Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.7.24

W.S. di Piero (trans.) and P. Burian (comm.), Euripides' Ion. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996. $7.95. ISBN 0-19-509451-4.

Reviewed by Ian C. Storey, Ancient History & Classics, Trent University, Peterborough, Ontario, Canada,

Although not one of the mainstream Greek tragedies, Euripides' Ion has much to recommend it to today's reader or dramatic producer. After all, it has that favourite of modern themes, the coming-of-age (or if you prefer, a loss of innocence) of an attractive young man, and possesses one of Euripides' greatest female roles, Kreousa, raped and abandoned by a god, married for political expediency, and ultimately childless. Add to this a dash of political jingoism, Euripides' well-known questioning of traditional myth and deity, two of his celebrated monodies (one unusually by a male), and a plot that more than a little foreshadows the shape of comedy to come, and you have a play that should feature prominently in the modern classical curriculum. Ion can be used in myth-courses (an excellent text on Apollo), drama-in-translation courses, and also in women-in-antiquity courses, since Kreousa exemplifies in miniature the plight of ancient women.1

Most readers in translation will have encountered Ion in either Willetts' blank verse rendition, reasonably done but with a heavily ironic reading of the role of Apollo ("Euripides has done his best to destroy the basis of faith"), a reading that finds its way into the stage directions at the end, or the Penguin version by Vellacott, with the iambics rendered in prose and only the choruses and monodies in verse. Vellacott also adopts a skewed reading of the play, in the ironic tradition of Verrall, that casts Apollo in a similarly bad light. The new addition to The Greek Tragedies in New Translations, it will be seen, presents a marvellously balanced introduction to the play, but the translation unfortunately falls far short of the expectations raised.

Burian begins his introduction (3-18) by observing that Ion is a play "that refuses to stay put". It is indeed one of the great battlegrounds in Euripides. Do we take it as a bitter attack on Apollo, a rejection by the poet of traditional views of myth and the gods? Or do we see the benign guiding hand of Apollo throughout (Burnett)? Is the Athenian theme a denunciation of patriotism or a paean to Athens' greatness? Should we concentrate rather on Kreousa, who will lead us into feminist and gender-based readings (Rabinowitz)? Or perhaps a structuralist interpretation that focuses on the antithesis of mythical structures (Rosivach)? A completely different approach is to tackle the genre, Romantic Tragedy (Conacher), tragicomedy (Kitto), or deliberate "transgression" into comic space (Bowie, Segal).

Burian's introduction admirably takes no sides and leads the reader clearly through all possible views of the play. He outlines his essential approach on page 5: "The play shows ... that in the world the two [good and evil] are always and inextricably linked, indeed, are often the same thing differently experienced, differently understood. As the elaborate plot unfolds, any claim to final certainty about good and evil is undercut", and Burian analyzes the many crucial doublets in the play (recognition-scenes, parentage, murder attempts, autochthony v. 'normal' birth) along these lines. Especially good were his comments on Euripides' use of myth (12-16), and his sensible conclusion -- "Euripides seems not to challenge the authority of myth (as an earlier generation of rationalist critics argued) but rather to assume it for the sake of argument and then to tease out the deeply disturbing consequences of that assumption" (12) -- stands in marked contrast to the strongly stated ironic readings of Vellacott and Willetts. Ultimately Burian adopts an optimistic view of the universe behind Ion and of Apollo's role in it, and here I do take issue. He does not take into account Euripides' iconoclastic views of deity in plays such as Hippolytos, Trojan Women and Bacchae, with which the Apollo of Ion fits well, and ignores plays such as Iphigeneia among the Taurians and Elektra where we might reasonably have expected Apollo to appear -- his defence of Athene's appearance at the end of Ion as "logical enough" is not convincing and downplays v. 1558 -- and particularly Orestes where Apollo is alastor rather than saviour. We need to place Ion within its larger Euripidean context, rather than treat it as a single play in isolation. That said, Burian's introduction is an excellent balance of approaches and deserves inclusion in any future collection of essays on Euripides.

The translation, on the other hand, was in a word disappointing. Before I assess the "poetry" of this translation, I would make the following observations about presentation and some specific points. First are the frequent and annoying line over-runs (three on the first page, for example) which distract and break up the text in an unintended manner. Of the actual breaks in the opening of the prologue at vv. 7 and 28, the first is not marked. The left margins are ample enough to have prevented these over-runs, and would have resulted in a more attractive finish.

Second, I noted with approval that in Ion's monody di Piero's translation clearly marks out the three distinct sections, anapests (82-111), lyric (112-43), and melic anapests (144-83); neither of the alternative translations makes these divisions clear. But Ion's lyric middle section is rendered in an unstructured free verse: "Radiant work/Day after day/My broom of laurel whisking/Water kissed/Reborn/Where everflowing streams/Burst from sacred myrtle leaves/All day/I toil/Sweeping clean the sacred shrine/while the sun's wing soars", that rather resembled beat verse of the 1950s/1960s, poetry meant to be recited or declaimed rather than sung. The chorus at 452ff. was similarly handled, and rather reminded me of Aristophanes' wicked parody of Euripidean lyrics at Frogs 1309ff., so well rendered by Barrett ("Sea birds/Over the wavetops wheeling, chattering,/Wee birds!Wing tips dip etc."). The reader needs to realize that these lyrics are formal elements to be sung, equivalent to an aria in grand opera or the hit tune of an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical.

