Imagine having the ability to do more than that, to not just speak rudely to the powerful, but to publicly humiliate them in front of the nation. We can’t really do that now, the public sphere is too diverse — bifurcated and branched out in every possible direction — but 2,500 years ago in Athens you could. Citizens had the right of parrhesia, a kind of radical free speech that allowed them to share their thoughts on any subject or any person, and no one used it more effectively than the comic playwrights of the period.
Of the many comedic playwrights active in Athens in the fifth century BCE, only the work of Aristophanes has survived relatively intact, which is kind of a fluky miracle given the ravages of time and the power of the Catholic Church. But we are lucky his ancient comedies did survive, because, as classics scholar and poet Aaron Poochigian’s new translation, Aristophanes: Four Plays: Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata, Women of the Assembly, demonstrates, they are still vibrantly alive and necessary.
Poochigian has previously translated Sappho in Stung with Love: Poems and Fragments, as well as the work of Aeschylus, Euripides, and Apollonius of Rhodes, and what makes his versions exceptional is that he brings a poet’s mindset to ancient meter.
I sat down for a Zoom-assisted conversation with Poochigian to talk about the perils and pleasures of bringing ancient Greek comedy to the 21st century.
We started by talking about parrhesia, the unique potential of which Poochigian underscored:
Athenians enjoyed freedom of speech as wide as our own, and I respected that a great deal. But what makes it even more impactful, if you’ll let me use that word, is that Aristophanes would be insulting specific members of society who would be sitting in the audience. Whereas we have a distance of print, of video. There, everything was live. And so when Aristophanes calls out Kleon and makes fun of him, Kleon is very likely sitting there in the audience, and all of the audience members turn and look at him and laugh in his fucking face.
For those of you unfamiliar with the politics of ancient Athens, Kleon was a Trumpian demagogue, a rabble-rousing blowhard who became a powerful political leader around 429 BCE. Aristophanes mocked him relentlessly. Poochigian continued, “I can think of no stronger check on obnoxious behavior than that of public humiliation.”
Aristophanes’s work contains a lot of what Poochigian calls “patriotic obscenity.” The kind of spirit that drives an ordinary person to tweet fuck off to the president of the United States. It’s not a knee-jerk reaction, it’s the kind of thing that is motivated by the patriotic desire to protect what’s important and meaningful in society. I asked Poochigian to elaborate on this idea.
I was struck under the previous president that, well, that old modes of discourse were no longer serving the democracy. I love Michelle Obama, but when she says, “When they go low, you go high,” it’s dangerous. Because when they go low it has more visceral impact and appeals to more people than when you go high. So the problem is resolved by patriotic obscenity.
Poochigian took off his cap and adjusted it to a more jaunty angle before continuing.
When adversaries in politics go low, one has no choice but to go at least equally low, if not lower, in order to have the same visceral impact and appeal to the same number of people. And what was revealed to me under the previous administration was that the fate of our whole democracy might hang on your wit and your ability to use obscenity and travesty and mockery effectively.
Patriotic obscenity is not just a well-placed F-bomb. Aristophanes packed his plays with fart jokes, dick jokes, crude innuendo, and loud-mouthed characters who are drunk, horny, deceitful, arrogant, looking for a place to shit, or just plain stupid, often expressing all of these attributes at the same time. It wasn’t just Aristophanes who wrote this way. If you read fragments of the other great Athenian comic writers of the time — Cratinus, Crates, Eupolis, and others — you will find similar raunchy humor.
Poochigian adds, “It’s regarded as a lower form of humor, and it certainly is, but it’s never been more important or more essential to our discourse than in the last five years.”
If you are not familiar with Aristophanes’s work — what’s known as “Old Comedy” — this collection is an ideal introduction. He mocks Socrates and intellectuals in general in Clouds; pokes fun at urban life — and its unbearable reliance on litigation to settle disputes — in Birds; while the women of Athens go on a sex strike in an attempt to end the Peloponnesian War in Lysistrata and overthrow the patriarchy in Women of the Assembly.
To my mind, all the plays reflect concerns that are shockingly relevant. Poochigian agrees: “They are, I mean, I found them all very timely. Especially Birds with its desire for escape. And then also Lysistrata and Women of the Assembly, in which the women take over. And it represents the anxieties of ancient Greek males.” Like toxic masculinity today? I asked. He nodded.
And that was particularly relevant with what Trump labeled “The Squad” of new congressional females, in that they had the same purpose as the women of the assembly. They were attempting to radically socialize or even communize democracy. And in the play, they successfully do so. That ends in perfect happiness. But it’s anxiety on the part of ancient Greek males and on the part of many American males.
Over the years, I’ve read many different translations of Aristophanes’s plays — from those of noted classical scholars like Stephen Halliwell, Moses Hadas, and Alan Sommerstein to those of novelists like Paul Roche — but Poochigian’s translations have a real snap to them, as if the words were freed from academia and hit the street looking for trouble. When I told him so, Poochigian laughed.
