BMCR 2000.06.29

Aristophanes’ The Birds

, Aristophanes' The Birds. Newburyport, MA: Focus, 1999. 96.

Birds is the fourth in Henderson’s fine series of one-volume translations for the Focus Classical Library, the others being Acharnians, Clouds (both 1992), and Lysistrata (1988), a series I have found to be very useful and well suited as texts in my upper-year courses on comedy. Henderson’s newest entry certainly lives up to the standard which he has set in the earlier volumes.

He begins with a short but comprehensive 10-page survey of Aristophanes and Old Comedy, with an especially good section on the role of the demos and demokratia in relation to Old Comedy and some cogent thoughts (9) on the “rule of the three actors”. On p. 8 he assumes both the existence of the “decree” of Syrakosios and Sommerstein’s explanation of it; the reader should perhaps be warned that neither conclusion is solid. On p. 2 he states that the Lenaia was originally “held elsewhere in the city”, allowing that the change to the Theatre of Dionysos may have been earlier than the 4th c. This gave me pause to consider the differences between Dionysia-plays and Lenaia-plays, especially the presence of the mechane. Is it purely a coincidence that the three comedies that we know belong to the Dionysia ( Clouds, Peace, Birds) all employ the mechane, while the four that we know are Lenaian ( Acharnians, Knights, Wasps, Frogs) do not? This might lead one to conclude that two different theatres were in use in the late fifth century, and that we can answer the thorny question of the productions in 411. Since Lysistrata does not use the mechane, it should be, as is often thought, a Lenaia-play, and since Thesmophoriazousai does, its production at the Dionysia would be confirmed.

His short essay on Birds (11-14) is an excellent summary of the position adopted by Dunbar and Sommerstein, that neither is the play ironic or escapist, nor is it a concerned response to the events of the day (the scandals of 415 or the Sicilian Expedition). He stresses rightly the optimism and upbeat atmosphere of Athens in 414, and concludes ( pace Hubbard and Bowie) that “everyone else — birds, humans, and even gods — are better off under his new regime than they had been under the old” (13). The student is encouraged rightly to read this play as “comedy” rather than as “satire”.

Comedy, unlike most other ancient genres, will be translated differently depending on the geographic location of the translator and his audience. While Meineck’s recent volume ( Aristophanes I, including Birds) is very British, Henderson translates the text into “contemporary American verse”, both for the reader and also for the producer (“speakability being the principal stylistic criterion” [10]). At times the Americanisms jarred a bit: for example, “Finchburg” (395) seems straight from the Civil War; “granola” (566) for pyrous and “VIP” (616) for semnoi seemed rather odd; while “outlaws” (766) to render atimoi conjured up ambushes in the Old West; for “sleazy shysterism” (1467) I prefer Sommerstein’s “law-twisting villainy” — and “Yeah bubba” (1615) is just too modern. But on the whole, Henderson has given the reader an excellent version of Aristophanes’ best play. It reads well; it preserves the original line lengths, allowing the student to distinguish the iambics, the choral sections, the longer anapests, the trochaic songs etc.; it has a good pace, and, above all, it is very clever, catching verbal subtleties in the Greek original. In particular, I liked his double rendering of haidousin (40-1) as “chirp” and “harp”, trochilos (79) as “roadrunner”, the alliteration of “prop of a prodigious plan” (321) for the original premnon pragmatos peloriou, “crowbar” (1112) as an avian burglar’s tool, and Peisetaerus’ threat to Iris (1256) “how an old hulk like me can stay aloft for three rammings” which continues neatly the nautical metaphor of the Iris-scene. I especially enjoyed his rendering of physato pappous (765) as “sprout some forefeathers” — I wish I’d said that, but then again I expect I shall.

