Tag Archives: The Bakkhai

My Pythian Interview with Anne Carson

The ancient Greek god Apollo, in addition to being associated with the sun, healing, and music, communicated Zeus’s will through a series of arcane messages at his prophetic shrine in Delphi. Between the seventh and fifth centuries b.c.e., a Greek could visit the Temple of Apollo and participate in the elaborate process involved to pose a personal, religious, or political question or problem to the Pythia, commonly known as the Oracle at Delphi, the priestess of Apollo who delivered the God’s cryptic messages. Her ambiguous responses, written down by the temple priests, were open to interpretation, and often had multiple and even opposing meanings.

As I was interviewing the classicist, poet, and author Anne Carson in June, 2017 via e-mail about her new translation of Bakkhai, the question-and-answer process felt like a consultation with the ancient Pythia. Much like an ancient Greek attempting to get an answer from the priestess of Apollo, I had to go through a few layers—book publicist and agent—and the answers I received back can best be described as intriguing and esoteric; they varied in length from a few words to a paragraph to no response at all. Every reply was also written in all lower case, including the first-person singular “i,” an idiosyncrasy that seemed almost playful, and is something I usually see in the prose or text messages of a student or a younger person. Like a Greek hearing those ambiguous missives given by the Pythia, I was repeatedly surprised by the puzzling, thought-provoking answers I received.

Ann Carson’s newly published translation of Euripides’ The Bakkhai was first staged at the Almeida Theatre in London during the August and September season of 2015 and directed by James Macdonald.  I began my interview by asking Carson how she came to be involved in the production and if she had any role in the staging of the play, and she replied simply, “it was JM’s idea, he commissioned the work from me.  i didn’t interfere in the staging or planning of the production.  i was hired to translate it so that’s what i did.”  The remainder of my questions dealt with the topics and themes explored by Euripides in the The Bakkhai and Carson’s unique style of translation.

The Athenian playwright Euripides wrote The Bakkhai in the last few years of his life, and the play invovles the god Dionysos arriving in Thebes disguised as a mortal to establish his cult there and punish his cousin, King Pentheus, who denies the existence of the god.  Carson points out in her introduction to the translation that, even though Dionysos is considered a young god, he is mentioned in the Linear B tablets found at the Bronze Age site of Pylos, which date as far back at 1600 BCE.  I asked her if Euripides’ version of Dionysos is different from earlier depictions of the god or if it is unusual or orthodox.  Her response expands on her comments about Dionysos in her introduction:

unfortunately there are no earlier depictions of Dionysos in an extant play.  there is an Homeric Hymn but a hymn is a statement of devotion, rather than a story so hard to compare.   but we know the general lineaments of the myth and the interesting and paradoxical thing about Dionysos (which Euripides exploits probably in a unique way)  is that this historically ancient god is perennially depicted as newly arriving everywhere he goes.  in other words he is a god of beginnings:  when you first start to fall in love or get drunk or have an idea—that is the intoxication called Dionysos, new every time.

The Bakkhai continues to be one of the Euripides’s most popular plays to stage, translate, and interpret, even in the 21st century.  Carson believes the reason for its continued popularity is that “it’s really scary.”  I followed up on her response by pointing out that all of Euripides’ plays are scary—Medea, in particular, during which children are murdered—and asked why she thought The Bakkhai is scarier than his other plays.  Carson elaborated on her initial reaction:

i didn’t mean to create a hierarchy of scariness. There is terror in all the plays.  I suppose the interactions of the Bakkhai have an extra edge because of the way the god plays upon the frailties of the king, making one wonder if he is playing upon all our frailties, in our various pursuits of intoxication or ecstasy.

Carson has translated Euripides’s plays before, and in her introduction to her translation of Hekabe she describes how she keeps a file on her computer entitled “Unpleasantness of Euripides.”  When I asked her what she has recorded in her document about The Bakkhai she said, not surprisingly, “That is a secret.”  But this drama has a lot of unpleasant, disturbing moments, including Pentheus’s murder at the hands of his own mother.  (Pentheus is tricked by Dionysus into dressing up as a woman and spying on the maenads, the female followers of the god, and is killed by these women, among whom is the king’s own mother.)

