How Peaches Geldof brought Greek tragedy into the tabloids

Well, not exactly. But it’s not often that aspects of Classical literature find their way onto the gossip pages of the Mail Online. That is precisely what happened in the wake of Peaches Geldof’s decision to name her younger son Phaedra.

Actually, his full name is “Phaedra Bloom Forever”, which is quite ironic. Ironic because, in the world of Greek mythology and tragedy, Phaedra most certainly does not “bloom forever”.

Greek mythology relates that Phaedra married Theseus, who already had a son named Hippolytus. Phaedra fell in love with Hippolytus, and (after he rejected her advances) committed suicide, having written to Theseus to accuse Hippolytus of raping her. Hippolytus, incidentally, later died after Theseus consequently cursed him. And there you have it: a summary of the Classical significance of the name Phaedra, as well as a crude spoiler of the plot of Euripides’ tragedy Hippolytus.

In fact, the resonance of Phaedra is not confined to Classical mythology and drama. She has since been invoked in the works of Racine, Tsvetaeva, Swinburne and many others. To that list of literary luminaries who have recalled the name of Phaedra, we add Peaches Geldof.

You might be inclined to ask what my point is here. Does not Peaches Geldof have the right to give her son any name she should choose? Is it really any of my business that Geldof Jnr. should be (perhaps rather inauspiciously) named after a mythological character whose tragic death was immortalised in the works of Euripides? Or, indeed, that his mother should choose a woman’s name for a boy?

Perhaps, though, the name of Phaedra might not be as inauspicious as all that. In the Hippolytus, Phaedra is not marked out only by her barely controllable sexual desire. In fact, her character is largely defined by the conflict between this sexual desire and her conscious attempts to preserve a good reputation as a virtuous wife. Though she feels an urge to commit adultery, she also fights it, and curses adulterous women powerfully and memorably:

“There is one woman who should die horribly –
the one who first polluted her marriage,”

(Euripides Hippolytus 407, trans. Robert Bagg)

Perhaps “die horribly” doesn’t quite do justice to the powerful anger and harsh aural effect of the original “ὡς ὄλοιτο παγκάκως”. An alternative translation might read “may she perish in utter disgrace” (replicating the harsh sounds with sibilance), and there is certainly something to be said for the gravitas and weighty formality of “may all the world’s curses fall upon her shameless head” (as rendered by John Davie in the Penguin edition).

In any case, what is clear is Phaedra’s strong belief that, as a wife, she must retain a good reputation. All the more so as an aristocratic wife:

“What seems chic in the palace
no matter how truly filthy
will swiftly thrive in every modest street.”
(Euripides Hippolytus 411-412, trans. Robert Bagg)

I might take this further. The dichotomy between the “palace” and the “modest street” in Phaedra’s perception can be equated with the difference between celebrities and the public in modern society. After all, Phaedra’s point does not necessarily relate to power or social rank. The timeless implication is that those in the public eye must set a good example to the rest of society by maintaining a virtuous reputation. This is part of Phaedra’s motivation, and encapsulates an attitude which sadly seems largely absent in modern-day celebrity culture.

I’m not expecting the full resurgence of an Athenian-style reputation-based moral
code in modern society. But when Phaedra Bloom Forever Geldof-Cohen grows up, perhaps he will show awareness of the value of a good reputation, the most beneficial part of his namesake’s legacy. And as such, maybe he could make some kind of a stand against celebrity scandals. Tragedy for the tabloids, perhaps.


Euripides, ed. John Ferguson. Hippolytus. London: Bristol Classical Press, 1984. Print.

Euripides, trans. Robert Bagg. Hippolytos. New York: Oxford University Press, 1973. Print.

Euripides, trans. John Davie. Medea and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1996. Print.


Review of ‘Plato: Letters to my Son’ (Dr Neel Burton)

Plato: Letters to my Son provides an approachable introduction to the life, works and context of Plato. However, its author, Dr Neel Burton, has not set out to achieve this alone. In fact, he categorised this book as “Fiction”, choosing to set it as a letter written in the voice of Plato to his son while on his deathbed. With the depiction of Plato himself sparse and unwieldy, I do not think that Dr Burton has succeeded in the implicit objective of writing a fictional work – of bringing the man himself to life.

