Bryn Mawr Classical Review 95.10.24

J. Peck and F. Nisetich (trans.), Euripides, Orestes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995. Pp. xi + 111. $7.95. ISBN 0-19-509659-2 (pb).

Reviewed by John R. Porter, University of Saskatchewan (

The appearance of a new translation of Orestes is welcome. The play is still generally unknown to English-speaking audiences, in part because critics and (more importantly) teachers have been uncertain what to make of it, but mainly due to the practice of binding it with other of Euripides' less popular works.1 This new translation -- equipped with an interesting introduction, a glossary, and notes -- offers the possibility that more readers will explore this curious yet compelling play. Unfortunately, a general lack of spirit in P/N's rendering of the Greek, combined with the price, will probably limit the volume's use in the classroom and its success among a general audience.

The Introduction by N. is exemplary. It begins somewhat obliquely with a discussion of the Orestes myth as an aition for the Athenian Choes festival, but then gets down to business, presenting a brief summary of the mythological background and an overview of the plot. The latter offers interesting analyses of the principal characters, insights on the play's relationship to contemporary Athenian society and politics, discussion of the work's knotty relationship to traditional myth, and comments on Euripides' use of the resources of the late fifth-century stage. (The remarks on tlêmon Orestes [p. 8] and on the contemporary political background [pp. 12-13] are particularly good.) N. expressly rejects a nihilistic interpretation of the play (pp. 6-7): allusions to traditional versions of the Orestes myth do not stand in an ironic relationship to Euripides' treatment (p. 8; cf. p. 14), nor, in N.'s view, are evaluations of the protagonist as "a juvenile delinquent" (Knox) supported by the text (p. 9; cf. p. 14). Instead, "Orestes is a young man with a young man's failings, suddenly thrust into a world governed by passions he is ill equipped to deal with, passions that gradually infect him too, in complex ways, direct and indirect" (p. 9; cf. p. 5). Thus Orestes, Pylades, and Electra are associated both with the sophists (pp. 7 and 10) and, in the play's later scenes, the corrupt young oligarchs of contemporary Athenian politics (pp. 12-13). In the end, however, "[t]he goodness or badness of [Orestes'] character may ... be less relevant than the excitement he generates simply by being the person he is, faced with the situation Euripides has invented for him. What has been ignored in criticism seems to have made itself felt on stage. Orestes was Euripides' 'most popular play, indeed the most popular of all tragedies'."2

On the whole, N.'s introduction does just what one would wish, offering readers an approach to the play that will help them make sense of the work while accounting both for its complexity and the possibility of other readings. There are, however, some weaknesses and omissions. N. might have given stronger consideration to the argument that Or. illustrates the vanity of human endeavor, whether this is regarded as the result of tyche (as in Spira's study of the play) or the human agents' own impiety (as Burnett contends). The discussion of the mythological background is somewhat sketchy, though adequate; instructors will regret the omission of a more systematic treatment of the literary background and the lack of a bibliography. A fuller treatment of the play's reflections on nomos would also have been useful (p. 13). These are relatively minor defects, however, in an excellent introductory essay.

The translation itself is less satisfactory. Based on Murray's OCT text, it is accurate in conveying the general sense of the lines, relying heavily on the insights of Willink and, to a lesser degree, West. The quality is uneven, however, particularly in the non-lyric passages. Despite the occasional elegant touch, for the most part P/N employ a colloquial tone that conveys the basic sense of the original but is sorely lacking in poetic energy and often somewhat loose. This approach allows for interesting sardonic twists here and there (e.g., 558-59: "It was a private wedding, / but not a decent one"; 754: "He's not much with a spear, except among the ladies"; 1287: "Are they standing there / staring at her good looks, / their swords dangling?") but leaves long stretches that are neither interesting in their own right nor remarkable for their insights into Euripides' Greek. The Editors' Foreword for this series (by Arrowsmith and Golder) notes that "our poets have constantly tried to remember that they were translating plays -- plays meant to be produced, in language that actors could speak, naturally and with dignity" (p. vii). It is precisely in this respect that P/N fail, particularly in comparison with Arrowsmith's own lively, if idiosyncratic, version in the Chicago series. Compare, for example, the opening ten lines of the play as presented by P/N and Arrowsmith:

