When Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion released ‘WAP’ in August 2020, ‘conservative’ commentators such as Tucker Carlson expressed outrage that the song might corrupt ‘your granddaughters’; Alyssa Rosenberg in the Washington Post celebrated it as an ‘ode to female sexual pleasure’. The video featured the two long-lashed goddesses twerking their way through a gilded McMansion in fabulous candy-coloured outfits, like bethonged Disney princesses. The lyrics create a cluster of ambiguities: are the speakers supposed to be sex workers struggling to pay their college tuition and running in fear from ‘the cops’, or wealthy A-list celebrities? Or are they, as Black women in a white man’s world, both? Do they really want anyone but each other? Do they own the house through which they strut? The song mocks its listeners and viewers for yearning for these superior beings in their state of limitless desire. At the same time, its sly laughter invites us to feel, for a couple of minutes, part of their glittering, multicoloured world.
The song’s genius lies in its inventiveness: its mastery of rhythm, and its innovative abundance of metaphors for the ‘wet-ass pussy’ of its title. You come for the nasty, but you stay for the poetry. The two artists celebrate the power of their bodies to express desire and joy, but more fundamentally, they celebrate their gushing waterfalls of linguistic ‘flow’. The joke of the title hinges on the fact that language is both literal and metaphorical: one body part is used as a linguistic modifier for another. The most memorable lines contain no words that would be unsuitable for a nursery school sing-along, but provide brilliantly funny images: ‘Swipe your nose like a credit card’, ‘Get a bucket and a mop’, or – climactically – ‘Macaroni in a pot’. It’s wild and down to earth at the same time, and for ever changes the way you think about cooking spaghetti.
Ancient Athenian comedy of the fifth century BCE – mostly known to us through the work of Aristophanes – can be usefully compared to a number of different modern genres. Like traditional TV sitcoms, it featured typical or stereotypical characters, and showcased their ridiculous lust, avarice, stupidity and ambition. Like modern stand-up comedians or late-night TV hosts, comic poets included speeches in their plays in which they railed at the audience about the state of society and their personal grievances. Like Saturday Night Live, comedy in fifth-century Athens included caricatures of people who might well have been in the audience – such as Socrates, Euripides or the politician Cleon. Like The Simpsons or 30 Rock, the dialogue had a high rate of jokes per minute, and catered to multiple different audience sensibilities, including a taste for lavatory humour. As in Broadway musicals or on the Disney Channel, characters in lavish costumes were liable to burst into song and dance at any moment – although, unlike on Hannah Montana, the male characters wore large strap-on phalluses. Old Comedy anticipated modern sci-fi, and shows like The Good Place, in its willingness to carry out fantastical thought experiments (talking frogs, a city of birds, a singing chorus of metaphysically inclined clouds, or, weirdest of all, women with real political power), and considered their social and political repercussions. Like pantomime or Punch and Judy, it included formulaic riffs on falling over, violence and cross-dressing.
But the lush comic hip-hop of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B is one of the most useful modern analogues, because it illustrates the core element of Old Comedy that is most often obscured in contemporary Anglophone translations – the flow. Aristophanes, like the creators of ‘WAP’, was a musician, songwriter, choreographer and poet, and his linguistic effects depend, like theirs, on the artful manipulation of rhythm and sound in words and imagery. The poetic affinity between rap and Old Comedy is explored in Spike Lee’s film Chi-Raq, a hip-hop adaptation of Lysistrata set on the South Side of Chicago. But most modern English translations have done little to represent the lyricism and rhythm of Aristophanic poetics. A notable exception is the wonderful version of Lysistrata by Sarah Ruden, who uses brilliantly lively, dirty blank verse, with exuberant and inventive lyrics for the choral passages. For most other translations, imagine a prose ‘WAP’, stripped of rhyme, rhythm and linguistic dazzle, and you get the problem.
Aaron Poochigian’s new translation of four plays of Aristophanes into clear, vivid, metrical verse is therefore welcome. He obviously cares about technique, and largely pulls off the difficult trick of making Aristophanes in English sound rhythmic but not obscure or stuffy. There’s a moment in Clouds when the avaricious protagonist, Strepsiades, discovers to his horror that his son has learned from the school of sophistry, presided over by Socrates, that it is acceptable for sons to beat up their fathers, since youngsters in the chicken community do not hesitate to attack their parents. In Poochigian’s translation, Strepsiades responds with a well-turned iambic heptameter couplet:
Well, if you want to copy everything that roosters do,
why not go eat manure and take a nap atop a perch?
