By Sarah Ruden
The University of Cape Town

Several weeks ago, I began a translation, or rather an adaption, of Aristophanes' Lysistrata for the South African stage. The drama department of the University of Cape Town may produce the play, although this would be the second Lysistrata in only a few years. (The first appeared Aug. 25- Sept. 9, 1989 at the university's Little Theater.) I chose this particular comedy for its obvious relevance to South Africa, where a sporadic civil war continues, and where the high level of violence cannot be unrelated to women's traditional lack of influence. I am using Jeffrey Henderson's text of and commentary on the play (Oxford, 1987), which came highly recommended and is very helpful. My determination not to translate strictly or literally is based on a deep annoyance with traditional methods of translation of Classical drama, methods which seem to me to be limited by Classicists' inability to enjoy anything, or else by their inability to communicate their enjoyment by creating a language which can hold an audience's attentionon its own. The result, in my view, has been a sad de-emphasis of language in productions of Greek and Roman plays on the modern stage.

This has been a serious violation of the spirit in which the original plays were written and performed. It is clear from works such as Aristophanes' Frogs that language and poetry were to fifth- century Athenians much as sports are to us. Comparison of individual lines of tragedies is the substance of the agon (or the debate which is thematically central to the play) in the Frogs (lines 830ff.), and it is unlikely that this subject matter bored the play's original spectators: the Frogs received first prize for its first production in 405 BC. Similarly in the Acharnians, Aristophanes depicts the choices of poetry for perfomance on public occasions as forming a substantial part of a man-on-the- street's list of the chief joys and frustrationa of his life (lines 9ff). I have cited here only a little of the vast evidence that for ordinary Athenian citizens (to say nothing of others in ancient world), the spoken word itself was the major draw of the stage.

In view of this important part of the historical context, it is a major dissonance (no pun intended) for a translator of Greek drama for the modern stage not to translate effectively for spoken perfomance. But in fact such translation has not often been attempted, and the majority of translations available, and nearly all close and accurate translations, are clearly best suited for classroom use. Interested directors are usually forced to use unsuitable translations, and to gloss over dullness and inaccessibility with elaborate choregraphy, costumes, etc. This is especially painful in the case of comedy, simply in that the language fails to be funny, and hangs limply on extraneous directorial inventions.

The problem is not only that 'the Letter killeth, but the Spirit giveth Life,' but that a loose translation needs to be paced and structured correctly for aural comprehension and enjoyment. With this in mind, I have written a few elementary rules for myself:

1) Translations should not be verbally more complicated than the lyrics of modern musical comedy, and song lyrics in general can show a translator how burdesome he can safely make his syntax. It is important to accept that modern culture is a visual one, and that elaborate sentence structure and involved metaphors are not entertainment to the modern ear, but work. I am a poet myself, but I usually cannot follow poetry readings unless I have seen the text beforehand. In translating for the stage, I always sacrifice accuracy for simplicity.

2) Traditional forms are best for translating verse. I tend to use rhyme as well as meter, since a rhyme can be an effective container for a punch line. Rhyme and meter also assist in memory, and during an oral perfomance access to humor depends on the listener's memory of the build-up of the joke, and the build-up can extend a few seconds into the past, or a few minutes, or more than an hour.

3) Obscenity--go for it. Like rhyme, Anglo-Saxonisms and bawdy slang, though not funny in themselves, are good for summing up jokes and easy to remember.

4) Update outdated contemporary references. Almost no modern audience knows or cares about, for example, specific Athenian politicians and scandals.

The following is an except from one of the completed portions of my translation:

Lines 1112ff. (The men have yielded under the pressure of the women's sexual strike, and envoys from both sides are considering coming together to negotiate a peace treaty. To encourage them, Lysistrata, organizer of the strike, introduces the alluring personification of Conciliation or Reconciliation.)

[Lysistrata]: It's no hard job to take both sides in hand-- Our hands are large-- and make them understand. Conciliation, bring the Spartans here. Take the Athenians and draw them near-- Not as a man would do, with threats and lies, Hasty and inconsiderate, but female-wise. [Points to Spartan] Take Frowny Bear in hand, bring him along-- Or rather simply take him by the dong.
[Points to Athenian]
Passive-Aggressive Bear must come with you As well, and you can show him what to do.

Sarah Ruden

Sarah Ruden is a lecturer in the drama department at the University of Cape Town.