Reflections on Translations-VII: Capturing Class Distinctions

In yesterday’s post, in an attempt to analogize Tea Partiers with demagogues, I included an excerpt from AristophanesThe Knights. Once I had posted a link to the post on Facebook, I made the following note in the comments space–directing it at a pair of friends of mine who work in Brooklyn College’s Classics department:

In the translation I have at home (by Alan Sommerstein) the sausage-seller’s lines are translated as a kind of Cockney slang, right down to the dropped ‘h’s.

Here are some samples of what I am referring to (taken from Act One in Aristophanes: The Knights/Peace/The Birds/The Assemblywomen/Wealth translated by David Barrett and Alan H. Sommerstein, Penguin Classics, New York, 1978; the excerpts for yesterday’s post were taken from an online source):

Sausage-Seller: So long as wot doesn’t wot–never mind. I like that oracle. But I still don’t know how you expect me ter manage all the People’s business. [p. 44]

Sausage-Seller: But ‘oo will there to ‘elp me? That there  Paphlagonian frightens the rich aht of their wits, and the poor, when ‘e’s arahnd, they can’t even keep their arses shut. [p. 44]

Sausage-Seller: Well, you bloody well oughter know abaht stitching. ‘S yer trade innit? [p. 48]

And so on. You get the picture. I then went on to ask:

What justifies this kind of translation? Is the Greek employed by him [the sausage-sellter] a highly colloquial, “working-class” varietal?

Danielle Kellogg replied:

I just did a super quick scan of the Greek in the scene you referenced, and I didn’t see anything that really stood out to me as strange or colloquial in it. Although Aristophanes does mess with the Greek of various characters in his plays, it’s generally done to indicate non-Athenian-ness (i.e., the Megarian in Acharnians). The Sausage-Seller is an Athenian; I would expect any such “strange” Greek to be assigned to Paphlagon, who is not. However, it’s common for translators to assign different dialects and/or accents to various Aristophanic characters to play upon issues of social class/status that Aristophanes is clearly using in his jokes (Megarian jokes, for example, were the ancient Athenian version of Polish jokes, so the Megarian from Acharnians is often rendered with crude language or a “yokel” accent). [link added]

As Kellogg indicates, the use of the Cockney dialect to render the sausage-seller’s lines appears to be an active choice by the translator to indicate a class marker in the characters.The reason this makes the Sommerstein translation is distinctive, and perhaps excessively so, is that the ‘working-class’ or ‘yokel’ accent invoked is a very familiar one, already made legendary by its depiction in theater and film (and often iconically so as in Pygmalion). To see it used by a character in an ancient Greek comedy is disconcerting.

But it is not clear that any other choice of accent would not have suffered from the same problem and more to the point, we are already immersed in the fantasy of imagining characters with names like Demosthenes and Nicia speaking flawless eloquent English.  The sudden appearance of the working-class accent merely reminds us of this distance from the original, of the unavoidable strangeness of reading not-in-the-original.

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