BMCR 2001.07.19

Euripides: Bakkhai. The Greek Tragedy in New Translations

, , , Bakkhai. The Greek tragedy in new translations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (ix, 150 pages).. ISBN 9780199725939

One might think that a play that concerns ( inter alia) cross-dressing, decapitation, hallucination, filicide, androgyny, derangement, and the sometimes alarming powers of fennel would at best appeal to a niche market; however, Reginald Gibbons’ translation of Euripides’ greatest, darkest work is only the latest of a bumper crop of Bakkhai.1 Squaring off against editions only recently published by (to name a few) Cambridge University Press, University of Pennsylvania Press, and Hackett Publishing, this Oxford entry into a suddenly crowded field clearly has its work cut out for it. As sensitively rendered by Gibbons and as felicitously annotated by Charles Segal, this volume gives the others a run for the money (of students everywhere); and while not guaranteed to knock all others from consideration, this translation merits serious thought for classroom and even scholarly use. Of particular interest is Segal’s extensive reconstruction of the lacunae that mar the end of the Bakkhai, including the so-called compositio membrorum of Pentheus.

The series adheres to the general guidelines propounded by the series editors, Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, including the pairing of an expert in classics (Segal) with a non-specialist poet/translator (Gibbons). The aim, then, is to produce an edition that avoids the stuffiness or awkwardness of an academic trot while preventing also the excesses of a free—or freewheeling—translator. Evaluated on these grounds, this edition (and the series so far) is a successful one. Gibbons, a professor of English at Northwestern University and an accomplished poet, has crafted a lyrical verse translation that displays an evident understanding of and respect for the source text. Gibbons has thought deeply about the intricacies of his task and even produces, in his brief preface to the translation, a fine sententia for the theorists among us: “Translation is much like politics in the necessity of compromise; in fact, translation is very much politics of a cultural kind” (pg. 39). In negotiating his own cultural compromise, Gibbons has employed a free iambic meter for the bulk of play, while utilizing a stricter pentameter for the narrative passages and a more versatile rhythm for the dialogue and the choral passages. This flexibility enables the translation to preserve crucial structural elements found in the original (such as the rapid one-on-one exchanges of a stichomythia) without lapsing into a hideous pseudo-prose during what ought to be a taut messenger speech. The following passage from the first messenger’s speech displays Gibbons’ facility with blank verse, as a shepherd recounts his nightmare vision of raging maenads:

You would have seen
One woman by herself with just her hands
Pulling in two a big young heifer that
Had swelling udders and was bellowing,
And meanwhile others were dismembering
The full-grown cattle, flaying them to shreds.
You would have seen the ribs and hooves hurled up,
Thrown down, flying through the air, and pieces
Hanging from the trees, still dripping blood.
Even arrogant bulls were stumbling, forced
To the ground, the anger in their horns outweighed
By the countless hands of girls… [845-856]

The passage adheres well to the literal meaning of the Greek, and the constant tumble and clashing of the iambs against the matrix of the pentameter matches perfectly the content: the sparagmos of the cattle is itself reflected in the turmoil and energy of the jumping rhythm. Particularly nimble is the enjambed couplet ‘Even arrogant bulls were stumbling, forced/to the ground’, in which the violently dislocated word ‘forced’ forces, in effect, a metrical stumble. Such displays of metrical skill demonstrate Gibbons’ power as a poet fully in command of the technical aspects of versification.

Gibbons is not averse to taking a risk when he feels the poetry calls for it; a case in point is the problem presented by the nearly unparalleled verb τεταυρῶσαι in line 922, directed at Dionysus by a confused Pentheus. Here, many narrative strands of the play come together: the epiphany of the bull from earlier in the action; the emphasis on vision and seeing; the sometimes feral aspect of Dionysus’ power; and even the foregrounded themes of sex and gender. Most translations gloss over the oddity of the verb by employing, in English, a wordy circumlocution:

Were you an animal before? Certainly you are a bull now! [780, David Franklin]

Were you ever a wild animal? You’re being a bull now. [922, Paul Woodruff]

Were you ever an animal? I swear you look like a bull! [888, Daniel Mark Epstein]2

Compare these verses to Gibbons’ gutsy contribution:

Were you, all this time, an animal?
For you have certainly been … bullified. [1056-1057, Gibbons]

I have to admit a certain amount of grudging respect for this particular solution; though the mot“bullified” is unlikely to top anyone’s list of mellifluous neologisms, it does accurately capture the strangeness of the original verb in a way that the other translations simply cannot. Moreover, my Greek literature class last term decided (after lively debate) that ‘bullified’ was consistent as well with Pentheus’ mental state: an hallucinating prince can certainly be forgiven for not speaking the Queen’s English.