Scholars have debated for decades about what moral lesson or message Euripides intended to convey in his play.  Is Pentheus’s punishment deserved or is Dionysos unnecessarily harsh and vengeful?  Theories have ranged widely, from a claim that the drama mirrors a deathbed conversion of a poet who had previously rejected the pantheon of gods to an assertion that it is a commentary on religious fanaticism.  In an essay entitled, “Tragedy: A Curious Art Form,” Carson states about Euripides’ dramas: “There is in Euripides some kind of learning that is always at the boiling point.  It breaks experiences open and they waste themselves, run through your fingers.” During our interview, however, she did not wish to provide an opinion about the possible moral implications or lessons in The Bakkhai:

Beck:  What message, if any, do you see in The Bakkhai?

Carson:  works of art don’t have “a message,” do they? they offer an experience and possibly a transformation.

Beck:  What do you think is the central moral issue in The Bakkhai?  Is this another revenge play like Hekabe?

Carson:  here you are trying to reduce to a “message.”

Beck: Is Pentheus worthy of sympathy?

Carson:  yes, he is human.

As is fitting for one of Euripides’s most mysterious plays, Carson’s rendering is unconventional.  Particularly humorous is Carson’s translation of a scene that involves Teiresias and Kadmos dressed in woman’s clothing, as they plan a trip to the mountain where the Maenads are engaging in their mysterious rites and revelries. In Carson’s version Kadmos proclaims: “We must get to the mountain.  Should we call a cab?”  When I asked Carson if the humor in this passage was her own interpolation or if she thinks that Euripides is funny, she insisted that “the humor is entirely Euripides.”

I asked a few more questions about her process of translation and her experience with Euripides’ text:

Beck: In an interview about his translation of The Aeneid, Robert Fagles said, “Every translation is different.  It has to do with the tone of voice of the translator.  Each has a distinctive badge, each comes with its own vocal DNA.  I very much hope my translation sounds like me.  I wanted it to be in my voice, for better or worse.”  What is your distinctive badge, your own local DNA that is reflected in this translation of The Bakkhai?

Carson:  i don’t think i have any idea of my own voice.  perhaps this is a question for a reader to answer?

Beck:  You’ve never thought about a particular authorial voice, but what is guiding your choices as a translator?

Carson:  it depends on the commission.  an academic text has different requirements than a production for the stage and a comic book would be different again.

Beck: As you were translating The Bakkhai, what linguistic, metrical or poetic differences did you notice in the ancient Greek text that Euripides uses when he is depicting different characters? How did you account for these differences in English?

Carson: i’m not sure what you’re asking here.  Euripides uses iambic trimeter for the dialogue portions of the play and lyric meters in the choral odes.   the odes are intended to be sung and danced so they function at a different level of poeticality and thought than the dialogue portions.  in translating the odes i often shape the text on the page to indicate this lyric difference.  and hope it helps the performer shape their voice accordingly.

Beck: I am curious about your translation of theos as “daimon” instead of “god.”  Can you describe the process by which you came to this translation?  Did you have a particular use of this word in another ancient source in mind when you were thinking of using “daimon”?

(No response was sent by Carson to this question.)

The word daimon is an interesting word in ancient Greek and Euripides calls Dionysos a theos (god) or daimon interchangeably throughout the drama.  Liz Scafer, in her review of the staged production of the play, describes a note placed in the program so that audience members could get a better understanding of this enigmatic word: “Anne Carson’s witty version of Euripides’ play has Dionysos helpfully suggest that the audience think of him as a daimon (explained in the programme with a quotation from an old-time classical scholar as an “occult power, a force that drives man [sic] forward where no agent can be named’).”

