The winner of the Ukrainian Literature in Translation Prize run by the Ukrainian Institute London in 2021 is Nina Murray’s translation of an excerpt from Lesia Ukrainka’s poetic drama Cassandra (written in 1907). In this play, the author chooses to tell one of the keystone myths of western culture, the story of the siege of Troy, from the point of view of a woman, the Trojan princess and prophet Cassandra. In the introduction to her translation, Murray writes:
‘As Rebecca Solnit so finely articulated in her essay “Cassandra among the Creeps”, Cassandra embodies the casual dismissal of women’s credibility under which we continue to labour. […] In the scene presented here, Helenus charges Cassandra with alarmism: Her prophesies leave her audience feeling terrified and powerless. Helenus, on the other hand, treats visions of the future as what we would today call “actionable intelligence” — information to be acted upon. Helenus and Cassandra, in this telling, happen to be blind to the social and cultural forces that have shaped their attitudes to seeing the future: Cassandra, as a […] woman, albeit a royal one, is basically a court ornament, while Helenus enjoys the respect and obedience of Troy’s rulers. It is part of the timeless wonder of Lesia Ukrainka’s writing that the viewer, unlike the characters, is thoroughly educated in this dynamic’.
You, Helenus, have touched a bleeding wound.
But I’ll be brave, I’ll take it, I’ll endure.
I genuinely wish to hear your advice—
you are the wisest of all our brothers.
Your mind is exquisite and limber
like a flame.
Or like a garter snake? That’s
Phrygian thinking! We Trojans
have well learned over the time of siege
to twist and coil like those simple snakes.
What else to do? If you had seen Deiphobus
contort himself before the Lydian king,
you would have said, oh look, another brother
has grown as limber as a spineless snake.
Don’t mention such debasement! It’s disgusting.
Be honest, brother, tell me as your kin:
Did you at any moment there believe —
from watching birds, or innards,
or whatever — that match to be
our Troy’s deliverance?
And the Lydians to bring it?
That’s quite a puzzle, sister. To be honest,
I did believe it.
And then, I also didn’t.
I don’t understand.
Just so. When I
first saw the Lydian force,
full-hearted, fresh and keen
I did feel certain that the Greeks,
exhausted by the siege, war-weary
could not hold out against a king
who thirsts for battle. And this
I know too: if we had put
our faith in Helen’s hand,
or Polyxena’s, or any other woman’s
but not yours — we would have
won the day.
Do you mean to say
that all misfortune is Cassandra’s
Not all of it,
You asked for honesty —
I gave you what you asked.
But, sister, please, I do not blame you.
You cannot help it. Gods
are the ones to blame, for giving you
the gift of seeing and denying
the gift of marshaling the truth.
Whenever you are visited by visions
you wring your hands —
the terror petrifies you,
as if the Gorgon caught you in her sight.
You alarm the people.
You make the truth more scary
than it is, and folks lose their heads
or act without heed, and when they
perish, you say, ‘I told you so’.
What would you do?
What I’ve been doing.
I wrestle truth. I hope to rein it in.
To captain it.
But what about the Moirai?
Their will compels the world.
But you would change it?
Not so, Cassandra. The Moirai
made it so there’s the sea,
the ship upon it, and the storms,
and rocks, the captain and the harbor — hope
amidst the struggle. Victory.
The truth, of course. But also —
not the truth.
Then it is also by design~
that there be a Cassandra.
And a Helenus to fight her.
This is the truth I see: I am here
to free Troy from the sand-bank
where it’s mired. Thanks to Cassandra’s truth.
And you would free it
with ‘not the truth’?
What is the truth? And what is not?
People call whatever lies will chance to pass
the truth. I had a slave who told me
my kylix had been stolen, while in fact
he didn’t feel like looking for it — but
while the slave procrastinated
someone did come and steal the cup.
So what was true, and when? A razor’s edge
divides the lies from truth in hindsight.
And in the moment? We have nothing.
When someone speaks the words
they don’t believe themselves —
that’s clearly not true.
And what if
the speaker is in error
but doesn’t know it? Would that
then make it true?
But then, how do you ever
tell them apart?
I don’t. I let them be.
What of your prophesies?
What do you tell the people?
I tell them what they need
to hear. What is useful.
What makes them proud. That.
Do you not ever see what is to come,
inevitable, certain? Do you not ever
hear the voice inside your heart
that says: ‘It will be so! Exactly so!’
Image: Francis Legat after George Romney, Cassandra Raving (Shakespeare, Troilus and Cressida, Act 2, Scene 2) first published 1795, Print. The Met.