908-1078 by Brandon Brown
(Transmission Press, Chicago, 2006)
The Persians By Aeschylus by Brandon Brown
(Displaced Press, Ann Arbor – Chicago – Olympia, 2011)
Aeschylus’s The Persians opens with this scene: “Before the Council-Hall of the Persian Kings at Susa. The tomb of Darius the Great is visible. The time is 480 B.C., shortly after the battle of Salamis. The play opens with the CHORUS OF PERSIAN ELDERS singing its first choral lyric.” (Robert Potter version, as seen at The Internet Classics.
I’ve examined four print translations, all of which, if they say anything, say more or less the same thing. Except for Brandon Brown’s version, which eschews theatrical illusion in order to begin with: “1-184 / SUNDRY PROLOGUES EXPLAINING / AMONG OTHER THINGS / THE BEGINNING OF THE WAR / BETWEEN THE GREEKS AND / THE PERSIANS; ITS CONDUCT, / STATUS, AND PROLEGOMENIC PREDICTIONS FOR THE FUTURE”.
One is struck immediately by Brown’s approach. It’s reminiscent of Brecht’s Epic Theatre, in that Brecht always wanted the audience to be aware that it was watching a play.
The chorus speaks. I’ll use Robert Auletta’s translation, published during the first Gulf War by Sun & Moon, because it too has ambitions above and beyond moving a text from one language/culture to another (“In this modern version … Robert Auletta shifts the action of the play from Persia to a modern-day Iraq, and like Aeschylus, asks Americans to question and challenge their views of our recently defeated enemies.”)
We are the chosen ones,
the Persian Council
left here to guard
the sacred documents of our country,
while all our forces
have gone to war in Greece.
It is a strange time,
this early morning
of both hope and fear,
with rumors running wild,
and the heart pounding
with terror and joy. …
This is very similar to the other versions I’ve examined. Brown’s chorus does a radically different thing:
t’s been a few years since we went
to fight with Persians. I meant to
fight with Greeks. No, I meant to say
t’s been a few years since we went
to fight with Greeks, since we’re Persians.
If this is confusing, it’s be-
cause I’m saying this to you in
Greek. In fact, we’re Greeks, because we’re
speaking Greek. But isn’t it as
if we were Persians, making this
speech about fighting with Greeks? All
the more rich I’d venture since we’re
making the speech in Greek. That’s what
Persians do after all in The
Persians. Speak in Greek ‘bout fighting
with Greeks, or rather against them.
Beside the Epic Theatre proscenium-breaking, the most important thing to note, I think, is that these Persians are aware of and enacting their own defeat and enslavement from the very first lines. Everyone in Aeschylus’ audience knew the Persian defeat to be the case. Yet, as is evident from the lines from Auletta’s version above, the audience was still allowed the frisson of pretending that neither they nor the Persians knew that. However much Aeschylus “humanized the enemy” (Peter Green, intro to Auletta’s version), he still, and other translations still, begin the play as if the Persians are still free. Brown does not allow his readers, or audience, or his Persians, even one moment of that luxury.
The entire translation precedes this way, reveals itself as pure artifice while undercutting that artifice with every line. Which is only fitting, given that this translation is a product of the second Gulf War, during which we were fed so much media and governmental “artifice”, we, uh, all got very sick on it, very sick indeed.*
*As Brown notes in his “Afterword”, “After all, I wrote this book in 2005 c.e. and 2006 c.e., when the images from Abu Ghraib were only the most spectacular and visible record of the abuse my own culture was inflicting upon a Middle Eastern people.” I will simply add that there are still many proponents of torture in the USA … some of them are current Republican presidential candidates …
I should note that lines 908-1078, which close the play, were also published separately, by Transmission Press. It’s a lovely little chapbook, printed on nice paper and with a lot of space around the texts. Everything feels different than it feels in the complete version … one of those indefinable haptic-visual “affect” things.
I especially treasure the note on the copyright page: “908 – 1078 is an excerpt from The Persians By Aeschylus. It represents a literal translation of the last 170 lines of the ancient tragedy The Persians by Aeschylus.”
This is wonderful for two reasons. First, they italics make clear that there is a distinction between the translated and the translated. In spite of this aporia, claims that this translation is literal. Which brings into play the notion of what literality might mean. Which is of course a question that a multitude of scholars in a multitude of disciplines in a multitude of books and papers and presentations have come no closer to answering than would that proverbial infinite number of monkeys with their infinite number of typewriters typing through all eternity. So I will ask a slightly different question. What is the task/what are the tasks of the translator these days? Might it/ they also include, as Deleuze and Guattari would say, some sort of “and … and … and”? Let me explain.
Johannes Göransson, in an interview with Blake Butler at HTMLGIANT, talks about just that, in a way that is useful to me here:
BB: I wonder also about the influence of your interest and activity in translation in your work, how the experience of shifting the language of people like Aase Berg and Jönsson and the like ends up affecting the way you think about connecting language in your own writing? Does the act in some way change the way you are wired? Is that act of translating political in another kind of way from writing itself?