While other translators reach for words like ‘cock’ and ‘peck’ to spice up their prose, Poochigian, here as elsewhere, stays close to the Greek and is willing to let the humour (such as it is) emerge, rather than make up new gags of his own. He is also notably restrained in his vocabulary. The Greek word for what the roosters eat is kopros (from which we get ‘coprophilia’ and ‘coprophagy’). It’s a general term that doesn’t refer specifically to animal refuse – unlike the decorous agricultural term chosen by Poochigian, whose chickens are too polite to eat shit. The choice between ‘shit’ and ‘manure’ (or ‘poop’, a baby word that occurs with surprising frequency in Poochigian) illustrates one of the primary challenges of translating texts so full of obscenity. What people find shocking enough to be funny, but not so shocking as to be actually repellent, differs between cultures as well as individuals. A profusion of ‘shit’, rather than ‘poop’ or ‘manure’, might have made Poochigian’s translations edgier for some readers, but unsaleable to others.
A related difficulty is the difference between the sexual norms of fifth-century Athens and those of modern English-speaking countries. There is a wonderful set-piece in Clouds in which the personification of old-fashioned ‘Right Argument’ (a fuddy-duddy obsessed with the army’s glory days and the oiled curves of boys’ buttocks at the gym) has an agon, or debate, with new-fangled ‘Wrong Argument’ (a slick smart-talker with some sleazy hot takes on ancient myths) over which of them has done a better job of educating the young men of Athens. Right accuses Wrong of having sex with other citizens’ wives (adultery being a brand new trend, hahaha), and remarks that he must have received the usual punishment: a radish in the anus. Wrong retorts that there is nothing wrong with being, as such adulterers would be, euryproktos (‘gape-arse’); most citizens, he says, including the audience, are surely the same. The joke hinges on the assumption, which would have needed no explanation, that a man with non-normative sexual preferences, a kinaidos, enjoys both illegal sex with citizen wives and being penetrated by other men (a shameful preference in a world where ‘normal’ men were supposed to want to be the penetrators of either women or boys). Aristophanes makes humour out of social hypocrisy as well as the eternal hilarity of bum jokes. Poochigian, however, repeatedly translates euryproktos as ‘faggot’ – which makes the joke hinge on a very different set of social prejudices.
Aristophanes is not generally an archaising poet. But Poochigian’s English often sounds dated, even when there is nothing markedly old-fashioned about the Greek. The supposedly modish Wrong Argument, for instance, refers to ‘lusty ladies’ and describes the mythical hero Peleus as a ‘poor wretch’. Lysistrata, the eponymous heroine of Aristophanes’ play about a sex strike to stop the Peloponnesian War, expresses sympathy for the unmarried ‘maidens’ whom nobody will ‘wed’ – where, in the Greek, she uses very neutral, not markedly old-fashioned terms for girls (kore) and marriage (gemai). A city official, in the same play, complains at the ‘feminine licentiousness’ of ‘wanton’ women – where, again, there is nothing particularly archaic about the Greek. The olde-timey language sits oddly with other moments where Poochigian reaches, usually effectively, for more current language, including some very contemporary references – such as ‘nasty women’, ‘chokeholds’, ‘ballot boxes’, ‘ravioli’ and women who wear a ‘bra’.
Many recent translations of Aristophanes have a lot more obscene language than Poochigian: there is usually more shit and less poop. The Loeb translator, Jeffrey Henderson, is an authority on obscenity in Old Comedy – his book The Maculate Muse (1975) is a must-read in the field – and his versions include multiple instances of ‘pussy’ and ‘cock’; Poochigian mostly prefers ‘dick’ and ‘twat’. Though the Spartan Messenger in Lysistrata – whose dialect he translates into what he calls a ‘country twang specific to no region’ – complains that the ladies have locked the menfolk ‘outta their vaginas’, any approximation to linguistic realism is rather spoiled by the noun. Poochigian’s Aristophanes is significantly less obscene than the original. It would be great to see an X-rated reissue of these translations with the archaisms removed and every ‘twat’ changed to a ‘cunt’.
But this mild, poetic version of Old Comedy, whose kicks come from half-rhymes and the showcasing of technique rather than the bad words, has its appeal. Poochigian writes in the introduction that he finds a ‘necessary lesson’ for contemporary society in Aristophanes’ use of obscenity to condemn the ‘crude’ behaviour of ‘a person in power’ who ‘behaves obscenely’. The translations themselves seem to show precisely the opposite: that careful, sometimes childish or archaic language can provide an alternative to the tiresome barrage of outrage and outrageousness that has dominated the media landscape in recent years. Maybe comic obscenity does not seem so funny anymore, now that a laughably unqualified perpetrator of sexual assault has served a full term as president.
