Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.01.23

Ruden on Clayton on Ruden.   Response to 2003.12.25

Response by Sarah Ruden (

Barbara Clayton's judgment (31 December 2003) of my Lysistrata translation is not harsh all through. I appreciate her words of praise, but I feel I must challenge her decision not to recommend the book for classroom use (in favor of Jeffrey Henderson's Loeb?). She objects first of all to my obscenity, but she does not fairly represent the amount added over that in the Greek. To consider her initial, charily presented list of words in the translation that struck her: all but three (one being the mild "nookie," at which a footnote of mine gives a literal translation of the whole relevant phrase) are close renderings of words in the text that the ancient Greeks considered crude (at least when in figurative use in Aristophanes)--and this is according to decades of studies by Henderson, not according to me. Looking at the list, we don't even need Henderson to tell us, for example, that PANKATAPYGOS, which I translate as "fit for boning up the butt," is a compound of "all" or "completely," "down," and "butt," "ass," or "rear end." The compound is literally about anal intercourse and connotes shamelessness. A more genteel translation than mine would simply not do justice to Aristophanes. I can't see how, in context, my use of naughty slang could rightly be called "excessive," "extensive" or "going too far."

The statement "Aristophanes is crude enough; why add more?" deserves the benefit of the doubt, so I won't simply dismiss Clayton as concerning herself with the wrong author for her tastes. I'll assume that she does enjoy good dirt (as any Aristophanes scholar or amateur, I think, has got to), and that she merely thinks I have exaggerated Aristophanes' dirtiness to my own evil ends. True, I've added obscenity in a few places, but only on established translating principles. Clayton's discussion of "faithfulness" suggests that she herself has never engaged with the idea except as literalness. But a flat, unattractive translation presented to beginning students and the lay public as literature, as the work of a great mind, is the most catastrophic kind of unfaithfulness. Translators may want to open up their main concerns (as I do in my preface) or their choices in selected cases (as I do in footnotes), letting the reader know how literal in general a translation is, but the most important stricture comes from the old song: "It's your duty to be beautiful." Can Clayton really believe that the only notable student objection to Henderson's translating is "excessive and overly directive" footnotes? With full respect to a former teacher of mine and an eminent scholar, the only thing I have to do to give some perspective here is to refer readers to the quotations of Henderson's translation in Clayton's review, such as "[I] promise nevermore / to mistreat you or to take mistreatment from you." That doesn't need any comment. To be fair to philologists like Henderson, it would hardly be possible for one to be a popular translator as well. (Not that Henderson's and other closer, more scientific translations don't have essential uses. I don't think anybody would claim that.) Two very different sensibilities are demanded for the two activities, and there wouldn't be time in a single career to both find everything out and apply it in a literary mode--the second is in itself a hard discipline. To be fair to teachers, discontent tends to be hidden since few undergraduates are sophisticated enough to venture complaints about the Penguin and Loeb standard of translating. Most students in introductory courses just assume that ancient literature is no fun, and of course they're not going tell their instructors. They're simply going to make the quickest exit possible, from Classics or from the humanities altogether.

I can't believe that any lines of an ancient comedy had as little flavor as modern translation commonly gives them. The great problem is that we often can't tell what the original flavor consisted in; or if we can, we may be unable to reproduce it exactly. A literary translator must face the fact of languages being different. The ancient Greeks, for example, did not use obscenities as mere interjections. They often expressed surprise, indignation, frustration, etc., with particles, an element English does not contain--unless you want to count a negligible group of developments like "uh" and "you know." Is it wrong for me, in this bawdy, raucous comedy, to have added obscenities as interjections in several places where the emotion is either self-evident in the situation or expressed through a particle or something else alien to English? Clayton even admits that, to her, the deserted Cinesias' "Shit! Shit!" sounds right.

In rare instances, you have to jump into the pool cannonball-style. As a withdrawal of an offer of handouts, Clayton prefers the literal "I warn you to beware of the dog." Yet those words, ending a song that has an obviously humorous structure, have to have been a punch line to the original audience. The full literal Greek sentence, "But I warn you not to walk up to my door, but to beware of the dog," comes across even flatter than Clayton's abbreviation. (Why does Clayton explicitly misrepresent the Greek here, by writing, "The Greek says nothing more than that [the abbreviation!]"?) Maybe "Beware of Dog" signs were a novelty in late-fifth-century Athens. Maybe the word order or the rhythm was funny in some way. (Think of the modern jokes that could be ruined by some tiny change in the punch line.) I don't know. I'm sure Clayton doesn't either. What she isn't aware of that I am is the need to deliver something rhetorically parallel and appropriate, something that a reincarnated Aristophanes and the modern readers and audiences who are his legitimate heirs wouldn't consider moronic. In this case, it's startling lines like my "Too bad my dog will fuck you up. / He's waiting at the back." Clayton should either accept the occasional need for such moves or clearly quantify and qualify her rejection of literary translation. And this ought to include a justification of literal translation's costs to her profession's usefulness and influence.

