On Adapting Ancient Greek Text
to Modern Television

by Christopher Xeneopoulos Janus

It would be ideal to adapt Ancient Greek text to modern television but it has not worked. And that is still the goal of the purist. Ancient Greek is still too rich and complicated for the Modern Greek scholar adapted into television.

That was a problem and much discussed when I established The GREEK HERITAGE QUARTERLY some 60 years ago and it's still a problem.

I asked Kimon Friar, the distinguished editor, to discuss the problem with other Greek scholars and to give examples of trying to adapt ancient Greek drama to television (most of the time a modern text was used). What we discussed and what he wrote is valid today. Following is an edited copy of what Kimon Friar wrote for me:

"Greek is the only language in the Western hemisphere which can show an unbroken continuity of development for almost four thousand years, there is a predicable break between Latin and the Romance languages, but though Greece was under subjugation for about five centuries to Venetians and Turks, and others. From the downfall of the Byzantine Empire to the end of the Greek War of Independence in 1829, Greeks have tenaciously clung to their language and retained much of their ancient vocabulary, either in written or spoken form.

"An ancient Greek scholar learns to read a Greek newspaper in a few months. Nevertheless, a modern Greek would fine it as difficult to listen to an ancient Greek drama in the original as would a modern Englishman to attend a play in pre Chaucerlan English. For this reason, all ancient Greek plays produced today in the National Greek Theater, or at festivals at Epidavros, Delphi or Dodona are presented in modern and not ancient Greek. My problem, therefore in translating sections from Aeschylus' 'Prometheus' Bound,' Sophocles 'Oedipus the King' and Euripides' 'Hercula;' was not only to adapt them to the exigencies of a television program with a specified time limit, but also "to adapt them to the habits of the two protagonists, Katina Paxinou and Alexis Minotis, whose muscular and mental reactions are attuned to modern Greek translations and not to the ancient Greek text.

''Although I used the ancient texts throughout to check interpretation and validity, I relied also on texts in modern Greek. The thought or emotion of some particular passage was so closely linked, with the modern Greek phasing to which they had become accustomed, that I found it necessary to adapt my translation accordingly.

"On the whole I have tried to avoid the inversions, archaic diction, and vague paraphrasing which has so plagued translation of a previous generation, but on the other hand I have equally to avoid the sterile, colorless, and 'correct diction' of many modern versions. I have tried, first of all, for a dramatic text, one which would play and sound well; One which would have an immediate impact on a television audience, many of whom would be listening to Greek drama for the first time. Though the diction of my versions is simple and uncomplicated, I have tried for sonority and passion by translating primarily in the iambic meter with some anapests hexameter for most Oedipus, pentmeter for most of 'Promethus.' I have sought for a tension between simplicity of language and sophistication of orchestration and meter, similar to that which occurs, I believe, in the ancient texts.

"The sections used are not simply translations, but freely adapted. Hecuba is relatively faithful to the original: Agamemmon's speeches have been shortened, and some lines belonging to the Handmaiden wer, given to Hecuba. In 'Prometheus' I have ranged over the entire play, trying to capture its essence of rebellion in one compact scene: for this reason a speech which was originally 'Strengths' has been given to Zeus­speeches of some length have been condensed to a few lines and other speeches or lines have been transported and placed elsewhere.

(Posting date 20 February 2007)

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