CJ 111.1: Erin K. Moodie, “License to Thrill: Linguistic Accuracy in Translations of Roman Comedy”

The first of the articles laying out the process and results of the 2012 NEH summer institute on the performance of Roman Comedy focuses on issues of translation. Moodie starts by listing the issues faced by anyone setting out to translate Plautus for the stage — that is, seeking to “translate” comic effect rather than literal grammatical constructions. From reproducing verbal effects such as alliteration, rhyme, or word-play of other types, through figuring out what to do with slang and topical references, to grappling with Roman comedy’s use of distasteful subjects like slavery, abuse, sexual exploitation, making the texts work in a new linguistic cultural context presents a wide array of challenges.

Moodie’s group, tasked with presenting a performance of the Ballio birthday scene near the beginning of the Pseudolus, decided to base their translation on the commedia dell’arte tradition for “tone and inspirpation.” The second part of her article outlines the principles they followed: making the (threatened) violence in the scene cartoonish and light-hearted, focusing on incorporating English word-play, alliteration, rhyme and double-entendres for the Latin, and (as Plautus himself did) freely omitting, expanding or re-arranging the text for maximum comic effect.

In practice this meant replacing Roman cultural references with American ones, finding equivalent significant names for the prostitutes, and adding “witty metatheatrical commentary” (although the reference to Plautine textual criticism felt to me a little like a stretch here). Moodie illustrates each of these with sections of the final translation, many of which are really very clever. I especially liked rendering pernam callum glandium sumen facito in aqua iaceant (166) with “See to it that my finest Spam, jerky, bologna, Twinkies, Velveeta, Cheez-its, Cheetos, Fritos, Doritos, and Ho-hos are placed precisely on the presidential platter.”

Moodie’s final section reflects on the pedagogical promise of having students engage a process like this, and lays out some possible assignments. As I said in my last post, this is already a regular requirement in a couple of my classes, and as I’m having students do it at this very moment, I’ve given them this article for inspiration. I may post the results of their efforts here if they let me!