me out of it somehow . . .
Pound kept the original’s names, but by carving the original up to make his points, he was also making a point of jettisoning Aristotelian aesthetics, Aristotle’s insistence, that is, for example, on diegesis and mimesis, so that the Sophocles could be cut down, reworked, and released in the name of imitation, not of nature, not of character, but of Pound’s own vision. Pound won the day because representation of one’s own vision is all that’s left of aesthetics, all claims to anything beyond that are suspect, and so, conveniently, are ideologically implicated. Literature itself is seen, if anything, as just another strategy of containment, so if its translation has become more and more important in an increasingly diverse country, where now almost half a million job openings require translation proficiency, perhaps we should suspect that something is up when even Bread Loaf, the legendary writer’s retreat and the oldest writer’s conference in America, begun in 1926 on 30,000 acres of bucolic farmland in Ripton, Vermont, by Robert Frost, who hated translation, has also just completed its third annual translation conference.
At Confluence, presenters ranged from State Department linguists to award-winning literary translators on a campus, Montgomery College, one of the most culturally diverse community colleges in the country, with many students who regularly translate important government documents for their parents, in a metropolitan area where translation is among the fastest growing job industries. In his keynote, Cheshire began by thanking Mark Miller, who over three years has molded Confluence into a go-to symposium in the larger context of the cultural and political exchange in which translation exists today, for an insight he offered in a phone conversation as Cheshire was planning his talk about what, he said, we do with the art we pull out of the ground, the corpses, that is, that he said we unearth and preserve as we find them, not giving them the colors and clothes they would have been adorned with in antiquity. If we had, if we did, if we were to, it would radically undermine our notions of the perceived purity of what Ancient Greek and Roman culture and art actually were. This misreading extends, therefore, to our own architecture, our own iconic buildings and statues based on that misinterpretation. Imagine, for example, the statue in the memorial dedicated to Abraham Lincoln if that statue were painted and adorned. We reserve painted sculpture for wax museums and county fairs. And for written works, the same principle applies, though the misreading lies in the opposite direction, because the text, for example, of Homer’s Odyssey, contained no punctuation, no vowels, was unadorned, yet the way its corpse is preserved is with punctuation, with vowels, so that the modern reader is not asked to perform the written language, even though written Greek itself may only have been created to be transmitted in such performance.
Heracles was also the patron and protector of the gymnasium, the place of public games and intellectual pursuits, but only a lexical equivalent to our modern gym, where the omnipresent mirrors reflecting grunting faces, too-tight clothes, and light from the screens in our hands that can never be released, suggest less a place for public pursuit than a vast masturbatoreum of enforced virtuousness, reflecting in those same mirrors, ironically, our consciously hygienic and sterile public life.
In Cheshire’s version of the play, Heracles is “Hercules,” or “Herk,” who carries a gun, not a bow, and forms a posse to steal a rival’s daughter. Sophocles offered characters whose qualities, in one form or another, exceeded the human norm, but their problems came from other sources:
And Lust? Whoever hopes to play the boxer, challenge
Lust to fisticuffs? She just ain’t thinkin’ straight.
Lust reigns at will, supreme above the other gods,
and over me, of course, and others like me too.
No, if I’s to blame my Herk for gettin’ took
by that sickness lust, why I’d be off my rocker.
Can’t rightly blame that girl neither. Can’t fault her
for nothin’ shameful. She’s done me no wrong at all.
As someone might say today of their friend or acquaintance who also just happens to turn out to be a predator, how do you reconcile your love or regard for someone with the realization that they have behaved badly? For Deanna, Violet is a victim of rape, but Herk is a victim too, of lust. In Deanna, moreover, we see how notions of truth and falsehood, appearance and deception, run not only throughout the play, but throughout Sophocles’ entire oeuvre and the myths upon which it is based. In Sophocles’ version of a myth first told by Hesiod, Deianira (Deanna), who has been living in exile in Trachis, receives a messenger, accompanied by women whom the messenger says are merely the spoils of war. The messenger is misleading Deianira, however, because her husband’s sacking of King Eurytus’ (Fatts’s) town and the women won were not a necessity of war, but a way to take the King’s daughter, Princess Iole (Violet) for his concubine. When Deanna discovers this, she becomes desperate and soaks a cloak in the blood of what the centaur, Nessus, claimed was an aphrodisiac while he was dying from Heracles’ bow, after Nessus had tried to seduce Deanna while ferrying her across a river. She sends the cloak by messenger to Heracles who, we hear from her son Hyllus (Willie), is writhing in horrible pain and about to die from the poison it contains. After Deanna receives this news, she kills herself, but Heracles, when told of her suicide, and her lack of intent with respect to his soon-to-be demise, does not sympathize. Instead he insists that Hyllus take the captive Princess Iole for his wife.
