“Our English word purple comes from Latin purpureus, which comes from Greek porphyra, a noun denoting the purplefish. This sea mollusk, properly the purple limpet or murex, was the source from which all purple and red dyes were obtained in antiquity. But the purplefish had another name in ancient Greek, namely kalche, and from this word was derived a verb and a metaphor and a problem for translators. The verb kalchainein, “to search for the purplefish,” came to signify profound and troubled emotion: to grow dark with disquiet, to seethe with worries, to search in the deep of one’s mind, to harbor dark thoughts, to brood darkly. When the German lyric poet Friedrich Hölderlin undertook to translate Sophokles’ Antigone in 1796, he met this problem on the first page. The play opens with a distressed Antigone confronting her sister Ismene. “What is it?” asks Ismene, then she adds the purple verb. “You are obviously growing dark in mind (kalchainous) over some piece of news.” This is a standard reading of the line. Hölderlin’s version: “Du seheinst ein rotes Wort zu färben,” would mean something like “You seem to color a red word, to dye your words red.”

-Anne Carson

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