Emily Wilson, reviewing Aaron Poochigian’s translations of four comedies by Aristophanes, claims that the playwright’s works are ‘full of obscenity’ and complains that Poochigian undersells this aspect of their language (LRB, 21 October). In doing so she reinforces the common misapprehension that the plays are more linguistically ‘obscene’ than they really are. Take two examples. Wilson suggests that the term kopros was much closer to ‘shit’ than ‘manure’ – Poochigian’s choice in a context relating (sarcastically) to feeding chickens. But kopros was a standard term, even in polite discourse, for animal excrement. More pointedly, Wilson thinks ‘linguistic realism’ would have been better served by frequent use of ‘cunt’ instead of ‘twat’ (another of Poochigian’s choices). But there is only one term in classical Attic which can legitimately be deemed to match the force of the c-word, and in Lysistrata, to which Wilson’s comment is directly linked, it occurs just once. Most references to female genitalia in Aristophanes involve euphemistic metaphors and/or slang; one can argue about the various registers to which they belong, but lumping them all together as obscenity displays a blunt judgment of linguistic tone.
University of St Andrews
Emily Wilson writes: Translating comic poetry from one language and culture to another is an extremely difficult task. Anyone who attempts to convey the vast range of registers in Aristophanes, from the ridiculous and vulgar to the high-falutin’ and lyrical, is to be commended. In our visions of Aristophanes’ gushing flow of linguistic inventiveness, Stephen Halliwell and I do not disagree. I began my essay with a long discussion of the Cardi B./Megan Thee Stallion song ‘WAP’ to emphasise that a successful work of comic performance poetry, in our culture as in ancient Athens, may rely more heavily on creative uses of rhythm, voice and inventive metaphor than on taboo words per se.
The same, I suggested, is true of Aristophanes. ‘Obscenity’, in both cases, is a complex practice of generating amusement through creative comic shock; it involves an artfully rhythmical and musical performance in the context of a rich imaginary world. It is not simply a function of a few naughty words. At the same time, Aristophanes, like Cardi and Megan, does not shrink from the Ancient Greek equivalents of ‘pussy’ and ‘ass’. He, like them, is aware of dozens of fun and funny terms for these and other body parts in his language and its dialects. The word translated as ‘vaginas’ by Poochigian is a slang word, ussakos, which is rare in extant Greek texts but may have been perfectly common in some speakers’ mouths. It may be related to us or sus, meaning a ‘sow’ or female pig – ‘pigs’, ‘piggies’ and ‘piglets’ were common slang metaphors for female genitals in ancient Greek. Given that this word is definitely slangy, not the standard term for the part of the body in question – in contrast to the relatively neutral, unmarked term to aidoion (‘the private part’), used for the vagina in ancient medical writings – it is a debatable translatorly choice to use ‘vaginas’ rather than any of the wonderful array of animal-related metaphors for the same body part in English: pussy, kitty, beaver and so on. Ussakos may be non-Attic dialect slang, so an alternative approach would have been to use slang borrowed from a different language or dialect: chocha, yoni, punani. None of these would be an exact equivalent of the Greek term, but any of them would evoke something that is missed by ‘vaginas’.
As I emphasised, different English speakers have different perceptions of obscenity, and the same was presumably true in ancient Athens. To some, metaphorical terms – say, ‘honeypot’ or ‘snatch’ or ‘clam’ or ‘banana basket’ or ‘muff’ or ‘yum yum’ – may seem more vivid, and therefore more obscene, than ‘cunt’ or ‘pussy’. The ‘c-word’, as Halliwell calls it, feels taboo to some English speakers; others enjoy using it all the time, either in reference to the body part, or as a regular term of abuse. For many contemporary speakers, as John McWhorter argues in his latest book, Nine Nasty Words, hate speech is felt as much more shockingly taboo than any word for a part of the human body or physical act of sex or excretion. To some, ‘shit’ is an obscenity; to others, it is the verb, noun and modifier that adorns most sentences in speech. No two languages divide the world up in identical ways, and there is no single right way to translate a term such as kopros, given that English, unlike Greek, usually makes a sharp distinction between the excrement of farm animals (which is ‘manure’ or ‘dung’ or ‘cowpats’) and that of humans – although, as I noted, I felt it was a shame not to let Strepsiades tell his son to ‘eat shit’, given how available that idiom was. The reader of Aristophanes needs, ideally, to know that there is much more to this wonderful poet than a few ‘dirty’ words. But ideally, a translator shouldn’t feel that most sexual or scatalogical slang must be converted into the language of the nursery, or shy away from the vast array of silly, shocking, beautiful, weird, funny terms in the many dialects of English that could evoke Aristophanes’ own varied and inventive vocabulary.
The Isle of Sheppey, described by Patrick McGuinness as ‘a stereotype of terminal England and insular Englishness’, has a fixed place in my childhood imagination (LRB, 21 October). Though only twelve miles from where I grew up, to get there you had to make a perversely sharp turn off the A2 (which was heading sensibly to Canterbury), and into a timeless estuary world whose coastal outpost was the scuffed seaside resort of Sheerness.