Our word idiot comes from the Greek, but it was meant to describe those who do not engage in civic life. Herk and Deanna never speak face to face, and with their gifts of love bringing death, they model, for us, a breach in communication that suggests that language itself is a living thing, and thus may partake of the same bestial forces that undo Greek heroes. With a rupture in language comes a rupture in values, and with the rupture in values, society starts to fissure and civic discourse becomes the province of the idiot. Our culture identifies itself by objectifying this quality in the brain dead, the zombie, the undead in its TV shows, its movies, and its video games. It is us, however, who are marching in lock step, who lack the capacity to choose empathy, to self-question, to fashion a definition of justice that reaches beyond believing in the exclusive righteousness of our own side. To us, Deanna’s sense of shame (aidos), her recognition of the other side’s humanity, is completely unfamiliar. We would never dream of loving what is indifferent to us.
Bertolt Brecht was the first to formally reject Aristotelian theories of theater, casting aside notions of unity and coherence. He was suspicious of aesthetic laws, and his aim to distance the theater from society in order to negate the reality in which its productions were performed, has held, but the fact that fewer people will read a translation from the Greek than go to contemporary theater achieves his ends without having to resort to his means. As for screenwriting classes, they begin with Aristotle’s Poetics and are still based on textbook-level interpretations of this work, so if we allowed ourselves to read theme and meaning into Sophocles the same way we draw theme and meaning from the movies that come out of these screenwriting classes, perhaps the bestial force manifested in and unleashed by the tremendous destructive power of our inattention, by our zombified age of dead cool—headphones in, our devices attached, our living blood really just tomato sauce, rushing home to read our favorite zombie authors, play our zombie video games, watch the fourth season of The Walking Dead—we might guess that the mainstream has caught up with the meaning of its time. We are being diverted from the manifold of the world before us, creating an indifference to it, an indifference that impoverishes it, an indifference mistaken for transcendence that is the opposite of transcendence because it leaves out the world. We need a translation to make Sophocles sound strange again so that the world might begin to seem strange to us again.
Cheshire’s carrying over of the Greek via Texas not only illustrates our predicament but also brings reinforcements to the fight against the cultural leaders responsible for it, leaders who seem to care little for civic discourse and cede to FAANG—which already owns the telephone company, the post office, and the theater—our most precious public possession, the public square. The reader may contrast, therefore, Deanna’s open hospitality with their entrepreneurial hospitality, where hospitality is a trade, a gateway drug—disguised as connecting people to other people—to making even more money. It is a useful narrative, a narrative that, infected by bias, offers only that bias, and is a form of “hosting” that offers only lip service to any form of stewardship to the community, is nothing but the come-on hospitality that is offered for generating an upsell. Real disruption would be a demonstration of generosity and charity without purposes of reward, a realignment of the meaning of hospitality plucked from the nullity it represents today. Hospitality, it seems, is the very currency our current republic of outrage lacks. Hospitality towards other opinions, the prerequisite to a commons, and the very spirit of republicanism, would itself seem an act of strangeness today, and likely misinterpreted. Monolingual individuals, after all, have little insight into their own language:
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
One day a fearsome lust for Fatts’s daughter shot
your husband through. Because of her, her father’s town
of Selgun was obtained by force, obliterated.
The act of translation, too, can be seen as a kind of taking by force. Most enlist, though there is the occasional conscientious objector. In his book, Is That a Fish in Your Ear? Translation and the Meaning of Everything, David Bellos relays an anecdote about a fellow at his college who refused to teach translation classes on the grounds that he didn’t know what “translation” was:
He’d [Harris] challenge the faculty board to tell him what it was he was being asked to teach. Everyone knows what it is! they said. Translation has been taught here for centuries. But knowing how to perpetuate an academic tradition is not the same thing as knowing what you’re doing. Harris could not possibly teach a subject his seniors were unable to define.
