Awesome humanity

Πολλὰ  τὰ  δεινὰ  κοὐδὲν ἀν-
θρώπου  δεινότερον  πέλει.

Many are the world’s wonders and
more wondrous than man.

Sophocles, “Antigone” 332-333

This famous passage from the so-called “Ode to Man” chorus in the Sophoclean play more than justifies that old canard about the impossibility of translating one language to another.

How to deal with the adjective δεινὰ (deina) and its comparative form δεινότερον (deinoteron)?  It is a common enough word in ancient Greek but exasperatingly protean, and no single English one will do as a translation;  the cumulative method (e.g., “strangely marvelous and dread and powerful,” etc.) mocks the elegant concision of the single Greek word.  Will it help to note that the stem δειν (dein-) occurs in reduced shape in the first element of our word “dinosaur,” which means quite literally “awesome lizard”, or in “dino-flagellates,” photosynthetic organisms whose toxin cause coastal “red tides?”

The ancient poet addresses an important – perhaps an intractable – human complexity here.  It is a complexity that we seem all too ready to ignore today for it speaks to aspects of ourselves and our public figures which we apparently feel inclined not to deal with.  Hence, we gloss them over.  I am talking about a polyvalence that registers both bright and dark, guilt and innocence, exoneration and penalty.  Do we invite being lied to by private friends and public officials because of childlike and sentimental yearning for an inhuman perfectibility in real humans?

Sophocles comes across as a writer singularly lacking in sentimentality while filled with incisive sentiments about the nature of personal responsibility – one thinks of an Antigone, an Oedipus, an Ajax, a Philoctetes.  The French bureaucrat who some years ago commented that she was, although a willing participant in the distribution of blood known to be infected with the HIV virus, “responsible but not guilty” would in all likelihood have made a very bad Sophoclean heroine.

What one cannot help but marvel at in so many of the protagonists of the Sophoclean stage is the enormous dignity and brutal self-honesty of their deeply flawed-humanity — that is to say, their δεινὰ characters.  What one cannot help but marvel at in so many of the protagonists prancing across the contemporary stage of politics and public life is their slippery and impudent disavowals when confronted with documented failure or wrong-doing — that is to say, their δεινὰ characters.

You translate that adjective.

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One Response to Awesome humanity

  1. heather says:

    Did Sophocles see the same in the Athenians and was he trying to encourage honesty??

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