Anne Carson’s Translation of An Oresteia

Absent Presence 2004, by Ken Currie

Traditionalists beware. An Oresteia is not a fusty, complex translation of Aiskhylos’s (Aeschylus to most of us, but I’ll run with Carson’s version for consistency) trilogy. On another plane, Robert Fagles and Richmond Lattimore can be heard thunderously grumbling.

Carson’s adaptation takes Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, and matches it with Sophocle’s Elektra and Euripedes’s Orestes.  In doing so, she offers a very different reading of the trilogy that begins with Agamemnon’s return from the Trojan war and ends, surprisingly happily, with Apollo’s intervention to prevent a continuation of the tragic cycle of events. In a brief notes section, Carson quotes the director that persuaded her of the merits of this perspective:

I always think of these three tragedians as being associated with different times of a metaphoric day. Aiskhylos is dawnlike, with iconic ideas, images, and action emerging into the light of consciousness. Euripides presents a twilight where everything is susceptible to tricks of a fading light, where tonalities are hard to grasp, where one moment is an azure sunset, the next a starless night. Between them, Sophokles, under the glare of a noon sun that leaves nothing exposed.

With a limited background of Greek tragedy, I am not certain whether presenting an Oresteia combining the work of three playwrights is a fresh perspective, but it is remarkably potent.

Dramatic events aside, it is not possible to ignore Carson’s translation. Her language mutations are almost Joycean (“blackmouthing bitch”). Just occasionally I thought the translation into modern idiom went too far: the slave talking of “real bad shit happening” (though Carson qualifies this as “another quaint barbarian idiom”). That aside, the language is exhilarating, showing the continued importance and brilliance of these tragedies.

Inevitably, translations of this exuberance send me not only to Carson’s other Greek translations ( Euripides in Grief Lessons), but also to other Greek plays, even if I will have to settle for Lattimore’s less newfangled translations.

I recommend Emily’s detailed review of this translation.

3 thoughts on “Anne Carson’s Translation of An Oresteia

  1. It’s true, Carson’s translations are not transparent; you can’t ignore them. When I’m shelving them or entering them into my reading spreadsheets I always hesitate as to whether the work in question is “by” Sappho/Aeschylus/etc. or “by” Carson. Plainly it’s some combination of the two. It’s a combination that works great for me, though, so I’m not complaining. 🙂

    The progression she lays out in the introduction (the passage you quoted) definitely seemed apparent to me as I read through these plays, but since I haven’t read the whole of Aeshylus’s cycle I don’t feel I can fully compare. It’s on my list, though, for sure.

  2. Hah, the same dilemma presented itself to me this morning, Emily. I opted for my tradition of putting the translator in brackets, but I could almost have given Carson full billing.

    I’ve got the full Folio set of Greek tragedies, they use Lattimore’s translation, and plan a closer inspection when I have some time.

  3. Pingback: A Year in Reading: 2011 « Time's Flow Stemmed

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