Dr Burton’s research and background context are solid. A particularly crucial formative experience for Plato, for example, would have been the trial and execution of Socrates. The chapter of Dr Burton’s book dealing with this is based on Plato’s Apology, faithfully relaying Plato’s original account and embellishing it with descriptions of how the jurors could have reacted to some of Socrates’ claims. However, it is very difficult to bring Plato to life. After all, Plato “never spoke with his own voice” – this from the synopsis of another of Dr Burton’s books, Plato’s Shadow: A Primer on Plato. Ultimately, if the reader is not persuaded by Dr Burton’s attempt to replicate the voice of Plato, even well-researched explorations of Plato’s philosophy, character and cultural context (which this book undoubtedly contains) will appear didactic rather than gripping.

Of course, Dr Burton’s work is a novel, as well as an exploration of Plato’s philosophy and socio-historical context. Therefore, we might expect Plato to be introduced to the reader not purely as a source of philosophy, but with depth of character in himself. In fact, the book’s status as a novel depends on Plato being brought to life as a believable character. In my opinion, a gold standard has been established by the fictional works of Robert Harris, centring on the life of Cicero. Though based on the surviving actions, speeches and writings of Cicero, Harris’ works set this against a sensitive portrayal of Cicero’s characteristics and personal traits. Though Dr Burton has chosen a writing style well-suited to introducing gobbets of philosophy to the reader, it fails to make Plato’s character come to life enough to be gripping for the reader. An example:

“It is not until the cold bath that I began to reflect upon the slave boy’s impromptu lesson in geometry. On the face of it, it seems that all learning is impossible…”

In a novel, as opposed to a translation or summary of Plato’s works, I consider it more important to add depth to Plato’s character than to imitate his voice from surviving writings. Rather than a character, Dr Burton’s construct sometimes veers dangerously close to becoming a mouthpiece for what Plato believed. In the above example, a description of a daily routine merely serves as an excuse to introduce more philosophical musings. Later, he describes how his half-brother (with whom he apparently “developed a close bond”) drifted away from philosophy:

“Antiphon abandoned philosophy in favour of raising horses, thereby proving that he had never really understood the essential nature of our endeavour.”

But does this rather pompous pronouncement come from Plato the character, or Plato the mouthpiece for philosophy? This seems unexpected, and perhaps disappointing, in a character who pledged “not so much to counsel you as to furnish you with an account of my life and thought” at the very beginning of the first chapter.

Overall, for an approachable introduction to Plato’s writings, their context in Athens at the time, and the experiences which may have influenced his thoughts, this book would certainly be a good place to start for the unfamiliar reader. And, indeed, that may be what the majority of prospective readers are looking for in a novel about Plato. But does it bring the man to life? This is what one would expect of a novel – but, fundamentally, I don’t think it achieves this.

Govi, Govisti, Govit: English-to-Latin translation in the GCSE curriculum?

Let’s start with the facts.

The facts, in this case, are the proposals given in June by Michael Gove (Secretary of State for Education), which included English-to-Latin translation as a part of the GCSE Latin curriculum.

Cue political fireworks? Unfortunately not.

I should clarify this. Gove’s suggested reforms did indeed meet with their fair share of criticism; however, isn’t this particular proposal something of an opportunity for political opponents? After all, some would consider this the epitome of an out-of-touch government: the inclusion of an at best esoteric and (some might add) irrelevant academic discipline in a GCSE curriculum. I disagree, and think that Gove’s suggestion is a laudable one.

In a way, it’s a shame that the political furore was absent – hence my use of “unfortunately”. Admittedly, GCSE Latin can hardly be considered a mainstream academic qualification in the grand scheme of the UK population. The debate surrounding English-to-Latin translation, however, is a valuable one. It has implications for the purpose of studying classical languages – and, beyond this, for the purpose of education as a whole.

Three years ago, my long-time interest in competitive debating saw me speaking in favour of compulsory modern language lessons in schools. My speech was, I think, fairly forgettable – certainly I have long since forgotten it, and I don’t think I said anything of particular note. However, the best speech of the day was delivered by my team-mate, who encapsulated his powerful summary speech with the memorable words, “Education is about opportunity”.

A useful starting point. If we assume that opportunity is the purpose of education, what implications does that have for the study of English-to-Latin translation?