This was the first place my mum trusted me to go by train without her. Naturally, my friend Patrick and I bought a dozen eggs and had a fight on the seafront. There was an ancient coin-operated telescope, whose one purpose was for gazing out at the tilted masts of the SS Richard Montgomery, which, as McGuinness relates, foundered on a sandbank in 1944. Mum used to go on boat trips around the wreck soon after the war. Whenever someone remarks that the explosives on board could obliterate Sheerness, the response is an unkind or self-deprecating joke about the place.
There is no consensus about either Sheppey’s decrepitude – Uwe Johnson, the subject of McGuinness’s essay, exalted the town’s emotional resilience – or the chances of Kent acquiring its own Pompeii. Many – including the US government, which in theory still owns the Richard Montgomery – believe that the cargo of TNT and bombs is getting safer as it degrades. But there’s no denying that if the ship did go up it would be the one of the largest non-nuclear explosions in history.
‘When an experimental result is described as statistically significant,’ John Whitfield writes, ‘that usually means a statistical test has shown there is a less than 5 per cent chance that the difference between that result and, for example, the corresponding result in a control experiment is attributable to random variation’ (LRB, 7 October). Not quite. It means that under the assumption the results are entirely due to random variation, one would obtain a difference at least as extreme as the observed difference less than 5 per cent of the time. This (unfortunately) is not the same thing as the chance that the difference is attributable to random variation. This distinction bores many people – including researchers who calculate p-values. So, practically speaking, the real meaning of p<0.05 is usually ‘Thank god, now we can publish the paper.’
John Whitfield notes that Tucker Carlson ‘cited a preprint posted on ResearchGate claiming that the Wuhan wet market suspected of being the origin of the outbreak was close to a coronavirus research lab’. The Wuhan seafood market is in fact close to two institutions that conduct research on coronaviruses in animals: the Wuhan Jiang’an Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, and the Wuhan Institute of Virology. The preprint – ‘The Possible Origins of 2019-nCoV Coronavirus’ by Botao Xiao – was retracted because physical proximity alone is flimsy circumstantial evidence for a laboratory-leak theory, especially given how incendiary this claim was in February 2020.
Mathias Winther Madsen
Describing Richard Wright’s reception by the French left, Adam Shatz writes: ‘Though Sartre and Beauvoir were fellow-travellers, they were willing to overlook his hatred of Soviet communism’ (LRB, 7 October). If Sartre could legitimately be described as a ‘fellow-traveller’ in 1952, that certainly hadn’t been the case in the late 1940s, when Sartre (and Wright) were supporters of the Rassemblement démocratique révolutionnaire (RDR), which explicitly rejected both ‘the rottenness of capitalist democracy’ and ‘the limitation of communism to its Stalinist form’. As Wright put it in 1948, ‘Mississippi gave me my body; the Russian October Revolution gave me my heart. But today these two giant nations … are outdoing each other in efforts to establish plans to brutalise the human spirit.’
Wright’s account of his experiences in the Communist Party of the USA was published in Sartre’s Les Temps modernes in July 1949 and was included in the notorious Cold War anthology The God that Failed. When the RDR drifted towards a pro-American position, Sartre and Wright resisted. They boycotted an RDR meeting but sent a joint message with Merleau-Ponty which was read out to much applause: ‘We condemn equally and for the same reasons the more or less disguised annexation of Central Europe by the USSR and by the Atlantic Pact.’ This wasn’t a question of ‘overlooking’. At this time Sartre and Wright shared a ‘third camp’ opposition to both sides in the emerging Cold War.
Caroline Campbell describes St Sebastian, in Antonello da Messina’s painting (c.1475-79) for the Venetian church of San Giuliano, as ‘tied to a tree in the middle of the image; the arrows shot at him have pierced his flesh, but haven’t yet killed him’ (LRB, 7 October). If they had it would have been a grave error. The efficacy of Sebastian’s image in helping supplicants endure the plague rested on his survival as an archery target, like an urchin ‘full of pricks’, as William Caxton had it in his translation of Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend of 1483. Sebastian was revived by Irene of Rome.
The discrepancy between ecclesiastical tradition and artistic iconography can be interesting. St Sebastian’s transformation – from the middle-aged Praetorian guardsman of Church history into the handsome plague-prophylactic and youthful pin-up of late medieval Church painting – is a good example. His final reputed martyrdom, a consequence of heckling Emperor Diocletian, came from being stoned to death and his body flung into the cloaca, (‘great privy’ in Caxton); a more challenging pictorial subject for Antonello, in whatever medium.
Thomas Jones’s account of Milman Parry’s work on Homer raises the problem of whether the poet of the Iliad is also the poet of the Odyssey (LRB, 7 October). Douglas Young, one of the few professors of Greek who was a fine poet (in Lallans) published an incomparable article in 1959 showing how the recent arguments of Denys Page, a not unpompous Regius Professor of Greek, could, if applied to a more recent work, conclusively demonstrate that the author of Paradise Lost could not have written Paradise Regained.
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