Atlas to the Text

Students and professors negotiate the philosophical challenges of translation

Melissa C. Wong

Loyalty to authorial intent and the creative desire for interpretation are two of the many irreconcilable imperatives for translators.

Completed in 1655, Harvard’s Indian College was designed to be a hotbed of Puritan missionary activity. The college also housed a printing press, then operated by the aptly-named James Printer, a student and a member of the Algonquian Nipmuc tribe.

Printer and his press—the first on the North American continent—would later be of great use to John Eliot, an English proselytizer. After more than a decade of painstaking labor, in 1659 Eliot completed his translation of the Bible into Wampanoag, which he had learned while living among Native Americans in ‘Praying Towns.’ These settlements were founded for the express purpose of exposing Native Americans to Christian enlightenment, and Eliot regularly delivered sermons in Wampanoag to the ‘Praying Indians’ of Natick. Published in stages at the Indian College between 1661 and 1663, Eliot’s Mamusse Wunneetupanatamwe Up-Biblum God (“The-whole Holy his-Bible God”) was the first Bible printed in North America.

Though Eliot’s work may present moral problems from a modern perspective, it is difficult to imagine the intellectual responsibility and ambition required to convey ‘the word of God’ in a foreign tongue. Such a weighty endeavor brings with it both the possibility of great achievement and the looming threat of inadequacy. For contemporary expert and amateur translators at Harvard, the task of translation involves a confluence of fear, anxiety, and intimidation. The root cause of this distress lies in the creative, historical, and political complexities found in translation.


The tradition of translating ancient texts is still alive and well at Harvard, although it has lost curricular prominence since Harvard’s founding. Undergraduates in the Classics Department are the most active constituents in the niche community of translators at Harvard. The Classical Club, founded in 1885, translates and stages an ancient drama every spring. This year, the club is putting on their new version of Sophocles’ “Oedipus Rex,” which opened March 4 and is running through March 12.


The club’s modus operandi is to alternate Latin and Greek plays each year and shop around for interested directors once the translation has been completed. This pattern fell through last year, when the club’s translation never reached the stage. This time around, the creative process was reversed. “We decided to do ‘Oedipus [Rex]’ this year because [Meryl H. Federman ’11, director] was planning to do ‘Oedipus.’ She wasn’t happy with the translation, so we decided to work with her,” says Classical Club co-president Arthur D. Kaynor ’12, who is also working as a producer and ‘Translation Captain’ for the new production.

According to Federman, the initial translations she surveyed were dense and ornate, rendering the play’s drama unintelligible. “I was very excited to find the Classical Club because a lot of the translations [of ‘Oedipus’] are quite old, and the wording is quite highfalutin ... it’s very old-school, very poetic, overblown in what it sounds like when you hear it,” she says. “[In those editions] people are trying to approximate what it sounded like back then. They are going off of this style that is ultimately confusing today.” Federman’s task was to ignore rhetorical affectation and streamline “Oedipus” in order to make it relatable to a modern audience. “I wanted to get to the human story of it with a translation that is more accessible to the modern ear,” she says.

Members of the eight-person translation team for “Oedipus” brought home sections of the play for J-Term, each producing a literal, non-interpretive translation of his or her assigned segment. These disparate, individual translations were then joined into a single cohesive document. This draft was further revised by Federman, Kaynor, and Felice S. Ford ’11—the show’s other Producer and ‘Translation Captain’—to include language more stylistically suited to performance.

“My work has mostly been advising with the director and other production staff, especially during casting,” says Ford. She also helps to convey “aspects of the text that aren’t just in the text itself, the nature of Greek tragedy, the culture that produced it. There are still some things in terms of characterizations and staging when it does matter if you want to have an authentic production.” Staging classical texts, then, requires cultural transmission in addition to linguistic translation.

For Federman, the fear associated with translating “Oedipus Rex” has little to do with the work’s canonical status. In fact, directing a classic drama invites creative and original ideas. “You don’t want to do nothing,” says Federman. The anxiety of reinterpreting a text like “Oedipus Rex” lies rather in the multitude of creative options made possible by a new translation. For plays written in English, the range of interpretive possibilities is much narrower: “every line has a binary operation,” says Federman, to cut or not to cut. In translated plays, a director may actually create the text itself.

“It starts out terrifying, and gets really fun, because there are so many choices of what to do,” says Federman. “With something like this ... there is an uncountable number of things to do on every single line, and you have to make that decision over and over and over again. It becomes harder to change as you keep going.”

A director, however, must also confront the pressure of accurately conveying another’s work. “You are working with something that is not yours,” says Federman. “This is not an adaptation, it is the play itself. You need to have creative inspiration within a specific, narrow framework. There are times when you get stuck, because it is a creative process.” The central conflict, therefore, is between creativity and loyalty. “I think Sophocles would like this translation,” she adds with a smile.


Just as Eliot crowned his career with the Wampanoag Bible, a small set of undergraduates culminate their academic careers with a translation thesis. Ford is one such student, currently completing her edition of Euripides’ “The Bacchae,” a Greek tragedy centered on the god Dionysus’ revenge against his mortal family. Although Euripides’ drama is an oft-translated and oft-performed classic, Ford is attempting to contribute something original to her interpretation.

“My goal in the work overall was to be as true to the text as possible, but still produce a comprehensible and somewhat aesthetically pleasing version of the text,” says Ford. Her main goal is to reconsider widely accepted though antiquated translations, which distort the play’s content for a modern audience. “[Translated] texts pre-1950 or -1960 were very Victorian-sounding, [and used] high English,” she says.