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Just Some Evil Scheme: Translating ‘Badness’ in the Plays of Euripides

Diane Arnson Svarlien

independent scholar

I will explore in fuller detail than I outline here the nature of evil in Greek literature through the reverse lens of the English word ‘evil’ as it appears in my translations and in translations by other translators. When I was asked for my translator’s take on evil, I had completed translations of nine plays of Euripides never thinking that I would later be asked to consider the concept represented by the English word ‘evil’. I prepare my translations with lexical discipline and constant use of Allen and Italie’s Concordance to Euripides. However, I never attempted a systematic approach to the two-plus pages of entries for κακός (the word that ‘evil’ most often translates), knowing that such a broad word would inevitably be represented by different English locutions. The relevant data from my translations, then, are shaped by my unselfconscious feel for how best to represent Euripides’ Greek in contemporary American English. They are a snapshot of how ‘evil’ fits into one writer’s working poetic lexicon. In turn, they will serve as a starting point for discussion of how Euripides and other Greek authors represent ‘the worst things that human beings can do to one another’, and the resources available in the Greek and English lexica for describing them.

‘Evil’ is so potent a word in English that it lends itself to parody: think of Dr. Evil in the Austin Powers movies. So it is not surprising that, in the nine plays I have translated, of the well over 200 instances of some form of κακός, I translated only 64 as “evil.” And of these 64 instances, only 20 or so refer to dire deeds such as murder.

I use the word “evil” a total of 75 times in my translations. As noted, 64 of these translate some form of κακός. Of the other 11, 6 translate δαίμων or τύχη as ‘evil fate’ or ‘evil fortune’; 2 refer to ‘evil reputation’ (translating δυσκλεής). The Oxford English Dictionary has separate entries for ‘evil’ with reference to fate and reputation; it labels these obsolete and archaic, respectively. In 8 instances, I chose the translation ‘evil’ for its antique literary flavor, appropriate to Euripides’ traditional poetic vocabulary. My remaining 3 uses of evil’ translate the words ἀτηρός, δυσμενής, and δεινά.

The largest category of the use of ‘evil’ in my English versions is to translate the word κακός, not referring to some horrific crime, but to domestic mischief, often adultery. 6 of these instances describe Helen; others come from the misogynistic rants of Hippolytus and Hermione (in Andromache). This is ‘evil’ in the American vernacular sense used in the Blues tradition, where women are often described as ‘mean and evil’.

There is a clear continuity between the tirades of Hippolytus and Hermione against women (with their idle chit-chat and corrupting ways) and the branding of Helen as an evil woman. Long before Euripides and Lightnin’ Hopkins, this type of evil woman had been delineated by Hesiod and Semonides.

The English word ‘evil’, then, like the Greek κακός, can express a spectrum of ‘badness’ from the trivial to the devastating. What language does Euripides use for the worst kinds of wrongdoing? Bearing in mind Kekes’ (1990) assertion that Polymestor is the only truly evil character in Greek tragedy, how does Euripides describe Polymestor and his crime in Hecuba? Of the 5 times that I use the word ‘evil’ to translate κακός in Hecuba, all are references to passive suffering, and just one of them refers to the murder of Polydorus.

The word that Euripides applies most often (5x) to Polymestor and his crime is ἀνόσιος, which I translate consistently as ‘unholy’. Euripides uses this in other plays as well to describe the killing of kin (e.g., 7x in Orestes for Orestes’ murder of Clytemnestra, and 2x for Clytemnestra’s murder of Agamemnon); this is the Euripidean word that seems the best candidate for Evil with a capital E.

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Translating Evil in Ancient Greek and Hebrew and Modern American Culture

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