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Euripides’ violent gendered metaphor

March 6, 2012

Re-reading Anne Carson‘s Grief Lessons: [Carson’s translation of] Four Plays by Euripides got me reading for the first time Heather McHugh‘s Euripides: [McHugh’s translation of] Cyclops. Both Carson and McHugh not only translate the Greek of Euripides’ plays but they also provide commentary.  In this post, I want to share some of what is noteworthy to these two translator poets.  They attend to the wordplay in the plays.  They see the language of the plays acting.  They understand the violence, the particularly gendered violence in the phrasing, in the use of metaphor by Euripides.

Carson and McHugh are not the only ones to notice the peculiarity of Euripides and his Greek.  For example, F. A. Wright, in his Feminism In Greek Literature From Homer To Aristotle (page 202), says:  “Euripides and Plato are almost the only [male] authors who show any true appreciation of a woman’s real qualities, and to Euripides and Plato, Aristotle, by the whole trend of his [sexist, bigoted] prejudices, was opposed.” And Louis Markos, in his From Achilles to Christ: Why Christians Should Read the Pagan Classics (page 168), says this:

The “sentimental” Euripides is a self-conscious artist who cannot ignore his own age to sweep his reader off to a mythic neverland.  He was keenly aware of the injustices of his day–the brutalities of war, the subjugation of women, the ill treatment of foreigners and illegitimate children–and he projected these contemporary issues and struggles back into the legendary settings of his tragedies, rather as Arthur Miller’s The Crucible projects the dangers of McCarthyism back into the ‘legendary’ days of Puritan New England.  That the plays of Euripides make their points without sinking into polemic or allegory is a tribute to the complex and subtle artistry of their maker.  They are a tribute as well to his insight into human nature and his gift for giving dramatic voice to the mental anguish and internal rage of the dispossessed.

What is noticed by these our contemporary readers of Euripides is how skilled he was as a socially-conscious playwright.  What Wright and Markos suggest is how he used his plays to draw attention to the plight of women in Greece.

Now, the brilliant thing about Carson and McHugh is that they read and also translate the Greek of Euripides.  And they see the wordplay with an astuteness that not all do or perhaps so easily can.  I’d like us to see that.

Here, then, is McHugh in her “Translator’s Forward” pages 26-27 (and further on into the post you’ll see Carson):

The eye that matters [in Euripides’ Cyclops at a particular moment], is the mind’s eye, eye of empathetic imagination.  Even when Odysseus is free from the cave, he can’t stop seeing the plight of his friends and so is driven by imagination (the mind’s eye) to return to their aid.  By contrast, the chorus solicits prurient details about the rape of Helen and all the sensational particulars of the torments of Odysseus’ friends (as something sufficiently bestial in contemporary folk is drawn to highway carnage or the most predatory particulars of the dirty-movie channel).  The chorus does not possess the solitary eye of the Cyclops:  theirs is the compound eye of the voyeur.  Moral blindness has everything to do with the action of this play.

McHugh invites David Konstan to write the Introduction to her translation, and in doing so here’s how he similarly notices (on page 16) what she does:

Neither Silenus nor Polyphemus exhibits a comparable restraint [i.e. Odysseus’ restraint from drinking wine]. Further, both the Cyclops and the satyrs have an inordinate interest in sex. Polyphemus threatens to rape old Silenus; the chorus of satyrs draw a lubricious inference from the Greeks’ recovery of Helen, imagining that her liberators must have taken turns screwing her. Odysseus, in this play, has not time for such monkey business.

McHugh and Konstan are both aware of the language of Euripides and how the metaphors of eye and of seeing and of looking and of rape are word plays to valorize the humanitarianism of the hero and to mock the violence and sexism of the villains.

So let’s look at an example from the playwright of the wordplay.  At lines 280 – 281, he has the one-eyed Cyclops Polyphemus asking the self-restrained and fully observant Odysseus rhetorically:

ἦ τῆς κακίστης οἳ μετήλθεθ’ ἁρπαγὰς
Ἑλένης Σκαμάνδρου γείτον’ Ἰλίου πόλιν;

Now, here are various ways different translators have rendered this into English:

Are ye the men who visited on Ilium, that bordereth on Scamander’s wave, the rape of Helen, worst of women?
— E. P. Coleridge, 1891

Oho! Are you the lot that went to punish Troy, that city by the river Scamander, for having stolen that nasty bitch Helen?
— George Theodoridis, 2008

So you’re the ones who went to punish Ilium
for kidnapping that good-for-nothing, Helen?
— Heather McHugh, 2001

What I like about McHugh’s translation is how it uses verse, and how this lines up Ilium with Helen visually and vertically suggesting the appositive relationships one might view suggested by Euripides’ line 281: Ἑλένης Σκαμάνδρου γείτον’ Ἰλίου πόλιν.