No terror one can name --
no suffering of any kind, no not even
affliction sent by a god, is so terrible
that human nature couldn't take it on.
Tantalos, whom everyone called
the happiest of men, the son, they say,
of Zeus himself (and I don't mean
to ridicule his fate), now
shoots through the sky, terrified
by the huge rock looming over his head.
This is the price he pays, and why?
According to the story, when he sat
with the gods at the same table, a mere man
banqueting with them as an equal,
sick with insolence, shamefully
he let his tongue run away with him.
-- Peck/Nisetich

There is no form of anguish with a name --
no suffering, no fate, no fall
inflicted by heaven, however terrible --
whose tortures human nature could not bear
or might not have to bear.
I think of Tantalus,
born -- or so they say -- the son of Zeus himself
and blessed by birth and luck as few men are:
happy Tantalus.
I do not mock his fall,
and yet that same Tantalus now writhes and trembles
in terror of the rock that overhangs his head,
though even as a man he sat as honored equal
at the table of the gods, but could not hold his tongue,
being sick with pride.
Or so the legend goes.
I do not know.
-- Arrowsmith
The P/N rendition clearly has been composed with the benefit of Willink's commentary and pays due attention to his observations at various points (for example, in its rendering of A)/RAITO in 3 and of A)E/RI POTA=TAI in 7). Yet it altogether lacks the balance, the measured cadences, the alliteration and assonance -- in short, the poetic weight -- of Arrowsmith's version. Instead, P/N offer a prosaic and wordy account, whose sense, at crucial points, is either vapid ("No terror ... is so terrible") or fuzzy ("take it on"). (Note as well the awkwardness occasioned when the initial anaphora of "No terror ... no suffering" is followed by "no not", which merely serves to impose an artificial and distracting emphasis on "affliction sent by a god".) Arrowsmith clearly has the speaking voice in mind, not only in his cadences and his vigorous diction, but in the way he has blocked out the logic of the speech and the care he has paid to transitional passages: his lines are easy to deliver and to comprehend. Contrast P/N on Tantalus: unlike Arrowsmith (or Euripides, for that matter), they provide little initial indication of why this individual is being named or where the passage is going; instead, the audience must make it through a relative clause, an appositional phrase, and a parenthesis before learning that Tantalus "shoots through the sky" (something of a surprise, even for those who have read Willink, and confusing, since it is by no means clear how shooting through the sky is a bad thing). The fact that Tantalus also suffers a version of his famous punishment is brought in so late as to be virtually lost. (Part of the problem, here and throughout, are the apparently arbitrary line divisions and the prosaic rhythms, both of which make the verses difficult to deliver effectively.) Nor do things improve in the last of the lines quoted above. Again P/N offer grammatical complexity that yields neither force nor clarity. The audience must store up one subordinate construction after another in a repeated deferral of meaning ("According to ..., when he sat ..., a mere man ..., sick ...") before finally getting to the main clause ("shamefully / he let his tongue run away with him"), which manages to be wordy, prosaic, awkward, and (given the lengthy lead-in) bathetic, all at once.

The translation of the play's spoken passages continues in much the same vein, conveying the general sense of the Greek but in a manner that neither suggests the tone of the original nor finds any particular voice of its own. This might or might not come as a surprise to readers familiar with P.'s work, since he is a talented and sophisticated poet but one whose highly imagistic, compact style might have suggested that he was a better candidate for Aeschylus than for a late-Euripidean melodrama. Added to this is the by now familiar question of teaming Greek scholar with Greekless poet, a matter that has arisen in reviews of earlier offerings in this series. In this case the problem seems to be compounded by the imposing presence of Willink's commentary, to which P/N have paid scrupulous attention, but at the cost of producing a translation that receives higher marks for its studiousness than for its success as dramatic verse.

