Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.05.10

Rosanna Warren with Stephen Scully, The Suppliant Women of Euripides. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. 82. $7.95. ISBN 0-19-504553-X (pb).

Reviewed by David R. Slavitt.

One could say, quite fairly and reasonably, that Rosanna Warren's version of Euripides' Suppliant Women is an adept and pleasing performance, better than those of Frank William Jones in the University of Chicago Press series and of Philip Vellacott in the Penguin version. The choruses, in particular, in which she uses rhymes and slant rhymes with particular effectiveness have a naive grandeur about them that, even in this very peculiar play, carries a kind of conviction. Here is Warren's rendition of the opening of the fourth stasimon:

No longer blessed with child, not blessed
with son, I am cursed
among full-wombed Argive women.
And Artemis, goddess of birth,
won't visit those who are barren.
Life without life, I roam,
a cloud darting high over earth,
in winter's storm.
Jones handles the passage in a more flat-footed translatorese:
Blest no more with children, blest no more with sons,
I have no share in happiness
Among the boy-bearing women of Argos.
And Artemis, who watches over birth,
Would have no word for childless women.
Life is a time of woe;
I am like a wandering cloud
Sent hurtling by fierce winds.
Vellacott, avoiding the florid patois of translation, risks prosiness perhaps with:
No longer a happy mother blest in my son;
No longer sharing with women of Argos
Joy and pride in the young men we bore.
Artemis, helper of childbirth will not speak
Her word of cheer to our barren lives.
Through weary days and years I wander
Like a lost cloud driven by wintry blasts.
That the Warren is livelier than the competition is not surprising. A poet of considerable accomplishment, she was the winner of the 1993 Lamont prize for Stained Glass, her second collection in which she demonstrated her abilities as a translator with some of the poems of Max Jacob. She was just what the series wanted, then, for, as they proclaim themselves: "Based on the conviction that only translators who write poetry themselves can properly recreate the celebrated and timeless tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, the Greek Tragedy in New Translations series offers new translation that go beyond the literal meaning of the Greek in order to evoke the poetry of the originals."

Well, fine and dandy, except that, evidently, they don't really mean it. The late William Arrowsmith and Professor Herbert Golder seem to have been conducting, rather, an ongoing exercise in zeugma, in which a translator and a scholar are yoked by violence together, then given contradictory instructions and driven to drink and madness. I am in the game and have been hearing the stories for years now. "It's too loose," they say, and you do another version which is now "Too free." The third is "Too loose," and the fourth "Too free." And so on, until the poet drops out, as Mark Rudman did with The Trojan Women, or goes elsewhere, as C. K. Williams did, I assume, with The Bacchae. (At any rate, having done Women of Trachis for Oxford, he addressed himself to The Bacchae, which their series hasn't yet published, but then gave it to Farrar Straus & Giroux to bring out.)

Warren and Scully had the advantage or disadvantage of being at B. U., which is where Golder teaches and runs Arion, and the three of them ought to have been able to talk their differences out, to get to some version where all could be comfortable. But the signs of their bickering are everywhere in this slender volume. It is as rank with rancor as any boxer's gym. They undercut each other and all but insult each other. In a note I thought was particularly gratuitous, Scully, having blathered some about astrophic dactyls (useless to the reader of a translation and quite pointless except as an aggressive assertion that he really knows Greek, and the reader doesn't!) tells us, "The wailing o's, e's, and a's in these lines are particularly expressive and almost impossible to capture in English."

It is not a good plan for the scholar to be apologizing for or insulting to the translator in his notes to her work, particularly when the translator has gone to great lengths to get those "wailing o's" into her English text:

Go, poor women, leave Persephone's
holy floor, go stretch your hands around his knees:
hold him, have him bring back those bodies tossed
beside the walls of Thebes where they were lost.
Either Scully or Golder kept demanding more and more, as if a dozen weren't enough. (Are o's, e's, and a's more wailing than, say, i's and u's, which are the only other vowels we have?) Is this sordid and disfiguring piffle necessary?

A translation ought to provide, in the target language, a simulacrum of the original, a vision with which one can agree or take issue. A translation is, first of all, the record of a reading of the original text, which means that it is, inevitably, an act of criticism. The criticism Scully supplies, in his very long introduction and beetling apparatus of notes and comments, is mostly dim. He is unsuccessful and even counterproductive in his attempt to persuade us that the play is not structurally a mess, and that the Evadne/Iphis episode is not fortuitous and grotesque. It is not his proper job to plead for the play as if he were a defense attorney, but I can imagine that, after all the arm-wrestling and back-biting, he persuaded himself that The Suppliant Women had to be a great work of art because, otherwise, he would have been crazy to have put up with the grief he'd been getting. This is not one of Euripides' best pieces, and to make such a claim is to mislead those few students who accept the critic's valuation instead of their own.

Scully is merely trendy and vulgar, however, when he provides politically correct lesson plans for desperate classics teachers in such notes as this:

No Greek author spoke more passionately than Euripides about the horrors of war, the cause of peace, and the abuse of those defeated in war (see Hecuba, The Trojan Women), and no one better championed the cause of women and the politically oppressed (see Medea). However, Euripides cannot easily be considered a pacifist (see Heracleidae) or a staunch defender of women's rights (again the Medea; the once-sympathetic chorus's uncomprehending horror at Medea by the play's end; cf. the female chorus's joy in Dionysus' brutal revenge in The Bacchae).
Translations make a work available to those who do not have a competence in the source language. There is no way, though, to make a literary text accessible to those who cannot think in any language at all, and that seems to be the peculiar aim here. A few large critical signposts are permissible, I suppose, but, having suggested that the play starts with some pantomime business involving a sacrifice to Demeter and then ends with the appearance of Athena, Scully has done his job and should make himself scarce. He contrives to be a show-off, though, even in this reasonable undertaking, writing that "Athena as Athena Polias informs Theseus that he must perform sacrifices to cement formal treaties ... " Oddly, our avid explainer neglects to tell the readers that "Athena Polias" describes the goddess in her aspect as the protector of the city. Is he forgetting, perhaps, that if they know enough Greek to figure that out, they don't need most of what he's giving them?

Warren's version is "not at all bad" as Dudley Fitts used to say of work he liked, and I have no doubt, would have been even better if Professor Golder had left her alone. If he had trusted her, the way his jacket copy invites us to do, we wouldn't have such awkwardness as Scully's explanation that "Euripides puns on Capaneus' name, as if from 'Smoke Man,' implying his death from Zeus' thunderbolt was fated."

Warren's version is "Surely Capaneus' / thundered body should still smoke -- " which is not bad but doesn't quite suggest what's going on in the Greek. If she is going to be burdened with footnotes, she is tempted to rely on them. Otherwise, she might have tried to make some equivalent gesture in English. This is the part of translation that is, after all, the most fun. Having perhaps rejected "Capaneus/thundercapped," could she not have settled for something less silly ("whose career lightning abruptly capped"?) to indicate what was going on? One wants a text that is less an Ikea kit of the play than a finished object.

I hold Golder responsible for most of this. Warren and Scully, meanwhile, can congratulate themselves because they have the best Suppliant Women in English (the competition is less than dazzling) but, more important, because the book is over and done with. My latest information from Oxford is that Golder is still fighting it, but that, essentially, he is fired, which is good news for the rest of us. Oxford's series may continue and even perhaps reach completion. And this enterprise will not necessarily increase the number of poets who wind up in substance abuse centers and padded rooms. As the chorus sings in one of its brighter moments:

Unhoped-for day! I see it, true at last,
and now I believe in the gods. The horror subsides
since Thebes has been brought to justice.