Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space

  Bazzaz, Sahar, Yota Batsaki, and Dimiter Angelov, eds. 2013. Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space. Hellenic Studies Series 56. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

9. Translation as Geographical Relocation: Nineteenth-Century Greek Adaptations of Molière in the Ottoman Empire

Anna Stavrakopoulou

Around the end of the eighteenth century, Goldoni comedies started being translated and often published, just before the death of the major Italian playwright. [8] In La vedova scaltra [The Cunning Widow] (1748), rendered in an early Greek translation as “The thoughtful and beautiful widow (η στοχαστική και ωραία χήρα),” the character of Rosaura chooses among four suitors (natives of four leading European nations—Spain, England, France, and Italy) the most {209|210} appropriate candidate to fill the position of her second husband, who is no other than the Italian, while she marries her sister off to the French (as second best). Nonetheless, although Goldoni’s male and particularly female characters enjoy freedom of action, an ideal to which the Greeks aspired, the conservative prerogatives of the society soon forced the translators to find refuge in the less socially threatening comedies of Molière. [9] Ergo, an earlier phase of the European intellectual development was considered more appropriate, and the measured behaviors of the seventeenth century, as reflected in the carefully crafted plots and characters of Molière, provided the ideal answer to questions of moral and social conduct. Starting in the mid-1810s and throughout the century there was a proliferation of translations of Molière’s comedies, farcical (as the Doctor in Spite of Himself) and philosophical (The Miser, Tartuffe, The Misanthrope, etc.). Furthermore, during the second half of the nineteenth century, Molière became the master craftsman for all aspiring Greek comic playwrights. [10] The more professional Greek theater life becomes, the more translators favor adaptations, as opposed to literal translations. In any case, in the sphere of comedy, it has been astutely observed: “theatre translation, as distinct from adaptation, is a very recent phenomenon.” [11]

The Miser

The first adaptation, chronologically, is of Molière’s L’avare [The Miser] by Konstantinos Oikonomos. The Miser was first performed in 1668 at the theater of the Palais Royal, during a difficult time for Molière, who was struggling with health and family problems, as well as with strong reactions from certain circles regarding Tartuffe and Dom Juan. [12] The Miser, despite its heavy farcical outlook, remains one of Molière’s “grand” comedies, in which he ridicules individuals who attempt to impose on others their own obsessions, thus harming not only themselves, but also their immediate circle and society at large. Harpagon, the protagonist, is a sexagenarian widower obsessively preoccupied with his money, “an early modern capitalist in action.” [13] Out of extreme thriftiness he is planning to marry his daughter to a rich widower, while he is yearning to wed for a second time choosing the beloved of his son as his ideal bride. During the play, we follow the downfall of the penny-pinching father, after his precious coffer is stolen by a coalition of disgruntled people, including his servant and his {210|211} children. The resolution is achieved when the miser concedes to marry his children to the companions of their choice, in exchange for his stolen coffer. The action takes place in seventeenth-century Paris and all the references to material wealth and money-lending involve the currency and habits of the French in the era of Louis XIV (who reigned from 1643 to 1715). Given the tendency to attribute such negative qualities as miserliness to other nations, the miser in Molière’s play is compared in three instances respectively to a Jew, an Arab, and a Turk, first by his dumbfounded son who discovers as an incognito customer the high interest rates his father charges, and second by his servant who tries to warn a matchmaker about his master’s unrestrained passion for money.

The Miser, Act II, Scene 1

La Flèche. All useless here. I defy you to soften, as far as money is concerned, the man we are speaking of. He is a Turk on that point, of a Turkishness to drive anyone to despair, and we might starve in his presence and never a peg would he stir. In short, he loves money better than reputation, honour, and virtue, and the mere sight of anyone making demands upon his purse sends him into convulsions; it is like striking him in a vital place, it is piercing him to the heart, it is like tearing out his very bowels! And if …