The academics of Holderlin’s era laughed off his translations of Sophocles—over a thousand mistakes were recorded—and soon after, Holderlin, the greatest lyric poet of his age, perhaps ever, was deemed mad and confined to a tower, his translations offered as proof of his condition. Holderlin, however, held his translations to the same standard as his poems—they had to be equally living–and of course where his kind of melting lyricism is the standard, as it is only for those poets and translators who live the questions, these same questions eventually take up arms against them, eventually bring them down. When the standard, however, is the exigencies of the marketplace, when the living blood is traded for tomato sauce, it is unlikely the writer’s own work will have the power to rise up against him, much less motivate anyone else. In the production of lyric poetry, there is a tremendous amount of psychic violence. Cheshire writes:
THE BEHEST OF LUST
Sung by the Girls of Jagged Rock
There’s none so mighty as Aphrodite.
It’s she’s always takin’ the prize.
I won’t enumerate each one
of them gods she’s undone.
I won’t mention the lord of our skies,
or how the god of the seas, who makes our earth quake,
was shaken by the waves of desire,
or how she laid low him who rules down below
where the darkness quenches life’s fire.
Here lust, and its literature, belongs not only to Sophocles but also to the scholar and the classicist who is its translator. It seems that Cheshire sat before the play with the possessionless gaze of an artist and scientist, for translation is also a science, but as is said of the laws of physics, there has not yet been found so far any distinction between the past and the future. The structuralists simply cancelled history, but whether or not the time and place of any work of literature is the time and place of its making, its reading, or some place and some time altogether unrelated, altogether different, the study of Sophocles somehow winds up being part of the grammar of almost any literary theory, even today’s dominant logos, pathos, and ethos that is based on little more than the dressing up of our inchoate rage that democratic politics have supposedly let us down:
That girl—no, not no more—we gotta call her “wife,”
I reckon. She done came on board as easy as
a load of cargo, but the weight of that new freight—
now it’s apt to run my mind right off the rails!
Now there’s two of us just sittin’ here and waitin’.
One man’s bed. One man’s embrace. I’ve called him loyal,
called him noble too, but here’s the thank you Herk’s
done sent for keepin’ him a home for so long now?
Strange thing is I can’t be angry at him even.
Poor soul’s always flicted, stricken with some sickness,
but live together with that girl? Show me a woman
who could bear to share a marriage with another!
I can see her bloom a-comin’ on full gallop
as mine’s a-trottin’ off. Men’s eyes do love to pluck
a pretty flower. Then they leave the stalk behind.
And so I am afraid that they’ll call Hercules
Deanna’s husband, sure, but say he’s Violet’s man.
Deanna is rewarded for her faithfulness by a rival. She is big-hearted enough, however, to pity this rival, and hatches a plan to win back her husband’s ardor. To do so, however, she will deploy the very devices she spoke of leaving behind and was thankful that she had escaped. She knows better than to consult the same forces that meant to sexually enslave her, much less deploy them in an effort to win back the sexual attention of her husband, when it was Nessus’ lust, and actions taken as the fruits of that lust that drew her husband’s fatal bow. Nevertheless she will seek her wisdom from a man-horse, a version, perhaps, of today’s sexual satyr—consistently cultivated, consistently predatory:
Now, I was trav’ling then from Daddy’s home, my first
time with Hercules, to be his blushin’ bride,
and Nessus had me on his shoulders, like, mid-river,
and starts to use his hands in ways that were not right.
I yell. And then the son of God, he whirls right
round and pulls the trigger. Bullet whistled clean
through his chest. And dyin’, Nessus spoke his final
words. “Sweet child of old man Enos Vintner, I have
a special prize for you, if you’ll just hear me out,
since you’re the final fare I’m takin’ cross the Brawny.
You just gather in your hand a bit of blood
that’s clotted in my wound, the Hydra’s poison too,
black stuff what Mr. Kilman smears on all his bullets.
You and me can make it to enchant the heart
of Hercules. He’ll never lay an eye on any
other woman. Won’t love any girl but you.”
I remember his instructions, girls. Since then
I’ve kept the stuff hid up inside the house real safe.
but now I’ve smeared it on this poncho, only
so much as Nessus said, no more. And so it’s ready.
Far be it from me to sin, to be so bold.
I despise the sort of woman would, you hear?