As a final sample, compare the ways in which N/P and Arrowsmith handle Helen's entrance:

Ah, Electra, daughter of Clytemnestra and Agamemnon!
Still unmarried, after all these years,
how are you, and how is your brother?
Speaking with you won't contaminate me,
for I ascribe the crime
to Apollo. Yet I mourn for Clytemnestra, my sister --
I never saw her again, once I had sailed off to Troy.
Fate and madness, sent by the gods, drove me there.
But now I feel her loss, and the sting of sorrow.
-- Peck/Nisetich

There you are.
Oh, dear Electra, Clytemnestra's daughter ....
But you poor girl, still not married!
And how are you dear?
And how is poor Orestes?
How you must suffer!
I can't believe it.
To murder your own mother! How horrible!
But there, dear, I know. You were not to blame.
The real culprit was Apollo. And for my part,
I can see no reason on earth for shunning you,
none at all.
And yet, poor Clytemnestra --
my only sister!
And to think I sailed for Troy
on that tragic voyage without even seeing her!
Some god must have driven me mad.
And now she is gone,
and I am the only one left to mourn for her....
-- Arrowsmith
Again there is no doubt that P/N are more accurate in their rendering, or that Arrowsmith takes liberties with the passage. On the other hand, Arrowsmith provides an interpretation not only of the Greek but of the character and the scene: his Helen comes vividly to life in her elaborate display of a feigned sympathy that fails to conceal her blithe indifference both to Electra's suffering and her own guilt. P/N seem uninterested in such matters. (Note, e.g., how the reference to Electra's unmarried state at line 85 is reduced to an awkward introductory tag.) Arrowsmith alters Euripides' text and imposes a specific understanding of the scene upon the reader, but his characterization of Helen can be defended. P/N's rendition presents a series of individual utterances that accurately reflect the general sense of the text but lack the coherence and weight of Euripides' verses and suggest little of Helen's character. It is difficult to imagine this speech succeeding in performance.

Lyric passages fare somewhat better. Consider the opening of the second stasimon (lines 807ff.):

The vast prosperity, the prowess
vaunting itself through Greece
and on to Troy by the banks of Simois
has ebbed again for Atreus' house,
drawn down
by the old violence
bursting out among the Tantalids
over the golden lamb,
gruesome banquetings
and dismemberings of princes,
grief after grief
traded in blood until
now it envelops the divided
heirs of Atreus!
This style of passage, with its series of troubling images, is clearly more congenial to P.'s muse. The lines read well, giving a vivid impression of the past crimes that continue to haunt the house of Tantalus. Even here, however, there are problems. The line divisions and the ordering of verses on the page reflect neither logic nor the metrical structures of the Greek. (The lack of an attempt to account for the different meters of the original is a problem throughout P/N, although N.'s notes provide some guidance.) The prominent "bursting" is an elaboration on the part of the translator, incorporated through an alteration of the original sentence structure (the important O(PO/TE of 812 is omitted, raising doubts about just what set of Tantalids is being discussed) and at the expense of Euripides' emphasis on the antiquity of the curse (PA/LAI PALAIA=S, 811) and its persistent nature (PA/LIN, 810).3 Most distressing is the hint of a grisly and unfortunate pun in the last lines ("divided / heirs"), reinforced by the pointed line division.

