Rage is Born of Grief: Anne Carson’s new Translation of Euripides’s Bakkhai

Bakkhai continues to be one of Euripides’s (c. 484-406 b.c.e.) most popular plays to stage, translate, and interpret, even though it was never performed in its author’s lifetime. The ancient Greek playwright and Athenian wrote Bakkhai in the last few years of his life in Macedonia, where he had fled after becoming disillusioned with his native city-state. The play was found among his papers after his death and produced posthumously by either his nephew or his son at the Dionysia, the festival held annually for the eponymous god in Athens. The drama presents the god Dionysos arriving in Thebes disguised as a mortal to establish his cult in that city and exact a brutal punishment on his cousin, King Pentheus, who denies the existence of the god. Anne Carson’s unconventional new translation of Bakkhai is a fitting interpretation of what is arguably Euripides’s most enigmatic tragedy.

Dionysos is the first character to appear on stage in the play, and he tells us that he is harboring anger for his maternal family who have denied his immortality. Dionysos is the son of Zeus and a mortal woman, Semele, daughter of the king of Thebes. When Semele is pregnant with Dionysos, she is tricked by Hera into viewing Zeus, undisguised, in all his glory as the mighty god of sky and lightning. At the sight of him she is instantly incinerated and Zeus puts the fetus in his thigh to finish gestating, from which appendage of his father Dionysus is eventually born. In her typical precipitous, staccato phrases that are familiar from her previous translations and original poetry, Caron’s rendition of Bakkhai gives us a succinct version of the myth:  Continue reading my essay in the 50th issue of The Quarterly Conversation

2 Comments

Filed under Anne Carson, Classics

2 responses to “Rage is Born of Grief: Anne Carson’s new Translation of Euripides’s Bakkhai

  1. I think I’ve mentioned before I’ve seen a Carson translation on stage and didn’t feel it worked that well (not necessarily the author’s fault). I found it clipped and emotionless with random colloquialisms thrown in. This is not because I’m a purist (I wouldn’t know how to be) – I loved Zinnie Harris’ version of Oresteia, and Liz Lochhead’s Medea.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t mind the clipped, short translations. What bothers me is when she veers off into colloquialisms and tries to be humorous. The humor in this one didn’t fit because it ends with a beheading. They didn’t seem to work together. I tried to ask her about her use of humor, but she insisted that the humor was all Euripides. But the humor doesn’t come through that forcefully in the original Greek for me and other translations don’t punch up the funny like she does. I had wondered if it would work better as a performance, but I guess not!

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