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Sophocles in Malibu: The Getty Villa as Translation.

Along the Pacific Coast Highway, at the edge of Los Angeles, perched on a hillside overlooking the ocean, is one of Southern California's cultural surprises: the Getty Villa. This architectural wonder, known to insiders as the Malibu Villa (though it is technically in The Palisades), has little apparent connection to its surroundings with their broad, bright beaches, suntanning bodies, and fast-food restaurants. Though situated in this thoroughly contemporary scene, the villa stands as a monument to ancient Greco-Roman civilization. It is a museum but a museum of a rather special kind. For it not only exhibits a large collection of artifacts from the ancient world in galleries typical of a museum, but the villa is itself a kind of museum exhibit modeled on an actual villa from imperial Rome. Some of its early architectural critics expressed disappointment, and sometimes scorn, that the building did not seek to embody the daring experiments of Modernism, the dominant architectural aesthetic at the time of its original design and construction in the middle of the 20th century. In other words, these critics argued for a physical, as well as cultural, distinction between the antiquity of the works housed in the museum and the opportunity for modernist innovation in the design of the building housing these antiquities. Regardless of its relation to the antiquities it contains, the critics argued, the Getty Villa was intended to be a museum, and a museum created in the 20th century should, <i>ipso facto,</i> have celebrated the heroic creativity of our moment in cultural history--as the Getty Center in Los Angeles did some years after the initial construction of the Villa.

Mr. Getty (he is always <i>Mister</i> Getty to the staff) brushed aside such objections in explaining the reason for his choice: "The principal reason concerns the collection of Greek and Roman art which the museum has managed to acquire ... and what could be more logical than to display it in a classical building where it might originally have been seen." He therefore shifted the argument away from a debate over the appropriateness of modeling the building on ancient exemplars to the value of the experience visitors could have in strolling through the villa and its gardens--an experience that could approximate that of first-century Roman patricians.

But what was the model for the Malibu Villa to be? Mr. Getty and his advisors, especially the architectural historian Norman Neuerburg, chose the Villa dei Papiri, a grand vacation estate near Herculaneum (modern Ercolano) overlooking the Bay of Naples. This villa had been buried in volcanic ash and debris in the same eruption of Vesuvius in 79 c.e. that also buried the more famous Pompeii. Like the archeological excavations at Pompeii, the much more limited digs at Herculaneum revealed many structures and works of art in a remarkable state of preservation. Aside from some rather careless early efforts at Herculaneum, the first major archeological excavation there was directed by Karl Weber from 1750 to 1764. Weber concentrated his attention on the Villa dei Papiri (so-called because it contained a library of numerous papyrus rolls), and he even produced a plan of the building based on his extensive--though incomplete--excavation. This plan is still the most authoritative description of the site and, as such, served as the principal model for Mr. Getty and his creative associates.

The Villa dei Papiri is a splendid example of domestic architecture on a grand scale. There is some evidence that it was the home-away-from-Rome for the consul Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesonius, father-in-law to Julius Caesar. Whether or not this is the case, the Villa dei Papiri was clearly the kind of country estate that only the highest-ranking and wealthiest members of the patrician class might aspire to own. As such, the villa proclaimed to the far reaches of the Roman Empire the status and power of its owners and their families and friends. Thus, in modeling his own villa on the Villa dei Paprii, Mr. Getty was implicitly aligning himself with the status and power of Roman patricians as his ancestral "predecessors." Even so, he did not, and no doubt could not, replicate the ancient villa in all its details and without recourse to modern technology. His villa can perhaps be best understood as a translation--a translation of an ancient architectural "text" into the seemingly foreign context of Malibu. But to see how such a view may be helpful in this discussion, it may be well to explain what is meant here by <i>translation</i>.

