BMCR 2003.12.25


, , Lysistrata. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co, 2003. x, 126 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 0872206041. $5.95 (pb).

1 Responses

Sarah Ruden’s translation of Lysistrata comes packaged in a hot pink cover featuring a slightly salacious line drawing. In it we see a more or less nude Lysistrata standing in a defiant position (although looking somewhat alarmed) in front of the chorus of old men, some of them ghoulish, some simply old, but all of them naked. A few hold distinctly phallic sticks; three of them peer at us from between the legs of Lysistrata. I describe the cover in some detail because for me, it captures the spirit of Ruden’s translation perfectly: fun, brash, not afraid to be bawdy, but not always clear in intention.

The translation is preceded by a very short preface that gives a few basic facts about Aristophanes and offers Ruden’s explanation for her choice of this particular play. She writes, ” Lysistrata offers by far the best odds of getting Greek comedy while getting some fun out of it.” Four commentaries, each about ten pages long follow the translation. Athenian democracy, ancient Greek warfare, Athenian women, and Greek comedy are the topics addressed. There is a selected bibliography, as well as an index to the commentaries.

For the purposes of this review, I will be comparing Ruden’s translation with that of Jeffrey Henderson in Staging Women (1996), and Douglass Parker’s 1961 translation (in Four Comedies by Aristophanes edited by William Arrowsmith).1 Henderson’s translation is remarkably close to the Greek.2 Consequently, in his edition Aristophanic obscenity remains unadulterated. Henderson is not afraid of the ‘F word.’ The translation comes with copious notes, which, unfortunately, are located at the back of the volume. Parker’s translation, on the other hand, sacrifices literalness to the exuberant wordplay of Aristophanes. Alliteration and rhyming speeches are on every page. Parker is risqué, but tactfully so. He avoids four-letter obscenities. Topical notes are kept to a minimum, printed at the end of the play. In my experience students enjoy reading Parker, especially aloud, but many can’t get past the notion that translations are supposed to be faithful to the original, and they are disturbed by the license he takes with the actual Greek. Those who prefer Henderson are generally unperturbed by the rough language, although some object that the footnotes are excessive and overly directive.

Ruden’s translation, in many ways, represents an good balance between these two extremes. She has user-friendly footnotes printed at the bottom of the page to explain some of the Greek puns and the topical references. Like Parker, she uses alliteration, double entendre and an occasional rhyme. Her Aristophanic voice has a sparkle and playfulness that is often missing in Henderson. Yet she doesn’t stray quite as far from the Greek as Parker does. Whereas Parker tends to be expansive, Ruden has a tendency to condense. The following is a good example of the kind of conciseness that characterizes her translation. The men’s chorus leader is speaking to the women’s chorus leader, just before the two choruses combine. I’ll begin with Henderson’s version, which is the closest to the Greek: “[I] promise nevermore / to mistreat you or to take mistreatment from you.” Parker renders this line as “in future, a mutual moratorium on mischief in all its forms.” Ruden cuts to the chase with “I’ll neither dump on you nor take your crap.”

As this example shows, Ruden is not shy about vulgarity. Indeed, one might find her use of lewd slang excessive. It is certainly extensive. Along with the familiar terms like “prick” and “dick,” I note the following: dong, prong, nookie, to boink, bazooms, boning up the butt, bone, and quim. Clearly Ruden is aiming for a contemporary and unsubtle outrageousness; here are three examples to illustrate. As above, I will use Henderson’s translation to give the best idea of what the Greek literally says. 1. Lysistrata’s friend Calonice proclaims that the women will stay on the Acropolis and fend off any attacks from the men, “Otherwise we women wouldn’t deserve to be called rascals you can’t win a fight with!” (Henderson). Parker’s Calonice cries, “That’s the spirit — let’s deserve our reputations: UP THE SLUTS!” Ruden’s Calonice simply says, “Or not deserve the cherished title ‘Bitch.'” 2. Cinesias has arrived at the Acropolis to beg his wife for sex. She appears willing, but in fact is just teasing him unmercifully, running off repeatedly to fetch a mattress, a bed, a pillow, etc. Just when he thinks all is finally ready, she runs off for good. Ruden’s Cinesias exclaims, “Shit! Shit!! She’s gone.” There is no obscenity in the Greek here, but I can’t help feeling that this is exactly what a modern-day Cinesias would say in this situation. 3. Towards the end of the play, when Athenian and Spartan ambassadors have appeared and are ready to accept a peace treaty, Lysistrata comes back on stage and is greeted by the chorus as the most ἀνδρεῖα of women. Ruden translates “You who’ve got by far the biggest balls of all.” (Henderson has “manliest,” Parker “most virile,” Sommerstein embarks on an extended allusion to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Princess Ida.)