Poochigian’s Aristophanes translations, with their clarity and their understated language, allow for a full appreciation of the ways that Aristophanes’ central themes still resonate. ‘I know that Athens always seems to choose/criminals as her heads of state,’ the female protagonist of Women of the Assembly says. ‘So, in conclusion, gentlemen, let’s hand/the rule of Athens over to the women.’ The simple good sense of the idea comes through clearly in Poochigian’s plain iambics.
Aristophanes’ comedies are primarily concerned with the relationship of cultural to political change. Do culture wars matter? Is a radical progressive solution possible? The clowning around, the shit jokes, the puns and the talking animals of Old Comedy are interwoven with ostensibly serious political topics, such as the human and economic cost of the Peloponnesian War (in Lysistrata), or the corruption of the young by wrong-headed innovations in education (in Clouds), or the founding of an ideal society, minus the humans (in Birds), or the wild idea of emancipating women to end political corruption (in Women of the Assembly). All of Aristophanes’ extant plays – including the seven not translated by Poochigian – focus on cultural change and the possibility, or impossibility, of a radical solution to a cultural dilemma.
In the conflict between old ways and new ways, Aristophanes often seems to express reactionary nostalgia for the old, and fear of the new. The education of the wisdom-teachers or sophists, for example, is made to seem both ridiculous and dangerous in Clouds. In Plato’s Apology the play is said to have contributed to the case against Socrates. It takes on a frightening new resonance now that so many US states have legislated against the teaching of what they call ‘critical race theory’. Lysistrata and Women of the Assembly may seem to propose a radical critique of the disenfranchisement of women in Athenian democracy. But both plays – performed by and for men – reinforce the stereotypical view of Athenian men that women are primarily interested in sex and drinking, and Lysistrata ends with the men bonding with one another as they ogle the naked female body of Reconciliation personified. Lysistrata seems like a clearly anti-war play; at the same time, it whips up anti-Spartan sentiment by mocking the enemy as idiotic rednecks who talk funny. Birds, composed in 414, immediately after the disastrous Sicilian Expedition, is an escape fantasy, like Euripides’ tragedy Iphigenia in Tauris (produced in the same year); but the play also seems to acknowledge that escape is implausible, and perhaps not even desirable. The two Athenian protagonists escape to the sky to establish a new, supposedly better society there with the birds – but they end up replicating the imperial ambitions of the human city they have left behind. Aristophanes’ comedy frequently acknowledges the possibility that social or political change might be bad (maybe it was better in the old days), and also recognises that change might not even be possible. Some of his best jokes turn on the pretence that people nowadays have been corrupted by new ways – when greed, lust and avarice do not require a teacher.
Aristophanes’ comedies create a delicate balance between a portrayal of Athens as a society of limitless possibilities, in which any or everything could happen and the world could be transformed through one ordinary person’s brilliant idea, and a representation of human beings as ridiculously limited, both by our horny, shitty, hungry bodies, and by our gullibility, our selfishness and our egotism. But the dark or cynical elements cohere with moments of lyrical surprise that can be beautiful as well as funny. Poochigian conveys the lyricism and moments of high poetry, as well as the shifts of mood and tone. Take, for instance, this lovely passage from the Chorus of Birds:
Happy our feathered race
that in the winter needs no woollen clothes,
nor do the summer sun’s extended rays
with roasting swelter torment us.
At noontime when the crazed cicada heaves
shrill hymns into the air, I roost
among the flowers and leaves
that fill the meadow’s breast.
All winter in a cave
we revel with the nymphs. In spring we have
pure myrtle berries in their white
blossoms, we have the Graces’ garden fruit.
The Greek creates lush sonic effects through the lull of repeated long ‘o’ sounds and sibilants: it riffs on new trends in musical styles, and idealises even as it mocks the notion that life is better if you’re a bird. Poochigian’s version seems conscious of Anglophone literary resonances (such as Shakespeare’s Ariel) and is at its best in the moments when a slightly archaised fantasy is asserted with absolute authority: ‘We revel with the nymphs.’ The handling of rhythm is uneven, and to my ear the half-rhymes (‘have/cave’) sound forced. The choice of ‘heaves’, presumably for the rhyme, has unfortunate connotations, as does the ‘breast’ of the meadow, which doesn’t quite capture the image suggested by the Greek kolpos, of the landscape and foliage folding themselves around the feathered community. But the translation conjures a world full of lushly unexpected life and playfulness – as well as the pomposity of these birds who believe that their traditional lifestyle is superior to all others.