To more literally show what Euripides has effected, as McHugh reads it, we might translate his Greek into our English this way:

So are you, as we’re discussing the disgusting, those who went, because of that rape,
to Helen, to Skam-Ander’s banks [to the banks of Man–Pit River], to Ilium, to the Polis?
— J. K. Gayle, 2012

Here the Cyclops is expressing his unrestrained rather prurient interest in sex, in violence. And my translation tries to leave to the monster and to us his listeners all of the ambiguities that Euripides might have intended.  Euripides is expressing the suggestion that this rape of a woman, she the prize of the Hellenes, is similar to their sacking of Troy. Of course, the audience members have to decide if they’re hearing and seeing everything. Whose side are they on? And is this just a contest between Polyphemus and Odysseus? Or is there the perspective of an-other and others of value on stage?

Now, I want to let a long quote by Carson end this post.  She is commenting on a different play by Euripides but is noting similar wordplay.  She is also translating.  In the “Preface” (page 8), she’s already generally introduced Euripides as one “also concerned with people as people–with what it’s like to be a human being in a family, in a fantasy, in a longing, in a mistake.”  Now Carson (pages 94-95) gets us looking at how the playwright translates his concerns into wordplayful Greek, even the use of violent, gendered metaphor that would have listeners and viewers imagine, rather, innocence in the polis where men and women might be equal, where neither mistreated the other:

Hekabe’s language has something of this rotted-away quality. Victors and victims carve at one another in a sort of exhausted endgame bereft of fine phrasing. Verbs are savage. Adjectives minimal. Figures rare. When Euripides does allow himself to unfold a metaphor, he does so in such a way as to decline it to bare fact. For example, in the third choral ode, he introduces the oldest metaphor in the Greek tradition for the ruin of a civilization: rape. In Greek poetry cities were figured as female and the same word was used to denote the battlements or towers of a city and the headdress, veil or bindings that cover a woman’s head. These bindings were not optional for women: to keep the head properly covered in public was a mark of civic status and sexual respectability. Within this social code, within this ancient metaphor, the integrity of women, cities and civilization is all bound up together. To rape a city is to pull off its headbinding, to wreck its crown of towers. Such a city will be as polluted as a fallen woman. Its honor is over. But of course rape is not just a metaphor in wartime. Nor would the women of the chorus of Hekabe be strangers to it. They are captives, about to head off into a lifetime of systematized rape as slaves of the Greek commanders. They begin the ode by addressing Troy’s violated condition, then go back to the night before it all began (875-896/905-926):

You O Troy

will no longer be called one of the unsacked cities.

Such a cloud of Greeks covers you,

rapes you, spear by spear.

Shorn of your crown of towers.

Stained black with fire.


I shall not walk your ways again.

Midnight my ruin began.

Supper was over, sweet sleep drifting down,

after songs and dances and sacrifice

my husband  lay in our chamber,

his spear on its peg.

He was not watching

for Greek sailors

to come walking into Troy.

I was doing my hair,

I was binding my hair,

staring down into the bottomless lake of my mirror,

before I fell into bed—

a scream cut the town,

a roar swept the street…

There is something very moving in the words “I was doing my hair, I was binding my hair” – image of a woman, a night, a city, a world prior to violation.  A fact still innocent of metaphor.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 6, 2012 11:52 pm

    Thanks for this post! The translation of poetry is so intricate, with so many factors to consider, as you note: versification, wordplay, sound effects, positioning; and often tradeoffs have to be made, which elements to represent if you can’t do them all (which you nearly always can’t) at the same time.

  2. March 7, 2012 12:47 am

    Just a brief comment to note that McHugh’s Cyclops is more cheaply available in the omnibus edition The Complete Euripides: Volume V: Medea and Other Plays — which Amazon prices at $8.22 rather than $14.95 for the individual volume of Cyclops.

    The omnibus edition also includes William Arrowsmith’s Alcestis, Michel Collier’s Medea, and Peter Burian’s Helen.

  3. March 7, 2012 11:17 am

    Thanks for noticing and spelling out the intricacies of poetry translation. Don’t you think Carson and McHugh just do a wonderful job of reading and rendering Euripides? I thought of your earlier question following another post while I was writing this one; you asked if the mother=polis metaphor was common in Greece. It seems not to be, even though the raped-female=sacked-polis metaphor is pervasive, as Carson discusses and shows.

    Thanks for noting the omibus edition. Alan Shapiro, who edits the volume with Burian, starts by quoting the late Arrowsmith:

    The Greek Tragedy in New Translations [series] is based on the conviction that poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides can only be properly rendered by translators who are themselves poets. Scholars may, it is true, produce useful and perceptive versions. But our most urgent present need is for a re-creation of these plays—as though they had been written, freshly and greatly, by masters fully at home in the English of our own times.

    The translation of poetry by poets is a significant aspect of this volume and the series in which it is the fifth book of five. The translations in the series were produced over the course of four decades, so the editors smooth out certain parts such as consistent line numbering and transliterations. As far as I can tell, none of the transliterations McHugh chose initially needed to be modified. At under $10, this volume is a steal!

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