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April 26, 2011

From Greek to English: Stanford professor's translation of Euripides takes the stage

This week's production of Euripides' lyrical, seldom-performed play is a snapshot from an earlier life for the acclaimed poet – the time he was a freelancer way back in the 1970s.

By Cynthia Haven

Euripides' play centers on the havoc that results when gods and mortals meet.

Back in the 1970s, W.S. Di Piero was not the lauded poet and Stanford professor he was to become.

"I was doing everything at once, writing my first book of poems, book reviews, movie reviews, essays, translations – all because I was deluded. I thought I could make a real income," said the English professor, recalling his hardscrabble free-lance years.

Somewhere during that time, he was asked to translate Euripides' star-touched play, Ion, for Oxford University Press. 

What an opportunity. Ion isn't performed much, but it's a wonder of a play, describing the havoc that ensues when gods and mortals meet.

Di Piero's translation of the ancient playwright will be performed at 8 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday, April 28-30, with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on Saturday, at the Zeum Theater in San Francisco, as part of the American Conservatory Theater's Master of Fine Arts program, one of the top theater programs in the country.

Tickets are $15 and available at or by calling the A.C.T. box office at (415) 749-2228.

Here's the storyline: Creusa had been raped by Apollo as a teen. In secret, she left the inevitable baby to die of exposure. A couple decades later, she is the wife of the military leader Xuthus, and sent to Delphi, oracle of Apollo, to seek a sign because of her – guess what? – supposed infertility. She's understandably steaming.

Of course, the exposed baby didn't really die – Ion has grown up to serve at Apollo's temple. Several mix-ups, lyrical interludes and murder attempts intervene before harmonious reconciliation, adoption and the founding of a new race, the Ionians.

Director Barbara Damashek said: "I chose this translation because of its accessibility, its ability to be spoken, the beauty of the poetry. Di Piero captures the quality of the tone of the Greek play in a really lyrical way. It's clarified down."

Di Piero was unaware of the production until he read about it somewhere – an email or arts publication, he can't exactly recall.  "And that's OK," said the humble poet. "I feel quite detached from it all."

"Translators are like writers in Hollywood," he said. "The least important person, the last seated person at the dinner."

He was attracted to the play way back when, he said, because "in those days I was thinking a lot about deity, and its intervention in human affairs and all the forms that can take."

To translate Ion, Di Piero signed on for two years of Greek lessons. "At least I was able to recognize in the Greek what the collaborators were trying to explain to me," he said. "And I wanted to hear the sounds."

Di Piero, paraphrasing Ezra Pound, said "The best of translations are a team." Hence, Oxford University Press teamed poets with scholars for its "Greek Tragedy in New Translations" series. Di Piero was partnered with a scholar; and then another. And then another. Nothing seemed to work. "I realized I'm not a collaborator," he admitted.

After great strain and "more or less four collaborators," he said, the translation was published in 1995.

He gets regular royalty checks for his translation – popular, he said, because of feminist support. "It's like Medea. This play is so entirely about Creusa."

In fact, that was the problem with one of his collaborators, who had favored "a very slanted feminist reading of the play," the poet said. He had made it "ideologically stiff."

"I like to dodge the whole feminist thing – the play is what it is," said Di Piero.


You're a kind and sensitive child.
You're a stranger, yet you ask why I'm sad.
Seeing Apollo's house, I measured back
An old memory. I feel torn
Between two places – my body is here,
My mind elsewhere.

                        O why are women
So miserable? And gods so vicious?
What justice can we ever find on earth
When the injustice of the might destroys us?


"Powerful stuff," said Di Piero of this particular speech. "You absolutely have to get it right."

Di Piero eventually became a professor as well as a Guggenheim and NEA-awarded poet, and gave up the vicissitudes of freelance living. Ion was his first and last attempt to translate from the Greek.

For the poet, who grew up in an Italian working class in Philadelphia, his more usual translation ventures are from the Italian – including acclaimed volumes of Giacomo Leopardi's Pensieri and the poems of 20th century poets Sandro Penna and Leonardo Sinisgalli. 



Cynthia Haven, Stanford News Service: (650) 724-6184,


W.S. Di Piero, Department: (650) 723-0359,

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