Unfortunately for Mr Gove, “opportunity” (which, I admit, is a nebulous concept) does not seem very closely intertwined with English-to-Latin translation at GCSE level. By learning ancient languages, we can develop the facility of understanding ancient texts – and gain the opportunity to learn from the fascinating evidence and opinions expressed therein. But by learning to translate from English into Latin, we gain the opportunity to…translate from English into Latin. Indeed, the apparent futility of this academic discipline is encapsulated by the following words:

“There is really only one good reason for learning Latin, and that is that you want to read what is written in it.” (Mary Beard)

Surely a more direct way of learning from Latin texts would be continuing to translate from Latin to English? Indeed, studying the preface to a book on Latin Prose Composition (by J. Arbuthnot Nairn, published by Cambridge University Press 1928) actually seems to bolster this argument. Nairn claims that “as we train our minds by study of the vigour and clearness of Latin, so we train our character by the great moral ideals which are so strongly represented in the great Roman writers.” But would it not be more efficient to study the “great moral ideals” as presented by these writers, rather than imitating their language and writing style? To employ an example: a current GCSE Latin set text is Cicero’s description of Verres’ vindictive corruption from in Verrem. Do we understand Cicero’s moral outrage more clearly by attempting to emulate his language and style, or by actually reading and analysing what he says?

I am conscious that I am not doing a very good job of defending my instinctive feeling that translating from English into Latin is beneficial. However, fortunately for my instinctive feeling (and for Mr Gove’s proposals!), Nairn has more arguments to come. His very first chapter opens with the following statement:

“Latin prose composition is the best method of learning Latin…”

An assertion which forces us to consider: what does Latin prose composition bring the student that the current GCSE Latin prescription does not?

The practical use of language.

Case endings in Latin make the subject/object relationship abundantly clear. The use of participles and verbs with different moods elucidates the difference between main and subordinate clauses. This has an inevitable effect on how students use language in general – not least their first language (English, for the sake of argument). Nairn observes tactfully that “our language is often written without that precision which is the main feature of Latin”. And his words were published in 1928. What, I wonder, would Nairn say now, after the much-deplored advent of text-speak and the equally-deplored deficiency in teaching of basic English grammar?

Some might argue that learning English grammar directly would be a more effective way of improving use of the English language. English, I would counter, is by no means an easy language to learn. It is the clarity which Latin grammar brings to universal grammatical structures that makes it so valuable.

But I’m still not proving the crucial point of my argument. Why doesn’t the current GCSE Latin provide enough grammatical knowledge to encourage greater accuracy in use of English? As it stands, a Latin GCSE encourages students to learn grammar, and by its very nature gives them an instinctive grasp of it. But I don’t think this is enough. It is possible to get through the translation element of a Latin GCSE with an instinctive, implicit grasp of grammar. By contrast, an English-to-Latin translation element would force students to think consciously about grammar – and this process, I think, means that grammar is learned more quickly, and becomes a more effective accomplice to the students’ use of any language in everyday life.

If education is about opportunity, then surely the opportunity to use language more effectively is well worth adapting the educational system for? Do not consider this merely a pie-in-the-sky idealistic dream of a world in which language is used in an aesthetically pleasing manner. In the practical world, the ability to use language well opens doors. Like it or not, it makes university interviewees more convincing, job applicants more impressive, and speakers more persuasive. All this stems from greater awareness of accurate grammar. And this can be derived from spending a small percentage of the Latin GCSE learning how to translate from English into Latin.

At the very least, if more students were forced to think consciously about grammatical points such as subject/object case endings, perhaps we would see the extinction of grammatical fallacies such as “me and my friend are going to see a film”.


Beard, Mary. “Do Classics Have a Future?” 2011. Confronting the Classics. By Beard. N.p.: Profile Books, 2013. 1-14. Print.

Jones, Peter. “Found in Translation.” Spectator 22 June 2013: 16. Print.

Nairn, J. Arbuthnot. Latin Prose Composition. N.p.: Cambridge UP, 1928. Print.

What happens in Sicily… Taormina

I thought I’d post some more photographs taken during my trip to Sicily a few weeks ago. This particular post deals with the town of Taormina.

Taormina was founded by Greek settlers (more specifically, refugees from Naxos) in the 4th Century B.C. Later, Taormina was conquered by the Romans, and acquired wealth thanks to a local marble mine.

Perhaps the most important ancient building surviving in Taormina is the Greek theatre.

