UCLA classics professor spikes her version of the Roman Plautus with shots of American culture
Amy Richlin admits that the difficulties in translating Poenulus — a comedy likely written between 224 B.C. and 184 B.C. by the Roman playwright Plautus — begin with the work's title.
"Poenulus" (which, according to Ms. Richlin, literally means "The Little Punic Guy") is a reference more likely to leave modern audiences scratching their heads than rolling in the aisles. But in her introduction to a new translation of the comedy, Ms. Richlin, a professor of classics at the University of California at Los Angeles, explains that when Poenulus hit the stage, "the Romans were in the midst of the Punic Wars, a series of devastating wars against the Carthaginians, who were their biggest rivals and enemies in the Mediterranean." (Previous translators have sometimes titled the play The Little Carthaginian.)
Not only did Romans naturally consider Carthaginians the bad guys, Ms. Richlin adds, but they also "had special stereotypes for them" and considered them "untrustworthy, sneaky, slimy." Calling someone a "little Punic guy" was not exactly a compliment.
So how does a translator make Latin racial epithets from the second century BC comprehensible — and maybe even funny — to a modern theatergoer? Stephen Sondheim's 1962 musical, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, which draws elements from several Plautine plays, captured some of the swagger and sting of its source material. But in her translation of Poenulus and two other plays by Plautus, published as Rome and the Mysterious Orient (University of California Press, 2005), Ms. Richlin came up with a bolder and deliberately controversial approach: Seek out contemporary terms that carry the same political and social charge as the Latin originals. In the case of Poenulus, for instance, she calls her own translation Towelheads.
In an effort to capture the slanginess and zing of Plautus' plays, Ms. Richlin layers her versions with references taken right out of American pop culture: margaritas and salsa, five-star hotels, credit cards, loobies. Her translations feature characters with names like Toyboy and Georgia Moon, who utter phrases like "I'm hip" and "Whassup?" and break into songs that follow music-hall, Broadway, and hip-hop rhythms. (The plays were originally musicals; the tunes have been lost but the words survive.) Even Plautus' geographic settings — usually a fantastic version of Athens or another Greek locale — are altered to places almost any American knows: New Haven, Los Angeles, Sarajevo.
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