I just hope that charms and spells might offer me
a leg up on that Violet in the eyes of Herk.
And so I have a plan. But do you think it might
be all for nothin’? If you do, I’ll stop already!
Deanna sends Lucas, the family courier, off with the poncho for Herk, but her unconscious misgivings rise to the surface, and she very soon begins to doubt her own plan:
What reason did that dyin’ man-horse have to show
me kindness? Twas on my account that he was dyin’!
No, he done charmed me with his words, in hopes of killin’
the man who shot him. All too late, of course, when nothin’
can be done, I recognize the brutal truth.
And if my wits ain’t sore deceived, it’s me alone,
ill-starred, will prove to be my husband’s murderer.
What is rising to the surface is made manifest with her son’s arrival and the terrible news he brings:
Mother! Give me only one of these three things.
Either end your life right now, or go on livin’,
someone else’s ma, or find compunction, somethin’
to replace the sorry heart you got inside you.
Son, what have I done that’s so despicable?
Your own husband, Hercules, the man I call
“Father.” You should know you murdered him today!
Willie recounts for her the “black stuff’s” horrible course through his father’s body: “Poncho whipped him groundward from the air and back, / howlin’, shreikin . . .’” And then he turns the full force of his hatred and rage on her, his own mother:
That’s the upshot, Ma, the outcome of your bald-faced
schemin’ gainst my Pa. May Justice give requital,
Hell’s Fury wreak her vengeance, by the will of God.
And God is willin’ too. No doubt you’s made him willin’!
No better man has walked this earth than him you murdered.
You’ll never see another one like him again.
Why go off in silence, Missus? Don’t you know
defenses gone unheard affirm accusers’ words?
Sophocles’ plays occupy the world where, of course, one slip means death:
So true. And if you’d been there, seen close up just how
she done it—sorrow would have struck you to the core.
A wife? A mother brung herself to do this thing?
Yes. Just awful. Hear me out, now. Bear me witness.
She’d just gone inside directly and alone,
when then she sees her son was pilin’ up some beddin’
in the hall for goin’ back to fetch his pa.
She just kept her distance, voidin’ people’s eyes,
swoonin’ at the altar by the hearth, a-moanin’
“farewell” to it and all! Poor woman kept on sobbin’,
caressin’ all the things what gave her joy before.
She wandered through the house, here and there and back,
and every time she chanced on one of us she loved,
she just stood there weepin’, gazin’ on us sadly,
givin’ voice to sorrow at her fateful burden.
Greek tragedy mirrors human self-understanding in that it is constructed, like most forms of self-knowledge, in the late afternoon sunlight of belated understanding. If the current literary marketplace does not invest the poet, much less the translator of that poet—as the Ancient Greeks did—with the power of higher authority, that does not excuse the translator from trying to reach for the algorithm that might make sense of the human and related cultural and political conditions of his time. We have ceded that role to the creators of our cultural priorities, the boardrooms of FAANG, where all forms of prestige are priced, but the translator of Sophocles must accept and translate that role and its public responsibility as well, offering, if not moral guidance, then at least filling a void. If Deanna’s realization comes too late, then we may infer that our complete self-understanding, too, will come too late, and that the hospitality which we have been offered, will require, later, a terrible upsell, for while we are in a period of unparalleled material prosperity, we are completely impoverished as far as translating our personal preoccupations into public ones. Our public discourse is zombiefied, and appeals to shared responsibility are left to the public relations shops. That Greek theater had a civic role of itself suggests an antidote to our vacant political theater, offering the translator of Sophocles an answer to a problem that his own age is unable to see, an alien agent powerful enough to create antibodies in a civic, artistic, and academic culture principally concerned with the self chewing over its reactions. The translator has to be on watch that the Greek play does not fall victim to that particularly egregious form of narcissism that hooks up and hitches on to “the other,” so that the artist, or academic, can project him or herself outward to the entire world and offer the fake hospitality of reproducing himself in seriatim—like McTheater productions where the script comes with rules that must be followed and merchandise that must be sold, or like the hotel rooms that are reproducible and expensive enough to be available in any city in the world—under the aegis of the missionizing, intellectual imperialism of some forms of global humanities, an ingenuous and pernicious 21st century version of L’etat, c’est moi, its own version, even as it decries colonization, of colonization.
