Translating Classics when Jocasta ’s Dead

31 October, 2011

This week On the Reading Rest I have a collection of  scholarly essays:

Classics and translation. Essays by D. S. Carne–Ross. Edited by Kenneth Haynes. Lewisburg. Bucknell University Press.ISBN 978-0-8387-5766-6.

And I read the first: Jocasta’s Divine Head: English with a Foreign Accent. (first published in Arion 1990, 3rd series Vol. 1 No. 1 Winter) Accessible also through JSTOR A fair and favourable review of the whole collection, by Peter Green, can be found in Times Literary Supplement Sep 2, 2011.

At there is a short description of Donald Carne-Ross’ life and academic career by Katie Kock. In the event, exporting DSC-R to the United States in 1959 stands out as a result of the post-war draining of the academic fields of Europe.

In 1964 I came to Athens by bus from Corinth. There were three of us on a tour and we had avoided Athens for well over a month. Among the very first things we did was going to the National Archaeological Museum directly to look at Cycladic and Archaic sculpture – to indulge in Pre-Classical Greece. One point in doing so was a wish to stand eye to eye with the inspiration behind a very disciplined form of Pre-World-War II modernism in Danish sculpture still alive in mid-20th century Denmark. Since we were Danes on an educational tour, more provincial Scandinavians than you would believe, this interest (and our avoiding Athens) wasn’t as odd as it may seem today. We wanted to see the foundation, the Greek mainland before past Acropolis and present Syntagma. As we had hoped and expected, there were subtle paragons of the modern in the Archaic and less subtle ones in the Cycladic, Proto-Cycladic being the most fascinating. In those days the construction of the term itself, ’Proto-Cycladic’, signified the abstract and modernistic essence of evolution. But even so, the subtle feeling of renaissance and modernity didn’t help; because here in Athens, instead of echoes of the past, it was the Henry Moore exhibition at Louisiana, north of Copenhagen, a couple of years earlier that stood out as modernism: radical sculpture forcing the voluptuous modern to expand and absorb the Proto-Cycladic as well as the past. In the early 60s this was mo(o)re and very ok!

The Danish sculptures are in the centre at the top is Jörgen Gudmundsen-Holmgreen's Stående mand from 1957, and at the bottom Gottfred Eickhoff's Siddende pige, der ordner sit hår, from 1961. The poster is from the Louisiana exhibition in the early 60s

It was easy to see the difference between the strength of Moore’s modernism and the faithful Danish sculptures. Although they were, once upon a time, at the roots of modern 20th century Europe, they were also sculptural translations of Archaic Greek into unobtrousive modern Danish. Nevertheless, they still have a calm insistence on the past and the artists knew that their chisels (in Eickhoff’s sculpture) marked out the foreign teeth in their mixture of creation and translations. They were sculptures of a renaissance when the end of History, post-war modernity, had just been announced.

The power-pointed charioteer and the ‘dead’ or slightly astonished original.

It was easy to see that the sculptural expressions of Ancient Greece had also come to an end. Once intended to look both dead as a mask and alive in the super-human sense of the eternally present posture, and the intense gaze of his inlaid eyes, the elevated Charioteer in the Delphi museum lost his controlled divine agency when he lost his eyes, arm, reins, chariot and horses, and became an aesthetic exhibit. And that insight too was the 60s.

There is a tragic beauty to DC-R’s essay because it aims in vain to reinvent the importance of history and Ancient Greek as late as 1990s when the whole defence line, compulsory Classics as the foundation for the Eurocentric super-power civilisation, had long ago vanished into the thin didactic air of modern grammar schools. And then again: when characters die in tragedies they sometimes have something melodramatic, quite a lot in fact, to say for themselves. That goes for DC-R too. But more important, his text is laced with learned references that sometimes stand out as slightly arbitrary or indeed frightfully learned. Meandering rather than coming to the point, the essay reminds one of the lamentations and ‘Bildung’ of a dying actor, acting a dying era already dead. This prolonged stage of learning, crowded with intellectual properties, is perhaps not what we would have expected from an essay with a title so ostentatiously measured: Jocasta’s Divine Head. English with a Foreign Accent rather than the gentle English with a Foreign Accent: Jocasta’s Divine Head. The measured title, but not the essay echoes ‘case closed’.

As it happens, DC-R makes a point of discussing the translation of this specific expression, ‘Jocasta’s divine head’, in Oedipus Rex. In passing he points out the astonishing forcefulness of Hölderlin’s noiminalizing German, (das) Gemeinsamschwesterliches used as an adjective describing Ismene’s head, and the weaknesses of plain modern English in another part of the play. Nonetheless, DC-R thinks that an English poet, e.g. himself had he been one, could have come to terms with the Greek usage of ‘head’.

There are nevertheless several head problems: (1) the head as pars pro toto has lost its power in English; (2) one must not let the rhyme ‘dead’ – ‘head’ be heard; (3) DC-R has difficulties accepting that the divine can die. Such problems/quasi problems undermine translation as well as the announcement of its death, p. 25f.. In the end, having argued all the way up to Ezra Pound, and not a step beyond into the modernism of a Henry Moore, DC-R acknowledges that Jocasta is probably dead. Still, he is not completely without hopes that she will ‘recover’ her divine head, p. 47. The scholar doth protest too much, methinks.