Greek theatre

Greek theatre in Taormina

In terms of setting and view, this theatre is unique: dug out from the rocky hillside, it looks down upon the sea, and the sea breeze carries the sound from the stage area to spectators.

Greek theatre in Taormina, looking down on the sea.

View from the top of the theatre, looking down on the sea.

The Romans dismantled and dug out part of the stage – changing the structure of the theatre in an attempt to create a structure similar to that of an amphitheatre. Hence the large cavity in the centre of the stage and the towers constructed on either side.

View of the theatre, also capturing a worrying amount of grey cloud.

View of the theatre, also capturing a worrying amount of grey cloud.


Also to be found in Taormina is a considerably smaller Roman theatre, built in the 1st Century A.D. The stage area and some rows of seating survive.

Roman theatre in Taormina.

Roman theatre in Taormina.

Mike Bartlett’s Medea (after Euripides): some thoughts

Another Saturday in London means another Greek tragedy! Yesterday, I saw a production of Euripides’ Medea at the Richmond Theatre, London (adaptation by Mike Bartlett), which I found very powerful.

Particularly striking in this production was the performance of the eponymous protagonist Medea (played by Rachel Stirling). After her entrance in the first scene, she is characterised as both vibrant and emotionally volatile, with the relationship between her and the two women Sarah and Pam (who can arguably be seen as pseudo-Choral figures) often veering into tension. This, interestingly, is different to how this relationship is portrayed in Euripides’ original Greek, in which Medea expresses solidarity with the Chorus (“πεφύκαμεν / γυναῖκες”, 407-8). The effect of this tense relationship is to emphasise Medea’s unpredictability as a character. Unlike in the original Greek, she does not confide in the Chorus regarding her vengeful plans; instead, the Medea portrayed in Mike Bartlett’s version is fundamentally isolated. Instead of being caught up by the inevitability of the events in the plot (as according to Aristotle’s theory of tragedy), the audience is enthralled by suspense and fear at what Medea might do next – as are all the other characters, none of whom comes across as especially close to Medea (with the exception of her mute son Tom).

Several scenes add considerably to the dramatic effect of the tragedy, particularly with certain innovations added by Bartlett. In the ἀγών (section of formalised debate between principal characters), an emotional and betrayed Medea initially runs rings around a callous Jason. As Jason introduces more emotion to his speech, however, his arguments begin to carry more weight with the audience. He relates how he felt betrayed psychologically and undermined by Medea during their marriage, thus pointing the finger of blame back at Medea. This particular argument is not found in the original Greek, and therefore perhaps contributes to Jason coming across as more convincing in this production than in the original Greek. That said, Jason quickly loses the audience’s sympathy with a monologue against women in general (which, I should add, does have roots in Euripides’ original).

Rather than simply appealing to Aegeus’ hospitality, Medea in Bartlett’s adaptation explicitly seduces the equivalent character (whether this is implicit in the original is, I think, debatable). This emphasises the volatility of this portrayal of Medea: in this scene, she becomes dangerously charismatic. One other modern touch, rendering Medea’s son frequently present but constantly mute, is (I think) very successful: Tom becomes almost a sinister presence in this production, testament to the horrors which (we imagine) Medea’s marriage must have endured. This culminates in the ominous scene in which an impassive Medea makes dinner for Tom, with both characters in utter silence.

One major area of debate surrounding this tragedy is whether Medea is irrational and insane or not. Here, I feel that there is a crucial difference between Euripides’ original and Bartlett’s production. In the original, Medea is portrayed as rational throughout, despite the horrific and murderous nature of her actions. She plans the murder of her children in advance, and after killing her children, although triumphant, she reasons with Jason, demonstrating why she felt she was right in taking vengeance as she did. By contrast, in Bartlett’s production, Medea seems to kill Tom on impulse, rushing upstairs with a kitchen knife. The final scene does not contain any rational reasoning: instead, the audience sees a wild, frenzied, axe-wielding Medea, standing over Tom’s blood-stained corpse on the roof of the blazing house. This almost stereotypical portrayal of violent insanity, coupled with Medea’s earlier isolation and volatility, creates a perception of Medea which I feel emphasises insanity rather than rationality. I consider this an intriguing departure from Euripides’ original, since it carries implications for whether Medea should be considered a sinner or sinned against – but this would be an entire essay in itself!