Carson, in a Cahier entitled Nay Rather that was written for the series that is published by Sylph Editions, argues that a type of metaphysical silence happens when it is impossible to translate a word directly from one language to another.  Carson’s example of this is taken from the word molu which appears in Homer’s Odyssey.  Molu is a plant that is sacred to the gods, and Hermes gives this plant to Odysseus in order to protect himself from the magic of Circe.  Carson says about Homer’s use of this word and the intentional silence it engenders: “He wants this word to fall silent.  Here are four letters of the alphabet, you can pronounce them but you cannot define, possess, or make use of them.  You cannot search for this plant by the roadside or google it and find out where to buy some. The plant is sacred, the knowledge belongs to the gods, the word stops itself.”

I was so intrigued by her non-translation of the word daimon as another example of this metaphysical silence, that I (stupidly? naively?) tried one final time to ask about her thought-process and selections for The Bakkhai:

Beck:  You’ve written about words that resist translation, that are untranslatable, using molu in Homer as an example.  Did you encounter any such words in The Bakkhai that are similarly untranslatable?

Carson: many, but in what language could i describe them to you?

What an apt and cryptic concluding response to this rather Pythian interview.



John Collier. The Priestess of Delphi. Oil on Canvas. 1891.

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Filed under Anne Carson, Author Interviews, Classics

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:



[enter Dionysos]


Here I am.


I am

son of Zeus, born by a lightning bolt out of Semele

—you know the story—

the night Zeus split her open with fire,

In order to come here I changed my form,

put on this suit of human presence.

I want to visit the springs of Dirke,

the river Ismenos.

Look there—I see

the tomb of my mother,

thunderstruck Semele,

and her ruined house still smoking

with the live flame of Zeus.

 Richard Seaford’s more traditional rendering of the same lines (1996) is:


I am come, the son of Zeus, to this Theban land, Dionysos, to whom the daughter of Kadmos once gave birth, Semele, midwived by lightning-borne fire. And having changed my form from god to mortal, I am here at the streams of Dirke and the water of Ismenos. I see here by the house the home of my thunderbolt-struck mother and the ruins of the house smouldering with the still-living flame of Zeus, Hera’s immortal outrage against my mother.

Carson’s style and language seems more suited to sustaining the attention of a 21st century audience—her version was staged at the Almeida Theatre in London in 2015 to great praise—trying to quickly grasp the background of this myth.  Whereas Seaford’s version is typical of what we have to come expect from a translation of an ancient text into English, Carson’s rendition with her succinct, colloquial, flippant sentences are what readers have come to expect from her translations and poetry.  Carson does not alter her style to reflect the very different texts of Aeschylus, Sophocles or Euripides.  A sample from her translations of tragedian demonstrates how Carson makes their sentences conform to her own tendency towards candid, unambiguous and humorous language.

In her translation of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon, Klytaimensta’s explanation of her affair with her husband’s cousin is full of Carson’s glib language and sarcasm:


Gentlemen, citizens of Argos, you,

I am not ashamed to tell you of my

  husbandloving ways.

Shyness diminishes with age.

The fact is, life got hard for me when he

  was off at Troy.

It’s a terrible thing for a woman to sit alone,

  in a house,

listening to rumors and tales of disaster

  one after another arriving—

why, had this man sustained as may

  wounds as people told me,

he be fuller of holes than a net!

And Carson’s version of Sophokles’s Elektra when the title character laments the murder of her father at the hands of her mother her words are plainly spoken and we get a brusque version of the background story:


How many times can a heart break?

Oh Father,

it was not killer Ares

who opened his arms

in some foreign land

to welcome you.

But my own mother and her lover


those two good woodsmen

took an axe and split you down like an oak.

And Carson’s version of Aphrodite’s entrance in her translation of Euripides’s Hippolytus is strikingly similar to Dionysos’s first words in The Bakkhai:


You know who I am.  You know my naked power.

I am called Aphrodite! Here and in heaven.

All who dwell between the Black Sea and the Atlantic,

Seeing the light of the sun—

All who bow to my power—I treat with respect.

