Today’s words come from the ancient Greek playwright, Aristophanes. They appear in his comedy, The Knights (424 BC), a scathing satire on social and political life in Athens.
Ancient Greek comedies aren’t really my favorite genre of literature, though I do appreciate their oftentimes dark and twisty wit. Some background: Aristophanes had criticized the Athenian politician, Cleon (and really, Athens itself) in his earlier play, Babylonians. This greatly upset Cleon, who then attempted to prosecute Aristophanes for slander, but failed. Aristophanes was, um, displeased. Who’s up for revenge? The Knights is Aristophanes’ diatribe against Cleon. Aristophanes assigns Cleon the role of warmongering über-villain (and he doesn’t even bother to change his name). Aristophanes would have loved Twitter.
Do you want to know the plot? (You can skip to the next paragraph if you don’t, you won’t hurt my feelings).
An oracle (there’s always an oracle) predicts Cleon is destined to rule the polis, and the only thing that could upend that destiny is a sausage-seller (I am not making this up). Only, Cleon is the only one who knows about the oracle. But not for long. Nicias and Demosthenes (Cleon’s slaves) are conspiring against Cleon. They get drunk on wine, and cook up the idea to steal Cleon’s oracle (which they read). And then a sausage seller walks by. Cue dramatic music. Cleon then vies with the sausage-seller for the confidence of Demos (an old guy who symbolizes Athens). Cleon loses, gets mocked by a Chorus of Knights, and then has to sell sausages at the city gate as punishment. The End.
These words have always made me chortle (a word that always annoyed me until today, when I learned it was first used by Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass. Chuckle + Snort = Chortle). I don’t know about you, but the things I say are always more clever after a beaker of wine!
The phrasing is quick and clever, but are these words really what Aristophanes said? The short answer is, who the heck knows?? Aristophanes wrote The Knights in ancient Greek, and there are apparently no fewer than 700 different ways to translate the same material into modern English. It all depends on the mood and whim of the translator.
For example, here’s the expanded dialog as translated by G. Theodoris, 2008:
Hahaha! That’s my mate, Demosthenes, all right! Any excuse to get pissed! Listen, my good lad: How’s a drunk supposed to be able to come up with a good idea? Can’t ever been done!
Is that right? Is THAT right? You horrible little globule of slime! You dare deny the spiritual inspiration of wine? Can’t you see? It’s with wine that the poor become rich, gain success in business and in court, enjoy life, help their mates. Go on, off with you! Go and get me a jug of wine to wet my wit, help it come up with something witty! Go on!
And . . . just for fun, here’s the same dialog, as translated by George Gilbert Aimé Murray, 1956:
You and your wine unwatered! Always drink with you! How can a man be cool and think when all confused and not himself with wine?
Confused and not himself? Is that your line, you mug full of dull cold water? If you can, just tell me of any better friend to man than wine! When men are drinking don’t they glow with happiness, win all their cases, grow rich and successful, give all friends a part? Quick now, pop in and fetch me out a quart. I’ll wash my brain and find some great idea.
I’m still chortling about the insult translations. Which one is better? Horrible little globule of slime, or mug full of dull cold water?
There’s a Scheiße-load of other translations floating around on the Internet. I sifted through about a dozen of them before I just couldn’t take it anymore — and I never found a translation with the exact wording of the quote as given above. Obviously, that translation was done by the world-renowned scholar of all things . . . Anonymous.