Marginalia Eur. Alc. 800-803 – Anne Carson’s translation

Heracles is a kind of comic figure in “Alkestis” by Euripides.1 To the servant mourning for Alcestis he proclaims his carpe diem philosophy: “Be merry, drink, remember, only the here and now is yours, the rest is chance!” (788-789 εὖφραινε σαυτόν, πῖνε, τὸν καθ᾽ ἡμέραν \ βίον λογίζου σόν, τὰ ἄλλα τῆς τύχης) 2. His pep talk culminates in the toast, “Let him who is mortal cherish mortal thoughts.” (ὄντας δὲ θνητοὺς θνητὰ καὶ φρονεῖν χρεών. 799).
In this context, it does come as a surprise to read in Anne Carson’s translation:

“‘We’ are all mortal you know. Think mortal./ Because my theory is, there’s no such thing as life, / it’s just catastrophe.” 3

The Bochum version, created by Susanne Winnacker and Mieke Koenen from Anne Carson’s English translation for Johan Simons’ production (2022 Athens Epidauros Festival and Schauspielhaus Bochum4), reads:

„Es ist doch so, dieses Leben gibt es gar nicht, es existiert nicht, alles ist nichts weiter, als eine einzige Katastrophe.“ 5

The original text of these verses reads:

“ὡς τοῖς γε σεμνοῖς καὶ συνωφρυωμένοις \ ἅπασιν ἐστιν, ὥς γ᾽ εμοὶ χρῆσθαι κριτῇ \ οὐ βίος ἀλητῶς ὁ βίος, ἀλλὰ συμφορά.” (Eur. Alc. 800-803).

Heracles thus turns against any killjoys or mourners (like the servant) who cannot enjoy life. σεμνοῖ are the venerable or, pejoratively, those putting on airs. συνωφρυωμένοι are those who contract the eyebrows (ὀφρύες). It is the eyebrow-knitting people who mourn their mortality in advance, for whom life is an evil coincidence.

The usual German translations of the last lines are:

„Denn den feierlichen Stirnrunzlern,/ allen, ist, soll ich darüber Richter sein, das Leben nicht eigentlich Leben, sondern schiere Plage.“ (Kurt Steinmann)

„Für all die ernsten Stirnrunzler bleibt / Das Leben – wenn du meinem Urteil traust – / Kein wahres Leben, nur ein Missgeschick“ (Ernst Buschor)

Common English translations are 6:

“As for those who are solemn and knit their brows together, their life, in my judgement, is no life worthy of the name but merely a disaster.” (David Kovacs)

“To all solemn and frowning men, life I say is not life, but a disaster.” (Richard Aldington)

How did Anne Carson and the editors of the Bochum version come to deviate so much from the original and ascribe to Heracles a conception of life that he had previously expressly rejected? What is the reason for this deviation in the otherwise modern, but always sensible translation?

The starting point is probably Heracles’ call to “think mortal”. In the context of his speech, it becomes clear that Heracles means to consider one’s own mortality, that is, to enjoy life while it lasts. But “to think mortal” for Carson seems to mean to think not of life but of death. This radical pessimism, however, does not fit the function of Heracles’ speech. (It would only justify Alcestis’ readiness to die.) The actor of Heracles in the Bochum performance (Pierre Bokma) can only save himself in irony: Life a catastrophe? – It’s all a joke!

Anne Carson’s translation results from simply omitting verse 800. Was it omitted on purpose? Was it an oversight? Was it the unusual word συνωφρυωμένοις? Was it to reinterpret the figure of Heracles from burlesque swashbuckler to cynic?

  1. A. Lesky „Rudimente der Komödienfigur“, F. Stoessl „burleske Gestalt“, zit. bei Kurt Steinmann, Nachwort zu Euripides, Alkestis. Griechisch-Deutsch. Stuttgart: Reclam, 1981, S. 134f
  2. Steinmann, p.73
  3. Euripides, Grief Lessons. Four Plays. Translated by Anne Carson. New York: New York Review of Books, 2006, 682-684 p.288
  4. See Andreas Willink`s review on Nachtkritik
  5. Alcestes {sic!} by Euripides. Version by Mieke Koenen and Susanne Winnacker. Translation from English (Ann {sic!} Carson) Susanne Winnnacker. Manuscript Schauspielhaus Bochum
  6. Ted Hughes, whose personal fate became a public one through the death of his wife Sylvia Plath, deleted this humorous part in his adaptation of “Alcestis” and replaced it with a dialogue about the deeds of Heracles, culminating in Heracles` exclamation: “I see my wife. I see my dead wife. Who killed her?”

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