At line 1618b di Piero rightly (I think) attributes the line to Ion; Willetts gives it to Kreousa complete with elaborate stage directions, while Vellacott prints Ion in the text, although in the notes preferring Kreousa. Much of the ironic interpretation depends on Ion being silent at the end or speaking with irony or even sarcasm. There is no mention of this crux in either the introduction or the notes.

I looked in detail at Ion's soliloquy (429-51), an important moment in the play, containing the beginnings of Ion's development, his reaction to Apollo's transgression, and one of Euripides' classic one-liners about gods (439/40, "since you have power, pursue virtue"). First how accurate is di Piero? In 429 his "strange woman" mistranslates CE/NH ("stranger", with all that this theme implies in the play), and "talk so wildly against Apollo" misses both the "hidden meanings" (LO/GOISIN KRUPTOI=SIN) and the verb "talk in riddles" (AI)NI/SSETAI). I liked his "what is the daughter of Erechtheus to me?" with its echoes of Hamlet and Hecuba, but his rendering of TI/ PA/SXEI as "what is he doing" is off the mark ("what's the matter with Apollo" is closer). In 437/8 neither di Piero nor Willetts catches the plurals (PARQE/NOUS, PAI=DAS); Ion is extrapolating from the single event to a general rule. In the next line, "You have such power,/your power ought to serve what's right" is too wordy and clumsy (see above). In 441 he translates O(/STIS A)\N BROTW=N KAKO\S PEFU/KH| as "if a man acts badly", but the Greek focuses on a "bad man" rather than on "bad deeds" -- see the closing lines of the play. On first reading his use of "rape" twice (437, 445) for BI/A| GAMW=N, BIAI/WN GA/MWN seemed to carry too much modern baggage, but as the law on rape was a DI/KH BIAI/WN, it probably does have the sense intended (see also Kreousa's subsequent description at 881ff.).2 For 447 his "What a price you'd pay! Your temples/ would be empty, lifeless, barren" expands far beyond the original ("you would empty your temples paying for your wrong-doing"). At the end he has combined A)DIKEI=T' and OU)KE/T' ... DI/KAION into one "it is not right", thus running the last two sentences together and missing the antithesis of Ion's conclusion: "or to blame us for copying what you consider good. You are our teachers" (di Piero) as against "it is no longer right to call men bad, since we are <only> imitating the gods' splendid examples, but rather those who have taught us this".

This is typical of di Piero's version throughout, that it misses the exact meaning of the original and at times misleads rather than translates. But even more problematic are the overall tone and feel. The avowed aim of this series of translations is to recreate or transplant the original into something with power, and such is not the result here. There are some good and powerful moments (e.g. the central section of Kreousa's monody [881-906]), but too often the level falls to the commonplace and even the banal. Take for instance the first two lines; line 1 is good -- "Atlas! Bronze-backed Titan stooped forever" and promises well, but the next -- "under the grinding weight of the house of the gods" -- with its "of"-phrases dissolves the mood. The frequent contractions and colloquial language ("really", "anyway", "let yourselves go") do not help to raise the tone. Line-lengths of the iambics vary from eight to twelve syllables, making it impossible to develop any sense of oral rhythm; I tried reading various sections out loud, but found it impossible to maintain any sustained eloquence. Indeed, how would one speak or perform this translation with any "tragic" or "poetic" feeling? In this respect it contrasts unfavourably with Robert Bagg's Hippolytos in the same series which the Classics Drama Group at my university performed with great results in 1994. Add the dissonant effects of the translation and the result was disappointing and anti-climactic.

So who will use this translation? It clearly will not be a crib for upper-year Greek courses; such students will find Kovacs' Loeb (when it eventually reaches the Ion) or Kevin Lee's forthcoming entry in the Aris & Phillips series more to their liking. Is it performable? Will the aspiring producer use it as the book for a staging? Probably not, since the colloquial level, uneven feel, and lack of stage-directions combine to produce an unappealing result. Perhaps this new translation of Ion will be used most often by readers in the study or in translation-courses, but more for the excellent introduction than the text itself.


1. In this regard has anyone ever noticed that just as Kreousa will be defined throughout the play by the "men in her life" (her kyrioi so to speak): father (Erechtheus), husband (be it Apollo or Xouthos), and son (Ion), so too the play opens with another woman thus defined, Maia: by her father (Atlas), 'husband' (Zeus), and son (Hermes)?

2. See N.S. Rabinowitz, Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the traffic in women (Cornell 1993) 197-201.