It is difficult to make comedy funny on the page. This is especially true of a comedy that depends on the use of music and auditory effects: Birds, for instance, created a drama almost like Peter and the Wolf out of the different instruments associated with different birds. Stage directions never provoke a laugh, but actual stage business often does. The gap between the experience of watching a performance and reading a play is all the wider for plays with a great deal of cultural specificity, from a culture very different from our own. But Poochigian’s translations largely present the dialogue in a way that is clearly accessible, and even manages to be funny fairly often. The scene in Lysistrata in which Myrrhine teases her ithyphallic husband with never-ending delays and postponements is difficult to mess up; Poochigian’s clear language allows us to laugh not only at the man’s predicament, but also at his self-importance. Poochigian translates the name Kinesias (‘Fucker’) as ‘Harden’, and has him bewail his frustration in suitably ridiculous terms:
She has destroyed me! Killed me! Even worse:
she got me all worked up and then just left.
Oh, what I’m going through! Where will I find a lover
now that the fairest of them all has screwed me over?
The fluent iambic rhythm, and the quick flip between a conversational and a hyperbolic register, make it easy to enjoy a laugh at poor old Harden’s ridiculous inflation of his own importance. In another scene in Women, a young man bangs on the door of the women’s house, hoping to have sex with an attractive young woman – only to be seized by a horny old one. Poochigian borrows a trick from Bart Simpson, when the young man asks for ‘Master Bates’ (the Greek has a double-entendre place name that would have required a footnote if rendered literally), and insists that he is not ‘Mr Fuck’ – again instead of a place name joke that would presumably have got a ready laugh from the original audience.
The cultural specificity of Old Comedy often makes the genre seem less readily accessible than Athenian tragedy. Tragedy was performed for audience members from all over the Greek-speaking world; comedy, usually showcased at the Lenaea (a winter festival held when the seas were relatively impassable), speaks to an in-crowd of Athenians. Tragedy draws on the quasi-universal stories of myth; comedy, in Athens, focused on a single community in a very particular place and time. For that reason, comedy is often more useful for social history than tragedy: Aristophanes provides specific information about attitudes towards politicians, policies and current events, of a kind never found in tragedy. At the same time, the language of Old Comedy is often much more difficult than that of tragedy for non-native-speakers (i.e. all of us), because it includes so many colloquial idioms, and so many detailed cultural and political references. After the fall of Athens to Sparta in 404 BCE, comedy – which had been deeply associated with Athens in its prime – gradually transformed into a genre with much less cultural specificity, and much wider appeal, so that it could be turned into an export product for non-Athenians. The latest play of Aristophanes included here, Women of the Assembly (produced in 391 BCE) shows a shift in this direction: the riffs on contemporary politics, poets and celebrities are gone, and the Chorus is composed of boring old human beings, rather than animals or abstractions. Women fuses the central Old Comedy plot, of a radical solution to a social problem, with the usual story arc of later comedy, in which a central male character manages, despite obstacles, to get laid. New Comedy poets such as Menander – our only surviving exemplar – wrote romantic comedies about the heterosexual love lives of mooning young men, a theme that had no place in Aristophanes but would have a long legacy in Roman and later European and British drama, and remains with us in the Hollywood romcom.
For readers hungry to learn more about pre-modern pre-romantic comedy, to immerse themselves in a genre focused on urban communities rather than individuals, Poochigian’s volume does a fine job of making Aristophanes accessible even to readers without any background in the genre or in the period of these plays. There is a useful brief introduction and short explanatory notes. If I were teaching only one Aristophanes play to students without Greek, my top choice remains Sarah Ruden’s verse translation of Lysistrata, which also has much more extensive notes, including several very useful appendices on social contexts such as Athenian attitudes to sexuality. For an introduction to ancient drama in translation, I would choose Poochigian’s selections only if I could supplement them with at least one of the plays featuring Euripides – Thesmophoriazousae or Frogs – because they offer a distinctive and fascinating set of insights into the intimate, combative relationship between the two major dramatic genres of Athens. The selection of Lysistrata along with Women would work well for a class focused on gender in antiquity; but I would miss the Thesmophoriazousae, whose cis male protagonist spends much of the play dressed as a woman (it’s included in Staging Women, a lively, obscene trio of prose translations by Jeffrey Henderson). I hope Poochigian might be persuaded to add a couple of these other plays, to make the volume more useful for classroom assignments.
But for the general reader, Poochigian’s selection – four plays chosen, he says, simply because they are his ‘favourites’ – will provide a good introduction to a wonderful comic poet, who deserves to be celebrated as much for his lyrical and metaphorical inventiveness as for his obscene language. These translations have no pussies and few asses, and cannot match the torrential flow of Megan Thee Stallion and Cardi B. But Poochigian’s versions of these plays have sweetness, clarity and thought-provoking riffs on political and ethical dilemmas, and on the clash of old culture with new. Aristophanes, as these translations show, is a vital poet to keep us laughing through the terrifying changes and equally terrifying stagnations of our own world.