For prospective viewers, I would recommend Bartlett’s adaptation of Euripides’ Medea, performed at the Richmond Theatre, very highly indeed.

Caroline Bird’s The Trojan Women (after Euripides): an informal review

Today I went to see a performance at the Gate Theatre in London: Caroline Bird’s adaptation of Euripides’ tragedy The Trojan Women.

Before you start reading:

Firstly, I do not intend the following to be a formal review. Instead, these are merely some of my thoughts on the performance which I saw and very much enjoyed today.

Secondly, I admit that the following may be considered a “spoiler” in the modern sense of the word! In the tradition of dramatic productions in the festivals of ancient Athens, the audience would have been aware of the myth-based plot before seeing the production. However, if any readers wish to approach the Gate Theatre’s production of The Trojan Women as they would most modern productions, without prior knowledge of the plot, then stop reading now!

“You can’t see the state of the city but I can. Let me give you an artistic impression.”

The Gate Theatre is small and intimate, with what I instinctively felt to be the atmosphere of an underground war bunker (perhaps exacerbated by the distant but audible clangs and screams before the performance began). The set is a battered hospital ward. Screens are attached to the walls – and it is from these screens that the prologue, by the gods Poseidon and Athena, is delivered. Despite the intermittent flickering scenes of destruction, the tone adopted by the gods is laconic and offhand, perhaps even bored, with an air of detachment emphasised by the sunglasses adopted by Poseidon and the gods’ laughter at Cassandra’s plight. The implicit idea that the gods do not care about the sufferings of mortals is, I feel, true to the spirit of Euripides’ original text. In the original, the gods’ diplomatic discussion of the punishment of the sacrilegious Greeks may lead the audience to wonder if they truly understand the misery endured by the inhabitants of the city. Although they choose to punish the Greeks on the return journey, this is not explicitly for committing the sin of waging war – merely for violating the sanctity of Athena’s temple while sacking Troy. Indeed, in Bird’s adaptation, the very fact that the gods appear on screens emphasises their detachment.

“I can feel my misery in my knees, weighing in my gut, running up my spine, when I cough I cough sadness.”

The character of Hecuba is portrayed with various contrasting emotions: bitterness at her fate (“a slave to the Greeks who massacred my people”), wistfulness as she remembers her previous life in Troy, and haughty arrogance (“The queen of Troy, widowed, filthy, dressed in worse than rags…”). Overall, I think Hecuba is notable for the force of her character – despite the destructive effect of grief, and the loss in social station she has experienced, she retains the powerful and dynamic personality of a monarch. I felt that the regal demeanour of Hecuba was brought across extremely convincingly by Dearbhla Molloy. This is particularly visible when she delivers a prophecy regarding the baby Astyanax’s future: “…one day he will be a noble warrior like his father…and lead an army to triumph against the Greeks”. She even delivers orders to his mother Andromache, with her emotions distorted by hatred of the Greeks: “You have to fill his heart with hate…his life’s purpose is to avenge us.” The hopes and dreams of Hecuba, not to mention the emotions of Andromache, are conclusively destroyed when Talthybius takes Astyanax away to his death, yet Hecuba still has enough psychological tenacity to express violent loathing for Helen after the entry of Menelaus.

“Sometimes I think I’m not a woman. I’m just the idea of a woman.”

Particularly fascinating in this adaptation is the Chorus, who is cast as a single woman, pregnant and manacled to a hospital bed. This carries various implications for the functioning of the tragedy. In an original Greek tragedy (insofar as it is possible to summarise the role of the Chorus in a single sentence!) the Chorus as a group would set the tone for the drama, exploring the emotional register and demonstrating to the audience the range of emotions that might be felt. Having a single character, albeit a nameless one, perform this role exposes the overall tone of the tragedy to more violent fluctuations, which I thought were extremely effective in expressing the emotional turmoil of the Trojan women. For example, the screams of the Chorus in childbirth towards the end of the tragedy adds a sharp note of danger as Helen wins over Menelaus, and (even more acutely) when the women are dragged into the van to be taken away. Moreover, the pregnant and imprisoned state of the Chorus makes her vulnerable throughout the tragedy, allowing the audience to sympathise with her perhaps more than they would with the less personal group Chorus of an original tragedy.

“Humanity has let me down. Faith is delusion.”

