Lost in Translation: Interpreting the Lysistrata
By Lara Weibgen

Text and Translations:

I. Original Greek Text:

petou petou, Nikodikh,
prin empeprhsqai Kalukhn,
te kai Kritullan perifushtw
upo te nomwn argalewn
upo te gerontwn oleqrwn.
alla foboumai tode. mwn usteropous bohqw;
nun dh gar emplhsamenh thn udrian knefaia
mogis apo krhnhs upí oclou kai qorubou kai pata-
gou cutreisu,
doulhsin wstizomenh
stigmatiais qí, arpalews
aramenh, taisin emais
dhmotisin kaomenais
ferousí udwr bohqw.

II. Literal Translation:

Fly, fly, Nikodiki,
before ignites Kalikin,
and also Kritillan blazes
by also law troubled
by also old men ruined.
But I fear this. Surely not belated help;
now indeed then filled this bucket dawn
scarcely from fountain drawn and noise and clat-
ter pottery,
slaves pushing
serfs, consuming
suffering, seized of myself
citizens burning
bringing water help.

III. Loeb Translation:

Fly, Nicodice, fly,
Else will Calyce burn,
Else Critylla will die,
Slain by the laws so stern,
Slain by the old menís hate.
Ah, but I fear! I fear!
can it chance that I come too late?
Trouble it was, forsooth, before my jug I could fill,
All in the dusk of the morn,
at the spring by the side of the hill,
What with the clatter of pitchers,
The noise and press of the throng,
Jostling with knaves and slaves,
Till at last I snatched it along,
Abundance of water supplying
To friends who are burning and dying.

IV. Henderson Translation:

Faster, faster, weíve got to fly,
or else our friends will surely die!
Some nasty elders have got a view
to hold a female barbecue!
We started early but might be late:
we had to fill our pitchers.
The well was jammed, we got delayed
by slaves and pushy bitches,
shouting, shoving, smashing pots,
banging heads and raising knots.
Now weíre here with pitchers filled
to keep our friends from being grilled.

V. Proposed Translation:

Swift Victory, soar through the air;
Theyíre burning up our sisters fair!
To Beauty and Reason, a fireís been laid:
Justice torn from the body of laws
And young women bleeding from old menís claws.
How I tremble to think that we venture too late to their aid!
Too late, although we left the house at dawn to fill our buckets -
Oh, what a terrible noise and clatter of broken pottery
I heard out there!
A crowd of slaves pushed through the square
And caused my labors to be delayed
Before I could gather the waters
To deliver our roasting daughters
From the pyre those men made.

Long ago in the city of Babel, as the old Scripture story runs, there lived a group of ambitious people whose one true wish was to reach the canopy of the sky. "Come," they said to one another, "let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves." With that, they set about firing their mud bricks and cementing the blocks one on top of another, bit by tiny bit approaching the lofty heights of the great beyond. However, it so happens that this resourceful population was governed by a certain God, who became suspicious of the steady progress that His subjects were making. "Look," He muttered to Himself, "they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do." Determined at all costs to keep the crafty citizens in their proper place of humility, He decided to divide them into factions by confusing their primary mode of communication so that, try as they might, they would not be able to work together toward their grandiose goals. Thus, from that time on, humans were separated from one another by the wide rift of diversified speech; no longer were they capable of a complete and mutual comprehension (Genesis 11.1-9). Now, whether one takes the anecdote literally or not is beside the point. What we witness in the religious text is not so much a tenet of Christian dogma as an investigative attempt to justify and account for the problems that verbal expression has long posed for humankind at large. Since at least the time of the Old Testamentís composition, language obstacles have perplexed and distressed people who search for full understanding; to extend the ancient tale, we might say that all our efforts to learn other languages, all our attempts to speak in foreign tongues and build bridges over canyons of words, stem from our innate, deep-seated desire to capture a knowledge that we will never actually have.

