Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.03.08

David R. Slavitt, Palmer Bovie , Menander.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.  Pp. 277.  ISBN 0-8122-3444-8.  $40.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-8122-1652-0.  $17.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Wilfred Major, Saint Anselm College (
Word count: 1593 words

This new translation of five plays of Menander appears among the first half-dozen volumes of the highly publicized Penn Greek Drama Series. The producers of the series have these and the ensuing volumes "promise to become the standard for decades to come." The series has come in for harsh criticism.1 Indeed, the boldness to assert such dominance before the series has even appeared, in the face not only of the Complete Greek Tragedy from Chicago but also a whole herd of fresh translations of tragedy and Aristophanes in recent years, is bound to invite scepticism. The volume on Menander, however, would seem to have an advantage since, aside from scattered translations of individual plays, only one substantial collection of Menander's plays and major fragments is available, Norma Miller's Penguin.2 Miller's edition is solid and respectable, but it is conceivable for a new collection to rival, surpass, or at least provide an alternative to it. Unfortunately, the Penn Menander cannot be said to do so.

The book contains five plays: The Grouch (Dyskolos) translated by Sheila D'Atri, Desperately Seeking Justice (Epitrepontes), Closely Cropped Locks (Perikeiromene), and The Shield (Aspis) by D'Atri in collaboration with Palmer Bovie, and The Girl from Samos (Samia) by Richard Elman. Thus the volume starts off at an immediate disadvantage, for Miller's Penguin contains the remaining portions of a number of other plays, including notably the Misoumenos and the handy inclusion of the Dis Exapaton fragment side-by-side with Plautus' adaption of it in Bacchides.

Some features of the Penn volume will no doubt immediately startle readers familiar with Menander. First of all, every play appears complete. In an effort to make the plays read smoothly rather than be bogged down with notations about lacunose papyri and plot reconstructions, the translators have smoothed over smaller gaps and filled in larger ones. In some cases this simply means bending lines which are in fact separated by gaps in the papyri to follow one another. In extreme cases, it means the interpolation of entire scenes, such as virtually all of Acts 4 and 5 of The Shield. Moreover, in pursuit of complete texts the translators have supplied brief choral songs between the acts, although they have been omitted since at least Alexandrian times, may never have been composed by Menander, and in fact may never have existed at all (the interludes could have been instrumental and possibly improvised, for example). I am quite sympathetic to the desire to produce a smooth, readable text of Menander, especially if it would give directors and actors a reasonable chance to produce more Menander on stage. But a certain degree of scholarly honesty is in order.

Anyone, scholar, student, teacher, or conscientious and curious reader, faces a daunting if not impossible task in determining where Menander ends and modern interpolation begins in this volume. The translation has line numbers corresponding only to the translation itself, with no correspondence to any other line numbering system anywhere. Suppose someone were interested in identifying the true Menandrean lines from the concluding act of the Epitrepontes. An original choral ode introduces the act (lines 888-95 in the translation). Chairestratos begins a monologue, with the initial badly damaged lines of his speech ignored (lines 896-906 correspond to 982-89 in Handley's OCT), but with an inexplicable extra line (see below). Some invented dialogue between Chairestratos and Onesimos (907-1078) follows, filling in a lengthy gap in the papyri until Chairesios comes on stage and the Greek text reemerges. Several lines in the translation include the substance of the next surviving Greek lines (978-81 encompassing the sense of Handley's 1060-61), along with few extra lines following (980-84), although there is no gap in the Greek text here. With line 985 of the translation, correspondence with the Greek text resumes, aside from an intruded gloss about Euripides's Auge, until the Greek text breaks off for good (985-1073 = 1062-1131 Handley). More created dialogue closes the play (lines 1074-1108). Whereas the introduction to the play mentions the gaps in the early scenes and admits interpolating the divine prologue, there is not a word about our loss of crucial parts of this final act. Similarly in Aspis, where the less than 20 lines that survive of the last two acts swell to over 150 lines of translation, the introduction is silent on the matter. If the desire to keep the text uncluttered is so strong, the editors could at least have included an appendix mapping out the additions and provided a correspondence to some standard numbering system.

