Online Edition: Summer 2001

Electra by Sophocles translated by Anne Carson

Electra

Sophocles
translated by Anne Carson

Oxford University Press ($10.95)

by Justin Maxwell

When looking at a canonical play that's been translated again, both the translator and the reasons for the translation warrant more attention than usual. Oxford University Press's Greek Tragedy in New Translations series operates from the standpoint that with contemporary poets as translators, the plays will have a more aesthetically charged life for modern readers. The series seems custom made to have Anne Carson translate an installment of it. An accomplished poet and classicist, she has brought Greek texts into English as part of her own writing, giving them a rebirth in the contemporary world.

Carson's interpretation of Electra conveys the uniqueness, the vibrancy, and the tradition that must have been there for the original audience. The characters speak in a style which simultaneously juxtaposes the metrical and the colloquial: "But I wonder. You know / I wonder-- / suppose he had some part / in sending her these cold unlucky dreams." With such frequently shifting metrics, the play can feel a bit awkward when scanned, but this awkwardness would instantly disappear in the mouth of any decent actor. More importantly, the changing meter is a wonderful and successful way of revealing the psychic tumult that keeps Electra on the edges of madness and violence. She doggedly maintains a climate of vengeance even though she is completely aware that it results in her perpetual suffering: "they plan / unless you cease from this mourning / to send you where you will not see the sun again. / You'll be singing your songs / alive / in a room / in the ground. / Think about that." Carson calls Sophocles' play a musical "anti-dialogue" that succeeds in showing an internal, emotional struggle from within the heart of theatrical-poetic language.

Electra is necessarily a play dominated by language, the natural result of a theater with almost no set, props, or stage directions. On such an aural stage Electra's screams become a language-event for those who witness them, and they are strongly manifested in this translation. Carson keeps the screams in Greek, perceiving them as being something primal; as she says in her foreword, they are "a language of lament that is like listening to an X-ray. Electra's cries are just bones of sound." Carson rightly argues that these manifestations of emotive noise are an essential part of the character and the play. In previous translations these cries have been rendered weakly (e.g., "alas" or "woe is me") or simply cut, silencing a human pain that can, as Carson demonstrates, easily reach across more than a dozen centuries.

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Summer 2001 Table of Contents