The acid test for any translation of the lyrics of Or., however, must be the Phrygian's "aria" at 1369ff. Arrowsmith's rendering of the passage captures the effect of the song but transforms the Phrygian into an Aristophanic-style caricature. As elsewhere, P/N provide a good general account of the Greek, but in distressingly prosaic terms. Here, e.g., are lines 1426-29 in P/N:

No, I happened to be standing
by Helen, wafting the ringlets on Helen's cheeks
in the Phrygian manner, with my
great round fan, softly fanning the air.
Contrast Arrowsmith:
No, no, no.
In Eastern way
with foreign fan of feathers, yes,
fan the hair of lady Helen,
rippling air, to and fro,
gently over cheeks of ma'am.
That P/N avoid Arrowsmith's pidgin-English is a gain; unfortunately, they also efface the agitation, the hint of ridiculousness, and the sheer excess of the Phrygian's song. At the same time their version does little to suggest that this is indeed a song, a hybrid of the traditional messenger speech and a late-Euripidean heroine's tragic lament. The challenge to the translator is to capture both the lyrical sophistication of the piece and its somewhat fruity silliness -- to suggest the effects, e.g., of the excessive anadiplosis yet produce a text that can be performed successfully in English. For the most part, P/N settle for straight translation.

The handling of the text presents another problem. While P/N use Murray's edition, at many points they follow the lead of Willink and/or West in deleting and transposing lines. A handful of these alterations are marked in the text and discussed in the accompanying notes (e.g., the deletion of 932-42, 1556-60, 1564-66, 1579-84), but many are not. Textual emendations and alterations in the attribution of lines are also passed over in silence. For the general reader such details will be unimportant; they will present difficulties, however, for instructors who attempt to use P/N in a class (an important potential market, one would think), particularly given the lack of detailed correlation between P/N's numeration and that of the Greek original. The selective use of square brackets is especially distressing in that it suggests an editorial rigor that has not in fact been applied throughout.

The notes to the translation are good (if sparse), nicely complementing various points raised in the introduction. Their effectiveness is marred, however, by the lack of end note references in the text. The glossary is serviceable, but not complete (as was first indicated to me by C. W. Marshall): e.g., there are no entries under Chrysothemis, Ida, Ilion, Malea, Ocean, or Simois; several proper names are glossed only in the textual notes, which can create confusion (e.g., for an explanation of who Danaos is at line <1696>, the reader must look back to the note on <915-16>).

The upshot is that, while there is much to criticize in P/N's rendition of Or., there is not a great deal to condemn -- it is reasonably accurate in capturing the essential meaning of the Greek and certainly diligent in taking account of recent work on the text. On the other hand, there is equally little to get excited about. Translating ancient Greek plays is a difficult and often thankless task. One of the greatest challenges lies in the variety of potential audiences that must be addressed -- professional classicists, teachers, the general reading public, those interested in staging ancient plays. P/N does not serve any of these groups particularly well: the first two will be concerned at the uncertainty of tone and the inadequate scholarly apparatus; all four are likely to remain uninspired by the verse. Those who would like to experience something of the intriguing peculiarity of Or. would be better advised to read Arrowsmith's version, for all of its quirkiness.

I append a series of notes on staging, textual matters, and other details of the translation.

STAGING: P/N tend to be conservative. Specific stage directions are kept to a minimum. Orestes employs an imaginary bow at 268ff. Orestes and Pylades do not appear at 1347; instead, 1347b-1348 are given to Electra. At 1366, the Phrygian enters normally, via the skene door (with 1366-68 to introduce him). Line 1505 is translated (probably incorrectly) to suggest that Orestes, like Pylades at 725, enters on the run. At 1525 the Phrygian goes to re-enter the palace only to be stopped by Orestes, who suddenly changes his mind about what to do with his feckless captive (1526a); accordingly, at 1536 the Phrygian exits via one of the eisodoi in order to inform Menelaus of Helen's fate. At 1567 Electra appears on the roof with Orestes, Pylades, and Hermione. Menelaus' cry at 1621 is taken as a general expression of despair, while 1622 is addressed to the attendants who entered with him at 1549 (see N. on <1696> and <1697>). At 1625 Apollo appears on a raised platform rather than on the mechane. Lines 1638-42 are transposed to follow 1663 (as in Willink), with TH=SDE at 1639 taken as an indication that Helen here joins Apollo on his platform. On the whole, there is little help provided for potential producers. What suggestions are provided can be problematic (see, e.g., lines <136-142>).