JG: This is something I have thought about a great deal. American writers/readers are so troubled by translation: it’s inauthentic, counterfeit, kitsch. They want the real thing, not this fake, possibly pathological thing that foreigners peddle. Part of being an immigrant is being suspect, part of translating is the same suspicions. We’re cheaters, we’re not quite real. I’ve been repeatedly accused of making up the poets I translate (I take it as a compliment!). But then I’ve also been suspected of fucking Lara Glenum. We’re pathological agents, foreigners and translators, treasonous kitsch-makers with unofficial access to jouissance. One way of solving this problem is not to read things in translation (very common); or to see it as a necessarily flawed imitation but necessarily good for you; or to focus on interlingual writing. The last one is seductive indeed, and in part I have participated in this answer: in a lot of my works there are interlingual puns or auto-translations (in a variety of ways – homophonic, stutttery, infected, bled-out etc, all very technical terms), especially in my book Pilot (“Johann the Carousel Horse”), which aims to create a kind of leaky in-between language that sounds like partly a backwards-tape that drags and partly like Swedish and partly like English. I get all spassy when I read it, so I don’t read it very often, but it’s more like a performance piece, something that needs to be read (as Stina Kajaso just wrote on her blog “performance” really basically means “show your tits!”); I want to hear English as a foreign language. The problem is when such interlingualism becomes an excuse not to deal with foreign lit in translation, and more importantly, a way of dealing with foreign languages that does away with the scandalous counterfeit nature of translation. I don’t want to remove that. That’s the politics of translation in a nutshell.
Now, here’s Brown’s “Artist Statement”, as found at the Nonsite Collective:
The Italian adage that calls the translator a traitor expresses a long-standing and still effervescent understanding of the role of the translator in the process known as “translation.” The translator—what are her qualities? She operates between the poles of fidelity and treason. She is valued to the very extent that she maintains her invisibility. She operates between the poles of domesticity and foreignness. She is full of secrets. She is not to be trusted. In my work I have been interested in the sentence passed on translation, the sentence passed on the translator in advance. I am interested in the specificity of the metaphors that translators live by. These metaphors, far from serving as remote descriptors of an alien process, have affected my process as a translator in an intimate way—I have embraced them as it were in a thorny embrace, without the melodrama. In 2004, I translated several odes of the Roman poet Horace. In the process of making those translations, I experienced profound discomfort in reading his works. I was not able to read these works, written in praise of Caesar Augustus (a dictator whose father had just recently been dictator) and praising his recent decisions to wage war, as if there were no time and space, only mirror images of meanings. My eyes, if they were focused on the text of Horace, were always part of the body which was inundated by representations of the unimaginable violence taking place in my name around the world, to some extent engineered by a sort of dictator (whose father had just recently been dictator). Benjamin Hollander describes a translation as “some of what the translator read.” I wished to make that profound bodily discomfort I experienced in reading the works legible in the translations. The Persians, an ancient play by Aeschylus, shows the Persian court during the time of the war between the Persians and the Greeks. It depicts the Persians learning of their massive defeat at the hands of the Greek army. I desired to make a literal translation of The Persians by Aeschylus using a process similar to the method with which I translated Horace. I wished to expand that practice, however. I believed that the text which proceeded from my body should report on my total experience of reading The Persians by Aeschylus, not simply report on the “meanings” of the “words” of that work. This was an obviously impossible project. To help myself out, I tried to include many collaborators to intervene in the translation, especially including Edward Said, Jane Austen, Walter Benjamin, my Arabic class, the Clash, e-mail correspondence with a translator recruiter from the U.S. Army, and Rumi; also all the things I ate and drank and wore and said and did are in the translation; and most especially I tried to pay attention to the terrific war and the terrific language that the war made that completely infiltrated all of my food and beverages and clothes and words and actions, and I let that get in the way of the translation too. In this way, The Persians by Aeschylus transmits numerous reports: a report of a reading, a toxological report of the reading and the writing; those latencies did not lie down.
While happily admitting that other translators have other tasks, some of which even include attempts at “literality”, I think we can begin to see some overlap between Göransson’s and Brown’s notions: cheaters/traitors; pathological/ toxological; spassy /bodily, and so on. For neither is translation a “pure” act. It’s messy, and each tries to bring the messiness over intact. Göransson calls translation a “scandalous counterfeit” and notes, “I don’t want to remove that. That’s the politics of translation in a nutshell.” Brown doesn’t attempt to eliminate the counterfeit; he just doesn’t seem to see it as scandalous. As he says in his Artist Statement: “I believed that the text which proceeded from my body should report on my total experience of reading The Persians by Aeschylus….” Or if he sees it as scandalous, he doesn’t seem to care. I realize that I am not really making a distinction between Brown and Göransson, which is fine. In any case, as I read them, one of the tasks of the translator these days, one I admit to being particularly amenable to, might be summed up as let it/get it All in.
I’ll close with an example of what this might mean. From 908 – 1708:
The Greeks chased us around on vases On the vases the Greeks had huge erect penises We were made baboon It was that simple for the Greeks to get a good laugh “by making us animals” Later on they would get a good laugh “by making us appear homosexual” or “they would tie leashes to us” or “other pranks” But in this case I’m referring to Fine Arts Huge Erection Held in the hand Hefted like a bayonet Running after baboon Persians Hefting and Holding the Hardon On the vase we were running away from the erection monster, bent over Running About to be caught by the big human erection soldier Unfortunately it is very hard to run fast on a vase And yet it is hard to be apprehended by a running Greek Erection Warrior On a vase On Fine Sculpture Needless to say if we wrote an Ode On A Grecian Urn we’d not applaud it for Truth and Beauty
John Bloomberg-Rissman is somewhere towards the middle of a project called Zeitgeist Spam. The first two volumes have been published: No Sounds of My Own Making, and Flux, Clot & Froth. The third section, In the House of the Hangman, is underway. In addition to his Zeitgeist Spam project, he has edited or co-edited two anthologies, 1000 Views of 'Girl Singing' and The Chained Hay(na)ku Project, and is at work on a third, a collaboration with Jerome Rothenberg. He blogs at Zeitgeist Spam.