The commonplace understanding of translation is discovering the "right" words for rendering a text from one language into another--however one judges the "rightness" of the choices made by the translator. This rendering need not be literal, of course, but may follow the advice of such ancient authorities as Cicero, Horace, and St. Jerome "not to translate word-for-word, but rather sense-for-sense." While such a formulation may seem obvious, recent work in the emerging field of translation studies has both enlarged and complicated this conception and shifted some of its basic premises. To be sure, the core idea of translation as an activity involves movement from one language (in the usual sense of "language") to another. But to this we may add the movement from one mentality, individual or cultural, to another, since both the original (or source) and translating (or target) languages function as matrices for experience, for thought, and perhaps for consciousness itself. Sometimes this movement is from one historical moment, with its own worldview, to another. Or there is movement from the "language" of one material culture, conceived as a "text," to the "language" of another material culture--including artifacts, clothing, cooking, and even architecture. It may be that what the ancients meant by translating "sense-for-sense" is now refined in these more complex understandings, which nevertheless still seek to grasp the concept of "sense." But new questions arise. For example, what is the status of the translation, whose original text is transported from its own context into the context of the audience for whom the translation is made? Friedrich Schleiermacher, founder of modern hermeneutics, pronounced the famous dictum, "In translation there are only two choices, to bring the reader to the original or to bring the original to the reader." Where would the Malibu Villa fit in this scheme? The scheme would seem to require us to determine the closeness of the translation to the original, however such closeness is to be measured, as a condition for determining its closeness to, or distance from, the audience. Yet further complications arise from Laurence Venuti's recent distinction between the "domesticating" or "foreignizing" functions of a translation. A translation may "domesticate" a foreign text by making it appear to the audience as familiar as possible within their own context. Such domestication does not necessarily efface what is foreign in the original text. It may of course do that, or it may present the text in an idiom that has become conventional in the culture of the audience for translating foreign texts, and therefore (in the terminology of Russian Formalism) "familiarizing" the text--as in the orientalism of many Western translations of texts from the East. <i>The Rubayat of Omar Khayam</i> comes to mind. On the other hand, a translation may deliberately shape the new language to fit as closely as possible the diction, the poetics, and even the syntax of the original--such as in Lattimore's Homer--with little compromise or accommodation to the receiving audience. In some cases, the audience may be challenged to enter into a quite foreign world, with a quite foreign consciousness, in order to get its bearings in the unfamiliar terrain of the translation. For a certain audience, such "foreignizing" may be just what is prized in the translation. Thus, the domesticating or foreignizing of a text in its translation may define the audience and be defined by that same audience. For example, what would be the criteria in choosing between the King James Bible and Good News for Modern Readers? How would the needs and values of the audience shape the choice? But to return to the Malibu Villa, we may ask if such a distinction is helpful in thinking about the translation of an architectural text such as this.

If the villa in Southern California is to be treated as a translation, then what is carried over from the original villa on the Bay of Naples? Certainly, there is the general patterning of Mr. Getty's villa on its model in Herculaneum. But this patterning is indeed "general" for there are many details of the Villa dei Papiri that are as yet undiscovered by archeology. <i>The Guide to the Getty Villa,</i> which is the museum's official source of information, is filled with examples of borrowings from a number of villas of the same period. In this way, the gaps in our knowledge of particulars in the Villa dei Papiri are "filled in" with particulars from parallel sources. From such information, one might conclude that the Malibu Villa is not a truly <i>authentic</i> representation of the Villa dei Papiri because the new villa brings together details that never existed together in any single Roman villa. But such an objection begs the question of what constitutes, or is the test of, <i>authenticity</i>. And it ignores the fact that the new villa was never intended to be, nor could it have been, an exact replica of the Villa dei Papiri. Details of wall ornamentation, floor mosaics, statuary, and the like were chosen as authentically <i>Roman,</i> given that they came from actual Roman buildings of roughly the same period, and so they could be presented in an architectural translation that is not, nor was intended to be, "word-for-word, but rather sense-for-sense."

What then is the "sense" being translated here? The answer is clear: <i>Romanitas.</i> The Roman-ness of the Villa dei Papiri, together with its analogues from which details were taken by Mr. Getty and his associates, is beyond question. What is in question is what this Romanness may consist of. Again, the answer is clear: <i>Romanitas</i> is a code. As such, this Roman-ness is not reducible to the details of its design, but rather these details, and the whole that they compose, embody the cultural code which is both their inspiration and the source of their power--then and now.

A cultural code is what makes an institution, practice, custom, performance, and the like <i>recognizable</i> as belonging to a given category of experience--at least within a particular culture. Thus, there can be a code of masculinity specific to a given culture and distinguishable from other cultures; or a code by which members of a given religion recognize one another and determine who does and does not belong; or a code for signifying the Russian-ness of a Russian novel; or a code through which wealth and power may be communicated. And such a code of wealth and power may be more specifically joined to a particular culture, as in the case of patrician Romanitas. The representation of a social world in its everydayness--the quotidian--in any culture is not a representation of what is simply "there." For the social world is itself constructed by the people who live it. It consists of customs, practices, and items from material surroundings that, taken together, signify the "sense" of that culture--so long as they function together to form a more or less coherent whole. Just so, a translation of a text, here an architectural text, into a new context will attend to the "words" in the translating, but at least equally important will be the ways it captures and conveys the "sense" of the original cultural text. And this "sense" consists of the cultural code that defines the identity of both the original cultural text and its translation.