In this adaptation, there is rarely unity between the women in the hospital ward. The tension between Hecuba and the Chorus is palpable from the beginning, in part due to Hecuba’s acute awareness of her former social rank and class: Hecuba treats the Chorus with a tone of ironic contempt. The scene in which Cassandra is present is fraught throughout, in part due to her volatility. Later, Hecuba’s loathing for Helen (“she feasts on men’s souls, she wrecks lives”) is barely restrained. At the beginning of the tragedy, the forced cheerfulness of Talthybius (the Greek herald) exacerbates the tension; later, I think that his duties (particularly taking away Astyanax to be killed) begin to take an emotional toll on him, culminating in his nearly vomiting over the corpse of Astyanax. Indeed, one striking innovation of this adaptation is to juxtapose the retrieval of Astyanax’s corpse with the birth of the Chorus’ baby – the conclusive finality and despair of one, coupled with the agony and (the audience suspects) futility of the other, can almost summarise what makes both war and this tragedy as bleak as they are.

“Lifeless. Extinct. Gone to a better place.”

All in all, I found the Gate Theatre’s performance of Caroline Bird’s adaptation of Euripides’ The Trojan Women hugely impressive. Whether modernisation of Greek tragedy is necessary or even acceptable in general is a fascinating area of debate, but in this case I feel that it is successful. The video screens depicting the gods emphasises the separation between the divine plane and the prolonged sufferings of the victims in Troy, while some modern aspects of Menelaus’ language (for example: “my spanner is tinkering an open wound” add a further dimension of horror to the narrative. Even Helen’s dressing while dancing to music from her iPod created the impression of a slightly trivial nature. So, for all the reasons given above, I would recommend this performance very highly.

(All quotations above are taken from the text of Caroline Bird’s adaptation)

P.S. London is fortunate enough to have two Greek tragedies showing in theatres at the moment! Next week, I will see a production of Euripides’ Medea at the Richmond Theatre.

Horace: Ode 1.13

When I was considering which poem to translate for the Times Stephen Spender Prize (for poetry in translation), this particular Horace Ode caught my eye, as it captures the almost maddening effect of romantic jealousy.

The original Latin text of Horace’s Ode 1.13 can be accessed here (link to the Perseus Digital Library).

My translation:

Ah, Lydia! Bile floods
Harsh within my angry heart
When you praise Telephus’ neck and arms,
Rosy, supple

I feel my mind slip
And, on my paling face, tears slide
Down my cheeks discreetly; inside, fires
Blaze, slow,

Burning. I see you,
Shoulders white bruised black in drunken
Brawls; the brutal youth has scarred
Your lips.

If ever you’ll listen,
Hear this: don’t hope that kisses sweet
Can flourish in love’s dew, amid wounds
Cruel, savage.

But you’ll be thrice-blessed – more –
If held in love’s unbroken bonds
Enduring, untouched by strife, until
Your last days.

Horace’s Ode 1.13 struck me as a simple yet emotive attempt to convey the feelings of a jealous lover. The structure of the poem – initially outlining the feelings of the poet, then exploring the infidelity of his lover and finally delivering a warning to her – is simple, yet carries emotional depth and power.

A common problem in translating Latin to English is conveying the concision of the Latin language. Latin’s case structure allows it to express meaning in few words; attempting to convey this in English can create problems with producing a tight metre, as words must be added to cover the full breadth of the original meaning. I chose to avoid this problem by moving away from the metre of the Latin, producing a translation which, although separated into stanzas of equal length, resembles free verse in the structure of the lines. I tried to give each stanza more emotional power by condensing the final line into two or three words.

I have sacrificed some elements of literal translation in order to produce a translation which conveyed the subtle emotional variations in the original. Omitting “memorem dente” leaves more emphasis on the harsh ugliness of “scarred”. I chose to translate “iecur” as “heart” in order to increase the emotional power of the translation. I also decided in effect to reorder the first four lines, in order to emphasise the narrator’s physical reaction (“fervens difficili bile tumet iecur”). An area of the poem which I felt was open to the translator’s interpretation was “nec color / certa sede manet”. I decided to translate this as “my paling face”, considering this justified in view of the striking contrast with the fires (“ignibus”) blazing within the narrator. I coined the neologism “paling” as a more surprising word to convey the poet’s heartbreak.

