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Invitation to World Literature

Try it Yourself: How Should We Translate The Bacchae?

Original Text

A passage from the play in which Pentheus orders his army out to attack the women worshippers:

ἤδη τόδ᾽ ἐγγὺς ὥστε πῦρ ὑφάπτεται
ὕβρισμα βακχῶν, ψόγος ἐς Ἕλληνας μέγας.
ἀλλ᾽ οὐκ ὀκνεῖν δεῖ· στεῖχ᾽ ἐπ᾽ Ἠλέκτρας ἰὼν
πύλας· κέλευε πάντας ἀσπιδηφόρους
ἵππων τ᾽ ἀπαντᾶν ταχυπόδων ἐπεμβάτας
πέλτας θ᾽ ὅσοι πάλλουσι καὶ τόξων χερὶ
ψάλλουσι νευράς, ὡς ἐπιστρατεύσομεν
βάκχαισιν· οὐ γὰρ ἀλλ᾽ ὑπερβάλλει τάδε,
εἰ πρὸς γυναικῶν πεισόμεσθ᾽ ἃ πάσχομεν.



Geoffrey Kirk (1970, Prentice Hall Greek Drama Series)

Already close by it blazes up like fire,
this mad insolence of the bacchants, a huge reproach to the men of Hellas!
There must be no hesitation: you, be off to the Electran
gate; order all the heavy infantrymen
and the riders of swift-footed horses to parade,
and all who ply light shields and make the bowstring
sing with their hand, since we shall march against
the Bacchants. No, this exceeds all bounds,
if at the hands of women we are to suffer what we do!


LEARN: Meaning

Translators must convey meaning for each word, every passage, and the work as a whole. A literal translation, like this one, tries to get as close to the exact meaning of the words as possible. However, this goal may rob the passage of some of its emotional power. Kirk translates the second line as “a huge reproach to the men of Hellas!” In the same spot, Arrowsmith, in a freer translation writes, “humiliated in the eyes of Hellas.” How do these choices suggest different underlying meanings about Pentheus’ feelings as he speaks? Read the passages aloud and consider how the actor playing Pentheus might give voice to these different versions.


David Kovacs (2002, Harvard University Press Loeb Classical Library)

The violence of these bacchants now blazes at our doors like a fire: it shames us greatly in the eyes of Hellas. We must not delay. (To his retinue) You, go to the Electran gate! Order a gathering of all hoplites, all riders of swift-footed horses, brandishers of light shields and those whose hands make the bowstring sing: we are going to war with the bacchants! No, it’s beyond all bearing if we endure what these women are doing to us!

LEARN: Line Endings

Poetry or Prose? The original Greek text relies on regular line lengths, rhythmic speech, and stresses of words and syllables in patterns–something we might associate with sung drama today. Since this is not typical of modern spoken drama, a choice must be made. Should a translation work to parallel these aspects of the original text? Kovac’s prose version does not.


William Arrowsmith (1959, University of Chicago Press)

Like a blazing fire this Bacchic violence spreads. It comes too close.
We are disgraced, humiliated in the eyes
of Hellas. This is no time for hesitation. (He turns to an attendant.)
You there. Go down quickly to the Electran gates
and order out all heavy-armored infantry;
call up the fastest troops among our cavalry,
the mobile squadrons and the archers. We march
against the Bacchae! Affairs are out of hand
when we tamely endure such conduct in our women.

LEARN: Word Choice

Which word? One literal translation of the first word of the Greek version is “Already at this time.” Accordingly, two translators chose to begin this way. Is this a powerful way to begin a speech in English? Is it how we imagine a king might talk?


Edward P. Coleridge (1891)

Already, look you! the presumption of these Bacchantes is upon us, swift as fire, a sad disgrace in the eyes of all Hellas. No time for hesitation now! away to the Electra gate! order a muster of all my men-at-arms, of those that mount fleet steeds, of all who brandish light bucklers, of archers too that make the bowstring twang; for I will march against the Bacchanals. By Heaven I this passes all, if we are to be thus treated by women.


Often translations feel and sound much more dated than the original. But some translators intentionally try to recapture a more ancient sense and sound. In 1891 Coleridge’s translation “brandish light bucklers” might not have sounded odd, although even then it would have been old-fashioned. But to a modern ear, its tone is not only old-fashioned, but comical and hard to understand.


Gilbert Murray (1909, Harvard Classics)

It bursts hard by us, like a smothered fire,
This frenzy of Bacchic women! All my land
is made their mock.—This needs an iron hand!
Ho, Captain! Quick to the Electran Gate;
Bid gather all my men-at-arms thereat;
Call all that spur the charger, all who know
To wield the orbèd targe or bend the bow;
We march to war—’Fore God, shall women dare
Such deeds against us? ‘Tis too much to bear!

LEARN: Culture

Context: The original audience shares some cultural context with the author or authors of the work. The context for the readers of the translation may be very different, and the translator’s own context adds a third element. In these examples, the terms “‘Fore God!” and “By Heaven” are used as oaths. But the gods and heavens of the original play are from a very different world. Should these terms be used?

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Invitation to World Literature


Produced by the WGBH Educational Foundation with Seftel Productions. 2010.
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  • ISBN: 1-57680-892-0