The Getty Villa therefore derives its identity from re-presenting features of the Villa dei Papiri, along with features from other villas of its time and place, to form a translation. A new instance of <i>Romanitas,</i> but <i>Romanitas</i> nevertheless.

The illusion of antiquity in the Malibu Villa is conveyed by its physical context as well as by its design and the artifacts to which it gives a home. For the villa is set within space that has been carved out of the surrounding canyon, creating the sense of an ancient building emerging from an archeological excavation, and visitors walking through the newly redesigned entrance look down into the villa as into an excavated site. Even the designs of exterior walls suggest layers of sedimentation under which the villa had been buried in the disaster that engulfed its counterpart on the Bay of Naples. Yet photographs of the excavations at the Villa dei Papiri show that the work there is far from complete. Certainly, there is nothing like its "restoration" at Malibu. The translated villa, while based on solid archeological and historical foundations, is largely a triumph of imagination--of what might have been. It is not simply the recovery of something very old; the very act of restoration in Southern California creates, as in all cases of translation, something both old and new. This tension can be described as the creation of a kind of hybrid. Perhaps the clearest example of this translating-as-hybridizing may be the adjoining Barbara and Lawrence Fleischman Theater, where ancient plays are staged in a setting based on extensive scholarly research on Greek and Roman originals.

Taken as a whole, the Getty Villa is not only modeled on a private home that functioned as a private museum for the display of the spoils of empire for family and friends of the patrician class, but it is itself a kind of museum on display. So also with the open-air theater. Such a theater would not have existed in a private Roman home, at least not on this scale. There may indeed have been provision in the Villa dei Papiri for the performance of poetry and even plays for a private audience. The very existence of the extensive library, only a few of whose numerous papyrus rolls have been restored, argues for the villa's ownership by residents sufficiently cultivated to value philosophy and the arts. Such an audience would surely have welcomed live performances, though just as surely not on the scale of the Getty Villa. For this new embodiment of <i>Romanitas</i> has been transformed into a public museum, and that makes all the difference. The original design of the 1974 version did not include the theater, but when the newly remodeled Getty Villa opened in 2005 after some eight years of reconstruction, visitors were invited to experience, among other things, plays and concerts performed in a tiered semicircular theater of 450 seats whose very design is based on a Greco-Roman "code of theatricality." Appropriately enough, the plays were some of the treasures of antiquity, such as the recent production of Sophocles' <i>Elektra,</i> about which more later. But here it is important to recognize that the theater, by its very function within the public space of a public museum, has become itself a museum of sorts. Not itself a museum for the display of material culture, but a museum for staging the performance arts from antiquity. This museum-within-a-museum is "grafted" onto the original stock, thereby contributing to the transformation of the Villa dei Papiri from a private space to the Getty Villa as a public museum.

Returning to the metaphor of translating-as-hybridizing, it seems clear that the introduction of the theater into the original design produces a kind of hybridity in the Malibu Villa. But it may be helpful to clarify what is meant by <i>hybrid</i> here since the term has often been used in a very different context in contemporary theory. Perhaps the most influential--and controversial--theorist of cultural hybridity has been Homi Bhabha, who deploys the concept as a tactical maneuver in postcolonial cultural politics. Bhabha seeks to discredit the operating assumption in most postcolonial analyses that the culture under study, whether dominant or subaltern, is unitary, homogenous, and describable according to its presumed essence. For him, on the other hand, there is always interaction between such cultures that can be described as processes, which are dialogizing, negotiating, and translating. In other words, the identities of cultures are never fixed, and so they come together in what he calls a Third Space. His ultimate objective is political, with theory as a combatant in postcolonial struggles. This is not the place to analyze Bhabha's theory or its proponents or opponents in detail. But even setting aside its politics, his work does serve as a useful reminder that in any intercourse between cultures, as in translation, the cultures are themselves sufficiently fluid to give birth to hybrid offspring. Thus, even the Romanitas of the Villa dei Papiri is by no means a simple, homogenous essence, which is one reason for the need to supplement it with details from other ancient villas. Yet the identity of the villa itself, along with its supplements, remains open to differing interpretations and reimaginings. And if this is true of the Villa dei Papiri, then mutatis mutandis, it is also true of its translation in the Malibu Villa--or perhaps even more so. Not only does the open-air theater contribute to hybridizing the museum as a whole, but its recent production of Sophocles' <i>Elektra</i> bore all the marks of a translation-as-hybrid.