The zombie has been welcomed and has entered the blood of the mainstream, and the mainstream, where the brain dead live only as consumers, and expertise is conflated with brand name expertise, and conversation becomes, at its best, merely a matter of comparing favorite brands, endangered phenomena like the humanities, the arts, and democratic engagement live in a mode of panicked survival from the forces of FAANG. Translators like Cheshire, while unacknowledged, bring reinforcement to the fight, carrying over from the Greek, via the Wild West, an alternative consciousness, one that can reanimate a dead culture, bring to the public square what are now described as merely private concerns, and meet, head on, the fake hospitality of our consumer providers, a coterie of oracles as empty as A.E. Housman’s vision of The Oracles, but with the same infinite ambition as those oracles, and worse, armed with algorithms able to deliver, to the unsuspecting, the sinister hospitality of the supposed mind of God.
This translator fights, too, against the conspiracy of dullness bent on monopolizing our most precious possession, our attention, by offering hope against zombification through lyric and metaphoric language that explores not only the meaning of life itself, but its meaning in a democracy, where private concerns must also be translated into public ones. Rather than contracting our thinking to websites run from a boardroom of algorithm engineers so convinced of the greatness of their vision that they give only lip service to their responsibility to a country without which they would not have been able to succeed, much less accomplish any of their domination, we read literature and form permanent links, because they are based in empathy. The translator, too, by breaking through the dead language of FAANG with language open to conflicting feeling, interwoven texture, and human ambiguity—the language, that is, of consciousness that the algorithm engineers see as data that must be cut through and monetized—offer us something instead that was not planted beforehand for us to find.
Cheshire has given us a world where Deanna’s example has not perished because we have need of it now. He demonstrates the capacity of the English language to bear the plenitude of Deanna’s capacity for shame, and pits it against our culture’s obsessive relinquishment of broader concerns for the expressions of personal outrage that must always be renewed because the satisfaction they offer, while intense, quickly disappears.
If the Greeks offered repeated stagings of certain kinds of human failure, and repeatedly gathered together to witness it, what is it that we need to see? Do we ever see public demonstrations of tolerance and forbearance? Are we ever modeled habits of adaptation, reconciliation, restraint? Hospitality towards each other? Deanna is the great host. To a fault. She even makes what might be seen as excuses for the woman who came in to share her bed. Violet is innocent, so Deanna is tolerant. The monster she is letting into her home is not Violet. Violet is recognized as a fellow human being, but in the same way Deanna is blind to the agent of her demise, our snare is badly set, and the monsters we are letting in are not the ones we recognize as monsters either. And we, too, will see them only in belated understanding:
That’s when I start runnin’, fast as I can manage.
Find her son and tell him what all she’s contrivin’.
But in the time I took to run one way and back,
we seen she done been shot already by a gun
of Mr. Kilman’s, bullet deep inside her womb.
Willie saw and groaned aloud. Poor boy, he knew
it was his anger pushed his mama toward her purpose.
All too late he’d learned from inside that she’d,
not meanin’ to, fulfilled the aims of man-horse Nessus.
Willie still ain’t quit his sobbin’ yet. He weeps
inside, disconsolate and mournin’ for his ma,
holdin’ her and kissin’ her. And he’s still lyin’
at her side, bemoanin’ to no end the fact
that he’d condemned her falsely of a heinous crime,
and weepin’ cause instead of one life he’d lost two,
a father first, and now his ma. And him an orphan.
It was too late for the next generation too. As for us and our reflexive, obsessive anger and outrage, our conviction that our ox is being gored at every turn, it will have its great price too. The ones still capable of feeling public, as opposed to merely private, shame, will disappear, and like Deanna take it upon themselves to accomplish the deed, if not blinding out their eyes—that was for a different time—then falling into the anonymity of a cyberspace cliff which, like Gloucester’s, will be just as effective, just as unreal. Willie learns, as our students will “learn”–victims of an educational authoritarianism that dresses up conformity as freedom—but too late. Willie will have more terrible duties to perform for his father later in the play, objectionable duties both in the near and the long term, all so that his father can have his full glory, in an unimaginable reversal of Albany’s last words, having watched Lear grieve over Cordelia: “…we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”
The literal translation of tragoidia, tragedy, is, according to Cheshire, goat song, and the performance of tragedy was a communal, religious, and civic enterprise and therefore the translator, if he is successful, will have addressed a public issue and served a public purpose as well as an artistic one. We may think of this today as an unacceptable blurring of categories, but since the public trial of Socrates, these phenomena cannot be, and have never been, separated. In ancient Greek, tragoidia also implied pomp and grandeur. We don’t experience tragedy this way either; our notions of it, Cheshire said, include none of these meanings, and our incorrect interpretations extend to defining hamartia as a tragic flaw, hubris as pride, when the first really means, for the Greek dramatist, missing the target, the second, transgression.
