April 07, 2002
Speaking Truth To Power

Translatable puns are rare. The best one I know comes from Philoxenus of Cythera, a poet of the late 5th and early 4th centuries B.C. His birthdate, roughly 435 B.C., makes him a bit younger than Aristophanes and a bit older than Plato.

The story is told by Diodorus Siculus, in his World History (15.6). I quote it from Volume 5 of the Loeb edition of Greek Lyric, translated by D. A. Campbell (pages 140-43):

In Sicily Dionysius, the tyrant of Syracuse, no longer embroiled in the wars against Carthage, was enjoying peace and leisure. He began writing poetry with great enthusiasm, sending for the famous poets, spending his time with them and showering honours on them, and using them as supervisors and reviewers of his poetry. His generosity led to flattery on the part of these grateful critics, and removed from reality by it he bragged more of his poetry than of his military successes. One of the poets at his court was Philoxenus, the composer of dithyrambs, who had a high reputation for his own style of composition, and at the drinking-party when the tyrant's wretched poems were read he was asked his opinion of them; he gave a rather frank reply, and the tyrant took offence, faulted him for slandering him out of envy, and told his attendants to take him off at once to the quarries. Next day his friends begged him to pardon Philoxenus, so he made it up to him and invited the same company to the drinking party. As the drinking progressed, Dionysius again began to brag of his poetry and cited some lines which he regarded as particularly successful; but when he asked Philoxenus what he thought of them, his only response was to summon the attendants and tell them to take him off to the quarries.* At the time Dionysius smiled at the wittiness of the reply and put up with his frankness: laughter took the edge off fault-finding; but soon after when the friends of each party asked Dionysius to excuse his untimely frankness, Philoxenus made the strange offer that his answer would preserve both the truth and Dionysius' reputation; and he kept his promise, because when the tyrant cited some lines which described lamentable events and asked what he thought of him, Philoxenus said, 'Tragic', using the ambiguity to preserve truth together with the tyrant's reputation: Dionysius took 'tragic' to mean 'lamentable and full of pathos', and knowing that good poets excelled in such writing accepted it as praise from Philoxenus; but the rest of the company picked up the true meaning and saw that the term 'tragic' had been used only to brand a failure.

*Campbell notes that "Take me off to the quarries" became something of a proverb, quoted four times in three different authors.

I'm not sure 'tragic' is the best translation, though Dionysius was apparently writing tragedies. The Greek word (oiktros) is more general and could just as well -- perhaps better -- be translated 'pitiful' or 'pathetic'. The pun would work just as well today: "Your tragedy / elegy is absolutely pitiful, totally pathetic, I couldn't stop crying!" What should you say if a friend writes a lame attempt at comedy or satire and asks you to judge it? "Truly ludicrous! I couldn't stop laughing!"

Posted by Dr. Weevil at April 07, 2002 11:03 PM