Translatability and other tragic figures

Translatability and other tragic figures

O Medea (2019) by Trajal Harrell
Photo by Nick Knight for Onassis Stegi




‘Translatability is an essential quality of certain works, which is not to say that it is essential for the works themselves that they be translated; it means, rather, that a specific significance inherent in the original manifests itself in its translatability.


Translation is so far removed from being the sterile equation of two dead languages that of all literary forms it is the one charged with the special mission of watching over the maturing process of the original language and the birth pangs of its own.


… all translation is only a somewhat provisional way of coming to terms with the foreignness of languages’.

Walter Benjamin’s essay ‘The Task of the Translator’ (1923, in Illuminations, 1968), accords to translation itself the task of critique. The always versatile inflection – ability­ – that Samuel Weber has written about (Benjamin’s Abilities, 2010), adds to this task a potentiality and a somewhat unfinished, estranging, processional dimension, that may fold over into adaptability and performability.

The monologues that follow are versions, adaptations, translations of the roles of Cassandra (after Euripides and Aeschylus) and Medea (after Euripides). Fascinating that the metaphor that Benjamin employs is one of ‘birth’ with the accompanying ‘pangs’ (‘sterile’, ‘death’, ‘birth’).  Fascinating also, I think, that it is the power and violence of this very metaphor that these two figures enact, cite, embody, and critique.


By way of Epigram:

Word, womb, world.

Womb, word, world.

World, womb, word.

(∞ in all potential variations).

In the figures of Cassandra and Medea these three are so intricately laced and bound so as to form their theatrical and performative pose, their gestus, (or in terms of Lit. Crit. ‘The Birth of Their Tragedy’).




Apollo… Apollo… Apollo…
My mouth can’t stretch open far enough
to form the A that starts your name.
My limbs form strange shapes inside me
and curl and twist
and shrivel up again.
I know you’re not listening
but, then again, who is.
My womb is now full of infected flies
the kind that breed only to die again
but before they do
they make sure first
to get as many as they can.

Prick teaser they called me
because I scorned a God.
Led him on they say
almost till we reached the alter.
Then I refused – some versions claim-
that I gave in – some others –
A story I can never get quite right.
One whose core will be forgotten.
But the truth remains for all to see
that there is a discrepancy.
A little black hole.
And I will talk and talk and talk
and I don’t care who listens.

Prick teaser they called me
when I gave my lips to Apollo
for a gentle kiss.

A fade-out, close-up, Hollywood kiss,
as if a train were leaving.
And what did the bastard do?
To greet the cherries on my face,
he spat right in me.
And I spit back
and spit and spit
but words keep coming out instead.



They brought us here.
Eager, willing, hungry, working hands,
they thought.
No social security, no taxes,
no forms to fill in.
Fertile ground, ready to breed.

Little do they know
that we are all burnt up inside.
Hollow like the city we abandoned.
Our tubes are clogged up
as a result of the successive rapes
we’ve suffered.

No, we carry within us the plague.
The plague of burnt roof-tops,
of burnt corpses,
of burnt laced-dresses.

Instead we will create rows and rows
of people waiting in the streets
for handouts.
We won’t have paeans sung for us.
The Armies of Salvation
shall play our marching tunes.

And we will be born again.
But only to scare you more and more.
With our raised palms
and shaved heads.
With the tattoos on our chests.

And our cries of freedom.

And all mankind will walk
on rows and rows of scarlet sheets.
And the young will lead them,
as they all line up to die.

For love and war and glory.

And we will fill your car cemeteries
with people.
People coming out of the boots,
out of the windows.
And your bus shelters
and your underground passage ways.
Don’t be deceived by what you see.
We may look prim and pretty.
Inside the worm is doing its job.
Soon we will fall into a disgrace
our kind has never before suffered.

And we will be born again.
And we will take you with us.



Mother don’t pity me.
Let’s say I’m going to a wedding.
The wedding with the God
I never had.
Have all the girls stay up at night
to weave the lace onto my wedding gown.
And send the virgins
to the fields.
To pick flowers for my crown.

Do not think I am mad.
I know I must sound funny.
But I want to die wearing a wedding gown.
So when I go to meet Hades.
I will look him in the eye and say:

And he will start to twist the buttons.
And out will pour the plague,
the flies, the rot.

And he will wonder
how such a beautiful girl
can carry so much rot inside her.

And I will tell my new bride-groom my story.
And he will think twice again
before he calls our kind to Hades.





Women, I have left the house
shut the doors behind me
and I am here to explain to you
my sudden longing for death.
Do not think I am arrogant.
Sometimes a foreign woman
has to protect herself
by being cold and distant.
This retreat of mine you may
have taken for arrogance.
My heart has been
so full of sorrows lately.
Everything around me
has collapsed.
And I have turned
into my own body
with a sudden longing
for death.