What happens in Sicily… Segesta

A couple of days ago, I returned from a trip to Sicily, where I (armed with a camera and, more often than not, an ice-cream cone) enjoyed a whistle-stop tour of several Classical sites. One of the locations I visited was Segesta, which contains the remains of an incomplete Greek temple and a Greek theatre. There are also the remains of the agora (literally marketplace), from which stones were later taken away for other constructions.

Greek theatre in Segesta. This theatre would have seated 5,000 people, giving an indication of the town’s population during the Hellenistic Era (during which the theatre was constructed).

According to Virgil, Segesta (known to the ancient Greeks as Egesta) was founded by Acestes and a group of Trojans who did not wish to continue following Aeneas on his journey to found the Roman civilisation; indeed, Thucydides (who states that Segesta was founded by Trojans) seems to agree with this. In any case, Segesta became an Elymian city (the Elymians being one of the three peoples native to Sicily), located on an important strategic point on the trade routes leading to Sardinia and Spain.

Greek temple in Segesta.

From 415 B.C., Sicily became involved in the Peloponnesian War. Segesta was already being threatened by the territorial ambitions of Selinunte (then Selinus) and therefore appealed to Athens for help. Segesta was able to persuade Athens of its wealth (and, implicitly, of the opportunities for Athenian empire-building in Sicily). Consequently, Athens began the catastrophic Sicilian expedition (as recorded by Thucydides).

The temple. The columns are made from the local limestone, since the nearest marble quarries were 40km away from the site.

We can tell that the temple (pictured above) is incomplete: the floor level of the temple is missing, as is an internal “nave”; moreover, the columns lack the fluting patterns that would have been added. There are several different theories as to why the temple is incomplete. Perhaps (controversially) the construction of the temple was only begun to demonstrate the wealth of Segesta to the Athenians, and construction was halted when Athenian aid was confirmed; alternatively, perhaps the town simply ran out of resources to build the temple. Furthermore, as a consequence of its incomplete nature, we do not know to which deity this temple was dedicated.

The temple.

Return to an old friend: Catullus 3

Why have I entitled this post “Return to an old friend”? Essentially, I have previously attempted to translate Catullus 3 (while this blog was still in its infancy) but never quite managed to produce a translation with which I was completely satisfied. When I tried to produce a rhyme scheme, I ended up with a stiff, contrived metre with little emotional effect. I also never really managed to find the right register – not helped by my habit of including somewhat archaic English. However, more recently I created this new translation, which I felt was more satisfactory, though certainly not perfect.

Below is the text of Catullus 3 (taken from the Perseus Digital Library:

Lugete, o Veneres Cupidinesque
et quantum est hominum venustiorum!
passer mortuus est meae puellae,
passer, deliciae meae puellae,
quem plus illa oculis suis amabat;
nam mellitus erat, suamque norat
ipsa tam bene quam puella matrem,
nec sese a gremio illius movebat,
sed circumsiliens modo huc modo illuc
ad solam dominam usque pipiabat.
qui nunc it per iter tenebricosum
illuc unde negant redire quemquam.
at vobis male sit, malae tenebrae
Orci, quae omnia bella devoratis;
tam bellum mihi passerem abstulistis.
o factum male! o miselle passer!
tua nunc opera meae puellae
flendo turgiduli rubent ocelli.

My translation:

Weep, Venuses! Weep, Cupids too!
You men who claim to be sympathetic – weep!
My girl’s sparrow is dead – that sparrow,
Belonging to my darling girl,
Whom she loved more than her own eyes:
For he was sweet – sweet as honey – and he knew her
Just as well as a girl knows her mother;
Nor did he ever flit away from her lap – he hopped around,
Now here,
Now there,
Chirping ceaselessly, to his mistress alone.

Now he drifts away, down that path of shadows.
They say he’ll never return – that nobody returns
From the dark shadows of Hell – a curse upon them!
A curse upon those shades,
Who devour all beautiful things,

And who took away such a beautiful bird from me.
Oh, evil deed! Poor bird!
It’s because of them that my girl’s eyes
Grow red, and swell,

This translation continues my recent experiment with a comparatively loose, free metre and varied line lengths. This is perhaps harder to justify here than with my previous translation of Ovid’s Fasti 295-310. Catullus 3 is what would today be called a solemn elegy, commemorating the death of a beloved pet, and therefore perhaps calls for a more solemn, steady metre. However, I think it possible to justify my interpretation. This poem, as well as commemorating the death of the sparrow, describes the grief felt both by the poet and by the sparrow’s owner (who can be identified with Catullus’ mistress, Lesbia) strong emotions such as grief can arguably be expressed using a fluctuating, varying metre, while the frequent caesuras and breaks in the syntax in my translation are also mimetic of the pain caused by grief.

