I’ve been reading a Greek-English edition of Euripides’ play Trojan Women lately. What an engaging work – why don’t they put Greek plays on around these here parts? But anyway, I was struck by the translation notes provided by Shirley A. Barlow. She notices that in attempting to translate this deeply troubling work, modern English is at a loss to cope with the vocabulary of lament – most of our mournful words sound antiquated, because over the last century we have stopped using them:
so much of this play is prolonged lament for that suffering and the expression of concentrated grief. The Greek consists of a rich range of words expressing the emotions of grief. Yet when we examine our own vocabulary we are hampered at every turn in trying to find modern equivalents. Consider for instance the many verbs describing the utterance and feeling of lament. Threneo, threnodeo, aiazo, throeo, stenazo, katasteno, iacheo, thousso, kokuo, olophuromai, apolophuromai, oimozo, katoimozo, exoimozo, goaomai, dakruo, klaio.
If one looks these up in the dictionary one finds that the same English words are given again and again to translate them. threneo: wail, bewail; aiazo, exairazo: bewail, bemoan; olophuromai: bewail, lament, mourn; iacheo: cry, shriek in pain; stenazo: bewail, bemoan, groan, and so on.
It is partly that we lack the range in English to cope with these words and partly because where we do find equivalents they sound outdated and lacking in weight. “Lament,” “bewail,” “bemoan” do not have a contemporary ring. And many words which in Victorian times did justice to the emotion of grief, particularly abstract nouns, now sound old-fashioned…. What a hollow ring they have: “affliction, anguish, woe, sorrow” and even “care, distress, grief” and “agony.” Our vocabulary has grown tired and only a few words in this area still carry their full weight…. It is the words for feelings which have shrunk. Take also the Greek apostrophes aiai, pheu, e e, oimoi, io, ototoi which in that language express so adequately raw feelings. “Alas,” “alack,” “woe is me” sound ludicrous…. I admit defeat here. (p37)