The play itself focuses, as the title suggests, on Elektra, the daughter of Agamemnon, King of Mycenae, and his queen, Clytemnestra. In the familiar back-story, Agamemnon, commander of the Greek forces in the Trojan War, was unable to lead his army across the sea to Troy until he fulfilled the divine command to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Having done so, he sailed off to war for many years, during which Clytemnestra, filled with hatred for her husband, took Aegisthus as a lover and co-ruler over the city during the king's absence. When Agamemnon returned, Clytemnestra and Aegisthus assassinated him, thus providing the motive for more bloody acts of vengeance, this time by Elektra and her brother Orestes. Sophocles' play begins with the tutor (<i>paidagogos</i>) of Orestes returning with his master, now fully grown, after having been sent away for safety after Agamemnon's assassination. Orestes is also accompanied by his friend Pylades. They concoct a plan whereby the tutor will enter the city without revealing his true identity and announce the death of Orestes. In the meantime, Orestes and Pylades will perform honors at Agamemnon's grave and then, as part of the deception, fill an urn with ashes that are purportedly those of the dead Orestes. They leave as Elektra enters crying out the first of her many laments over her plight. She has been isolated, deprived of essential comforts and, above all, has no relief in sight for her terrible grief over her father's murder. She longs for Orestes to return to Mycenae and avenge Agamemnon by killing the killers.

For this version, the distinguished playwright and translator Timberlake Wertenbaker was specially commissioned to produce a new <i>Elektra.</i> As is well known, she is no stranger to the classics, having previously translated <i>The Thebans</i> and <i>Hippolytus</i> for the stage. Here she concentrates, as elsewhere in her work, on a strong female character and tests the limits of conventional gender roles. In this production, she teams up with the famous director Carey Perloff, and together they present a powerful feminist staging of a courageous, uncompromising Elektra who will risk and suffer all in order to fulfill her self-imposed charge of vengeance. At one point, when she believes Orestes dead, she even proposes that she and her sister assume the "manly" role of avengers. But this protagonist is sharply contrasted with her sister Chrisothemis, who doubts the power of women to overcome their fate, who seeks only the safety and comfort of her position in the royal household, and who is therefore willing to keep quiet and accommodate herself to the rule of their mother and her paramour. The other female character is, of course, Clytemnestra who, while unrepentant for the killing of her husband, is herself a strong woman as the antagonist to Elektra, likewise bending gender stereotypes in her "masculine" exercise of power and authority. Then there is the female chorus, whose leader displays the fullest range of emotion--from sorrow to sympathy, and from horror to bravery. Men play their own roles, as the wise and wily tutor, the faithful and resolute Orestes, the arrogant and treacherous Aegisthus, and the silent but dutiful Pylades. Even so, this is a woman's play, and Wertenbaker and Perloff clearly make it so.

They also explore the arbitrary nature of conventions in other ways. For example, the first thing the audience notices about the physical layout of the stage is that while it is open to the audience at the front, it is closed off at the rear by a chain-link fence. As the play develops, it becomes evident that this fence both literally and figuratively expresses the virtual imprisonment of Elektra within its bounds and the impossibility of her free movement to the royal palace beyond. Surely, there were no chain-link fences at the Villa dei Papiri, but its use here draws attention, like the gender-bending discussed above, to the hybridity of this production and of the place where it is staged. And then there is the remarkable costuming. The tutor, who is the first character to speak, is wearing a hat of the style of the 1950s (now coming back into style among younger men), a white dress shirt, an off-white blazer, and a red necktie--but a long skirt and sandals of the kind found in ancient Roman portraits and sculpture. At least in his attire, the tutor is a living hybrid. For his part, Orestes is wearing a leather motorcycle jacket, sharply contrasting with the black gown of his sister. Perhaps most suggestive of modern status and power is the figure of Aegisthus, who sports the riding and hunting outfit of a British aristocrat at his country house: boots, riding crop, sport jacket, and scarf. In this, as in his speech, he exudes the arrogance of one who truly believes he deserves his wealth and privilege. What is remarkable here, as in the placement of the chaindink fence, is the "grafting" of signs of modernity onto the seemingly foreign site of <i>Romanitas.</i> And while the female characters wear the long gowns of antiquity, it is the men who appear in the signs of modernity, as if they were "grafted" onto this classical contest of female power. It is precisely such gestures that disrupt the conventional "invisibility" of the translator and her work, to use Venuti's term, and thereby foreground the "visibility" of her creative art. As such, we are reminded of the hybridity of this translation and, beyond that, of the hybridity of the open-air theater and of the Malibu Villa itself as translation.

