Translating Philoctetes--with help from the actors

by Sallie Goetsch
Department of Classical Studies
2076 Administrative Services Bldg.
University of Michigan
Ann Arbor, MI 48109

This translation of Sophocles' Philoctetes was part of a larger project on Theater of War and Healing. The project was investigating the experiences of American soldiers (and others) in Vietnam as a tool for the understanding and interpretation of the play. This was the first production for which I did not have a rough draft of the script made before we started and therefore the first production during which we used other people's translations, as well as my own, as performance texts. It was an instructive experience. When we tried reading some of the available translations of Philoctetes as playscripts, we quickly stumbled over awkward expressions, confusing constructions, and vastly inadequate representations of the Greek. The problem was particularly noticeable in the intensely emotional moments. When Philoctetes suffers from an attack of pain he cries apappapai, papa papa papa papai (746). Herbert Blau makes the following comment on the sound of this scene in The Audience:

The wound of Philoctetes...reduces the epic discourse to the language of regression, as elemental as words can be. They put to shame the discursive strategy of [Odysseus] that
brought Neoptolemus to the cave...the war itself seems miniaturized by the wound. (p. 159)

Words like papapai do not 'mean' anything in a sense that we can translate. They are a transcription of pain, a notation for the sound of emotion. Simply hearing them is sufficient to understand what they express.

Most undergraduate students do not get a chance to hear them. English is not a language with expressions like papapai. David Grene's translation--the one in the popular Chicago series--renders the cries of Philoctetes as 'Oh! Oh!' He would have done better to leave them untranslated. The Greek, even in metric form, gives an actor much more to hold onto than the English does. It gives the hearer, or even the reader, a feeling for just how much pain Philoctetes is in, a better understanding of why Neoptolemus cannot continue in his deception after hearing this.

Part of the challenge of creating a new translation in an approachable and effective idiom is coping with just such passages as this. For the most part I left words like papapai in Greek so that the sound could have its effect. There were two significant influences on the development of our script as a whole. The first was the need for a translation which would be comprehensible for the hearer and comfortable for the speaker. Actors would take turns reading scenes in Grene's or Watling's or Jebb's translation while I followed along in the Greek and made notes of the points which were not coming across clearly in what I heard. The director and the actors and I would then engage in some discussion about what was happening in the scene and I would try to clarify points which they had not understood. I then took the results of that reading and discussion home and wrote my own translation of the scene. If the scene I gave the actors to read at our next meeting made it easier for them to understand what was going on and why the characters said what they did, I knew I was on the right track.

The language used by American soldiers in Vietnam was the other influence on the translation. Any translator faces the issue of style. Greek tragedy is verse drama; the dialogue is written in iambic trimeters. The language is recognizably poetic and exchanges between characters follow certain structural patterns which can strike modern actors and audiences as artificial. Characters in Greek tragedy do not speak the way Greeks spoke in everyday life. A certain degree of formality and elevation in the language of the translation is therefore appropriate.

It is, however, possible to go too far in translating Sophocles into a 'poetic' style. The conventions of poetic form and stichomythic dialogue were so familiar to Athenian audiences that they would have seemed quite natural in the context of performance. Watling's 'quintessence of vilest duplicity' is much more stylized and elevated than any of Sophocles' language. The Greek of Philoctetes is unflinchingly direct, even technical, in its descriptions both of military maneuvers and equipment and of Philoctetes' infected foot. While it is appropriate for a translation of Greek drama to be poetic, it should not be so obtrusively artificial that it hampers the reader's or hearer's ability to recognize human beings speaking about human concerns.

Philoctetes is a play about men in time of war. Neoptolemus is the new recruit who has grown up on tales of patriotism and knows nothing of the reality of war. Odysseus is a career soldier, willing to do anything for victory. Philoctetes himself is a victim not of combat but of the 'side effects' of war, the secondary dangers of invading a foreign territory which can account for so many lives. Sophocles treats these characters anachronistically; that is, he discusses the Trojan War as if it were a war being fought in his own time. There had been changes in the techniques and technology of war during those seven centuries, but they were not relevant to the play. The aspect of war which was important for Sophocles--what it does to the humanity of human beings--had not changed.

It has still not changed, though the technology of war has gone through incredible transformations. And just as Sophocles had the language of real- life war at his disposal, we also have a military language which continually reminds the hearer of the larger background of the play. English may not be very good for expressions of pure emotion but it's extremely rich in terms for violence and its effects.

I looked for those terms in the words of Vietnam veterans, partly because the emotional scars left by Vietnam seemed so much like the bitterness, resentment, and hatred which are devouring Philoctetes even more quickly than the infection. And while the Civil War and World War I were similarly devastating to the psyches of the survivors--the term 'shell shock' predates 'Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder' and means essentially the same thing-- Vietnam is a recent enough experience that the language of its soldiers is substantially the same language we speak today. Vietnam is also very thoroughly documented and first-person narratives are readily available. And despite the fact that more Vietnam vets have committed suicide than were killed in combat, it is not difficult to find someone who was there. Short of being there yourself, there is no better way to acquire the language of a real human experience.

The journal of a battalion surgeon and the narrative of an Army nurse were particularly useful for descriptions of wounds and infections. Sophocles describes the state of Philoctetes' foot in gruesome detail: it oozes, it drips, it smells, the blood which comes out of it is noxious and black. I discovered through my reading that infection was everywhere in Vietnam, among soldiers and civilians alike. The surgeon describes cutting through layers and layers of oozing scabs on the head of a Vietnamese child. Disease was as prevalent as violence in this war, and nothing was sanitary, sterile, or even clean.

When I finished a section of the translation I would e-mail it to Jonathan Shay, whose clinical work with veterans has given him a very good sense of the way they talk. He would then tell me what rang true and what sounded forced or awkward or out of place. When we had put several scenes through this process we presented them to Jim Wallace, our contact in the Michigan Vietnam Veterans of America. He, too, found both the pain Philoctetes expressed and the language of the translation realistic, though he was not entirely certain that veterans would necessarily make the connection between the play and Vietnam. During an earlier interview he had remarked that 'If you read enough, you end up finding yourself in one of these Vietnam novels.' This was the effect we were aiming for with our production.

Our project has completed only its first phase and the play in its present form--a 15-minute condensed version on videotape--has not yet done what we would like it to do: allow the audience to identify with the modernity of its themes without getting lost in analyzing the realism of technical details. The script is about half-finished and the rest will evolve slowly over the next several months in collaboration with the actors.

Sallie Goetsch