Bryn Mawr Classical Review 03.03.15


J. Michael Walton (ed.), Euripides, Plays One: Medea (Jeremy Brooks, trans.), The Phoenician Women (David Thompson, trans.), The Bacchae (J. Michael Walton, trans.). London: Methuen, 1988. Pp. xxxv, 149. ISBN 0-413-17550-2.

Don Taylor (trans.), Euripides, The War Plays: Iphigenia at Aulis, The Women of Troy, Helen. London: Methuen, 1990. Pp. i, 205. ISBN 0-413-64250-X.


Reviewed by Robert Schmiel, The University of Calgary.

In the generation, more or less, since purism recognized ananke, classicists decided to "meet the student where he is" (Intro. to Paul MacKendrick & Herbert M. Howe, eds., Classics in Translation), and translations suitable for teaching began to be, we have come to enjoy a wide choice for Greek tragedy: the Chicago series of Grene and Lattimore, deservedly the standard; the Penguin series; the pricey Oxford and Aris & Phillips series; and the aborted Prentice-Hall series, to name some of the most complete and most important. The Greek addition to the Methuen's World Dramatists series, under the editorship of J. Michael Walton and Don Taylor, offers yet another affordable choice. It seems not to have been well advertized: I was surprised to stumble upon it, and it does not appear in John C. Traupman's 1990 survey of Books for Teaching the Classics in English (CW 83.4 [1990]). The translators are active in the theater, and several of the translations have been performed. The plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles are apparently available as are three volumes of Euripides.

Walton's almost 30-page introduction to Euripides: Plays One is a mishmash of tendentious attempts to tie Euripides' dramatic activities to the war, of ill-founded generalizations on the Greek theater and its history, and of irrelevant comments on myth, etc., preceding a 5 or 6-page introduction to each of the plays: Medea, Phoenician Women, and Bacchae. Some of this is merely inept: "what is important is that the world of myth was a confused and swirling one" (xii), some is silly: "Comparisons [of the original performances] with modern pop concerts or football matches are actually misleading, and the evangelist meeting ..." (xiii), and some is mumbo jumbo:

The Greek theatre was at all times an artistic conglomerate rooted in artifice. Like other art forms it was built up in layers. These layers involved ways of seeing. They involved levels of understanding. This was a theatre of example and parable. Touching reality only at a tangent, it was at its most powerful and poignant when creating its own world from which the audience could draw their own conclusions (xviii).

Roughly half of W.'s translation of the Bacchae including the two messenger speeches does not attempt to create a poetic line. The prologue, for example, is a paragraph of prose till c. 1. 53 where identifiable lines appear. (The line numbers of the Greek text are given at ten-line intervals.) W. provides a standard of evaluation when he writes: "Euripides deserves to be read in versions as close as possible to the received manuscripts" (xix).

The translation of the parodos features repetition:

Far from Asia, land of Asia,
Far from Tmolus, sacred Tmolus,
I have come and I cry,
I have come and I praise,
I laud the name of Bromius, / Dionysus.
I praise his name, I laud his name. (63-67)
This is too static and bland for the Maenads' "excited and swiftly changing rhythms" (Dodds, p. 73). "Who can resist us?" (68?) does not come from Euripides' text while the important fact that the thiasos feels and acts as one (75) does not appear in the translation. "Pure is our dance" is misleading for O(SI/OIS KAQARMOI=SIN (77), and the repeated "break through, yield" (80) is pure Walton. The ritual chant effect at 89 sq.:
Dionysus god. Mother labours.
Lightning flashes. Zeus destroys, but Zeus preserves.
Mother dies, but Zeus preserves, etc.
does not give the sacred myth, to say nothing of the powerful religious feeling of Euripides' lyrics. The violence of the divine abortion (88-98) is tamed beyond recognition. The striking A)MFI\ DE\ NA/RQHKAS U(BRI/STAS O(SIOU=SQ' (113) which Kirk's tr. gives us neat simply isn't here. No wonder "the whole land won't dance" (W.'s translation leaves out GA= PA=SA XOREU/SEI, 114). These Maenads are moping at home, chins on their hands. Who would celebrate a denatured Dionysus? The epode is better, but the damage is done. Euripides' repeats now justify W.'s, but "Mountain high and mountain wide" (161) makes one wonder what happened to Mt. Handsome. Euripides' Maenads know more Greek at 977 sq. than W.'s know English: "Go. Swift. Hounds. Madness. Sting," etc.