I should admit that I took liberties with the original poem at some points. Perhaps the most controversial aspect of my translation would be my treatment of the second line: “quantum est hominum venustiorum” I rendered as “You men who claim to be sympathetic”, and added an emphatic third repetition of “weep!” (forming a tricolon in the translation, whereas the original poem only includes one “lugete”). Not only does my translation turn “venustiorum” into “sympathetic” (in itself a controversial rendering, losing the intriguing double meaning of “men of Venus”/”men of charm”); it also adds an ironic twist to these words, implying that it expects them to prove their sympathetic characters by weeping. The reason I liked this interpretation was that it added an edge of bitterness to the tone of my translation from the beginning: a bitterness that recurs when the poet curses “malae tenebrae / Orci”.

Unfortunately, just as I was unable to capture the double meaning of “venustiorum”, my translation also loses the possible double meaning of “solam”, which seems to me both to refer to the sparrow’s special love for his mistress (he chirps only to her), and to foreshadow the loneliness of the girl after the sparrow’s death. I feel that using the word “alone” (as other translators have done), is probably the best way to capture both these meanings in English. Of course, I may well be reading too much into the original Latin – perhaps this double meaning is not actually present in the original!

Ovid: Fasti 295-310: a translation

National Poetry Day UK 2012 takes place on Thursday 4th October.

And the theme for this year’s National Poetry Day is “stars”. So I began searching for a piece of Classical poetry, relating to this theme, which I could translate. My eye at last settled on a section from Ovid’s Fasti (295-310 – original text taken from the Perseus Digital Library):

Quis vetat et stellas, ut quaeque oriturque caditque,
dicere? promissi pars fuit ista mei.
felices animae, quibus haec cognoscere primis
inque domus superas scandere cura fuit!
credibile est illos pariter vitiisque locisque
altius humanis exeruisse caput.
non Venus et vinum sublimia pectora fregit
officiumque fori militiaeve labor;
nec levis ambitio perfusaque gloria fuco
magnarumque fames sollicitavit opum.
admovere oculis distantia sidera nostris
aetheraque ingenio supposuere suo.
sic petitur caelum: non ut ferat Ossan Olympus,
summaque Peliacus sidera tangat apex.
nos quoque sub ducibus caelum metabimur illis
ponemusque suos ad vaga signa dies.

And my translation, as follows:

Let me tell you about the stars – as I promised –
Their rise,
And their fall.
Fortunate spirits, who first dared to aspire
To higher places:
Higher than faults, higher than base human frailties
They raised their heads.
Greater beings, untouched by wine, by love,
By soldiers’ struggles –
Common concerns! –
Nor drenched by the sweat of baser goals, nor attracted
By the lure of glory, of wealth…

To our poor eyes they brought the distant stars;
The heavens set beneath their power.
For thus the sky is touched.

No longer must great mountains stretch
To touch their peaks to the bright, distant stars:
Like trailblazers long past, I too shall chart
And to their places I shall bind the stars.

Structurally, my translation is perhaps only loosely linked to the original text. I chose to write in a free metre, varying line length to play with emphasis. Arguably, I have lost the regular metre of Ovid’s original elegiac couplets as a result. I feel, however, that such a poem in English does not necessarily call for a regular metre, since part of the theme hints at surpassing the monotonous regularity of daily life.

Admittedly, some aspects of my translation are not necessarily seen in the original. I translate the very first sentence only loosely, since I felt that a literal translation would produce a defiant, almost abrasive tone. Instead, with my translation I tried to introduce a more lyrical, gentle tone from the very beginning. Later, “the sweat of baser goals” was a metaphor I added, aiming to outline more emphatically the contrast between those who chart the stars and the rest of humanity. “Ossan Olympus / summaque Peliacus” are summarised as “great mountains”: I felt that using the original names of these mountains might seem overly archaic, while a reference to Mt. Everest or equivalent would seem contrived. That said, my translation loses the tricolon produced by the use of the mountains’ names in the original Latin.

Any comments, suggestions or criticism welcome!