Translating old and new comedy

Sun Apr 19 10:19:40 2009
Aristophanes is really a lot of fun to watch. We recently saw Lysistrata performed at Harvard University. It is always a real challenge to translate Aristophanes. There are so many references to current events, culture and local celebrities, not to mention the untranslatable slang, dialect and puns. Literal translations need so many explanatory footnotes that they are impossible to put on the stage so they almost necessarily require updating. The choice of current celebrities and events is limitless and the degree of bawdy humor and word play is at the discretion of the translator so each new performance requires its own adaptation—resulting in endless variety, and if done well, lots of laughs.

It all depends on who is putting it on. I saw a version of Terrence’s Adelphoe last year where they did their own translation. That one came with very informative notes. Lysistrata was put on by a group that prides themselves on “cutting-edge” productions, which all too often means “we didn’t understand the play so we did something wacky instead.”

The Harvard Classical Club did the translation. Comparing the two really demonstrates how much easier it is to translate New Comedy rather than Old Comedy. Terrence holds up pretty well in a straight translation. What is humorous are the situations the characters find themselves in—and they are fairly universal. Old Comedy is full of untranslateable puns and topical references that are no longer part of our common culture.

The Aristophanes translation captured all the profanity, obscenity and pornography of the original (and more) but was unfortunately lacking in the wit and political satire. The casting was good with appropriately well-endowed Corinthians and spartan Spartans.

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~ by severalfourmany on April 19, 2009.

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