Literary translation is a forcefully delusional act. The assumption upon which it rests—that one language can be even approximately mapped onto another—belies the profound complexity and mysticism of all human communication. Works of translation are praised (or critiqued) on the extent to which they preserve the spirit of the original. What a silly metric: language itself is the spirit. A finished translation is never a puzzle solved, but an adaptation imagined—a work of creativity that births a new spirit all its own.
In their new collaborative comic-book adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women, poet and classicist Anne Carson and artist Rosanna Bruno lean into the irrationality, the volatility of translation. Bizarre, haunting, and hallucinatory illustrations by Bruno render the tragedy’s characters as animals (dogs, cats, crows, cows) and inanimate objects (a cracked poplar tree, “some sort of gearbox, clutch or coupling mechanism”). What results is a gnarly, perfectly inscrutable dreamscape of Euripides’ tragedy.
What to make, for example, of the decision to depict Athena as a pair of denim overalls?—not anthropomorphized in any way, just floating, disembodied, with an owl mask tucked under its left strap? The owl mask provides some clue, as owls are an established visual symbol of the goddess, but the overalls are trickier to parse. Is it something to do with the inherent asexuality of overalls (Athena being the virgin goddess and all)? Or perhaps with their rugged utility—alluding to her rough-and-tumble knowhow on the battlefield? That her physical form hovers—emotionless, expressionless—spewing impassioned pleas to Poseidon, seems to gesture toward the unknowability of the gods: their elusiveness, fickleness, how their allegiances aren’t dictated by the same human impulses that dictate our own.
Of course, I can merely speculate about Carson’s and Bruno’s intentions, but I can’t help sensing a touch of hostility in them. In the absence of legible symbology, I feel baited into pseudo-intellectual interpretations such as these. (The inherent asexuality of overalls? My God!) But perhaps, in its own bewildering way, this unmanageable little book does manage to capture something of the spirit of Euripides’ somber tragedy. There is, after all, something hostile about the play itself: First performed for an Athenian audience at the height of the Peloponnesian War, The Trojan Women is an unsparing look at the devastation and moral corruption that war inspires.
Bruno’s illustrations surely capture something of the tragedy’s tone: bleak, bleak, bleak. As the tragedy begins, Troy has fallen. Its Greek conquerors are readying to burn what remains of the crumbling city, divvy up the plunder, and return home victorious after ten long years of war. Among the plunder are the city’s women—Hekabe, Andromache, and Kassandra among them—who await news of their fates. “Whose slave will I be? Whose slave will I be?” chant the chorus of women, drawn by Bruno as cows and dogs posing for mugshots.
Unlike most extant tragedies, which recount some change in fortune, The Trojan Women begins on as dreary a note as it ends. The widowed Queen Hekabe, described by Carson as “an ancient emaciated sled dog of filth and wrath” is to live out her remaining days as a slave to Odysseus. With mangy coat, ragged asymmetry, and wide, distrusting eyes, Bruno’s Hekabe brings to mind the dumpster-dwelling stray, Chief, of Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs. Andromache (the cracked poplar tree) is sent to be mistress to the son of her husband’s murderer, while her young son (a massive seedling? a turnip of some sort?) is hurled from the battlements by Greek soldiers and killed. Violently emotional scenes, with their rhythmic, overlapping dialogue, are charted on the page in complicated flowcharts, speech bubbles dripping down from one to the next like blood.
Of course, for all its morbidity, there remains the essence of Euripidean playfulness and pitch-black humor. Helen, whose elopement with Paris caused the war, is depicted as a coquettish, wide-hipped dog (who also brings to mind Isle of Dogs: the character, Nutmeg, a sleek, athletic show dog voiced by the sultry-toned Scarlet Johansson). All of her seductiveness, though, will not save her; she is to be returned to Menelaus (the gearbox) and executed. The raving Kassandra, mysteriously cast as a human woman, “somewhat exalted,” is to be given to Agamemnon as his mistress. Unlike the others, she has the gift (and curse) of foresight and so takes her fate in stride: She can rejoice in the knowledge that the union will lead to Agamemnon’s violent ruin.
For someone who’s devoted her life to the work of translation, Carson seems unconcerned with longstanding tenets of the practice—say, for instance, the notion that one ought to approximate what the characters actually say. This frenetic, unhinged interpretation seems to put forth the argument: if you can’t keep the words, the original syntax, why not abandon the pursuit of literal translation altogether?—why not abandon certain details, all historical context, even the species of the dramatis personae?
A challenging, somewhat facetious approach to translation wouldn’t be new for Carson: even her stunning translation of Sappho, If Not, Winter, draws attention to the maddening futility of translation—albeit more soberly and to much more poignant effect—by inserting brackets to represent the lost and corrupted texts. There, she highlights the wistful lacunae, never allowing us to forget all that is lost as a text is brought from one era into another; one language into another.
When I look back on the Greek translation classes I took as an undergraduate, and the halting, uncertain tones with which we students fumbled through Herodotus and Sophocles—or on the translations we read and their formal, surreally ornate prose—it’s hard not to see value in a project as strange and manic as this one. After all, the magnificence of the theatrical production—of which Euripides’ text is a mere blueprint—has been lost to time. Who are we to say that this vulgar little picture book isn’t the closest thing we’ve got to the spirit of the original performance? Maybe it translates Euripides’ liveliness, his bent toward experimentation, his refusal of easy answers and plodding pedantry.
The Trojan Women
by Anne Carson and Rosanna Bruno
New Directions; 80 p.