The Miser, Act II, Scene 5

The translator of The Miser, Konstantinos Oikonomos, was born in 1780 in Tsaritsani, a small town in Thessaly. [
16] His father was a priest who held the administrative position of “Oikonomos” (a dignitary dealing with finances) within the church hierarchy, hence the family surname of Oikonomos. His date of birth falls within the Greek Enlightenment (roughly 1770–1821), and his early education was based on patristic and classical texts. He was reportedly a child prodigy, and his life accomplishments confirmed his brilliant first steps. At an early age he was taught French by a doctor in Ambelakia, and from 1799–1803 he attended the classes of Konstantinos Koumas (1777–1836), one of the most {211|212} prominent and gifted teachers of his time, with a large breadth of knowledge. He married in 1801, and soon after he followed the family tradition and joined the ranks of the church. Upon the death of his father in 1805, he inherited the title and duties of “Oikonomos” and began his career as a preacher. Very soon his fame spread in Thessaly and beyond. His exposure to preaching must have given him a taste of the joys and exultations of acting, as it is known that he was an exceptional orator. [17] In 1806 he was arrested by the men of Ali Pasha and jailed in Ioannina, with the accusation that he was involved in a rebellion coordinated by Papathymios Vlachavas. After he paid the ransom required, he was liberated and returned home. Following his incarceration, after a brief stint in Macedonia, he ended up in Smyrna invited by his old teacher Koumas to teach Greek at the recently established Gymnasium of Smyrna (1809–1819). It is during his tenure at the Smyrna high school that he produced the translation of Molière’s The Miser. In 1819 the Gymnasium of Smyrna was abolished, following strong reactions by conservative quarters of the Greek community, and Oikonomos was fired. [18] After his expulsion from Smyrna, his career moved steadily upward and honors started accumulating. He was transferred to Constantinople, but during the War of Independence he took refuge in Odessa and stayed in Russia until 1832. He returned to Greece with a very high pension for life from the Russian state, and during the last twenty years of his life, from 1837–1857, he lived in Athens, completely devoted to his writings, which made him one of the most prolific and rigid advocates of Orthodoxy. [19]

Preempting possible reactions to his modifications of the original (a pattern that is common among several translators of the early 1800s), Oikonomos poses {212|213} the question: “If Molière crafted his comedy wonderfully, why didn’t you translate it word for word, but instead you initiated changes, and some additions, and omissions?” (ibid., 24). In order to substantiate his argument he composes a brief theory on comedy, combining Aristotelian and nationalist prerogatives and stating its properties and goals:

Comedy is an imitation of a base and ridiculous act, which intends to cure vice painlessly and to teach virtue. In order to achieve this, comedy must imitate well the mores, rituals and the behavior of the nation for which it is produced. Without this national gain, the playwright cannot attract and move the readers or the spectators of his poem. Molière painted the Miser according to the practices of his compatriots. The Greek must paint him according to the habits of his fellow citizens. It is a necessity for theater to be national, and above all for comedy.

For that reason I often used sentences and opinions and proverbs and some scenes, which differ substantially from the original, so that I adapt the poem to the customs of my compatriots […] the cloths of Europe we cut them and sew them according to the habit of our compatriots.

Oikonomos 1970:24–25

He provides solid justification for some changed scenes and defends two added episodes, which do not promote the action. With regard to the language, Oikonomos had to face the limitations of the Greek language, which was still being shaped at the time:

[…] our spoken language is still very unruly and sullied by stains. Until it gets organized and enriched, we have to live with its imperfections. I used some dialects, for instance the common language of the lower classes of Chios in the language of Strovilis [servant of the miser’s son], and the vernacular of the Thessalians for Kyr Yiannis [the miser’s cook], as well as the vernacular of the Smyrniots for the character of Sofoulio [the matchmaker], and to an extent for the character of the barbaric rich Exintavelonis [very astute rendition of Harpagon]. […] The comic playwright uses dialects to represent n aiveté, lack of education, and the particularity of the person using the dialect.