Some might criticize Carson for not reflecting the distinct differences in the grammar, syntax, tone, and diction of these ancient authors.  But when audience members attend a staging of an Ancient play translated by Carson, they are expecting a version of these Greek texts that are unique because of their reflection of Carson’s own thoroughly modern style.

Although in Ancient Greece Dionysos was a complex god with a long history—he was one of the earliest gods to be mentioned by name in writing as far back as the Bronze Age—Euripides’s play is the only extant tragedy that confronts the dynamic and frightening nature of this deity. Dionysos is usually said to be the god of wine and intoxicated ecstasy, but this is an oversimplification of his divinity. He is also the patron god of Athenian music and drama, a fertility god represented by the phallus, and a god who comforts the dying by freeing them from fear of death. In art and literature he is sometimes depicted as an effeminate young man, but he is more commonly portrayed like the other male Olympian gods, with a beard, and only stands out because he is holding his thyrsos—a stalk of fennel with a pinecone on the end.

While the Greek word theos is commonly used to describe the appearance of a god in person, in this play it is fitting that Euripides often refers to Dionysus as a daimon, a much more nebulous word to define or translate. Walter Burkert in his book Greek Religion discusses this elusive Ancient Greek word:

The gods, theoi, are many-shaped and beyond number, but the term theos alone is insufficient to comprehend the Stronger Ones. From Homer onwards, it is accompanied by another word which has had an astonishing career and lives on in the European languages of the present day: daimon, the demon, the demonic being.

In Carson’s translation of the play she chooses not to translate the word and simply leaves it in her text as daimon. Dionysos himself explains:

I am something supernatural-

Not exactly god, ghost, spirit, angel, principle or element-

There is no term for it in English.

In Greek they say daimon

Can we just use that?

Whenever the word appears in Carson’s translation, it is left untraslated—it stays as daimon (always italicized.) It would have been enlightening and helpful for a note, or a brief afterword for those who are unfamiliar with the complexity of this word. A piece Carson wrote for the Cahier series entitled Nay Rather helps to explain her choice not to translate daimon. Carson argues in this essay that a type of “metaphysical silence” occurs when it is impossible to translate a word directly from one language to another: “Metaphysical silence happens inside words themselves. And its intentions are harder to define. Every translator knows the point where one language cannot be rendered into another.” Rather than regarding this silence as an obstacle, she uses it to her advantage in The Bakkhai; by leaving it untranslated, the furtive nature of a multifaceted god is heightened within her text.

The descriptions of Dionysos’s mysterious and multilayered workings as a deity continue in the choruses of The Bakkhai, where the strength of Carson’s translation lies. When the Bakkhai, the female followers of Dionysos for whom the play is named, first appear on stage, they describe their patron:

O Thebes! garland yourself

in all the green there is—

ivy green

olive green

fennel green

growing green

yearning green,

we sap green

new grape green

green of youth and green of branches,

green of mint and green of marsh grass

green of tea leaves oak and pine,

green washed needles and early rain,

green of weeds and green of oceans,

green of bottles, ferns and apples,

green of dawn-soaked dew and slender green of roots

green fresh out of pools,

green slipped under fools,

green of the green fuse,

green of the honeyed muse,

green of the rough caress of ritual,

green undaunted by reason or delirium,

green of jealous joy,

green of the secret holy violence of the thyrsus,

green of the sacred iridescence of the dance—

and let all the land of Thebes dance!

with Dionysos leading,

to the mountains!

to the mountains!

The brevity of the language and very curt lines, combined with her loose translation of the Ancient Greek, gives us a text that is both expanded and compressed at the same time. The result is a poetic work of art that stands on its own outside the context of this play.

As the action of the tragedy moves forward, Dionysos, disguised as a mortal and follower of his own cult, argues with Pentheus, the current ruler of Thebes who is also Dionysos’s cousin, about the validity of the god and his cult. Pentheus fails to understand that this disguised stranger is the god himself and repeatedly and ignorantly criticizes the god and his mysteries:


So are we the first place you’ve brought your new daimon?


