Translating Barbarians: The use of Ancient Drama and History in the Twenty-first Century to Propagandize for War in Iraq and Afghanistan
The paper proposes to consider the meaning of the ancient Greek word “barbaros” to describe Persians and their Asiatic allies during and after the Persian Wars of the early fifth century B.C.E. The use of the word in both Herodotus’ Histories and Aeschylus’ tragedy, The Persians, will be the focus. I will argue that the word is not used in a pejorative sense in either Aeschylus or Herodotus. It is simply a signifier of “the other” as distinct from “Hellene” or Greek. To distinguish in one’s language between one’s own cultural group and those of every one else is an effect of ethnic and cultural consciousness. Terms to define the distinction of one’s own group are found in other languages. In Yiddish and Hebrew the word goyim describes all non-Jews while all non-Chinese are “yi” in classical Chinese and “wai guo ren” in modern Chinese. In Japanese, the word “gaijin” describes all non-Japanese. Herodotus claims that the ancient Egyptian language also had a word for all non-Egyptians. “Barbaros” as applied to the Persians may sometimes imply a smug sense of Greek superiority over Asiatics but often it does not. However because the modern English word “barbarian” is completely pejorative, we create a distorted view of the Greek attitudes of the fifth century B.C.E. when we translate “barbaros” as barbarian. The resulting modern misunderstanding about the ancients is clear in the exploitation of the Persian wars in the recent film 300 (2007. I will consider the 2007 film and other recent theatrical treatments of The Persians in the light of the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan and the American anti-Muslim mood after the September 11 attacks.
Keywords: Translation of "barbaros", Aeschylus' The Persians, Film and Drama as Propaganda
Dr. Katharine B. Free
Professor of Theatre Arts, Department of Theatre Arts and Dance