Oikonomos 1970:27

In addition, he defends his use of dialects with two arguments. “First, [he uses dialects] because our nation is not thriving yet as far as education, so that comedies are composed in a smooth vocabulary. It is necessary to use a more {213|214} intense language, and, at times, even light obscenities, so that the text flows and the laughter ensues. Second, the contemporary Greek dialects do not differ so greatly from each other, so as to make a comedy abstruse and obscure.” (ibid., 28). His was the first use of dialects in a translation/adaptation, and he set an example that was followed by several translators throughout the nineteenth century. [
22] The following comment on Smyrna in connection with the use of dialects is also very important: “in Smyrna, above all, where the action is taking place, because of the frequent interactions with citizens from all over Greece, all the Hellenic dialects are known, in a similar way as once upon a time the dialects of our old language were familiar to the Athenians.” [23] Smyrna, one of the biggest port cities of the Ottoman Empire, is compared to classical Athens at the height of its own empire. Oikonomos confesses that he baptized the main character Exintavelonis (connoting a penny-pincher, someone who counts even his needles—velóni, meaning “the needle”) after painstaking thinking, while he chose all the other names randomly, but very imaginatively, and in a manner that betrays familiarity with the comic tradition. In this lengthy introduction, the reader is impressed by Oikonomos’ rare degree of erudition, given that it is evident that he read not only the Aulularia [The Pot of Gold] by Plautus in Latin, which served as a model to Molière, [24] but was also aware of various French commentaries on The Miser, which were indicating several shortcomings of Molière. In fact, for some of his emendations of the original, he claims to have taken into account the criticism of Rousseau and Diderot, among others. [25]

Oikonomos closes his introduction exactly the way he had started it, by addressing the last paragraph to the “fellow compatriots, rich and small and big” asking them to “observe the life and downfall of the misers.” His main occupation as a priest and preacher becomes evident in his assessment of the misfortunes the miser causes himself and everyone around him, since “the miser can never become a happy husband, nor a good father, neither a tolerant ruler, nor a peaceful companion, nor simply an honest citizen” (ibid., 30–31). The content of the two scenes he added is considered of paramount importance for the extra vice he pours into an already vicious character. In Act II, after Scene 3, he adds a scene in which some trustees of the hospital knock on the miser’s door and ask him for a contribution. In his furiously defensive response to them he curses not only money-collection for the hospital, but also for all common causes, including the schools: {214|215}

[…] as if the other heavy expenses of our city were not sufficient, we want to collect money for schools too! And what on earth do we need schools for? So that our children become educated lazy know-alls […] with my modest ABCs I manage to govern my house fine, while my neighbor, who knows a lot, has gone bankrupt three times.

Oikonomos 1970:71

His last words in that scene constitute a fierce attack against education and its side effects on societies: “the schools above all ruin places […] look at the Smyrniots, instead of acknowledging their shortcomings, they have opened a big school, so that their children lose their mind and go to France in order to return with hats” (ibid., 71–72). It should not go unnoticed that by endowing the miser with additional negative qualities, pertaining to the health and prosperity of the community, Oikonomos stresses the necessity of education, which revolutionizes individuals and societies. In the second intercalated scene (ibid., 102–103), he juxtaposes the miser to a poor woman (also created by Oikonomos), who cannot pay the rent she owes him because with the few pennies she has she must buy food for her children. In an attempt to show the ultimate debasement of the miser’s soul, Oikonomos makes him rigidly deaf to her supplications, insisting on confiscating her only possession (a bathtub). It is clear that these two scenes plant masterfully the old play in the new reality and at the same time render the already risible Molière character even more grotesque; in the first instance, the nastiness of his miserliness is shown on a Greek communal level, with hospitals and schools placed at the top of the agenda, and in the second his lack of humanity is being stressed against a personal backdrop. With two potent strokes Oikonomos makes his fellow Smyrniots gasp while grasping the detrimental effects of stinginess. Furthermore, Dimitris Spathis associates especially the miser’s suspicion towards education to current social clashes in the bosom of the Greek community in Smyrna around 1815–1816. [

The translation was a huge success and was reprinted several times in the nineteenth century; oddly, in the second edition of The Miser (which appeared in 1835 and was the first to be printed in Smyrna), not only was the translator’s name once again concealed, but the introduction was also suppressed. By that time Oikonomos, who had returned to Greece from Russia and had become one of the most ardent church spokesmen (in addition to being one of the finer theologians of his time), may have chosen to forget the radical ideas he had adopted in his thirties. {215|216}


