April 19, 2013, by Anne S
Aristophanes, feminism and enormous phalli
Old Attic comedian Aristophanes introduced me to ancient Greek dirty jokes. I spent many years of my early Classics education at school reading his plays and wondering how he got away with combining politics and filthy dialogue in 5th century B.C Athens.
Last week I interviewed the man behind the first translation of Aristophanes I ever read at school, Alan Sommerstein, Professor of Greek here at the University. Alan’s translation of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata is currently in use by director Martin Berry and his cast who start their run of the play at Lakeside next week. Lysistrata is the story of how the women of Greece join forces and refuse to have sex with their husbands until they reach a lasting peace – it’s feminism meets filth and it’s brilliant.
I spent an hour discussing linguistics, sex jokes, politics and “enormous phalli” with Alan and came away reminded of why I loved studying Classics at school and university.
Alan has translated Lysistrata three times in total, each time coming up against the same rhythmic and word play challenges as any other translator trying to reflect an ancient text for a contemporary audience. Greek jokes just wouldn’t play very well with audiences today: “One often has to choose between keeping the joke, or a joke, and keeping the exact meaning; you won’t be surprised to learn that most translators tend to opt for the joke.”
For a play that talks so much about sex, you might be surprised that none actually takes place. The play, like Lysistrata and the women who support her, is just a big tease: “Like so many TV sitcoms, the sex never actually happens.”
If you want to hear how the script would have sounded to 5th century B.C audience, hit play on the video below.
Alan Sommerstein is a regular writer on the Ancient Drama blog.