“A Contest of Steel Itself”: Untranslatable Euripides

For a few lines in the second choral ode from Euripides’ Helen, the fine Bryn Mawr Commentary (J. W. Ambrose and A. D. Wooley 1992) almost give up: “Virtually untranslatable.

BrynMawr

Here is the full passage where Helen sings (348-359)

Ελ. σὲ γὰρ ἐκάλεσα, σὲ δὲ κατόμοσα
τὸν ὑδρόεντι δόνακι χλωρὸν
Εὐρώταν, θανόντος
εἰ βάξις ἔτυμος ἀνδρὸς
†ἅδε μοι τί τάδ’ ἀσύνετα†,
φόνιον αἰώρημα
διὰ δέρας ὀρέξομαι,
ἢ ξιφοκτόνον διωγμὸν
αἱμορρύτου σφαγᾶς
αὐτοσίδαρον ἔσω πελάσω διὰ σαρκὸς ἅμιλλαν,
θῦμα τριζύγοις θεαῖσι
τῶι τε σήραγγας ῎Ι-
δας ἐνίζοντι Πριαμί-
δαι ποτ’ ἀμφὶ βουστάθμους.

“I call on you, I swear on you,
Eurotas, green with watery reed,
If the report of my husband dying
Is true—and how could I misunderstand these things?—
Then, I will stretch around my neck
A murderous noose.
Or, I will bring home
The sword-death mission
Of blood-flowing slaughter.
A contest of steel itself through my flesh,
A sacrifice to the three-yoked goddesses
And to Priam’s son sitting in the Idaian cave
Near the cow-folds.”

William Allan in his Cambridge commentary (2008) is a bit more circumspect:

Allan.jpg

Earlier, (in disputed lines, deleted for sense and propriety more than anything else) Helen compares forms of suicide (298-302). This passage seems to correspond well to the contemplation and expansion of slaughter above.

“It is best to die? How could I not die well?
Hanging high in the air is improper,
It is thought unmannerly even by slaves.
Stabbing has something noble and fine about it.
It is a short time to gain freedom from life”

[θανεῖν κράτιστον· πῶς θάνοιμ’ ἂν οὖν καλῶς;
ἀσχήμονες μὲν ἀγχόναι μετάρσιοι,
κἀν τοῖσι δούλοις δυσπρεπὲς νομίζεται·
σφαγαὶ δ’ ἔχουσιν εὐγενές τι καὶ καλόν,
σμικρὸν δ’ ὁ καιρὸς †ἄρτ’† ἀπαλλάξαι βίου.]

Image result for Ancient Greek Helen sculpture

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