To less sensible and educated souls such as mine DC-R’s case is simple: Jocasta, a symbol of Ancient Greek poetry, having grasped the width, and seen the offspring, of her incestuous relation and intercourse with her son-lover-husband Oedipus (the English Poetry), i.e. seen some of the English she gave birth to in translated poems mixing Ancient Greek and Modern English, kills herself. This is tragic, but we all agree that among the ‘children’ – recalling Antigone, Eteocles, Polynices and Ismene – the result of mixing Ancient Greek poetry and English couldn’t always have been successful.

In the tragedy, Jocasta’s suicide must be announced and it is the task of the 2nd messenger to do so. He thinks this fact can be expressed and understood by means of a series of just four words:  τέθνηκε θειον Іοκάστης κάρα, drawing attention to the facts that: Jocasta has a head, Jocasta’s head is divine and Jocasta ‘s dead; or as the messenger, who has seems to have an archaeologist’s interest in facts and material remains of the past, could have put in English:

2nd messenger: dead divine Jocasta’s head.

If this pile or words is too staccato, pointless and close to the ‘dead-head’ rhyme, i.e. if it’s not ‘poesy’[1] enough, then we may add a little extra for meter’s sake:

2nd messenger: Dead lies divine, Jocasta’s head.

This is a reasonably divided line, a syllable short, a word too long. And too iambic and anapaestic! But that, as Hopkins and Swinburne have long ago observed, is English for you [2]. The points, nevertheless, are there: (1) there’s no pars pro toto, if we don’t want it, just the head as a metaphor. (2) You need not hear the ‘dead’-‘head’ rhyme, if you don’t want to. (3) Obviously the divine may linger in the looks of someone dead, if you want it to.

The head of one of the Early Iron Age bog people, the Tollundmand

Once a useful creation, lost heritage is lost, and the line between creativity and translation always a fine one. Notwithstanding, translations without creativity tend to be sadly educational and creativity without translation nothing but original. There is no essence in today’s past.

In the Marvel universe,  on the other hand, they seem to know that somehow translation must always complement creativity. At least they never tire of recovering, reconstructing, aiding, transferring, keeping, restoring, duplicating, returning, sabotaging, re-retrieving and resurrecting – Jocasta’s head, bless ‘er:

Seeking inside information about the Avengers, the High Evolutionary recovered Jocasta’s parts and reconstructed her. She sent an emergency signal to the Avengers, who came to her aid. Again, Jocasta sacrificed her body to destroy the foe, this time preventing the detonation of a genetic bomb which would have altered mankind. However, Jocasta’s head survived the explosion, and her memories and personality remained intact, though dormant. The head was recovered by the Avengers who, unable to do anything with it, transferred her to the keeping of her friend, Machine Man. Working on restoring her, he was interrupted by one of the metal-devouring Termini and fled with Jocasta’s head. Both Machine Man and Jocasta were taken to a nearby factory belonging to Sunset Bain (Madam Menace), where Bain covertly duplicated Jocasta’s head and returned a sabotaged copy to Machine Man. The head was later stolen by Mechadoom and re-retrieved by Machine Man, who, unaware of Bain’s interference, was unable to resurrect Jocasta.

More on


[1] It is a well-known fact that Water Rat, i.e. the Victorian poet in the Wind in the Willows, and a contemporary of one of DC-R’s favourites, Gerard Manley Hopkins, who despite his Archaic preferences had to confess the unpleasant feeling of an affinity of the mind with the ‘very great scoundrel’ Walt Whitman, a sentiment similar to Water Rat’s when he feels attached to Sea Rat — it is a well-known fact that Water Rat abhorred the way Toad, that most prolific writer of English verse in iambic and anapaestic meter, used the verb ‘to learn’:

The Toad, having finished his breakfast, picked up a stout stick and swung it vigorously, belabouring imaginary animals. `I’ll learn ’em to steal my house!’ he cried. `I’ll learn ’em, I’ll learn ’em!’
`Don’t say “learn ’em,” Toad,’ said the Rat, greatly shocked. `It’s not good English.’
`What are you always nagging at Toad for?’ inquired the Badger, rather peevishly. `What’s the matter with his English? It’s the same what I use myself, and if it’s good enough for me, it ought to be good enough for you!’
`I’m very sorry,’ said the Rat humbly. `Only I THINK it ought to be “teach ’em,” not “learn ’em.”‘
`But we don’t WANT to teach ’em,’ replied the Badger. `We want to LEARN ’em–learn ’em, learn ’em! And what’s more, we’re going to DO it, too! 

So, you simply can’t use ‘poesy’, and don’t pronounce it like ‘cosy’, as an adjective. DC-R doesn’t like Victorian translations either.

 [2] DC-R quotes Swinburne, p. 38, but also a letter from Gerard Manley Hopkins, p.37, to Robert Bridges where iambic and anapaestic are similarly discussed, cf. Letters to Robert Bridges, (Letter XC 18 October 1882, see p. 156 f.).


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