In fact, try as we might, there is really no way to say in one language what has been said so precisely in the very particular words of another. This is the unique problem with which translators are faced each time they try to express literary works in terms that are utterly different from those in which they were first composed: idiomatic expressions, special sentence structures, and double meanings all lose their initial impact and fall by the wayside during the complicated process. These are only a few of the considerations we must take into account when we are reading a text that has been transported across the lines of communication. When the manuscript being translated is written in verse, the obstacles are even more numerous; in such cases, the translator must also take into account such stylistic issues and devices as rhyme scheme, meter, and word sounds if he wishes to approach, let alone capture, the spirit of the original.

With all these various and sundry factors to weigh, it is impossible to do a perfect adaptation, one that apprehends both the substance and the style of the model on which it is based. The best we can hope for, in that case, is a fair approximation - but even here we are presented with problems. Something must always give way, but translators are bound to disagree on matters of literary priority. Should exact wording be preserved, or should looser adaptation take the place of verbatim transcription? Should meter and rhyme be guarded at the expense of fluidity? Should modern idioms be used, or should historical loyalty take precedence? The answers to these critical questions are all conscious choices that the dedicated interpreter must make when he embarks on his journey into the workings of comparative articulation.

In translating Aristophanesí Lysistrata from its original Greek expression, the balance of textual integrity and contemporary vernacular is a particularly important point of consideration. Because the play was written as a comedy, with certain parts composed in verse form, much of its impact hinges on extremely subtle nuances of diction, structure, and word choice; to convey these fine distinctions in another language is a challenging problem, to say the least. Indeed, if we look at various versions of the work transposed into English, we are surprised to note the dramatic disparity between different renditions of the very same text. Here, the crucial decisions made by the interpreter with regard to issues of locution and phraseology are amplified to such an exaggerated extent that some passages corresponding to a common section of the original text seem as different from one another as night and day. This disproportional incongruity may be explained by translational subjectivity, but it is nonetheless interesting to note the significant effect that the person who paraphrases the text has on our impression of the dramatic work as a whole, in its final English arrangement.

Lines 321-34 of the play are especially problematic to the translator because of their distinctive and inherent formal configuration, despite their relatively straightforward subject matter. Basically, the passage deals with the efforts of the Greek women to save their friends and allies, who are being torched by the men of the village. On this most essential level, at least, the various versions seem to be in agreement; it would be odd to read anything different into the text. However, if we compare the translation proposed by Benjamin Bickley Rogers in the Loeb Classical Library edition of Lysistrata to that furnished by Jeffrey Henderson in his Focus Classical Library redaction, all the elements of interpretational disagreement that we have already discussed come into sharp focus. It is only with respect to literal significance that the two renditions must of needs lie on the same plane; issues of style and word presentation, by contrast, are fair game.

In line 321, the Chorus calls upon Nikodikh for aid in its struggle to save the burning women. Because the Greek name immediately calls to mind the word for victory, nikh, the intended audience would surely have associated the desperate cry for help with the womenís expectations of success. However, the Loeb translation does not take this optimistic connotation into account; the assembly of females merely summons Nicodice, an anglicized version of the ancient appellation that has no undertones whatsoever for the modern viewer. In preserving the name used in the text, Rogers ignores the fact that his English-speaking audience probably has little concept of who Nicodice is or why she is being summoned so fervently.

The dual threat posed by the imminent searing of Kalukhn and Kritullan is treated in a similarly obscure fashion (322-3). Rogers translates the former as "Calyce" and the latter as "Critylla," names both as empty as "Nicodice" for most anglophones. It is only when we look into the original Greek language that we realize the full meaning of these two words: first of all, the sound of Kalukhn brings to mind such words as kallikarpos ("bearing good fruit"), kallikelados ("singing sweetly"), and kallikomos ("having beautiful hair"), all attributes generally regarded as womanly. Secondly, Kritullan recalls kriths, or "judge," reflecting the intellectual notion of justice. Thus, the gist of the first few lines of the selection is that the women are begging a personified Victory to rescue their friends before femininity and justice are "Slain by the laws so stern,/Slain by the old menís hate" (Loeb 324-5).

