Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.02.15

David Kovacs (trans.), Euripides: Suppliant Women, Electra, Heracles. Loeb Classical Library, vol. 2.   Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press, 1998.  Pp. viii, 455.  ISBN 0-674-99566-X.  $18.95.  

Reviewed by Marianthe Colakis, Berkeley Preparatory School.
Word count: 696 words

This is the third volume in the revised Loeb series of Euripides plays, covering three tragedies generally dated between 423-416 BCE. For information on Euripides' biographical tradition, his appearances in Old Comedy, fourth-century judgments of Euripides' art, a discussion of fifth-century staging, and a general bibliography, the reader is referred back to Volume 1.

Volume 3, like its predecessors, presents a new Greek text as well as a new translation. The present text owes a great deal to the Oxford text of James Diggle (Oxford 1984, 1981, 1994). As Kovacs stated in his introduction to Volume 1, "Diggle has made substantial improvements, sometimes by adopting neglected emendations, sometimes by proposing his own, and sometimes by defending the reading of the manuscripts against attack. If I have sometimes adopted different solutions to the problems he has raised, I record my gratitude to his edition for raising them." (LCL Euripides 1, 1994, 37). A departure from the practice of previous volumes is the treatment of lyric verse. Kovacs has marked passages as lyric by translating them line-by-line to match the Greek.

Kovacs' translation offers a much-needed update of the previous Loeb translations by A.S. Way, first published in 1912. The archaisms and forced rhymes have been eliminated. Compare these two versions in Heracles (called Madness of Hercules in the older edition) of the Chorus' reaction to the death-cries of Lycus (750-754):

Hark to the outburst! -- as music it is for mine ears to hear
That strain ringing sweet through the halls: lo, death is exceeding near.
This king shrieketh prelude of slaughter: he shrieketh in anguish of fear.
Lycus (within):
Oh Cadmus' land, by treachery am I slain!
As thou wouldst slay. Flinch not from vengeance-pain:
Thine own deeds' retribution dost thou gain.

In Kovacs' version this becomes:

In the house begins the song
I love to hear! His death is not far off!
They prelude his murder,
The king's shouts and groans!
Lycus (within):
You citizens of Thebes, I am being treacherously slain!
Yes, for treacherously you slew! You must steel yourself to
pay in full for your misdeeds.

The translation is still not particularly speakable or actable, however. It would be difficult to distinguish verse from prose if the former were not written in lines of irregular length. The compactness of the Greek is frequently lost: the 3-word line gerôn geronta parakomiz[e] (Heracles 126) becomes the 9-word translation "Help an old man along, though you yourself are old." A touching conclusion to the preface states that "This volume carries a proud father's dedication to his daughter, to whose growing love of the theater he hopes it will contribute." (vii) I hope that it fulfills this purpose for Ellen Kovacs, but it is difficult to imagine its doing so for the rest of us. The translator should not be disproportionately blamed; rather, the question should be raised: What is the purpose of the Loeb Classical Library? If it aims to provide authoritative texts together with readable translations and scholarship introducing the Greek or Roman author, it succeeds admirably. But if its goals include translations that stand on their own as works of literature, I know of no volume that fully meets the criterion. (Prose comes closer than poetry.)

On a more positive note, the introductions to the plays are helpful and occasionally (in the case of the Electra) provocative. Kovacs refutes the generally-accepted view that Euripides' version of this tragedy "is bent on killing tragedy and dancing on its grave" (143), pointing out that much of this case rests on material of doubtful authenticity. He refers the reader to his 1989 article in BICS "Euripides, Electra 518-44: Further Doubts about Genuineness." The lines in question are those in which Euripides supposedly mocks Aeschylus' recognition scene in Choephoroi. He also points out that humble settings in high art are as old as the Odyssey; and that Aeschylus' Oresteia also contained bits of humor (the nurse Cilissa's lines about washing Orestes' dirty diapers).

As the author of The Heroic Muse (Baltimore, 1987), of the Perseus Encyclopedia entry, and many other articles on Euripides, Kovacs is an excellent choice for editor of these volumes. We await future volumes to complete the corpus.

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