You know all the details.
Please spare me
the pain of enumerating them for you.
Of all the creatures on this earth,
the ones that walk, the ones that
drag themselves across her surface,
the ones that think up new realities,
women are the most wretched.
What kind of world is this
where we have to first buy a man
and then pay him
so he can be our guide and master.
What kind of twisted thinking
is at the centre of it.
And then the whole razzmatazz starts.
Is he good, is he bad,
is he faithful.
You have to be a fortune-teller
to guess his moods
and respond to them
in advance.

The perfect service.
Here to fulfil your every fancy
before you even know you have it.
And if he turns out rotten,
well, then it’s your fault.
We are the ones who suffer.
Men have things to do,
they go out, play games,
travel abroad.

We are stuck at home
dreading their return.
And while we wait
we scheme.
Don’t let anyone tell you
that home is a safe place.
Do you know statistics show
that the bedroom
is the deadliest place
on earth.
That’s right.
More murders take place
in the bedroom
than anywhere else.
You think wars bring death.
The real battlefield is our bodies
that get torn into two
every time we give birth.

So we stay home
scheming and playing with children.
Trying to make up for the pain
of bringing them to life.
But despite their sweetness
and their joy – poor things –
they can’t quite make up
for the horror
that they open up inside us
when they carve us into two
and stick their little heads out
into the world.
And the emptiness
and the longing that follows.

But what am I saying.
You may rightly think
that I am jealous.
I have nothing.
You all have everything
as women – your houses,
your husbands, your fathers, your country.
I am barren
in this foreign land.
But they forget.
This is no sweet, pink-lipped,
always-on-the-verge of fainting,
supermarket queen.



So this is the last day.
After today only night will follow.
My wedding night with Jason
has only just begun.
A day, an endless day is more than enough
to plan and execute my deed.
I know so many paths to Hades
I do not know which one to follow.
By fire,
shall I watch their bodies melt
until you can no longer tell
who was father
who was daughter
who was groom to be.

Or shall I surprise them
when their bodies are forming
lyrical shapes under the sheets,
and pierce a sharp knife through its crease
and rip their stomachs open.
No you’ve been watching too many movies.
I’ll get caught in no time.
I have to stick to what I know best.
My magic potions.
My poisons never let me down.
I have to be prepared for death anyway.
They still might catch me.
But I will have done my duty.
My pain inspires me to perform horrific deeds.

They have disgraced the daughter the daughter of the sun.
Their wedding a funeral will become.
This is where I turn from virgin and mother
to whore and murderess!

And the rivers start running backwards.
And the world starts again.
Gods and men are useless.
This is the dawn of women.
Apollo shuts up at last.
And the first woman poet sings.
And the song she sings is mine.
Of my journey through the moving rocks.
For the love of a man.
Only to discover.
That no man is fit
to be a woman’s lover.

Love is like mourning.
Be prepared young lovers.
The more you’ve loved someone.
The more you want them dead
when they hurt you.
Love is like mourning
trying to constantly remember
the reason for such grief.
I pray never to feel such pain again.
Oh dear mistress of Cyprus
keep those golden arrows
that you dip in passion
away from me.



Do you know what Jason said to me
the other day?
‘I put the name Medea on the lips of the Greeks.
I showed you the free world.
You had never been in a department store before.
Now you have your own credit cards.’
He came in here shouting at me
because I am making a public display of my jealousy.
‘Why can’t you control yourself.
It’s the hormones, isn’t it?
I try to understand and I know you are going through
a difficult age.
If only men could have children without women.’
Let me see you try Jason.
I will put the name Medea in the Greeks’ darkest nightmares.

When the woman’s muse sings.
The song she has to sing is unbearable.
And few are the women whose ears
can hear it.

The man who sleeps next to you
will always remain a stranger.
And the sound of little pattering feet
is no comfort.
It always echoes the disaster
that is to follow.
Better not to have given birth at all
than to go through life
constantly fearing for their deaths.
The curse of having to live longer than your children.



Please spare me the graphic details
of how Jason’s new bride died.
Don’t tell me how her face melted
until the gold from the crown and the skin
and the blood became one.
Don’t tell me how the skin dropped off her bones
and lay like sawdust on the floor.
I might find these descriptions enticing.
And I don’t want to become cynical.
Whatever horror your lips may utter
I can match and further.

The stories I can tell you about the Argonauts.
About children running to the boats for shelter
and getting their little palms chopped off
as soon as they got a grip of the oars.
About the priestesses of Artemis
who the Argonauts starved
and who only saw the light
when they were dragged out to the Greeks’ camp
to be raped by Jason’s sailors.
About the abortions that they
then performed on each other
with burning needles.

So keep your lips sealed women.
Your descriptions leave me untouched.

There is no turning back now.
Life for my children has surely ended.
Better to perform the deed myself,
than hand them in to this land of exile.
You may think I am made of stone,
of steel even.
I will tell you this, women.
I am made of the most fragile of materials.
I am transparent.
As I speak I can almost watch
my body disappear.


Olga Taxidou