The rest of the Loeb translation is, by and large, a literal word-by-word adaptation of the ancient Greek version. Of course, Rogers adjusts minor elements of sentence structure for the purposes of clarity and fluidity, but the basic ordering of words and events is largely the same. Lines 326-7 deal with the Chorusí apprehension that it may have arrived too late to help its friends, corresponding to line 326 in the original text. In the next few lines, the Greek and the English accounts both speak of the ruckus caused by pushy slaves at the well and of the delay consequentially experienced by the women of the Chorus before they could finally draw water to douse the fires set by the men. There is little of the problematic ambiguity of meaning present in lines 321-5, so the matter of consideration here is one of stylistic construction rather than of word choice.

Like Aristophanes, Rogers builds the passage in closed form. However, the rhyme scheme of the translation is more regular than that of the original, mostly consisting of couplets and rhymes embrassées. By contrast, the Greek version rhymes lines 322, 329, and 330 with Nikodikh in 321; 326 and 334 rhyme with perifushtw in 333. Lines 324-5 and 332-3 are rhymed couplets, and 327 stands alone without a partner in sonority. Rogers has tried to respect certain aspects of Lysistrataís schematic profile, aspects such as cadence and aural accent, while at the same time making the overall effect more accessible to his audience than a thoroughly unfamiliar structure. In this respect, by contrast to his abstruse employment of arcane Greek names in lines 321-3, the translator strives for auditory appeal rather than exact formal correspondence. The Loeb translation deviates slightly from the original text for the purpose of style, but it is more or less an approximation of the prototypeís content. Henderson, by contrast, is far more liberal with his rendition. Where Rogers mimics Aristophanesí use of five short lines followed by three long and then five more short, Henderson makes each line of his passage eight syllables long and adheres strictly to a modern and familiar rhyme scheme. He omits any mention of Nikodikh, Kalukhn, or Kritullan, so that the notion of victory at hand and the potential eradication of justice and feminine beauty have no English counterparts.

The chaos at the well is emphasized far more in this most recent version than in either the Greek or the Loeb editions; where Aristophanes mentions the clatter of pottery and the aggressive slaves only briefly, Henderson devotes all of lines 329-32 to a discussion of the noisy hindrances. In doing so, he stresses the amusing scene of disorder among the common people rather than the more noble ideals of heroism and justice evidenced by the actions of the women who strive to save their comrades. Where Aristophanesí Chorus worries over the predicament of the burning ladies, saying, "But I fear this," the women of Hendersonís text seem more blasé about the whole matter; they remark, "We started early but might be late," stating fact rather than expressing emotion (326). Here, translational subjectivity has given rise to a significant shift in dramatic emphasis; the whole tone of the passage in Hendersonís rendition is far removed from that of the original, though the actual goings-on are essentially the same.

Ideally, a translation should endeavor to preserve as much of the rudimentary content and form as possible, while at the same time remaining comprehensible to the modern audiences for whom they are transcribed. Hendersonís version fails on both counts, as it retains little of either the method or the spirit of Aristophanesí text. The Loeb translation fares much better in its treatment of the passageís basic structure and literal meaning, but its use of Greek names that have little relevance to English-speaking audiences does not do justice to the depth of significance inherent to the original. Therefore, the proposed translation (see Text and Translations V) offers an alternative interpretation of the selection, bearing in mind all the various considerations previously discussed. Here, Nikodikh is translated as "Victory," Kalukhn as "Beauty," and Kritullan as "Reason." The exact meter and rhyme scheme of the Greek text is used in order to achieve a reasonable imitation of the intonation intended by the playwright. The suggested rendition achieves a critical balance between textual adherence and creative liberty; it preserves the mood of the original while at the same time respecting many of the stylistic choices deliberately made by Aristophanes. Although there is no such thing as a flawless translation, it is the duty of the interpreter to bridge the gap between languages as best he can; in this way, people may take the first tentative step toward universal understanding - even if they never do build their Tower of Babel.



Aristophanes. Aristophanes III. Trans. Benjamin Bickley Rogers. Cambridge:

Harvard UP, 1979.

Aristophanes. Lysistrata. Trans. Jeffrey Henderson. Boston: Focus, 1988.