When Ruden does stray from the Greek, it is often for the sake of a kind of catchy crudeness, as the above examples demonstrate. Nevertheless some readers will no doubt feel that she goes too far. Aristophanes is crude enough; why add more? The most egregious example of this comes at the end of the play, in the last major speech made by the now united chorus of men and women. This speech echoes the one they made when they were first united, where they make extravagant offers of generosity to the audience, and then comically retract them by claiming that their doors will be locked. Here the pattern is the same: a generous gesture followed by a retraction, which is expressed in this instance by “I warn you to beware of the dog.” The Greek says nothing more than that. Ruden translates, “Too bad my dog will fuck you up.”

In sum, Ruden’s Lysistrata is sleek and up-to-date, fast-paced, direct, and not for the faint of heart. It would be my top choice if the main objective were a performance. However, I would not recommend it for a Classics course. In the first place, this translation does not lend itself to trustworthy close readings. But my primary objection concerns the essays at the back, to which I now turn.

Ruden announces in her preface that she wants the commentaries to be “a resource that is basic and — without apology — entertaining” (p. vi). Certainly the tone is familiar rather than academic; it is also at times personal and even judgmental, as in this observation from the beginning of the first essay, “Athenian Democracy”: “It is commonly thought that the Athenian democracy was the ideological model for participatory government in the modern world. God forbid” (p.75). This essay, surprisingly to my mind, is structured chronologically. That is, rather than talk about separate institutions such as the Assembly, the Boule, and the law courts, Ruden begins with the notion of Athenian autochthony (misleadingly defined as “the fact that the race had always been there”), and then takes us from Draco to Solon, Pisistratus, Cleisthenes, and then rather abruptly, to Pericles and the Peloponnesian War with no mention of the Persian War and only oblique references to the Athenian empire. Moreover, some of Ruden’s claims are quite astonishing. She writes at the beginning of the essay, “The radical democracy had helped generate and aggravate the disastrous Peloponnesian War, in a brain fever lit by the notion that the poor, just by being Athenians, could become endlessly better off through the wealth of the empire” (p. 74). In this and the following essay Ruden does remind her readers that Greek history is not her area of expertise: “I must stress that I am not a historian, much less an expert on the poorly attested and controversial nature of the Classical Athenian state. I can only record my impressions , based on the facts but admittedly sympathetic to Aristophanes” (p. 81). This confession of bias is certainly true. Throughout this essay (and in several of the footnotes to the play as well, where there is mention of “pork barrel benefits” of the Athenian democracy especially for the poor, pp. 12 and 37) Ruden sounds like Aristophanes himself, railing at the Athenian non-elite.

The second essay, “Ancient Greek Warfare,” suffers from the same problems as the first, i.e., a vaguely chronological organizing principle that is problematic because there is a lot of information here that doesn’t fit nicely into a chronological scheme: hoplite warfare and the militarism of Sparta, for example. Again, I found a number of statements that will surely cause raised eyebrows among Classicists. In particular I note Ruden’s claim that Athens could have never won the Peloponnesian War, simply because Sparta was such a militaristic society: “Athens had set itself up so that the war, once started, had to escalate — city-states by their very nature resisted domination, so the means to control them had to grow in brutality, but without any sober hope on Athens’ part of a final triumph. Sparta was always going to be there and would always fight Athens’ claims; the individual character of states after long periods of separate development had effected [sic] this too: Sparta was the state that had gone all-out for the military. Sparta was the unbreakable pit in the fruit of Greece” (p. 93).