It is, admittedly, a challenge to convey the creeping horror of Dionysus' "psychic invasion" (Dodds, p. 172) at 787 sq., but the diction here is so bland it might be describing Tom Swift planning to crash a sorority party in drag (827-839):

D.: Come indoors. I will help get you dressed.
P.: Get dressed. I don't think I have the nerve. Not like a woman.
D.: Do you want a peep at the Maenads, or do you not?
P.: A dress, you say? What sort of a dress do you have in mind for me?
D.: The dress should be full length. And a wig, a long one.
P.: Any other kind of decoration?
D.: You ought to have a headband.
P.: Is that everything?
D.: Yes, except for a thyrsus and fawnskin.
P.: I couldn't do it. I couldn't dress up like a woman.
D.: The alternative is bloodsHed and a battle against the Bacchae.
P.: All right. I'll do it. I really must get a look at them before anything else.
D.: Far more sensible than countering one evil with another.
Finally, whether the stunning irony of MEGA/LA KAI\ FANERA\ (1198 f. repeated from 1006 f.) is unconscious on Agave's part or not, it isn't on Euripides'. The parallel is lost in W.'s translation.

This volume also includes translations of Medea by Jeremy Brooks and of the Phoenician Women by David Thompson. Exits and entrances are indicated for Medea and Bacchae, 'scenes' (with headings) and choral odes for Phoenician Women. I find Brooks' translation generally more successful, but the flow of Medea's speech fails, the diction is matter-of-fact, and there is no sense of a poetic line at 230 sq.:

Of all earth's creatures
We women are most unfortunate.
First we must secure a husband
At an exorbitant price
And then to make a bad deal worse
We set him up as tyrant over our bodies
And only then discover
Whether we've made a good choice or a bad one.
The choral ode at 410 sq. is turned into five six-line stanzas with a bit of rhyme. It reads much better than the two jingly stanzas given to the Nurse at 190 sq., the first of which follows:
The minstrels of old were foolish.
I think they wasted their time
Composing their songs to grace
A feast, or inventing a rhyme
To please the ear at a dance
And make life seem sublime.

Thompson's Phoenician Women is the best of the three.

Taylor's c. 40-page introduction to Euripides: The War Plays is an apologia: first for "theatrical logic" and "the uncovering ... of that clear line of action" (vii) in producing a translation, secondly for this particular artificial trilogy. A summary of Euripides' professional life is interwoven into an account of the Peloponnesian War. Last come 7 to 14-page discussions of the three plays.

T. explains his approach to the textual problems of I. A.:

My intention was to test the scholars' assertions in the only arena that matters for a play, rehearsal and performance. If I became conscious of interpolations ... I could easily remove them: and if the play did hang together as an artistic unit, I would feel that as clearly ... (xviii)
Those who produce or perform Greek tragedy will surely have special insights, but few philologists will applaud this sort of "let's run it up the flagpole" approach to textual criticism. T regards the peripety ("[Iphigeneia] makes crudely rabble-rousing speeches full of lines reminiscent of ... Hitler ... at Nuremberg ...") as "the most savage of ironies" (xxv-xxvi). Even if one regards the change in Iphigeneia as too sudden and extreme to be taken literally, T.'s characterization is grotesque.

The introduction to the Women of Troy is marred primarily by speculation which ties the play to specific historical events, suggests that the play was "Euripides' attack on his fellow citizens for [Melos]," leads to the guess that Euripides must have had powerful friends to be able to present "such a subversive play," and concludes with T.'s admission that, after all, "we simply don't know" (xxviii-xxxv).