A few concerns about the text follow. On p. 27 he handles the on-going puns on pol- in the Greek by using sit-/cit- in English (site, visit, transit, city); the differences in vowel quantities would need careful delivery in production. On p. 34 he describes the encounter between the humans and the birds at 330ff. as “First Contest (Agon)”, somewhat misleading as the real agon does not begin until 451, and this pre-agon (or scuffle) lacks the structural formality of an actual agon. In the agon he does employ longer lines, but the translation, especially of the early exchanges, doesn’t catch the grandiose paratragedy of the Greek text. At 395, “Potter’s Field” is a nice try for Kerameikos, but the overtones of Judas Iscariot perhaps intrude too much. At 800 xouthos hippalektryon, usually “tawny horsecock”, is translated provocatively as “zooming horsecock” — see Dunbar on Birds 214 for this meaning of xouthos — but see also Taillardat’s ( Les Images d’ Aristophane 134-7) visual explanation of the joke as applied to a military official.

Translations of Aristophanes inevitably need footnotes or endnotes (or both) to help readers with the unfamiliar allusions of comedy. Henderson provides brief but clear notes that will explain much for the novice, especially the splendid entry to 676 on the parabasis proper. To 101 on Tereus, he writes “In Sophocles’ play Tereus seems to have been portrayed as an uncouth barbarian”; I would prefer the explanation that Sophokles turned Tereus into a bird, perhaps even on stage. The note to 581 could have been expanded to refer the reader to the scanty grain-doles mentioned at Wasps 715-9. Two notes on p. 60 inform us that the Poet is quoting Pindar; perhaps a note that he is intended to be in the style of Pindar would reinforce this (see Dunbar ad loc.). The note on tyranny at 1074 needs to include a reference to Bdelykleon’s complaint about the term at Wasps 488-99. On p. 72 the entry of Iris via the mechane needs to be noted, and on p. 87 the similarity between Princess and Athene should be mentioned.

For readability this is an excellent version of Birds and one which I shall use when I teach Birds as a single text. As for “speakability”, only the acid test of a production can answer that question. I looked at two areas of the comedy where the oral delivery of the text should produce a memorable result. First, the parabasis proper (685-736), the parody of the Hesiodic and Orphic creation of the universe. Here we have been spoiled by Rogers with his rhyming anapests and internal echoes:

There was Chaos at first, and Darkness and Night, and Tartarus vasty and
But the Earth was not there, nor the Sky, nor the Air, till at length in the
bosom abysmal,

and recent translators have fallen short of that standard. Here is Henderson’s rendering of the same lines:

In the beginning were Chaos and Night and black Erebus and broad Tartarus,
no Earth, no Air nor Sky. But in the boundless bosom of Erebus…

There is a rhythm of sorts and the alliteration in the second line will effect a nice delivery. We would have to hear a chorus performing these lines to get the whole effect. I’m afraid that I read the parabasis with Rogers’ rhythms echoing in my mind, and the result was perhaps unfair to Henderson.

I looked also at the memorable trochaic songs of personal abuse (1470-81, 1482-92, 1553-64, 1694-1705) which should also linger in the memory. Again I think we have been spoiled, at least for 1470-81, where Arrowsmith produced jaunty four-line stanzas that reflected well the tone of the original:

Many the marvels I have seen
the wonders on land and sea,
but the strangest sight I ever saw
was the weird Kleonymos-tree.

Henderson’s version is more unstructured and packs less of a punch:

Many wondrous novelties
have we overflown, and
many amazements have we seen.
There’s a tree quite exotic,
and it grows beyond Wimpdom,
and it’s called Cleonymus.

The song about Orestes (1482-92) and the Socratic necromancy (1553-64) do come off better, but on the whole I am less certain about the “speakability” of this translation, and we shall have to await the results of an actual production.

To conclude, this is a clear, accurate and certainly clever translation of Birds, with a sensible introduction and very good bibliography. Instructors or students looking for only one comedy by Aristophanes to include in a course on drama or myth or ancient literature would not go far wrong in making this their translation of choice.