New translations of old texts

No one has ever paid a visit to Pantelis Boukalas, the dentist, yet many trust his word, trust the poet, the translator, the literary critic, the commentator – not least Kathimerini’s readers. A top student at school, Boukalas was strongly encouraged to pursue a scientific career, as opposed to a literary one, and graduated as a dentist. Yet even as a 16-year-old, Boukalas was copyediting and writing poetry. This summer, Boukalas’s name features prominently as the translator of two ancient plays: a National Theater production of Aristophanes’ «Acharnians» and an Agrinion Municipal Regional Theater Production of Aeschylus’ «Agamemnon.» Why have you never translated ancient drama until now? I had never thought about it, despite the fact that I had read extensively and was so attracted to it, at least in terms of the poetry. Perhaps it was because I had serious reservations. When I review published translations, I’m always worried about how a translation – the one destined to be produced on stage – threatens the tragedy’s philosophical reflections. One of my fears in Aristophanes, for instance, was a distortion of style, even a kind of displacement of genre that a translation might bring about. So what happened exactly, now that you’re presenting both a tragedy and a comedy? I was commissioned in both cases and in both cases there were good omens. In the case of Aeschylus’ «Agamemnon,» I was commissioned by the Agrinion Municipal Regional Theater, the theater of the prefecture where I was born. As for the second, Aristophanes’ «Acharnians,» the proposal came from the Neos Cosmos Theater, the area where I live. When Thodoris Gonis asked me to translate «Agamemnon» five years ago, I felt my knees go weak. I accepted the challenge, however, because there are times when a man needs some kind of external pressure in order to go after something. You studied Aristophanes long before you translated his work. Yes. Ancient Greek literature is a constant. I don’t support the notion that the human race came to an end then, yet humanity continues to find water in those sources. And if we want to be honest with ourselves, we have to admit that they were offered to us once again by foreigners. The majority of studies on the subject of ancient Greek life and literature has been and continues to be carried out by foreigners. Who was more difficult to work on, Aeschylus or Aristophanes? Aeschylus appears more difficult, yet the difficulties in rendering the Aristophanic text are enormous. As for the architecture of his comedies, their structure is something which no translator could ever build again. Word by word, you discover what a great poet Aristophanes is. Do you feel more at ease with comedy or with tragedy? I don’t really know. I don’t want to see it in a divisive kind of way. The same goes for my personal writing and my daily work at the newspaper. You discover treasures in both cases. In «Agamemnon,» you kept the rhythm; it’s not a case of free verse. Yes, I couldn’t have seen it in any other way. I’m deeply immersed in demotic poetry. I never turned my back on the so-called traditional poetry – Solomos, Palamas or Sikelianos – I never cease to be amazed every time I find music and rhythm in what we believe to be free verse, in the work of Elytis and Cavafy, for instance. How much did you differentiate between your language and that of Aeschylus and Aristophanes? I made no effort to differentiate beyond what already existed in the texts. In Aristophanes, for example, when you follow the popular or the dialectic elements as well as his wonderful lyrical verses, you have to differentiate whether you like it or not. When it comes to dialogues and the chorus you need another kind of language. What were you more comfortable with, the chorus or the scenes? With the chorus. They were more demanding and therefore tastier. How does a translator of ancient Greek drama feel when he realizes that so many beautiful things cannot be translated? More and more poets feel that what makes it on paper is the bare minimum, that something is always lost. Perhaps this is because we don’t trust poetry in its capacity as a social worker anymore. Maybe this is the way it is and poets have been exiled from the Republic – Plato would not be happy about this. To answer the question, the translator has an intense feeling that much is left out from the original. One way or another, he has to serve two masters: the original text and the theater troupe. Did you work on the theatrical element, a feature which ancient drama translations must display? Of course, especially in the dialogue. You’re working on a text which will spoken on stage. I must say I came out a winner from the discussions I had with those involved in the productions. This was especially true with Aristophanes, where there were various issues, such as whether or not to include elements of current affairs. And if so, in what way. And what did you decide? Right from the start, the director and I agreed that you can’t deny the analogy game when it comes to things that don’t alter the play’s order. We also agreed, however, not to make references to the present, because that would undermine both the translation and the production. When you ridicule Cleon, the demagogue, you are ridiculing the archetype of the demagogue; you don’t need to add the name of a modern little populist. Besides, we should not make life easier for the indolent reader or member of the audience who expects everything to be delivered on a plate. Of course, when you come across names that mean nothing today, you may add something, that he is a bad musician or poet, for instance. That’s what happened in this case. But no more.

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