It is, as T. says, even more difficult to be sure "what kind of play Helen is." T. rightly concludes that "although there is a great deal of comedy and parody in Helen, it has a serious dimension," but then he waffles, emphasizing the comic element before belatedly reaffirming the play's bitterness and savage irony (xxxv-xlviii). Stage directions are provided for the translations, line numbers unfortunately are not. I shall restrict my comments to the translation of the Helen.

There are some inaccuracies in the translation, often of tone: "if he's dead" (1. 279, p. 148) spoils the point. In her despair Helen assumes that Menelaus is dead; "I don't know what to think or what to say" (1. 483, p. 156) absorbs the shock in Menelaus' astonished TI/ FW=; TI/ LE/CW; "I'm in enough trouble already" (1. 589, p. 161), which subtly misses the point accurately conveyed by Lattimore: "I had grief enough when I came here," and "If my troubles at Troy were real, you can't be" for TOU)KEI= ME ME/GEQOS TW=N PO/NWN PEI/QEI, SU\ D' OU)/ (1.593, p. 161), obscure the crucial point that, since Menelaus has invested everything in her, the unreal Helen has more value and therefore more reality for him than the real Helen. "But I've stood up to hiM, so far!" simply misses the clear implication of the last three words of U(/BRIN Q' U(BRI/ZEIN EI)S E)/M', H(\N E)/TLHN E)GW/ (1. 785, p. 169), i.e. that she has been assaulted by Theoclymenus.

T.'s overemphasis of the comic occasionally becomes self-indulgent colloquialism: "walking talking living doll" (1. 34, p. 138), "one of Bacchus' groupies" (1. 543, p. 159), and "launched into orbit" (1. 617, p. 162); "did the dirty" and "my daughter, whom ... no one will touch with a bargepole" (11. 927 and 933, p. 175) are grossly out of character in Helen's earnest, if cynically self-serving, appeal to Theonoe.

But despite such relatively infrequent slips this vigorous translation generally succeeds not only in giving the sense but in catching the tone of a challenging play. T. captures Menelaus' braggadocio (11. 842-854, pp. 171f.) and his boastful posturing, tear-jerking, and frigid rhetoric (947-995, pp. 175-177):

I'm not denying that it is quite good form
For a well born gentleman to shed a tear
Or two, at the right time, a disaster, for instance.
For my part, I prefer naked courage
To that sort of gentlemanly behaviour,
If that is what it is. So if you want
To help someone who is your guest -- as you should --
Who wishes to assert his unquestioned claim
To take back his wife, simply hand her over,
And take the credit for helping both of us.
If you don't want to, it won't be the first time
I've been in a tight spot, and you will have demonstrated
Quite openly to everyone that you're an evil woman!
(11. 950-958, p. 176)
Theonoe's naive self-righteousness comes through clearly (11. 998-1029, pp. 177f.):
Both by instinct and by preference
I revere the gods, and I have a particular concern
For the purity of my own soul. I would never
Do anything to injure my father's reputation,
Nor can I indulge my brother in anything
That will bring him into disrepute. At the very
Centre of my being there stands a great temple
Of righteousness, inherited, no doubt,
From my immortal grandfather, Nereus.
(11. 998-1003, pp. 177f.)
He handles the difficult double-entendres at 1288-1300 (p. 189) and 1412-1428 (pp. 193f.) quite well, if occasionally making them too blatant. Not the least reason for the success of the translation is that the translator has not tried to be safely neutral.

Literary translation is notoriously difficult and controversial; theoreticians and practitioners disagree wildly on both ends and means. A recent translation of the Pyrrha ode begins: "O Pyrra, who / is holding you ..." I consider that a parody, not a translation. (Was it scored for electric guitars?) It is the work of a well-known translator and authority on translation, Burton Raffel (M. Simpson, "Translating Horace," Translation Review 18 (1985) 7-22.) Others will judge the translations of Taylor, Walton, et al. -- and of Raffel, I suppose -- differently, but that is no reason to eschew hard judgments.