Antigone as a “source text” and the task of the translator

Antigone as a “source text” and the task of the translator

Text from Anne Carson’s Antigonick, illustrated by Bianca Stone.
Source: California Poetics


perhaps you know that Ingeborg Bachmann poem
from the last years of her life that begins
“I lose my screams”
Dear Antigone,
I take it as the task of the translator
to forbid you should ever lose your screams

                        Anne Carson, “The task of the translator of Antigone”


What does it mean to take translation as a “metaphor” (a “carrying over” or “carrying across” of meaning) for postcolonial/decolonial writing? This is a crucial question for a research endeavor that seeks to decenter and revisit Antigone as a “source text” through tracing and mobilizing its elusive migration across languages, vernaculars, geographies, temporalities, and disciplines, from the critical viewpoint of the South and the present time. Instead of canonized translations, then, we turn toward the ethicopolitical relevance of elliptical and disloyal transpositions as critical responses to oppression and injustice as well as enactments of the relationship between tragedy and democracy.

In a way, this project is all about the political performativity of translation, whereby translation concerns the (dis)articulation between resonance and dissonance, as well as proximity and distance, intimacy and difference. In this sense, “faithfulness” (to the “original”, the “other”) is a poetic askesis in errancy and (im)possibility. That this askesis is enacted here in tragic form might give us some sense of its futility but also, perhaps, its enabling failures. As Anne Carson says: “I’ve never understood catharsis” (2015).

The question is how to translate this (im)possibility, its accents and intonations (as well as screams, in Carson’s work in translation) that sustain the critical engagement with the other. Staying with the ‘trans’ of translation (in its fundamental connections with gender theory) evokes a potentially deconstructive act of political performativity. It signals a way to reconfigure the uneven distribution of knowledge and power, the relationships between language and power, and ‘our’ troubled relation to (m)other tongue; and a way to unsettle the “proper” hegemonic languages of empire through which “others” are expected to translate themselves.

In Anne Carson’s Antigonick, Ismene states to Antigone: “You are a person in love with the impossible …” In her remarkable translation of Antigone, Anne Carson is concerned with the (impossible) question of how to carry over the screams, and also how to transmit the silences—she writes she takes inspiration from John Cage’s piece 4’33”.

In “The task of the translator of Antigone” (2012) that Carson writes in the form of a letter to Antigone, she reflects on translating Antigone’s name as “instead of being born” or “born against blood”.

The unpunctuated syntax of screams and silences, rage and grief, as it becomes interwoven with reflective moments of philosophy and critical theory in Carson’s text, enables us to ask how to translate with/out the canon of national language. And this is posed as a question for aesthetics, literature, politics, and scholarship at once.

Antigone: We begin in the dark and birth is the death of us.
Ismene: Who said that?
Antigone: Hegel.
Ismene: Sounds more like Beckett.
Antigone: He was paraphrasing Hegel.
Ismene: I don’t think so.

Anne Carson, Antigonick

“All reading is translation”, writes Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Indeed. And all translation is adaptation. Staged reading. Rewriting. Performing. Failing better. “Even too late”, as are the last words of Antigonick, when Carson’s invented character, Nick, remains silent but always present, following only one stage direction: “He measures things”.

Judith Butler writes: “‘Antigonick’ is a coinage that adds the problem of time to the character of Antigone but also produces another figure, Nick, in the wake of Antigone’s death. The last line is a ‘bracket,’ not unlike the one in which Mrs. Ramsay dies in Woolf’s novel:


We are left with that nick. A nick impossible to bracket out. The nick of time is the measure of tragedy-in-translation but also translation’s tragedy.



Judith Butler, “Can’s stop screaming”, 9.5.2012. Available at:

Anne Carson, “The task of the translator of Antigone”, in Performing Antigonick, 2012.

Anne Carson, Simon Critchley, and Trajal Harrell, “Freaks and Greeks. Antigone: A roundtable with Anne Carson, Simon Critchley, and Trajal Harrell”, September 22, 2015. Available at:

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “Questioned on Translation: Adrift”, Public Culture, vol 13, no 1, 2001, p. 14.

Further readings

Walter Benjamin, “The Task of the Translator”, in One-way Street and Other Writings, trans. J A Underwood. London: Penguin Books, 2009.

Judith Butler, “Betrayal’s Felicity”, Diacritics, vol 34, no 1, 2004.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, “The Politics of Translation”, Outside in the Teaching Machine. New York: Routledge Classics, 2009.

Musical references

Laurie Anderson, “Language is a virus from outer space”, available at:

Λένα Πλάτωνος, «Εμιγκρέδες της Ρουμανίας», available at:


Note: This fieldnote has been inspired by the translation work of Marios Chatziprokopiou, Alkisti Efthymiou, and Athina Papanagiotou in the context of “Antigones”.


Athena Athanasiou