Before we examine how Ioannis Isidoridis Skylitsis (or Skylissis) “transplanted” the play to the Constantinople of the 1850s, let us consider some significant aspects of his life. [30] By a curious coincidence Skylitsis was born in Smyrna in 1819, the year of Oikonomos’ expulsion from the city. His father was a rather wealthy merchant from Chios, whose fortune was confiscated after 1821. According to what he claims in an autobiographical note he wrote late in his life, his family wanted him to become a businessman, while he himself longed more for letters than money. Early on he started his career as a journalist, while immersing himself in European literature; although his main aspiration was to become a poet, and he did gain considerable fame in Smyrna and Athens, he devoted almost all of his time to journalism and literary translations, for financial reasons. In the early 1840s, he managed to realize his dream of studying in Europe, and he spent a few years in France (Marseille and then Paris), before heading back to Smyrna in 1844. Starting in the mid-1840s, he translated Eugène Sue, Victor Hugo, George Sand, Alexandre Dumas, as well as Racine, Molière, and others. Given the fact that the Greek language was still being shaped in the middle of the nineteenth century, his achievement in translating Les Mystères de Paris by Sue (written in 1842–1843, a very popular roman-fleuve with a strong social and political component) for instance, was more than praiseworthy. It was during his most prolific years (1845–1854) that he produced the adaptation in rhyme of Tartuffe (Smyrna, 1851). In the mid-1850s, he moved back to Europe (Trieste, Vienna, Paris); it is during this phase that he published the second revised edition of Tartuffe, in a volume entitled Μολιέρου άριστα έργα [Molière’s Best Plays], which also includes the Misanthrope and the Miser (Trieste, 1871). In the 1870s, Skylitsis returned to the Mediterranean: Smyrna, Alexandria, and Athens. Skylitsis’ version of The Miser is also set in Smyrna. Nonetheless, a comparison with Oikonomos’ Miser proves the uncontested superiority of the latter’s adaptation; his religious piety notwithstanding, Oikonomos was able to produce a much lighter and brighter text. Skylitsis’ language was stiffer with purist undertones, which had worked wonderfully in the rhymed translation of Tartuffe, but which sounded strange in the prose of The Miser. He died in Monte Carlo in 1890, during a trip there for his ailing health, and rumor has it that he took his own life. [31] Skylitsis’ major achievements on the intellectual scene revolve around his precious translations of French classics and of popular literature of his time. His life coincides with the era of the Soutsos brothers, whose {217|218} prose is discussed in this volume by Constanze Güthenke; as she has shown, the Soutsoi, as well as Skylitsis, lived in a phase of “transition and of indeterminacy.”

In the prologue of his 1851 edition of Tartuffe, the thirty-two-year-old Skylitsis argues that the act of translation (as opposed to original creation) was of primary importance for the familiarization of the readers with high-quality drama. He mentions the example of other European countries (like Prussia), whose intelligentsia undertook massive translations of classical and European drama in order to cure similar shortages. He states clearly that there are plenty of major masters of drama whose works had not been rendered in Greek (“where are the good translations of Shakespeare, Schiller, Alfieri, Molière, Sophocles, Euripides and Aristophanes?”). [32] He confesses: “one needs to toil hard, of course, and it takes time; but I don’t know of any difficulty which cannot be overcome by the perseverance of a sharp and hard-working translator.” [33] As Politis has shown, hardworking is one unquestionable characteristic of Skylitsis. As for his method in adapting Tartuffe, he says that he “reshaped [the play] according to the customs of the place, where the language of translation is spoken” (ibid.). It is interesting to see how he describes his decision to work on the play, as a true child of the Romantic era to which he belonged; speaking in the third person, he confesses that “he saw in front of him a river, a wide one indeed, but it seemed peaceful and shallow near the riverbed. He went in the river, and he advanced with bold and confident strokes, when he noticed that the river was becoming deeper, and that its flow was becoming more rapid” (ibid., 114). Nonetheless, he carried on and when he had translated the largest part of the play, he came across a copy of an earlier translation of the play by Konstantinos Kokkinakis, published in Vienna in 1815. He confesses that the evolution of the Greek language in the thirty-five years that separate the two translations was to his advantage, and that he chose a different kind of verse (with an unstressed last syllable) from his predecessor. He then goes on to attribute whatever value his translation has to the liberties he took with the text: “in order to make the soul of the writer understood by his audience, the translator changed the names, the places, altered the manners of people [because] it is impossible to translate comedy otherwise” (ibid., 116). His predecessor might have kept the setting and the habits of the original, but the “salt and the irony, which shines there is lost” (ibid., 117). To his rhetorical question “whom would the playwright embrace? {218|219} the one who translates him word for word fearfully, or the one who translates his spirit lovingly,” he explains that he followed the example of the translator of The Miser [Oikonomos], praising the renaming of Harpagon to Exintavelonis. Last, he admits that he censored some of Molière’s expressions “making them more decent, because he owed this to himself and to the public in front of which the play would be performed” (ibid., 119).

