Book Review: “All that You’ve Seen Here is God” by Bryan Doerries

“All That You’ve Seen Here is God” is a collection of four ancient Athenian tragedies—Prometheus Bound and Sophocles’ Ajax, Philoctetes, and Women of Trachis—translated and introduced by Bryan Doerries. In addition to being a translator, Doerries is a writer and director who founded Theater of War and co-founded Outside the Wire. Both are theater projects that offer readings of Athenian tragedies to address public health issues impacting war veterans and their families as well as concerning prison reform, domestic violence, and substance abuse, among others. Doerries describes himself as an “evangelist for classical literature and its relevance to our lives today.” He believes that it can, now as in ancient times, provide a conduit through which “individuals and communities can heal from suffering and loss.”

Doerries does not strive to translate line by line, and he does not include either line references or notes. His introduction to the collection is a brief essay entitled “The Audience as Translator,” in which he describes how audience members have connected to characters in the plays and their experiences and how audience feedback influenced his translations. Introductions to each play do likewise. It is this ethos of storytelling as a communal detoxifier and balm that he strives to capture and carry on through his collection. It can be easy to forget, reading translations of scripts, that ancient tragedies were performed in a sacred context, to promote public health. Doerries continually reminds readers of this. His translations are elegant, in a contemporary but not trendy register.

One reason I treasured this collection as deeply as I did is that Doerries does not compete with the ancient texts. If he strays from them, it is not to glorify himself as a poet or playwright or to promote an ideological agenda that has nothing to do with the ancients. As we know, every translation involves a degree of interpretation. Here, Doerries draws out the tragedies’ timeless dimensions, the grief and sorrow that humanity cannot outrun, to alleviate human suffering. I highly recommend this collection.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: “All that You’ve Seen Here is God” by Bryan Doerries

  1. First off, I love the title of this book! Secondly, your review really intrigues me. You seem to have a lot of warmth and love for it. But it makes me wonder what I’d think of it if I were more familiar with the source literature, or even trying to get to know them. It makes me realize I’m a bit of a stickler for translation – obviously translators will need some wiggle room, but I do appreciate things like footnotes at least. I feel like a translation can be a way to experience a work and also learn about the culture and language behind it. But again, I’m not the audience this book is intended for – and it seems like it must have a lot of goodness in it from the way you wrote about it. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

    1. The funny thing is, I’m usually an insufferable stickler about translation too. Maybe because I’m so moved by this translator’s work and the use to which he is putting ancient tragedy, I cannot bring myself to object to the lack of line numbers and footnotes.

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