Cécile Dudouyt (Oxford)

In 1534, Nicholas Udall was hired by Oxford University strictly on the understanding that he would never again translate any work from Latin into English. The scholar was indeed known at the time for publishing translated extracts from Terence's comedies in a book which advertised itself on the title page as “very profitable and necessary for the expedite knowledge of the Latin tongue”.

This anecdote highlights a paradox faced since the Renaissance. On the one hand, translators made Greek and Latin works more widely available, thus increasing their influence on modern cultures and literatures, and promoting the study of ancient languages and history in schools and universities. On the other, authors of translations were at times also viewed as traitors who opened the fortress of knowledge to hordes of barbarians untrained in classics. The issue was never entirely about standards of scholarship. On a political and religious level, besides being guilty of making high culture more accessible, translations also elucidated pagan texts and, in the case of ancient drama, gave birth to theatre as a modern literary genre and social practice quite distinct from medieval religious festivals.

Translations of Christian Greek and Latin texts proved equally momentous, as vernacular versions of the Latin Vulgate and of the Greek New Testament were key in undermining and redefining the authority held by the Roman Catholic Church, empowering the Reformation, leading to transformations within the Church itself and giving rise to increasingly secular intellectual and scientific thinking. In terms of its potential for diffusion of texts and ideas, translation can therefore be held as an intellectual counterpart to the invention of print. Translated texts were hardly necessary at a time when, manuscripts being rare and costly, readers were scholars almost by definition.  But from the late fifteenth century onwards, just as printing makes books, as objects, relatively cheaper and available, translations bring the texts themselves within the reach of a correspondingly enlarged readership. 

Contemporary debates about translation have moved away from controversies about its dangers, to focus on another paradox, this time on its very nature. Here is what a 2011 re-edition of the “Teach Yourself” Complete Latin gives as its “if you only have one minute” rationale to learning an ancient language: “readers of modern translations of Virgil’s Aeneid are frequently perplexed by the gap between the obvious overall distinction of the work and the flatness of the English. The genius of the author may flicker through the mundane prose or clumsy verse of a translation but any subtlety is missing.” This unforgiving view of translation is purposefully portraying it as doomed to failure in order to convince would-be classicists, but beyond the pep talk, the author voices an abiding concern at the heart of translation theory. Stuck between two languages, translators constantly have to choose between the meaning and beauty of the original text and the do's and dont's of the target language. Beyond linguistic conundrums, the world in which ancient texts were written both requires and defies translation: should one transcribe Greek or Latin everyday realities or try and give their modern equivalents, at the risk of sounding trivial or absurd? More elusive still: does the humour of, say, Aristophanes' comedies translate as such, or does it need to be transposed in order to be faithful to the comic potential of the original? The sophistication of dramatic poetry, the lost world to which the plays belong and their multiple layers of meaning arguably make them the most un-translatable of texts. Yet this aesthetic impossibility has proved incredibly fruitful, precisely because it started an unending chain of attempts to translate, adapt, rewrite and recreate ancient texts.  So there are gains as well as losses.

Retracing the long and prolific history of ancient drama in translation arguably provides firm data about the reception of the plays, since publication details of translations are by nature  less elusive than performances sometimes prove to be. But it also brings together a corpus open to interpretation: does a temporary dearth of translations reflect a lack of interest in ancient plays or contrastingly a high level of proficiency in the ancient languages? Why do translators choose to translate or adapt one particular play rather than the next? Do performances of ancient drama act as stimulus to translations of the source plays and do popular translations in turn render a particular plot more fashionable? Despite doubts about its very possibility and qualms about the type of relationship it creates between past cultures and the present day, new translations flourish with every generation, tirelessly giving new life to enduring texts.