There’s a marked divergence. Translations of Aristophanes from before the sexual revolution, before the ’60s and ’70s, tended to soften the obscenities. And since the sexual revolution, culminating in the work of Jeffrey Henderson, who’s a great scholar and wrote a book called The Maculate Muse, scholars have tended to overemphasize the obscenities. My problem with that, as a theater person and as a person of taste — it’s not that I’m a snob or a prude or anything, it’s just that if people just say pussy-fuck-shit over and over again, it’s not funny any longer, right? It gets old. And so I doubt that Aristophanes as a comedic artist would have gone nuclear on the obscenity as some contemporary translators do. And so it’s a balance.
He thought for a moment and said, “Have you ever worked at a mixing board for a sound?” I had.
So as a translator and also as an author, I think of myself as adjusting the levels of various things, including obscenity. And if you crank obscenity up to 11 the whole time, then eventually people will tune out and stop hearing it. You have to finesse the levels.
This surprised me. I didn’t think there would be that much wiggle room in translating from the original Greek. Poochigian shook his head: “There is a great deal of wiggle room in the text. For example, I had a great deal of turmoil over translating the Greek word euruproktos. This is in Clouds. You may recall there's the great debate between New Education and Old Education.” These characters are sometimes translated as “New Logic” and “Old Logic” or “Good Reason” and “Bad Reason,” and they debate the corruption of Athenian culture caused by lawyers and litigation. Poochigian continued:
And euruproktos — proktos, you might recognize from proctologist — means butthole. And euru means broad or wide. It's a term that's used in Athenian literature. And euruproktos means wide asshole. It means that your asshole is wide from being fucked so often. Aristophanes uses it as just a general term for politicians. And so I had to figure it out, because other translators, like Alan Sommerstein, translate it as wide-arsed. And that makes it sound like they have fat asses. And that's not what Aristophanes is talking about. And so it's very funny in the original and very offensive to contemporary taste.
He shrugged: “There is a lot of wiggle room, mostly because our whole conception of how to construct the sex act is different from the ancient Greek world.”
But it’s not just the obscenity and offense that keeps these plays sharp, Poochigian also strives to preserve the poetic meter of the original.
I'll try to talk about this in a way that isn't boring. It becomes very technical. And so Aristophanes, even more than the tragic poets like Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, is a metrical virtuoso. The rhythms of the lines he writes suggest an entirely different mood or mode. And sometimes he uses very long lines and sometimes he uses short lyric lines. And usually translations don't preserve either the modulation from one meter to another meter, or they don't preserve the formality of it. He is a metrical poet and not a free verse poet. I do believe mine is the first translation to preserve the modulation both from short to longer lines and also from chanted lines, which is the normal dialogue lines, to the choral lines and the lyric lines. And I represent that difference through rhyme and off-rhyme. Because that's how we do that in English. Indicate that lyrics are meant to be sung by including some kind of rhyme, right?
Poochigian’s attention to metric detail pays off, the text sparks with energy and the exuberant sense of fun that is at the heart of these plays is present on every page.
In a recent essay on Thrive Global, Poochigian talked about translating the poetry of Charles Baudelaire: “I regard the translator as the medium, a vessel to be possessed by the spirit of the original author.” So I had to ask him what it was like to be possessed by the crude spirit of Aristophanes. He adjusted his cap and leaned into the camera.
Thank you for asking. It was actually a difficult time. I was living in Fresno, California, on my parents’ kind of estate. My parents had retired there and my father had passed away, and I thought I was going to live there, but there was no future in terms of employment. So I was working on my own lyric poetry, which is very dramatic and poetic and self-absorbed, and needs to have its bubble burst often. So it was the perfect antidote to immerse myself in Aristophanes’s ribaldry and absurdity. To inhabit that in this kind of depressing time in my life. To give myself over completely to comedy. And it saved me, it redeemed me.
Translation saved his life? Poochigian smiled.
I’m very interested in literature as escape. Baudelaire shows you the full breadth of boredom and then shows you how to get out of it. And I, who have had a number of difficult episodes in my life, look to translation not only as effective for craft exercises, where you can focus just on how you're saying something rather than on what you're saying, because that's provided, right? But also just as an escape from the repetitiveness of the creative writer’s life. And so I can think of nothing healthier for a writer than to get outside of him or herself through translation, the translation of strong voices.
Mark Haskell Smith is the author of Heart of Dankness: Underground Botanists, Outlaw Farmers, and the Race for the Cannabis Cup, Baked, Raw: A Love Story, Blown, and other books. His latest is Rude Talk in Athens: Ancient Rivals, the Birth of Comedy, and a Writer’s Journey through Greece (Unnamed, 2021). He is an associate professor in the MFA program for Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts at the University of California Riverside, Palm Desert Graduate Center.
Banner image: "Bust of Aristophanes" by Alexander Mayatsky is licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0. Image has been cropped.