Thursday, October 6, 2011

The Old Men of Argos Huddle in Terror

From Aeschylus tragedy Agamemnon, Line 1020.

Over the weekend there were two football grand finals on television. On the Saturday Geelong and Collingwood struggled in a close run thing for three quarters until the Cats skipped away and won the game. On the Sunday Manly defeated the Warriors. On the Sunday night, for reasons which had nothing to do with football, I was unable to sleep. Having not much else to do, I read the Agamemnon of Aeschylus. More exciting than football, the creative spark forced me from my bed. I am not fluent in my translations, one could compare my technique to a person attempting to solve a cryptic crossword. My lack of skill or fluency does not stop me, for my main goal is to learn and to gain fluency. In this instance the only way to learn is to read.

This piece is from Agamemnon, the first part of the Oresteia. A wonderful, brutal, strange and powerful work. Agamemnon has just returned home from the long war against Troy. Home to Argos and to his wife Klutaimnestra, who has set herself on killing him. She feels she is in the right, as he sacrificed (murdered) their daughter Iphigeneia. She was sacrificed to allow the Greeks to launch their campaign against Troy. For ten years the war dragged on, and for ten years Klutaimnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and mother of Iphigeneia, nurtured her hatred and desire for vengeance. Who could blame her? Even the old men of Argos agree 'blame is present against blame, difficult it is to judge. He endures who is enduring, the killer has to pay.'

Using flattering words, a warm bath, and a krater of drugged wine, wielding her sword and a net, Klutaimnestra rolled out the wine dark carpet for the returning hero. She stabbed him twice and killed him. Splattered with blood she plunged the sword a third thrust to convince herself that the deed had been done.

This passage is from one of the songs of the Chorus of Old Men. The old men sense that something is amiss, but unlike the audience they do not know what is to come to pass. They are fearful for Agamemnon as he strides across the barbaric carpets. He seems to be taking on the manners of the East, of the Trojan king Priam. Klutaimnestra appeals to his vanity by telling him that the feet of a hero should not touch the dirt. The old men see this an affront. The red carpets flow from the palace doors and across the stage. The Phoenician carpets call to mind the wine dark blood which has flowed across generations of the House of Atreus and which will soon flow again. The old men are scared and they sing a long passage, of which I cut out a bit to make a (hopefully) nice little poem. In ripping fifteen or so lines out of a much larger poem I can only do violence to the original, but I have endeavoured to minimise the harm.

Robert Browning is not much spoken abut these days, but he was insightful in many ways. I agree with him in the spellings that he uses, for instance I much prefer Klutaimnestra to Clytaemnestra, Kassandra to Cassandra. He did some very literal translations from the Greek. He did this in opposition to current ideas about the beauty of the Greek language. In this he showed ancient Greek to be a highly flexible, and at the same time sparse language. This sparseness, which is increased by the heightened language of the tragic form, is a peg that allows the translator to hang any garment desired, be it gaudy or plain. I think this was the point that Browning tried to make in his, even to this day, despised translation of Agamemnon.

As a example let us look at the last line of this passage (line 1034), in Greek it reads, Zopuroumenas frenos. From the dictionary we find out that Zopuroumenas means kindle into flame and frenos meaning midriff, or breast and by extension heart, mind, sense etc. (As an aside Zopuroumenas can also mean kindle into life, as in the quickening of the embryo.) In Browning we get 'the enkindling mind.' From E. D. A. Morshead we get 'my soul is prophecy and flame' which Robert Fagles in turn translates as '...and the brain is swarming, burning.' Which is best? Which is most correct? Which is nearest to the mind of Aeschylus?

The Old Men of Argos Huddle in Terror.

Once upon the earth
One's life blood black.
Can anyone with charms
Sing it back?

Once there was one who rightly knew
How to call back the dead.
Fearful Zeus struck him
Thunderbolt dead.

Had not the deathless
Arrayed our portion
Against another,
Bright laughter
Would burst forth.
My heart.

The lower gloom
Beneath the darkness.
Sick at heart,
I murmur and grumble.
Unable to hope
For that opportune day
To unravel, and so
Bring to an end.

Kindled my heart leaps into flame!

The pic is from

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