Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.17

Peter Meineck (trans.), Aristophanes I: Clouds, Wasps, Birds (with an introduction by Ian C. Storey).   Indianapolis:  Hackett Publishing, 1998.  Pp. xl, 417.  ISBN 0-87220-360-3.  $12.95.  

Reviewed by James Romm, Classics, Fordham University (
Word count: 638 words

Peter Meineck brings considerable experience as a director of Aristophanic plays, most recently with the Aquila Theater Company, to this collection of three translations; indeed all three were first undertaken as performance texts (and each one is preceded by an intriguing photograph from the Aquila production). In his preface Meineck reveals how strongly his directorial perspective has influenced his approach: Unlike most modern translators of ancient drama, he wants his versions to be playable on the stage, not merely readable. How well they succeed as performance texts is a matter I cannot judge. Rather, as a teacher who frequently assigns all three of these plays in Greek history courses, I was concerned with how well Meineck's versions would play in the classroom; and here I must say I found myself disappointed. Meineck's sense of opsis is simply not matched by his ear for language. His rendering of Aristophanes' verbal wit lacks the ingenuity and bite of some other recent translations (notably Jeffrey Henderson's efforts for the Focus Classical Library, and of course the revolutionary Arrowsmith/Parker series). When Socrates first appears in the Clouds, aloft in his aerial basket, his language ought to clue us into his magisterial air; instead Meineck gives us the literal but nearly toneless "Why do you call me, ephemeral creature?" (l. 223). If the dialogue in these translations doesn't crackle, and if the choral verse loses its bounce, most of our students won't have any visual cues to remind them that the plays are, after all, funny.

There are times when Meineck's sense of character, also, seems fuzzy -- surprising in a translator so attuned to performance. In Clouds, he can be deaf to Strepsiades' lovable naiveté, giving the old man smart-alecky rejoinders for the sake of capturing difficult puns (ll. 236, 248, 491, e.g.). Worse, he imports gratuitous sexual humor that to me seems wholly out of Strepsiades' idiom, making him behave like a mincing lecher as he demonstrates for Socrates how to call a certain Ameinias by name: "'Coo-ee! Coo-ee! Amynia (sic) luvvie! Amynia darling!'" (l. 690). This version of the Greek deuro deur' Ameinia is presumably meant to anticipate Socrates' next line, "You see? You're calling a woman," a joke intelligible only to those readers familiar with such things as vocatives and declensions. But it's clear from Strepsiades' reply -- "Why not, since the 'lady' never went on campaign" -- that the old Marathon-fighter would not be caught dead aping effeminate mannerisms in the way Meineck portrays him. The easy laugh evoked by the sexual caricature here stands in for the obscure linguistic joke, but consistency of character meanwhile flies out the window.

Rather than heap up examples of other such questionable choices, let me cite only one that, had I been considering this text for classroom use, would by itself have been a deal-breaker. In his version of the Birds, Meineck translates several character names into English: the god Triballion becomes "Jerkoffalot," Euelpides "Goodhope" and Peithetairos "Makemedo." This last is not only a badly distorted interpretation of the Greek, it sounds awful if pronounced correctly, and if mispronounced might be mistaken for Japanese. (Meineck's endnotes instruct the reader as to pronunciation but offer no clue as to why these names alone, unlike "Strepsiades," "Pheidippides," "Labes" and others, have been given English equivalents.) Any teacher who would assign this version of the Birds had better get used to saying "Makemedo" instead of "Peithetairos" in lectures and class discussions.

It may seem pointless after the above criticisms to mention that the introduction to this volume, by Ian Storey, is excellent, and that the footnotes, endnotes and bibliographical suggestions by Meineck are also quite useful and accessible. If the language itself does not seize the students' imaginations, these will be incidental matters, and one fears that in this set of translations, it won't.

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