Sarah Ruden: Guggenheim Fellow Translating Tragic Masterpiece at Wesleyan

Olivia DrakeSeptember 2, 20109min
Sarah Ruden is a new visiting scholar in Classics.

Q: Sarah, you received a Guggenheim Fellowship to translate the Greek tragedy trilogy, The Oresteia.  Please explain the cultural significance of this particular historical play and why your translation will differ from others?

A: The Oresteia is the first real tragic masterpiece. I think that the greatness of a piece of literature depends mainly on how much it lets us reflect on at once, and the Oresteia has everything: questions of human nature, the nature of the gods, the social order– in this case, the startling Athenian moves toward government by ordinary people. And it’s all conveyed in intense, complex, almost creepily beautiful language. That’s why it’s so challenging to translate this work: you can’t be literal, but neither can you just kite out and write your own Oresteia. Of course, I’m trying to keep in between, but just as important as that is resonant sound – the thing I don’t think other translators have paid much attention to. If no one wants to stage your translation of drama, you’ve failed. My Lysistrata has been staged several times, but that was an easy play to translate compared to these three.

Q: In addition to Aristophanes’  Lysistrata (Hackett, 2003), you’ve translated Vergil’s The Aeneid (Yale University Press, 2007); Petronius’ The Satyricon (Hackett, 2000); and The Homeric Hymns (Hackett, 2005). What is your personal interest with classical literature and poetry?

A: I grew up in rural Ohio, and classical literature seemed to be saying what I saw, if that makes any sense. One of the earliest complete poetic works I read in Latin was Vergil’s Eclogues, 10 pastoral poems, and I remember riding my bicycle around and looking at the fields, and the lines – about love, grief, the land, history, hope – were somehow within and all around the landscapes that I loved; the lines didn’t even need music (which some English poetry I particularly liked seemed to come with). I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I just felt that way, and I still do.

Q: What is involved in the translating process? Does this become tedious or is it always challenging and exciting?

A: I don’t know what other people do, but for me there are different ways to approach different kinds of works. Aeschylus is one of the most difficult ancient authors to read, so three months into this year-long project, I’m still going over the plays with the help of scholarly commentaries and other reference works. Over the years, I’ve gone from touchy-feely and reactive to pedantic, and that corresponds to the journey from adolescent arrogance to middle-aged doubt. At 20, I just read – or thought I was reading – and wrote whatever English occurred to me. Now I never believe I really understand a single line, until suddenly a passage comes together – and maybe that’s how it’s supposed to work, with a hard-won perception of wholeness.

Q: Please cite from one of your recent translations.

A:. This is a piece of my Apeleius translation of The Golden Ass, near the end of Book 9:

But not even our return turned out harmless for my owner. A towering person, a legionary soldier on the evidence of his clothing and comportment, happened into us, and haughtily and high-handedly asked the man where he was taking that donkey with no load on him. But my master, still overwhelmed with woe, and ignorant of the Latin language besides, passed the soldier by in silence. The soldier was unable to get on top of the bad attitude so often associated with his position. He was infuriated at the silence, as if it were a taunt, and with the vine-wood staff he carried, he pummeled my owner clear off my back. Then the truck farmer answered in submissive tones that, unacquainted with the language as he was, he could not know what the other was saying. So now the soldier answered in Greek: “Where you take ass?” The farmer replied that he was taking it to the nearest town.

“But he need to service me,” the soldier said. “From fort nearby he must to bring to this place luggage of our leader with other beasts.” And straightway he seized me, took possession of the strap for leading me, and began to drag me away.

Q: What is your time-line on Oresteia, and what will become of it?

A: I hope to have a fairly complete draft ready by May of 2011, when the Guggenheim Fellowship ends. There’s a publication agreement, I hear, that’s being worked out, but whether that means one book or three, I don’t yet know.

Q: Has your work gotten much exposure?

A: I was in The Chonicle of Higher Education May 16, 2008. On March 12, 2009, Garry Wills wrote in the New York Review of Books that my Aeneid translation was the best since Dryden’s. A Christianity Today interview about my Paul book came out this week  – I haven’t seen the final version.

Q: You have a B.A. from the University of Michigan, a M.F.A. in creative writing from Johns Hopkins and a Ph.D. in classical philology from Harvard, and you’re a past visiting fellow at Yale Divinity School. How did you end up working as a visiting scholar in Wesleyan’s Department of Classics, and what do you plan to do after your fellowship?

A: I knew of Wesleyan because my husband, Tom Conroy, graduated here in 1978. But recently, Andrew Szegedy-Maszak, a professor in Classics, visited me at Yale so that I could sign gift copies of my Aeneid for the graduating majors, and later I was invited for a guest lecture. Wesleyan seemed to have it all for someone like me. For example, there was a student at the lecture who was able to challenge me on my interpretation of a Hebrew word – I thought, “Wow, my natural fat-headedness wouldn’t thrive here, would it?” I don’t know what comes after this year, but I doubt it will be as stimulating or as welcoming.