The third essay, “Athenian Women” opens with a grandiose claim: “Athenian women were unique in the history of the world. Their oppression and their privileges had a special and deeply Athenian character” (p. 98). Unfortunately, Ruden does not adequately support this assertion. She does, however, make the interesting case that the Athenian attitude toward women revolved around citizenship law. But I think she goes too far when she attributes Greek misogyny to economics: “A wife was an expensive and troublesome necessity… In these ways, material need clashed with fixed ideas about what women were good for, and the illogical hatred of women resulting may have endured partly because it was itself adaptive for poverty. Estrangement of the sexes can be a population-control device. But to leave such speculation aside, this much is indisputable: Greek men resented women’s drag on their finances, and this is related to misogynist insults” (p. 103). She includes a brief discussion of homoeroticism in Greece, and points out that the Greek male attitude toward women was “dismissive” (p. 104) more than anything else. This sets her up to declare that “Aristophanes’ work, almost uniquely, offers counterpoints to this attitude” (p. 104). What about Hector and Andromache? Odysseus and Penelope? Alcestis? Antigone and Haemon?

The fourth essay, “Greek Comedy,” is presented as “a heartlessly efficient account that still manages to incorporate ancient critical ideas” (p. 112). Ruden is perhaps too efficient, for I found much basic factual information to be missing (more specifics about the Lenaia vs. the City Dionysia, comic choruses, other writers of Old Comedy besides Aristophanes — to name just a few). Ruden chooses instead to focus on a contrast between tragedy and comedy. I’m not sure that this approach serves her all that well, but it does allow her to end with a quote from A. E. Houseman’s hilarious parody of Greek tragedy, and these final words: “Okay, that is a cheap shot. My excuse is that I am motivated by the universal experience of the longing for justice. Tragedy and comedy are both wonderful, but comedy is only beginning to get the attention it deserves” (p. 118). I don’t agree, but I have to admire Ruden for ending on such an Aristophanic note.

In the final portion of this review, I wish to point out what I consider to be minor flaws in the translation itself. (i) First, the problem of the Spartan dialect: Aristophanes delighted in making fun of different dialects, and translators of Lysistrata usually choose some kind of accent to set the Spartans apart from the rest of the cast. Parker’s Spartans sound like hillbillies, Henderson’s sound vaguely foreign, using a syntax that is slightly incorrect. Ruden’s Lampito is slangy and crude, but then so is almost everyone else in her play. Her Spartan ambassador is indistinguishable from his Athenian counterpart. There’s no real suggestion of foreignness. (ii) At line 520 in the Greek text (we are in the agon between Lysistrata and the Magistrate), Lysistrata quotes from Book 6 of the Iliad, where Hector tells Andromache, “War will be a concern to the men.” Then, some lines later after the Magistrate has been forcibly dressed as a woman, Lysistrata alludes to the same line, this time saying, “War will be a concern of the women” (l. 538). Ruden translates the first instance, but does not note that the line is Homeric, and she completely omits the second instance. Given the thematic importance of gendered spheres of influence in this play, I found this omission striking. (iii) On page 8, lines 107-110 are attributed to Lysistrata. They should be spoken by Calonice. (iv) On p. 38 Ruden has a good, informative footnote on the famous passage where the women’s chorus leader mentions the various cultic roles she has performed for Athens. However, Classicists may be troubled by the fact that she translates Arrephoroi as “Mystery Carrier” in the text, and then, confusingly, as “The Carriers of Unspoken Things” in her footnote. I suspect that she may be assuming that Arrephoroi is related to ἄρρητος, which is not the case. (v) On p. 40, stage directions indicate that it is several days later. I see no justification for this addition. (vi) On p. 62 “enflamed” should be “inflamed.” (vii) On p. 63 Ruden has the Spartan ambassador respond to the chorus’ suggestion that he and the Athenian ambassador use their cloaks to cover up their enormous erections by saying, “We better wrap these bigger duds around.” The Greek says, “We better put our cloaks back on.” Why add “bigger”? By embellishing the Greek with this adjective Ruden implicitly suggests a kind of competition between the Spartan and Athenian ambassadors, which completely undermines what is actually happening, which is that both ambassadors are suffering the identical excruciating condition and are consequently prepared to make peace with each other. (viii) Finally, on pp. 67-8 the Athenian ambassador is given a phrase that makes no sense to me: “situated in my prong.” The idea is that all the allies have similar “prongs” at this stage of the game, but I see no way to construe Ruden’s words so as to arrive at this meaning.

[[For a response to this review by Sarah Ruden, please see BMCR 2004.01.23.]]


1. I have chosen to include only the occasional illustration from Alan Sommerstein’s 1973 translation for Penguin, because the distinctly British tone of this version (for example, his Spartans are given a Scottish accent) makes for an awkward comparison.

2. Henderson is the translator and editor of the new Loeb editions of Aristophanes.