Oh no, people are dancing for Dionysos pretty much everywhere else.


Foreigners all lack sense, compared to Greeks.


Well, there’s more than one kind of sense. It’s true they enjoy different customs.


Are your mysteries performed at night or in the day?


Mostly at night. Darkness is serious.


Yes it is, seriously corrupting, for women.


Can’t corruption be found in daylight too?


Oh stop being clever! There’s a penalty for that!


Stop being superficial. You slight the god.


I can’t believe your arrogance, you casuistical Bakkhic little show off.

Two interesting characters that also make an appearance in the play and whose presence lends to the mystery of its interpretation are the seer Tiresias and Pentheus’s grandfather, Kadmos. These old men enter, dressed in women’s clothing, so that they can go to the mountain and join with the Bakkhai in the worship of Dionysos. They attempt to set an example for Pentheus, but even these elders of the city-state cannot convince him to respect the god:


You at the gates!

Call Kadmos out—go on, tell him Teiresias is here,

he’ll know why.

We have an agreement, one old man with another,

to try out this Dionysian business together—

fawnskin, thyrsos, garlands in the hair—the complete regalia.

[enter kadmos from palace]


I knew it was you, my old wise friend,

I heard your voice.

Look, I’ve got my gear on too—the costume of the god!

Now the important thing is

To promote Dionysos

Every way we can,

He’s my daughter’s son after all.

So where are we headed?

I’m ready to dance or trance or toss our white heads,

Or whatever comes next.

You lead the way, Teiresias, you’re the wise one.

I’m merely enthusiastic!

Isn’t it fun to forget our old age?


Yes well, what is it they say,

You’re as young as you feel?


We must get to the mountain.

Should we call a cab?


That doesn’t sound very Dionysian.


Good point. Let’s walk. We can lean on each other.

As is evident from these two examples, the tone of Carson’s translations of the dialogue alternates between serious and cheeky, the traditional and the colloquial 21st-century idioms. This scene, with two old men appearing on stage in drag, naturally has an element of humor to it, but Carson exaggerates this humor, especially in her absurd line “Should we call a cab?” It lends the scene a dash of the unexpected element—appropriate for a play about a bewildering god; yet the extreme humor seems out of place for a play that ends with a horrible decapitation.

In her essay entitled “Tragedy: A Curious Art Form” Ann Carson writes: “Why does tragedy exist? Because you are full of rage. Why are you full of rage? Because you are full of grief. Ask a headhunter why he cuts off human heads. He’ll say that rage impels him and rage is born of grief.” The Bakkhai ends not with a figurative display of such rage but with a literal cutting off of a human head. Pentheus is convinced by Dionsyos to dress up as a woman and spy on the Bakkhai in the mountains, which plan the king is excited to carry out. When he arrives at the mountain he is viciously attacked, and the woman who tears his head from his shoulders turns out to be his own mother, Agave, whom the god forced into his female cult. In the end, Pentheus gets his comeuppance and Dionysos firmly establishes his rites in Thebes: the god’s rage is born of his grief and is manifests itself in the decapitation of the king.

Although in its most basic sense this play is one of divine punishment, scholars have debated for decades about what moral lesson or message Euripides intended to convey in his tragedy. The fact that Euripides himself was critical of the traditional Greek gods adds to the problems of interpretation. Is Pentheus’s punishment deserved or is Dionysos unnecessarily harsh and vengeful? Theories have ranged widely, from a claim that the drama mirrors a deathbed conversion of a poet who had previously rejected the pantheon of gods to an assertion that it is a commentary on religious fanaticism. Carson’s translation adds another interesting dimension and interpretation to the long history of this play; the colloquial language and humor, I suspect, work well in a dramatic performance of the play. But for those who want a more literal rending of Euripides text it might be better to stick with earlier versions.




Filed under Anne Carson, Classics