Dionysiaca, Book One (lines 46–85)

Andrew Barrett translating Nonnus from the Ancient Greek

Translator’s Note

Once, on a Sidonian shore,
bull-shaped Zeus with horns grazing the sky,
mimed a bellow of desire in his dissembling throat
and was seized by a sweet shudder.
Little Eros had plucked a woman,
his arms forming a circle around her stomach.
The sea-faring bull came near and lowered his curved neck.
Leaning, he offered his back and lifted up Europa.

The bull departed and his floating, silent hoof
traced the water of the worn salt path with skimming steps.
The girl sat motionless and dry above the sea,
shaking with fear as she sailed upon the bull’s back.
If you saw her, you might say it was Thetis or Galateia
or Poseidon’s lover or even Aphrodite upon Triton’s neck.

Poseidon, his hair the blue of the waves,
wondered at this sea voyage ambling with a bull’s gait.
When Triton heard Zeus’ deceptive, seducing bellow,
he answered in kind with a wedding song from his spiral shell.
Nereus saw the horned sailor foreign to the sea
and pointed out the girl to Doris, his awe shading into fright.

So the young girl sailed,
a weight hardly felt on the back of a bull-vessel.
She shivered at the lofty spray of the watery path,
and clutched the bull, using a horn as a rudder.

Desire was aboard.

With a matrimonial breeze, the adroit trickster Boreas
spread open every inch of her fluttering gown
and whistled with sneaking envy at her two soft breasts.

          As one of the Nereids,
          sitting on a dolphin
          crests the sea,
          cuts the liquid glass,
          her dripping hand a paddle
          and suspended in balance
          is an illusion of fluid motion.
          The glistening traveler half-submerged
          carries her dry through the salt-brine,
          curving his back
          while the fish’s split tail
          inscribes the surface of its course
          as it cleaves the sea.

So the bull as he pressed on, arching his rear.
Eros acted as cowherd and whipped his slave’s neck
with Aphrodite’s charmed girdle.
He lifted his bow to his shoulder like a staff
and drove Hera’s husband with the cattle-crook of Cypris
into the wet pastures of Poseidon.
The virgin cheeks of motherless Athene turned red
when she spotted a woman atop Cronion, riding.

Andrew Barrett is a translator and musician who lives in Rochester, NY, where he is pursuing a Master of Arts in Literary Translation degree at the University of Rochester. He is currently translating a portion of the Dionysiaca—a lush and expansive Late Antique Ancient Greek epic composed by Nonnus of Panopolis. Andrew has also translated poems by Christophoros Kontonikolis, a Modern Greek poet who writes in Ancient Greek. Several of these translations are set to be published in the October 2011 issue of Words Without Borders. In June of 2011, Andrew had the honor of working on his translation of the Dionysiaca at the Banff International Literary Translation Centre.

Nonnus was most likely born during the fifth century A.D. in the Upper Egyptian city of Panopolis. The Dionysiaca, a 48 book epic poem composed in ancient Greek hexameters, which takes the mythological exploits and ancestry of the god Dionysus as its inspiration, is Nonnus' magnum opus. The only other surviving work attributed to Nonnus is a hexameter paraphrase of the Gospel of John.