Melody Abbott: Translating Sophocles (Part I)

Carthage’s first mainstage production of the season was Sophocles’ Ajax. Yet, for being a play written in the fifth century, the dialogue may seem a bit out of place. This is because of a original, modern translation of the text done by Carthage alumni Melody Abbott and current student, Lawrence (Larry) Gums. The two set out to translate Ajax together as advocates for mental health and trauma victims (as well as speakers of Ancient Greek). Both Melody and Larry were kind enough to sit down with us at HC Carthage and answer some of our questions about their experiences. Up first is Melody.

HC: Why did you decide to team up with another student, Larry Gums, and undertake this project? What was it like working together as a team? Why Ajax?

Melody Abbott: It was originally Larry's idea to do Ajax. He had been reading this book called Theater of War by Bryan Doerries, which talks about using classical texts to help veterans deal with combat trauma. This was shortly after the show Afghanistan/Wisconsin here at Carthage, which was a verbatim theatre project which told the stories of, I think, 12 veterans, and some of the issues they faced when they returned home. Larry and I had both worked on the show together, and he wanted to continue doing something to help veterans tell their stories and open up about their struggles. He approached me with the idea to do the Ajax translation, and I thought it was a good idea.

I know a lot of veterans today have either had suicidal thoughts, depression, schizophrenia, anxiety, or PTSD or had lost friends to suicide. I've personally struggled with depression for a long time, and I wanted to do something to help others overcome those feelings because they suck. Honestly. We thought that by creating this piece and showing how these veterans’ issues have existed for thousands of years, it would help veterans in feeling like they are not alone and that it’s okay to reach out for help. We chose Ajax because it takes a hero from the Trojan War - someone that veterans could strongly identify with - and shows what happens to him after the war is over.

Ajax feels like he's returning from the war without having earned any glory. A lot of soldiers today can empathize with that - in the case of Afghanistan, they've returned from a 12-year war with no end in sight, and wondering if it was even worth fighting. People back home don't respect them, acknowledge them for what they did in the war, or the horrors they faced. Ajax feels like he's been robbed of his glory and wants to take it back. Coming home, a lot of soldiers have undiagnosed mental issues as a side effect of the war - depression, PTSD, or suicidal thoughts. They're upset, angry, confused, and don't know who to blame except for themselves. We felt a lot of similarities could be drawn from Ajax, which we could really use to resonate with combat veterans in the audience to let them know that we know what they're going through, and are here for them. There's a lot more that still needs to be done in order to lower the suicide rate of military personnel, but this was our attempt to make a start.

HC: What was it like undertaking this project and how long did it take?

MA: Overall, it took about two years. It was difficult to begin with as neither of us had translated an entire play before, and Ancient Greek is a difficult language to translate. We're also just busy people - I was out of the country for six months, and Larry for two, during the translation process. It was tough at times, but the outcome was 100% worth it.

HC:  What are some of your favorite moments in the script?

MA: We had a lot of fun translating the dialogue between Teucer and Menelaus and Teucer and Agamemnon. We didn't have to be as serious for that since its a lot of arguing and throwing insults. But my favorite part is probably the XX [Deception] Speech because I think we were able to translate it in a way that was still beautiful and poetic but packs a lot of meaning. There's a lot of emotion behind it and you get to see a raw part of Ajax in that speech.

HC: How does it feel knowing this script will come to life in the theatre?

MA: It's wild. I never thought that it would actually get to this point. I still can't believe that I'm having some of my own work produced onstage. There's a part of me that always wanted to be a playwright as a kid - I'd always be writing scripts and having me and my friends perform it for our parents in the basement of my house, but I never, ever thought that dream would actually come through. I can't be grateful enough for all the support that’s gone into this production.

HC: Was there anything you were particularly excited for or nervous about in the planning of this production?

MA: All of it, and none of it, I guess. It's scary, not having a strong hand in something you've worked on for so long. There's a part of me that wanted to be there for every single rehearsal and decision process for the show, but there's another side of me that knew that I translated and wrote the play so it's up to someone else now to bring it to life, and I think Martin has done a fantastic job with that. He's been a huge help along the way, encouraging me and Larry at every step and reminding us that what we were doing mattered if we ever felt like giving up.

Your last chance to see Ajax at Carthage College and support your hardworking peers is Saturday, October 13th, at 7:30 pm in the Wartburg Theater.

Stay tuned for Part II!