But what of the translation of <i>Elektra</i> in the more usual sense of its language? Here, too, we find signs of hybridity. Overall, the language and style have the kind of formality, and even at times stateliness, that acknowledge a classic work as a classic. Yet there are touches of our own colloquial idioms. When Clytemnestra defends her killing of her husband as a just act, she points to his "crime" in the bloody sacrifice of their daughter Iphigenia. Elektra replies, "I would like to set the record straight," and she goes on to offer her own counter-charge. Or later, when she believes the deception that Orestes died in a chariot race, she tries to convince her sister Chrisothemis that they must dispense justice themselves by killing their mother and the equally offensive Aegisthus. She argues that there is no possibility for a man to carry out this justice, not even in the future, since they both have been denied the opportunity of marriage and the bearing of sons. In Wertenbaker's translation, Elektra appeals to her sister's frustration at being denied "the pleasures of the marriage bed." We may feel that this is an appealing line, but as translation it does not quite accord with the Greek, where their "unwedded" or "unbedded" (<i>alektra</i>) state, "without a wedding song" (<i>anumenaia</i>), deprives them of the institutional legitimacy that marriage would give for producing sons--sons who could act for them. There is, of course, the "translator's license," and there is good reason for a modern audience to welcome the appeal to sexual fulfillment. Yet the translator's shift changes Elektra's argument that she and her sister must now cross the conventional line of gender and take on the "masculine" responsibility for meting out punishment to the killers. Thus, even in such a seemingly small instance, we encounter the hybridity of translation.

A much more arresting case of hybridity occurs in the "grafting" of Greek onto the predominately English translation. Toward the opening of the action, when Elektra laments the fact that Ares, god of war, did not let her father die in a foreign land but let him instead return to his assassination, she chants in part in Greek, and the chorus follows with chanting that is mainly in English with lines here and there in Greek. Later, in the Recognition Scene, Orestes speaks briefly in Greek, and then he and Elektra chant Greek together. Finally, as they take Aegisthus inside to his place of execution, Orestes and his comrades chant in Greek. Such "grafting" of Greek onto English is not at all customary in translations of classical drama, and the decision to do so draws unusual attention to the linguistic and cultural hybridity it creates. It also raises the question of what language would have been used in a Roman performance of a Greek play. Greek? Latin? Some combination of the two in hybrid form? It is common knowledge that the Romans so admired Greek culture that they hired Greek teachers for their children where they could afford to do so. Even the ultrapatriotic effort to suppress Greek in the first century, b.c.e., did not succeed in silencing the enthusiasm for Hellenism, including enthusiasm for the language. We may never know what were common and what were exceptional performances in one language or the other--or both--but we do know that at least some knowledge of Greek was general among the patrician class whose members owned villas such as the one at Herculaneum. As stated earlier, the very name of the Villa dei Papiri derives from its library of some thousand papyrus rolls, and most of those restored so far have been in Greek, though at least some of the remaining rolls may contain a store of Latin works. In any event, this ancient library provides ample evidence of the linguistic and cultural hybridity of <i>Romanitas</i> itself. And so does the Greco-Roman theater. Thus, it is not surprising that in translating the Villa dei Papiri, together with details from similar villas, to produce the Malibu Villa that Mr. Getty and his creative partners were translating one architectural hybrid into another. Such translation involved risks, of course, but the very hybridity of the result is one source of its wonder.

With this in mind, if we return now to Schleiermacher's dictum, we may ask if the Getty Villa brings us closer to the Villa dei Papiri in the sense of drawing us into the world of patrician Rome, or does the modern version "replace" its original in the sense of becoming "the real thing" for visitors from our world. But it may be that the question, at least in this context, is itself the problem. For the very hybridity of the Getty Villa calls for a new conception of translation. The villa invokes the cultural code of <i>Romanitas</i> but at the same time weaves signs from the code of Modernity into the larger fabric--as in the production of <i>Elektra.</i> It may be important to recall that Sophocles' play was both foreign and familiar to a Roman audience, and this duality parallels the duality we may also experience in the Malibu Villa today.
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Author:McNamara, John
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1U9CA
Date:Jun 22, 2016
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