Skylitsis set the play in Constantinople, in the Phanari (present day Fener) area of town, and renamed the entire cast, giving them Greek names with a Constantinopolitan twist: for instance, Madame Pernelle of the original, the mother of Orgon, becomes “Kokona Soultanio,” his daughter Mariane becomes “Elengo,” Dorine (one of the sharpest and most entertaining characters of Molière) becomes “Drossí,” while Orgon becomes “Lemvikis.” Needless to say, Tartuffe becomes simply “Tartoufos,” because, as Skylitsis explains, the name had become synonymous with “hypocrite” in Greek (due to Kokkinakis’ earlier translation). In the text he often uses the hellenized versions of Turkish words like cübbe (robe worn by imams), mahkeme (Turkish court), etc.


The translators of these two adaptations of Molière reflect through their choices their own, clearly post-Enlightenment, post-Goldoni time, rather than the seventeenth century, during which they were conceived. It has been suggested that the choice of Molière comedies to adapt for reading and staging reflected the reticence and conservatism of nineteenth-century Greek society, but one could also maintain that the translators bridged the time-gap, and instead of “plunging” their readers back to the homogeneously French seventeenth-century universe they “propelled” Molière to the multiethnic Ottoman nineteenth-century medley. {221|}

Works Cited

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——— . Tartuffe. accessed on October 24, 2011.

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——— . 2001. Η γλωσσική σάτιρα στην ελληνική κωμωδία του 19ου αιώνα: Γλωσσοκεντρικές στρατηγικές του γέλιου από τα «Κορακιστικά» ως τον Καραγκιόζη [Linguistic Satire in Nineteenth-Century Greek Comedy: Language-Centered Strategies of Laughter from “Korakistika” to Karaghiozis]. Athens.

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——— . 1871. Μολιέρου άριστα έργα. Εξελληνισθέντα υπό Ι. Ισιδωρίδου Σκυλίσση [Molière’s Best Plays Put into Greek by I. Issidoridis Skylissis]. Trieste.

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[ back ] 1. The italics are mine.

[ back ] 2. Oikonomos 1816: see Skalioras 1970, Skylissis 1851 and 1871. Although the languages of the primary texts under examination are French and modern Greek, all excerpts are quoted in English.

[ back ] 3. Spathis 1986, Tabaki 2007.

[ back ] 4. Wood 2005.

[ back ] 5. Spathis 1986:101–144 and 199–214.

[ back ] 6. Tabaki 2002:149–157, Hadjipantazis 2002:230–247.

[ back ] 7. Fischer-Lichte 2002:136–145. The masterful synthesis of Goldoni’s achievements in dramatic composition crafted by Fischer-Lichte is most enlightening, despite its brevity.

[ back ] 8. Spathis 1986:199–214.

[ back ] 9. Hadjipantazis 2002:230–247, Hadjipantazis 2004:20–21.

[ back ] 10. Hadjipantazis 2002 and 2004.

[ back ] 11. Farrell 1996.

[ back ] 12. Gaines 2002:37-39, Jouanny 1960, II:235–237.

[ back ] 13. Gaines 2002:37.

[ back ] 14. “He [Cléante] makes the shocking discovery that Harpagon is deeply involved in black market finance, floating unsecured loans at usurious rates in order to obtain claims to the estates of young spendthrifts” (Gaines 2002:38).

[ back ] 15. Both excerpts are from

[ back ] 16. For all information following, see Skalioras 1970:7–16.