With close correspondence to the Greek text shredded like the papyrus fragments themselves, these translations must compensate by providing more in the dramatic force, poetic energy, and stylistic verve in their English. Although the introduction suggests these are verse translations, poetry is rare in these pages. For lively and sharp English, Miller's prose translation consistently outstrips these attempts. For example, προάγει γὰρ τῶν πραγμάτων ἐμπειρία of Dyskolos 29 appears rather literally as "Experience in living brought him up," while Miller offers the epigrammatic "Experience matures a man," which captures the broader sentiment and Menander's compactness. For a more extended example, consider the following rendering of Chairestratos's speech from the last act of Epitrepontes:

After all these revelations, consider
yourself, Chairestratos, and how to keep
your friendship with Charisios intact.
He's faithful to me now, just as he was,
and she's no simple playmate stopping by.
It's serious, and now she's borne a child.
Also, her mind is like a mind that's free.
Oh, I wish I were at peace. Do not think
about that harp-girl, I still tell myself,
and yet I see the two of them alone,
Chairisios, who's dearest now to her,
and I must keep my distance as a friend,
and only hope that I can soon forget her.
I should leave what I can't have, like the wolf
with gaping jaws, who sees what he desires
but knows that it is out of reach.

Much in this passage reads like tentative drafts still in need of revision to capture the broader flow. The speech sounds more like distracted desperation than the attempt at reflective assessment that it should be. The supplements to the Greek (the fourth line, most curiously, and the last five) only expand on the discursiveness. Miller, by contrast, accomplishes more with less:

[brooding] Contrariwise, Chairestratos, you have to consider the inevitable consequence. How do you propose to continue to be Chairisios' loyal friend? She's not a common tart, who's available to anyone. It's serious, she's had a child, she's no slave. [Pause] Oh, stop it! Forget her! Let her first have a tête-à-tête with her "dearest, sweetest Chairisios" ...

Within Chairestratos' aporia, Miller delineates the turns of thought. The sharpness compensates for the loss of the end of the speech better than the inapposite simile of the wolf supplied by D'Atri and Bovie.

Sometimes missed opportunities result in misrepresenting a scene. The old tutor who opens Aspis seems to express quasi-tragic grief, while the accounting metaphors in his Greek are overlooked -- a critical distortion. Such difficulties are sadly the norm in this collection. For the curious, I add a representative of the newly created choral interludes (Desperately Seeking Justice 888-95):

From Mount Olympus Zeus has poured down rain,
but now the day is clear for honeyed wine.
Let's drink beyond capacity and again,
and keep it flowing for your guests and mine.
Head for the krater, get your greatest bowl
for wine that is a mirror to the soul.
We'll celebrate our narrow escape from grief
and bind our heads with wreaths of myrtle leaf.

It's hard to imagine such stuff inspiring new interest in Menander. The best of the translations is the late Richard Elman's Samia. At times he brings some real gusto to his rendition (too much at other times: it is hard to imagine a Menandrean character referring to another, especially his own son, as "You shit!" from line 752). Uninitiated readers may find intriguing the explicit references to abortion and breast feeding, but these of course belong to the reconstructed portions.

The introductory material matches the quality of the translations, filled with disjointed statements like this one about the nurse Simiche in Dyskolos, "Old women are frequently treated harshly in the comedies, but this one is hardly real -- her presence jolts the action and changes the mood" (p.6). One frequently waits in vain for basic information or at least a coherent paragraph.

I take no pleasure in dissecting the shortcomings of this volume. Translation is a vitally important act and critically so with the reality that many more people will come into contact with classical drama through English than Greek or Latin, and I support any attempt to revise and improve our canon of translations. While much of the controversy about the Penn series has focused on the use of Greekless translators, I do not have objections in principle to this procedure. Indeed, near as I can tell, the least classically trained contributor to this volume produced the best of the translations and gifted poets have contributed to outstanding translations (Janet Lembke and C.J. Herington's devastating rendition of Aeschylus' Persians comes to mind). Nor do I object to spicing translations for contemporary, broad audiences, but those seeking more exciting translations would do better to seek out the brash translations courtesy of Hackett Publishing (such as Stanley Lombardo's Iliad and Peter Meineck's Oresteia). It is unfortunate that the product falls so far short of the goals of the Penn series, but we can remain grateful for Miller's fine edition.


1.   See Daniel Mendelsohn, "Brush Up Your Aeschylus," New York Times Book Review Vol. 148 July 19, 1998 pp. 14-15 and the quick overview at Chronicle of Higher Education Vol. 44 Issue 47 July 31, 1998 p.13.
2.   Norma Miller, Menander: Plays and Fragments (New York: Penguin, 1987). Arnott's 3-volume Loeb of Menander is as yet incomplete and as much a scholarly edition with translation as an accessible set of translations, not to mention unwieldy as a classroom text.

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