Charles Segal’s contribution to the volume consists of a 29 page introduction, 34 pages of notes, a very valuable appendix on the compositio membrorum (about which more in a moment), and a short, functional glossary of proper names. The introduction is in many ways a distillation of Segal’s earlier, magisterial work Dionysiac Poetics and Euripides’ Bacchae (Princeton University Press, 2nd edition, 1997) and is targeted squarely at a non-specialist audience. It is hard not to enjoy an essay that begins with the unassuming yet trenchant observation “Dionysus is the god of Letting Go.” Segal then explores this ‘letting go’ in all its Dionysiac guises: the letting go of inhibitions, of constraints, of boundaries and the letting in of wine, of ecstasy, of madness. These general comments about the semantics of Dionysus’s cult are chased by a quick review of the play itself, beginning with the god’s epiphany and ending, of course, with the dreadful carnage at Thebes. Segal’s notes (included after the play) gloss the usual suspects of unfamiliar place names and obscure mythological events; but here and there he scatters an astute critical comment, such as the possible sexual overtones to the sweating and panting of the bull at lines 719-20, or the important thematic resonances of sophia and sôphrosunê at lines 213 and 232. In sum, Segal’s notes expertly guide the interested reader through the salient themes of the play.

The most intriguing aspect of the translation is the collaboration between Segal and Gibbons on reconstructing the final part of the work, punctured as it is by two unfortunate lacunae. Most editions simply note the lacunae and forge onward; Segal and Gibbons, by contrast, fill in the gaps by drawing on Segal’s analysis of the later, Bakkhai -influenced passion play Christus Patiens, and on indications from other ancient sources. This is the most sensible solution, I think, for what is after all a blueprint for performance; editorial brackets might be prudent for a critical edition, but pity the poor actor who attempts to wield daggers of desperation in front of an audience! Moreover, Gibbons’ simple, stark rendering amplifies the horror of Agave’s final, desperate attempts to put her son—and her world—back together again:

Come then, old man, and let us fit the head
Of this poor child into its proper place,
And fit together all his body as best
We can, the parts in harmony again.
O face most dear to me, and cheeks of a child!
Look — with this veil, I cover up your face.
With these fresh robes I shelter you, your blood-
Smeared limbs, gashed and sundered from each other. [1474-1481]

This passage is powerful stuff, whether on page or on stage. Its inclusion neatly completes the thematic arc initiated by Agave’s celebrated entrance with head in hand, while the threnody of mother over child resonates powerfully with other Euripidean drama (particularly Trojan Women). By plugging the lacunae with artfully reconstructed verse, the collaborators achieve what the characters themselves only dream of: a coming together, a harmony.

As for some quibbles? For one thing, the price ($11.95) is a bit steep for a single play. To be sure, this is a great play; but still, it’s just one script, not a collection of three or more. Hackett’s edition of the single play, for instance, is half the price ($5.95), and an instructor ordering books for e.g. a survey course needs to be sensitive to the real financial burden that textbooks place on undergraduates: it all adds up. Secondly, the cover art—featuring a lone cycladic votive statue—manages the not inconsiderable feat of having nothing to do with Dionysos. Compared to Hackett’s provocative mug shot of Elvis that adorns its volume of the Bakkhai, the graphic design could use some sprucing up.

But these are quibbles, not faults. This is a lovely, thoughtful edition of the play, and between Gibbons’ sturdy verse and Segal’s sensitive notes, one can hardly go wrong in assigning the text to an introductory literature class. And even more advanced students of Greek tragedy will wish to examine Segal’s valuable appendix on the compositio membrorum, a succinct and insightful bit of scholarship in its own right.


1. For a dizzying guide to some 20 recent translations of the Bakkhai, see the valuable annotated bibliography in Charles Voinovich’s BMCR review of Paul Woodruff’s Bacchae (2001.01.04).

2. In order, these quotations are from D. Franklin, Euripides: Bacchae, Cambridge University Press 2000; P. Woodruff, Euripides: Bacchae, Hackett Publishing 1998; D. Slavitt and P. Bowie, edd., Euripides 1: Medea, Hecuba, Andromache, The Bacchae, University of Pennsylvania Press 1998.