The place where tragedy was performed was a commons of sacred space, where the spectators were provided with an individual spiritual experience that was somehow, at the same time, unifying. Brigit Pegeen Kelly (along with Richard Wilbur, one of two great American poets to die in the course of the past year and a half) wrote in “Song:” “Listen: There was a goat’s head hanging by ropes in a tree. / All night it hung there and sang…”
In “Song,” Kelly tried to recapture some sense of communal song for our time, and Cheshire, as translator, says in his preface, that “[f]or years, I’d wondered how to recapture in translation what’ s been lost.” If great translation is, like great poetry, a matter of meeting the needs of its time by discovering them, then it must sound as strangely pitch perfect and as perfect as Kelly’s poem: “What they didn’t know / Was that the goat’s head would go on singing just for them, / Long after the ropes were down and they would learn to listen[.]”
“If Women of Trachis is not an easy play to swallow,” Cheshire says, “we should be all the more grateful for its survival.” It is this very strangeness we have to translate, not paper over. The penetration of the sublime into the everyday must take its own form, if not as proof of Zeus, then proof of some form of order beyond our own opinions—and our demonstrations of outrage when those opinions are not universally acknowledged—an order we might recognize if only because we recognize it as the very thing we cannot bear to understand.
Cheshire, by bringing the Trachiniae into a mythic Wild West, transporting its religious, civic, and artistic meanings, while maintaining a close word by word, line by line fidelity to the original for sound and meaning, is nevertheless still giving us, for Deianira, Deanna, a middle-aged woman sitting on a front porch in the open plains, and thus even he sees translation as a dark art of reanimation, an art of illusion, and insists that creating in the receiver the notion that they are getting the original is problematic, a reanimation of the dead, monster-making, that monster fully in disguise and walking among us, a phantom, a ghost, a reflection of ourselves.
Pound’s translation simply cut out the passages he found superfluous to the modern ear, took short cuts with the Greek, and perhaps because of our comfort with such license, the reviewer in the Bryn Mawr Classical Review felt Cheshire did not make the play sufficiently relevant, the reviewer’s criticism centering on the idea that the myth of the American West no longer bears, in the 21st century, its place as a “universal cultural touchstone for Americans” and that “[o]ur most pervasive attempts at mythmaking now look forward, not backward…” This is an argument for the very kind of relevance that forecloses the introduction of that strange goat song, that leaves the Greek text perfectly safe, undisturbed, under lock and key, and therefore leaves out the truth of the Greek, and therefore the truth of American, tragedy. A superficial translation of the sort that would analogize, one might suppose, the cloak given to Hercules with the plan revealed in recently released Kennedy assassination documents for a lawyer to give Castro, as a pledge of friendship, because he loved skin diving, a suit contaminated with a fungus-producing madera foot and a breathing device containing tuberculosis bacilli. It would offer, perhaps, as if this had happened, an alternative future. Art is for rewiring the collective brain, not reinforcing its prejudices.
Rather than reflecting the culture, a great translation stands apart from that culture, speaks to what the culture lacks and thereby addresses it. When top Stern School of Business professors, the most frequent guests on Bloomberg Media, without irony, repeat that FAANG now delivers every human and cultural need, and that its customers no longer have to look elsewhere for meaning in their lives, we have a terrifying recasting and reversal of Plato’s vision of the governance of reason over appetite and the passions. Our corporate taste engineers are saying our gut rules, and its needs are met by Amazon, and Google is God. Just as Deanna uses a shortcut to get Heracles back, not taking into account the poison every shortcut contains, our latter-day shortcut sherpas, while offering only technical and rhetorical answers to life, take advantage of the unstable reactor cores that are the buried life of their customers, where the blood is not made from tomato sauce. Devoting oneself to a translation of Sophocles, in this day and age, is itself an act of rebellion against these outwardly hospitable, but hostile guardians, because the timeless and transformative rewards of critical, close, and precise attention to the relationship between words and things, the known and the unknown, the unfamiliar, the mysterious, and finally, the incalculable and the inconsumable take the reader on a different kind of search and to a different kind of terminus. This threatens because it takes a person to a place where he or she cannot imagine anything other than his or her capacity for attention to a world, made of glass, that needs that attention.
