Interview with Antigone Translator Daniel Sullivan

Carissa Ibert, dramaturg, sat down in conversation with Daniel Sullivan, who translated our new version of Antigone. Read on to learn all about his process and experience with Cutting Ball in the past year, from the first spark of an idea with director Paige Rogers, to the woods of Poland, to the weeks leading up to opening night.

Carissa Ibert: How did you get involved with this project at Cutting Ball?

Daniel Sullivan: Paige had done Tontlawald, and I had really responded to that piece, and I wrote her a letter. I didn’t know her well at all at the time, only that I had been really affected by Tontlawald. About a year and a half later, she wrote back and said here’s an idea I have. I was this close to saying no because I would be the first to say I wasn’t qualified to translate a classic from the Attic Greek. So I wrote back and said I don’t know where you are going with it, but I would like to be involved somehow, and she said, well that’s what I was hoping for, and so this dialogue started between us. She said she had some ideas about help that she could provide for me to make a new version with greater theatrical use. I was introduced to Jim Whitta, and [we] had a conversation. Later, Paige and Rob and Jim met, and they all got along well and that opened up this possibility. [Eventually] I got a grant and was able to go to Wroc?aw, Poland to the Dialog festival with Paige and Rob and others.

C: How was that?

D: It was extraordinary. I mean for me, I saw quite a few plays –Heiner Muller’s Mauserand Johan Simon’s King Lear I remember most– pieces of theatre that I really responded to.

Paige and I got to talk quite a bit,and that’s where Paige got this idea to talk to the folks at the Grotowski Institute. She’s somebody that does what she decides to do. Very bold. She said: I can do this, theres this place in the woods, and they said if we could just organize this or that, and I’m going to do it! And sure enough slowly this thing crystallized — and then there we were in Brzezinka. But I think the origins of Brzezinka happened on the trip. And then it was about bringing these actors together. And then I was able to go back to Poland with the actors and Paige and Heather with some help from Cutting Ball.

C: Since this is a whole new translation of Antigone, what was the process? What version of Antigone were you working with? Were you working with the text that Sophocles left?

D: I had been making a lot of notes using the Jebb version on the Perseus website, studying Mark Griffith’s edition and notes, scouring through essays by Greek scholars on the Jstor database before I first met with Jim. Jim would read it in the Attic Greek and provide the literal translation. Then I would take that, go home and and work with it. The literal translation is dissimilar from English where you’ve got a precise syntactical structure for making meaning. In the Greek, you can have those words ordered differently and while the meaning may eventually be the same there can be variations to getting there.

Jim would speak the literal translation and then he would go at it again speaking it another way, and then he would go at it again. I would scratch out his as fast as I could to catch them and then return home and craft the lines with theatrical and dramatic values in mind.

C: Did you work like this over each line? Or did you work on specific moments of the play?

D: We started with the choral pieces because Paige wanted those done first. And they were the more complicated pieces. The exchanges of dialogue across the play can come out fairly similar from version to version. It’s when you get into the choruses or a rhesisrhesis would be a longer monologue or speech – by Kreon or Haemon, for instance when you see the poetic or scholarly involvement of the translator because there are many choices suddenly available that are not necessarily available in the sections of dialogue. Those choral pieces would take more time, so we started with those. Paige wanted the actors to become more familiar with those pieces sooner rather than later.

And then Betsy Ditmars came along and she is extraordinary. When you heard Betsy speak the Attic Greek, she could bring a quality to the speaking of the ancient Greek and you could listen and sense immediately how the Attic was purely poetic. It moves like water. I thought that at one time we should have recorded her and had her voice playing in the lobby before the play because it is beautiful to hear.

C: When you met with her did you focus on parts of the play that were giving you trouble? That you and Jim Whitta couldn’t figure out because there were too many options available for certain parts of the play?

D: The latter. We talked about Antigone’s kommos (lyrical lamentation in Greek tragedy), and her interpretation of that piece. Mark Griffith, a world renowned scholar at UC Berkeley, he had celebrated her treatment of that section. We talked quite a bit about that section because to her mind, which was distinct from other translators, she felt that Antigone’s kommos was the center of the play. And I agreed with her. So we talked about that, and we worked through the literal translation and her understanding of it and of course that helped what I would do later on. And then the opening between Antigone and Ismene we talked quite a bit about, because I was curious about the their relation, about finding a more dramatic evidencing of that deep sisterly relation, and we talked about whether that was there at all. And she thought it was, and that it did exist, but she wondered that it hadn't really been well elaborated in other translations. So we were able to look at the lines and see if I could take it farther and have it be justified.

C: I know that you were able to go to Poland with Paige and the actors. Did that change your writing?

D: Yeah, you know, I think for me at least, I started to hear those actors. Because I did begin to hear the actors, and I could feel them, when I got back home, I could still hear them. Tim, for instance, I think that messenger speech, I could feel him in it, you know? He’s a big bodied guy and he’s a grounded human. And so some of the things that get spoken in that speech I knew he could hold differently than say another body. I mean, I was thinking in those terms after Poland.

C: [As if] the actors were beginning to embody the characters for you.

D: Right, and it didn’t determine things all the time. It was more like, oh, that's language that Emma or Paul or Wiley could embody because i had been seeing them move. You were writing for the body you had to work with, which is much different than writing a character and shipping it off and the actor needing to conform.

C: When you saw them moving together, was that really helpful?

D: Yeah, chorally, there were things that changed because, visually you could sense what they could all do in motion and how they might speak something collectively or how the speaking might get broken up. Just to sit and watch and to see their bodies and how they were, it was really valuable that way, because they would work for hours and I would just sit, Paige and I and Heather, we would sit and watch, and you just collected things.

See Antigone (a new translation by Daniel Sullivan, directed by Paige Rogers), a process over 14 months in the making, come to fruition starting February 19th at The Cutting Ball Theater.