Clayton's other main objection to the translation is the lack of a (to her) satisfactory equivalent to the Spartan dialect. I struggle to imagine a Classicist so dull-eared as to judge that there is no significant difference between my mainstream colloquial language for the Athenian characters, and speech that includes "shit sakes," double negatives, and "duds" (for clothes).

Clayton, like several other academic reviewers, is severe on my background essays; but like her colleagues, she fails to follow through and explain herself, raising the suspicion that the real objection is to popularizing of the Classics.

She objects to my essays being "personal and even judgmental," but she does not say what makes my work inappropriately personal or my judgments wrong. She does not say what is "surprising" in an account of Athenian democracy being structured chronologically, or why it is "quite astonishing" that I think that Athenian economic considerations were the main causes of the Peloponnesian War. I make it plain that I don't think that these were the only causes. I openly disavow an academic historian's comprehensiveness, but this is to my readers' benefit. Most of those I address the book to don't want or need all of the nuance that extensive and detailed incorporation of secondary literature can provide. My approach is quite ho-hum for a popularizing book. If I'm being accused of having written a harmful, rogue background to Aristophanes, far better evidence is needed that I've made some serious, demonstrable mistake or distortion, or left essential sources out of my bibliography.

Aristophanes speaks to my personal condition as a pacifist. That's no secret. In fact, I conscientiously and openly monitor what Clayton calls my "bias." Is the actual problem that I present myself as an ordinary human being--well-intentioned but very limited, a mere grateful and cautious servant of past genius? That the point isn't me and whatever esoteric insights I and my cronies can belch up, but Aristophanes and the modern understanding and enjoyment of him? It makes sense that effective admissions of vulnerability evoke a big "Hey!", given the state Classics is in. But the discipline is deep in the chasm of no risk, no reward.

In any case, the most important questions here are more simple ones of integrity and competence. Which statements of mine are not factual, which conclusions unwarranted? What makes me sweepingly wrong about the Peloponnesian War? What's so far-fetched about a wealthy superpower democracy finding itself locked into militarism in order to enforce control of foreign resources in favor of its own voters? Look out the @#%& window. And stop wondering why students across the country say of the Classics, as commonly taught at present, "This has got nothing to do with anything."

Why is it a "grandiose claim" that Athenian women were unique in the history of the world, with unique oppression and privileges? Surely Clayton has to point out the twin race of women, experiencing their harshest suppression under a radical democracy but ritually paraded as major beneficiaries of the state--which to some extent they actually were. Where were these miraculous females? Why can't Greek oppression of women be attributed partly (Clayton does not pick up my careful and repeated qualifications) to economics? Why is she not sure that my approach to comedy through a contrast with tragedy serves me "all that well"? I give reasons for whatever I assert and for the way I assert it. Did Clayton just pick out a few of my sentences and light into them, on the grounds that this wasn't the kind of work you have to read carefully before you review it?

She has, however, read carefully enough to have found a couple of minute errors. She has also in places read with a certain excessive and aggressive care. She places a "[sic]" after the quoted verb "effect," which I have used in its exactly proper sense of "bring into being." She labels as "misleading" my glossing of autochthony as "the fact that the race had always been there." What would Clayton say autochthony is? Or is she (in confusing language) objecting to my perhaps careless use of "the fact," even though I right away make it clear that autochthony is not literally a fact in this instance? The Athenians, I report, thought they had lived in Attica forever, but they hadn't.

My Lysistrata book is a lowly, though responsible, specimen of the popularizing genre. It represents an Aristophanes binge before which I handed over my car keys and myself to people I knew wouldn't let me do any damage. I certainly don't expect acclaim; but I also don't expect a mauling that takes place in terms that imply the condemnation of even monumental popularizing works. I have been reading Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples and cringing to think what Clayton (or her equivalent in the history department) would be logically compelled to say about it. I therefore won't acquiesce in the pooping of the small, harmless party I'm having with students, journalists, business people and retirees (not to mention the actors, directors and theater audiences with whom Clayton does permit me to associate). And Classicists should know that it's resistance to popularizing that turns it into a force of nature, that turns a low-key romp into the siege scene in Aristophanes:


But what were you expecting? Facing troops?

Or herding slaves? Apparently you don't

Think we have guts.
We do, believe me.

[[For a response to this response by Leofranc Holford-Strevens, please see BMCR 2004.02.46.]]

Read Latest
Index for 2004
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:29:03, Friday, 03 April 2009