More careless lexical baloney

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sun May 25 05:15:47 UTC 2014

On Fri, May 23, 2014 at 2:04 PM, Jonathan Lighter wrote:
> But what Jay obviously meant to say was that  Sophocles used  those words
> according to a recent American version of _Ajax_ popular in military circles.
> The ev:
> "[Brian] Doerries reinforces this framing by utilizing military language in
> his translation, including more contemporary phrases such as:
> 'affirmative,' 'death parade,' 'death march,' 'report to me immediately,'
> 'shell-shocked,' and 'thousand-yard stare.'"
> And
> "Doerries argues that 'ancient Greek drama appears to have become an
> elaborate ritual aimed at helping warriors prepare for battle and return to
> civilian life, during a century that saw eighty years of war.'

More on the translation:
Review: The Journal of Dramaturgy, Spring/Summer 2011
Heidi Nelson, "Bryan Doerries's Theater of War: A New Incarnation of
an Ancient Ritual"
[Doerries:] "I used 'shell-shocked' and 'thousand-yard stare' and all
kinds of things that are [...] liberties [...] but they're not gross
liberties. In the Greek it's 'his mind is plagued by a tempestuous
disease,' and I say 'he sits inside the tent, shell-shocked, glazed
over, gazing into oblivion' [...] I'm fully conscious of what I'm
doing, translating for this audience [using] our idioms. Why be
relegated to (and this is the problem I have with almost every
production I see) a 19th century idiomatic linguistic structure simply
because that's when the lexicon was codified for Greek? I mean it all
sounds [...] Victorian. It didn't sound Victorian to [the ancient
Greeks]." (p. 24)
Kenyon College Alumni Bulletin, Winter 2009
Dennis Fiely, "Ancient Empathy for Warriors"
"When the wife of Ajax described her husband's psychic paralysis as
'the thousand-yard stare,' U.S. Army Major Ray Kimball, an Iraq war
veteran recovered from PTSD, nodded with recognition. Doerries
expanded the literal translation--'He lies (inside), disturbed by a
tempestuous disease'--into phrasing more specific and meaningful to the
modern military--'He sits shell shocked inside the tent, glazed over,
gazing into oblivion. He has the thousand-yard stare.'"

The Perseus Digital Library has the 1893 translation of "Ajax" by Sir
Richard Jebb, along with the original Greek. See line 205:
"Ajax, our terrible, mighty lord of untamed power, now lies plagued by
a turbid storm of disease."

And here is a modern translation of the line by Ian Johnston:
"For now our master Ajax, our great and terrifying and forceful king,
lies suffering from tempestuous disease."


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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