Soaping up the Classics

I like to pretend that the classics are a soap opera.

It started when I was in tenth grade and I had to give a presentation to my class about Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. I was messing around, trying to figure out how to explain the plot in a way that wouldn’t put anyone to sleep when it hit me that the story of Hester Prynne’s secret affair and illegitimate child could just as easily be a plot arc on Days of Our Lives.

The language might be hard and the reading might be slow, but the classics have great stories. Admittedly, not the biggest light bulb moment ever… but I was 15.

What makes this dorky is that even as I’ve matured and gained an appreciation for the classics, I still like to imagine them like the daytime soaps. Any why not? The classics are full of the same kind of over-the-top plot points we associate with melodrama – mad women in attics, ghosts passionately wooing on the moors, and transferred identities inside a French prison.

I started thinking about my inappropriate reading of the classics after reading about a new translation of The Iliad by a “rock star” of the translation world, Stephen Mitchell. According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Mitchell’s new translation “cut about 1,100 lines, modernized the dialogue and left out most of the fusty-seeming descriptors attached to each character.”

It also has more modern, “movie style” dialogue – Helen’s a bitch, a scared soldier is jeered with, “Go ahead, sissy, run!” and Hector is a “son of a bitch.” Spicy!

My first impulse on hearing this news was to cheer. I think the language of the classics can cause readers to avoid some of these great stories – it’s hard to read, so people just skip them. I read The Odyssey last year, and even though the translation was great, I think it missed some of the fun of the story by sticking so closely to the original language.

Of course, what you might lose in an interpretation like this one is a more nuanced appreciation for things other than what the book is actually about. Just because I could act out the plot of A Scarlet Letter with felt puppets doesn’t mean I necessarily picked up the underlying ideas about sin, guilt, and repentance Hawthorne was trying to express.

On the other hand, I suppose any translation of a classic work loses something in the language shift, no matter how closely the translator tries to stick with the original. Beautiful writing is more than just what words literally mean – rhythm, tone, and context all play a part in appreciating the work that goes into a classic. “Movie style” dialogue might be fun, but it might not do the original justice.

And there’s always the risk that spicing up a classic moves it so far away from the original it’s not even the same story. I saw a trailer for the new Three Musketeers movie where M’lady De Winter (I think) does a Matrix-style sliding maneuver under some sort of stone-face cannons that’s just… special.

But if getting to call Hector a son of a bitch gets more people to read The Iliad, is that really such a bad thing? I’m going to vote no.

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