Standing apart from that culture, a great translation speaks to what that culture lacks—and if our culture is atomized, if the self no longer bears any relation to the commons, what Cheshire and Kelly do by rewriting tragedy for our age is to attach to the writer, even if it’s only in the making of a haunting song that no one can hear, a public role. In the making of something real, in an age when even the classrooms are wired with attention ciphers, so that the real presences are the inanimate visual pollutants that sit silently, but in that silence comment on the civic illiteracy to which they are the handmaids. This is not the technology that Sophocles celebrates in the opening of Antigone, with its immortal “Ode to Man,” because zombies cannot translate private concerns, much less universalize them, and computers are not teaching machines, Google is not God, and the computer in your hand is not, as the educational authoritarians like to say, the greatest library in the world—but instead, to the manifold world around it, the ultimate, to use their language, negative externality. To teach with these things, and to run our civic, cultural, and academic cultures by them, is to create a life of the glands, and only the glands, and for this the translation of private concerns and the critical thinking about oneself it fosters is not needed, it is, in fact, short-circuited and consciously devalued.
A translation of Sophocles is subversive, too, given today’s notions of the nature of content, stripped as this “content” is of imaginative thought, in order, perhaps, paraphrasing Milton, to (not!) have to justify the ways of FAANG to men. And when culture and education are animated by no other higher power or presence, and the only thread in the darkness is the Twitter thread, Women of Trachis is translated for our time because it is the only Sophoclean play precisely about the failure of communication when communication is in the hands of such theologians manqué.
The Greek characters wore masks so even before they spoke their private concerns were translated into public ones, and when speaking, were dramatized illustrations of how the idiosyncratic was also emblematic, diagnostic not just of the self examining its reactions but also of the self reflecting on itself as part of a commons. For the Sophoclean hero, even the most idiosyncratic traits and actions were universalized, and every character trait was seen in the context of a broader world—an antidote, perhaps, to an age with the means for the pursuit of just about anything, but almost no discernible reason for that pursuit beyond private consumption or gain.
Our mastery of means keeps us focused on consumption, when meaning and connection, and democracy itself, depends on its opposite, the inconsumable. Our politics and educational system focuses on class, social, and ethnic division, when the real meaning of class is moral. The translator of Sophocles today, therefore, tries to discover the place that a text would need to occupy, the tiny part of the beehive left unoccupied in a public life that confuses a computerized program that remembers your name, where hospitality is just another form of trade, designed with an upsell in mind, for a commons obscured by the overwhelmingly private concerns of the living dead.
Keyne Cheshire steps in as resistance: quixotic, of course, because like the work of American translators and poets, mostly ignored, but nonetheless transgressive in his offering of Deanna’s genuine hospitality. Cheshire models an act of genuine hospitality to his host, Sophocles, as well, and to his country, in which he is a citizen, not to mention his reader, too, thereby mirroring the action of the play itself and not the colonization we profess to decry by rejecting, instead of welcoming, strangers, turning them into funhouse mirror-images of ourselves, and worse, for their sake, and so, in the name of the false hospitality of giving voice to others, replicating ourselves, making ourselves conglomerate. In Sophocles’ Women of Trachis, by way of Cheshire’s Murder at Jagged Rock, we are given the destruction of communication by the bestial forces within ourselves, but we are also given how we are encouraged in that breakdown by those interested in breaking down the societal guardrails around us—twin examples of hospitality coming with an upsell—and while Deanna merely loses her life, FAANG users may lose their soul. The original meaning of tragedy is goat song and as Kelly’s poem, ends: “Not a cruel song…not cruel at all. This song / is sweet. It is sweet. The heart dies of this sweetness.”
Penetrations of the cultural priorities set by those with no interest, other than exploitation, in that culture, will always appear, no matter how sad, how costly its truths, as demonstrations of an immanence:
Sung by the Girls of Jagged Rock
Don’t know what to sing first,
don’t know whose fate is worse,
it always needs a song to sing.