NEW YORK – The Onassis Cultural Center in New York, in collaboration with the New York Review of Books (NYRB), presented a discussion of the latter’s new translation of Aeschylus’ play “Prometheus Bound” at the New York Public Library (NYPL) on Fifth Avenue on May 31.
Edwin Frank, the editor of NYRB Classics, introduced Joel Agee, the translator, and author Tom Sleigh, who led the discussion.
Frank thanked the Center and its Executive Director, Amalia Cosmetatou, represented by Sophia Efthimiadou, its Cultural Events Coordinator, the NYRB and the NYPL for the event.
Excerpts from the translation drew enthusiastic applause for the clarity and beauty of its language. Agee is not a student of Attic Greek but his judicious use of other translations – into Greek and German, which he said better reflects the Greek than does English – written materials and consultations with scholars produced a moving and accessible text.
Agee is also not a classicist, so he drew back for when he was first asked, based on the success of his translation of Euripides’ Heracleidae, but he was persuaded to undertake the project.
The aim was to create a text for actors who performed the play at the Getty Museum’s theater. Agee said he was thrilled to see it performed, noting “It worked well for the actors.”
An excellent summary by Agee of the play’s action preceded the discussion. The Titan Prometheus, who helped Zeus become king of the gods, is now punished by the ungrateful immortal for daring to save humanity from the latter’s wrath by not only bringing them fire from the gods, but inventing and giving them all the gifts of civilization.
A posse including a reluctant Hephaestus, the blacksmith of the gods, who forged the adamantine bonds, captured Prometheus and chained him to the Caucasus Mountains.
The play is tricky because it has to reflect the fact that Prometheus has the gift of foresight – that’s what his name means – and the role of choices and contingency, leading to interesting comments about free will and determinism.
Zeus also has power of seeing and hearing all, which evoked observations about technology’s threats to privacy in our times during the broader talk about tyranny, one of the play’s dominant themes, evidence of the Greek theater’s diachronic power.
It is interesting to note that although Agree grew up behind the Iron Curtain in the German Democratic Republic; his family belonged to the elite, so he did not gain a sense of the tyranny of the regime until he came to America.
The play’s author’s identity is controversial, but Agee says his ability to imagine and empathize with the inner lives of the characters – including an examination of mental illness – points to Aeschylus.
Sleigh pointed out the fascinating tension between the formality of the language of the aristocratic god and human emotion, the deft handling of which is a tribute to Agee’s ear and vision.
“All the characters speak on a high plane…in the elevated medium of poetic speech – as they express deep human emotions – like Romeo and Juliet,” Agee said
The mix of grandeur and feeling in the words reminded Greeks in the audience of the Divine Liturgy. Prometheus mixes compassion for human beings and arrogance – he really does take credit for creating all of civilization, like a good Greek – but he emerges as an admirable figure.
He also gave the gift to humanity of hope for the future, freeing people from traumatic previsions of their own deaths that Greeks believed was characteristic of animals.
On many levels Aeschylus is strikingly modern. Although the idea of evolution was bandied about by his contemporaries, it is intriguing to hear Prometheus describe the acts of divine grace that enabled mankind to transcend its kinship with the animals and become rivals of the gods.
Prometheus is more Christlike than Olympian, so like Euripides, he may be one of the thinkers who prepared the Greek mind to receive Christ from Jewish civilization.
Agee described the creative process of translation, which seems to have proceeded by intuition. “I did very little thinking about what the characters were saying…I’m never conscious of my decisions” he said, although he was careful not to lift large blocks of text from other translator. He was happy, however, to be able to borrow felicitous translations of phrases here and there.
The agreement between the best translations made him confident that he was striking the right notes and he was also guided by the sound of the production of Theater Erineos that used the ancient text with post-classical intonation and which he strongly recommended to the audience.