[ back ] 17. Skalioras 1970:9.

[ back ] 18. Spathis 2007:33–37.

[ back ] 19. Skalioras 1970:16.

[ back ] 20. The play was published anonymously in 1816 in Vienna, with the title Ο Φιλάργυρος [The Miser]. For the needs of this article, I have used the 1970 reissue, which includes Oikonomos’ 1816 prologue, as well as a valuable introduction by Kostis Skalioras (Oikonomos 1970). All translations are mine.

[ back ] 21. Skalioras 1970:23.

[ back ] 22. Puchner 2001:21; Hadjipantazis 2004:32–33.

[ back ] 23. Oikonomos 1970:28.

[ back ] 24. Plautus set the action of his Roman play in Athens (!) and Molière transported it to Louis XIV’s Paris.

[ back ] 25. Oikonomos 1970:25–26.

[ back ] 26. Spathis 2007:33.

[ back ] 27. In Hadjipantazis 2002, Appendix II, one can count some twenty performances of the play in the span of roughly forty years, which make it an all-time and all-place favorite, prior to 1876, which marks the “birth” of regular theatrical life in Athens.

[ back ] 28. The only other reference to the Turks in the French original occurs in the words of the matchmaker (Act II, Scene 5), who brags about her skills by referring to two of the mightiest empires ever in the Mediterranean: “There are no two persons in the world I could not couple together; and I believe that if I took it into my head, I could make the Grand Turk marry the Republic of Venice.” The Greek translator renders this passage as follows: “I am particularly gifted in marriages: I could even marry the wolf to a ewe-lamb,” thus gently expelling from his text any hint that could cause him trouble.

[ back ] 29. Fischer-Lichte 2002:105–106, Koppisch 2002:448–456, Auerbach 1974:359–394. Needless to say that the literature on Tartuffe, one of Molière’s finest plays, is more than voluminous: my selection above includes an assessment by a theater historian (Fischer-Lichte), a larger presentation by a Molière specialist (Koppisch in Gaines 2002) and last a lengthy chapter in a seminal text for the field of comparative literature (Auerbach’s Mimesis), which was written in the 1930s in Istanbul, the place where Skylissis’ adaptation sets the action of his Tartuffe.

[ back ] 30. Politis 2009. (I am grateful to Alexis Politis for sharing his all-encompassing article on Skylitsis with me before its publication, while I was preparing the oral version of this chapter in the first months of 2009.)

[ back ] 31. Ibid., 77.

[ back ] 32. Skylissis 1871:110. I am using the 1871 reprint of the prologue, which is almost identical to that of 1851; the differences between the two editions are particularly telling especially in the text of the adaptations. Regarding the two spellings of his name: in the Greek bibliography he is known as Skylitsis, but he signed his publications (including the Molière translations) as Skylissis after a certain point in his life.

[ back ] 33. Skylissis 1871:112.

[ back ] 34. “Nikandros, you should drop all those atheisms and your connections to Kairis and Freemasonry” (Skylissis 1871:140).

[ back ] 35. For Skylitsis’ correspondence with Kairis, see Politis 2009:70–74.

[ back ] 36. It should not go unnoticed that the solution in the play is executed in the 1851 version by a translator of the Sublime Porte, not only because the most eminent Greeks, the Phanariots, were the Sultan’s translators, but also because the translator was of primordial importance in the shaping of modern Greek ethos and by extension of Neohellenic literature.

[ back ] 37. See indicatively, reviews in Νεολόγος [Neologos], the major Greek Constantinopolitan newspaper, on December 10, 1878 and on November 13, 1881.

[ back ] 38. Stamatopoulou-Vasilakou 2005.

[ back ] 39. Hadjipantazis 2004:74.

[ back ] 40. “Smyrna, Constantinople and Syros, the commercial capitals of the Hellenic world had no reason to coordinate with the Athenian climate; the national elations were indifferent to them, maybe even dangerous” (Politis 2009:68).

[ back ] 41. Stavrakopoulou 2010.

[ back ] 42. And 1963:65–71, Puchner 1993:105–113, Makdisi 2006, Spathis 2007:40–45.

[ back ] 43. Makdisi 2006:6.