UNMARKED DELETIONS: 33, 51, 74, 82, 111, 127, 349b-51, 361, 441-42, 478, 536-37, 554, 593, 602-04, 644, 651, 663, 677, 772-73, 847-48, 852, 856, 907-13, 957-59, 1024, 1051, 1081, 1219, 1224, 1227-30, 1315-16, 1384, 1394, 1535, 1631-32. (Of the marked deletions [noted above], that at 1579-84 seems particularly ill advised: note, e.g., the special pleading in N.'s notes to <1661> and <1689>.) Many of these deletions are commonly accepted; those that are not seem to have been adopted, for the most part, on the authority of Willink. Notable instances where P/N do not follow Willink are the retention of 1049-50 and the treatment of 1347-48 and 1561-66.

SELECT EMENDATIONS OF MURRAY'S TEXT: <50>, <98-99>, <162>, <202>, <323>, <340>, <411>, <494>, <563-64>, <605>, <634>, <641>, <750>, <818a>, <861-67> (following Willink's punctuation and, in part, his interpretation), <1088>, <1097>, <1218>, <1228>, <1287>, <1458>, <1619>.

TRANSPOSITIONS: 257 follows 259; 262-63 follow 265; 339 and 340 are not transposed; 388 and 390 are transposed, appearing as <394> and <392>; 412-413 follow 423; 546-47 follow 550; 579-84 follow 590; 1638-42 follow 1663. P/N do not adopt Willink's suggested transpositions at 1600ff.

ATTRIBUTION OF LINES: Lines 960-64, 971-75, and 982-1012 are given to Electra; 965-70 and 976-81 to the chorus. Lines 1263-64 seem to be split between Electra and the Chorus. Lines 1297-98 are given to Electra; 1289-90, 1299-1300, and 1302ff. are given to the chorus.

SOME UNFORTUNATE OR INCORRECT RENDERINGS: "toiling men" (<181>); "black oracle" (<194> -- ME/LEON suggesting ME/LAN, or free invention?); "You say you won't, but in your mind ..." (<251>); "this gruesome agony" (<338>); "grown in the beds of the gods" (<352>); "pain" (<402> -- scarcely more clear than Orestes' earlier description of his ailment); "Do I need witnesses" (<540-41>); <553-54>; <556-58> and <574-75> (where the contrast O(/SIOS / A)NO/SIOS is lost and the ring composition obscured); <659> (where some reference is needed to the "duplicity" of Menelaus' pacing mirroring that of his thoughts); "not able to count on the friends I left behind" (<723>); "patriotic when it suits him" (<945>); "... see how fate presses / steadily against your hopes" (<1018-19>); "the corpse of Myrtilos" (<1037>); "flesh feast" (<1055> -- inspired by Tony Harrison's Oresteia?); "to the throne" (<1487>); "latrines" (<1500>).


  • [1] In Vellacott's Penguin translation Or appears with Hcld, Andr, Su, Phoen, and IA; in Grene and Lattimore, with Su, IA, and Rh. To my knowledge, Or is not included in any of the popular English language anthologies.
  • [2] P/N, pp. 8-9, citing M. L. West, ed., Euripides Orestes [Warminster, 1987], p. 28. (This comment by West seems to be the basis of the unsubstantiated statement on p. 18 [echoed on the back cover] that Or. "was performed more often than any tragedy in the ancient world".)
  • [3] The recent publication of Diggle's OCT adds to the difficulty of evaluating P/N. Whereas P/N tend to defer to Willink, Diggle often does not. (At 811, for instance, Diggle reads PA/LIN PALAIA=S.) To avoid confusion, I have omitted consideration of Diggle's text from my discussion.