Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 1999.10.40

Ruby Blondell, Mary-Kay Gamel, Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz, Bella Zweig, Women on the Edge: Four Plays by Euripides.   New York:  Routledge, 1999.  Pp. xv, 495.  ISBN 0-415-90774-8.  $22.99.  

Reviewed by Mary Ebbott, Harvard University (
Word count: 2392 words

This is not your father's translations of Euripides: these "women on the edge" are "the female protagonists of these plays [who] test the boundaries -- literal and conceptual -- of their lives" (xii). The four plays in this collection "offer examples of women who support the status quo and women who oppose and disrupt it. Sometimes these are the same characters" (x). Gender issues are front and center -- not a surprise given the interests of the well known scholars involved, who, with refreshing candor, acknowledge their own "location within history, within ideology" (xiii) and how this influences the process of translation (xii-xiv). Perhaps it is a testament to the acceptance or integration of feminist criticism into the scholarship on Euripides that the interpretations given here do not seem as "on the edge" as they might have even a few years ago. This frankness about the assumptions behind translation is especially important for students who read Greek literature in translation only and who may not think about the process of translation without having it highlighted for them. I read this collection particularly with undergraduate students in mind, although it will be of interest to anyone who wants to read Euripidean tragedy in historical and cultural context.

Besides showing students that there is more to translation than substituting the corresponding English words for the Greek, this collection also gives them something else, for it combines two frequently read plays of Euripides (Alcestis, Medea), with two that are less often read (Helen, Iphigenia in Aulis). But the translators are out for even more: their emphasis is on the cultural context of the plays. They want the reader to "locate these plays within their original social, cultural, and performance contexts" (xiii). To this end, they have included an extensive 85-page general introduction to the whole volume, which includes sections on "Athens and Greek Culture," "Athenian Tragedy: A Civic Institution," "Women in Athens," "Euripides," and "The 'Afterlife' of Euripides." These sections give background on general subjects such as political history and religion; Euripides, his works and reputation; and Athenian tragedy as an institution and in performance. It also includes more specific subjects such as concepts of "self and other" and Athenian "ideology of gender." The latter subjects are where the feminist readings are most apparent, but the important caveats given there about the nature of the evidence for women's lives and the discrepancy between ideology and practice demonstrate the contributions of feminist scholarship to our understanding of Greek tragedy. The discussions here also give a balanced introduction to modern scholarship on the topics, supported by the extensive bibliography.

Although the translators composed their own notes, some of their common features will prove valuable for students encountering these texts for the first time. The notes explain mythological references, and give at least a basic story for names mentioned in the text. They also explain key Greek words in the text, such as ξένος, χάρις, τύχη, σωφροσύνη, etc., note their thematic importance in the plays, and briefly explain textual matters like bracketed lines. My concern, however, is that these notes will not be used as much as they should be because of the difficulties of flipping back and forth from the text to the notes and of finding the notes of a particular play within the combined "Notes" section. The problem is that there is too much information here to be put on the page without disrupting the text, but that information is too valuable to languish in the back of the book.

The translations are each described as "literal" or "fairly literal" in their introductions, and they each follow the Greek line numbers. The authors explain, however, that in keeping with their "commitment to pluralities of interpretation" they have not "imposed a uniform style or format on the translations" (xiii). This lack of uniformity once again allows the process of translation to shine through, so that students and others may see that there is more than one way to translate a text of Euripides and also the choices that four individuals have made in approaching these four texts. The differences may also, however, lead readers to find some of the translations more useful than others, according to their own preferences in method or style.

I. Alcestis, translated with introduction and notes by Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz (NSR)

In her introduction to the play, NSR follows the interpretation she gave in her 1993 book.1 She argues that Alcestis is set up as a model of female behavior for willingly dying for her husband, and she also questions Admetos's masculinity. She emphasizes here, as in her book, that Alcestis ends up as a prize and an object of exchange and serves to strengthen bonds between men. NSR again considers the myth itself, treating such aspects as father-son rivalry, and ritual connections, such as those of death and marriage. In this introduction, however, NSR seems to have a student audience in mind, since she does not use as much technical theoretical language as she did in her book, and she provides more background on cultural elements, such as rituals and the conventions of hospitality. She also discusses the question of the play's genre and other interpretive issues, but she presents most of these as questions to consider, rather than arguing her particular position.

NSR's translation is as billed: literal, faithful to the Greek, but also approachable and readable. The translation is also conservative in some places where her interpretation is not: in the introductory discussion of Alcestis as a prize (102), NSR calls her Herakles's trophy "thrown in with the livestock" (line 1032), but the text of the translation reads more mildly: "this woman went along with them." In other cases, the notes suggest more subversive possibilities, which depend on interpretation. For example, lines 226-27 in NSR's translation read "Oh son of Pheres, how you have suffered,/ deprived of your wedded wife," translating ἔπραξας intransitively, as other translators do. But the note on these lines argues that ἔπραξας could be read as transitive (i.e., "Oh son of Pheres, what have you done") and thus constitute a reproach to Admetos (399). Thus the translation has the "standard" reading of ἔπραξας (cf. Dale,2 ad loc.), but NSR suggests multiple readings and hints at her own interpretive sympathies in the note.

II. Medea, translated with introduction and notes by Ruby Blondell (RB)

RB's introduction shows perhaps most readily how feminist readings of Euripidean tragedy have moved from the edge closer to the center. Is it any longer surprising to read in a discussion of this play that "Medea represents the threat posed by female subjectivity and independent will, especially the active exercise of women's erotic desire" (159)? RB gives a full and balanced discussion of interpretive topics such as Medea as "Other" (where she draws several modern parallels); the marriage of Medea and Jason; and how Euripides' play makes oppositions such as male/female, Greek/barbarian, and human/divine problematic. RB also reviews the mythical background, relating the various traditions about Medea and Jason and the death of their children.

RB has produced a metrical translation, the only one in this collection. She uses an English iambic hexameter for the dialogue and anapests where the Greek has anapests, but no specific meter for the Greek lyrics. She makes the disclaimer that she will have to stray at times from the Greek because of the meter, but nevertheless her translation is for the most part faithful and clear. RB's notes explain some intricacies of the Greek, such as the note on line 606 (which has γαμέω in the active), and explains her translation:

605 Jason: You chose this [i.e., exile] for yourself; cast blame on no one else.
606 Medea: How so? Did I betray you? Did I take a wife?

The note then explains that the translation reflects that Medea's line "uses a verb form normally confined to men." Although only two lines, this example also shows how readable and even attractive her verse translation is. RB also includes notes on scholarly disputes, such as the interpretation of lines 1078-1080, which she translates as "I understand the evil I'm about to do,/ and yet my raging heart is stronger than my plans -- / the heart which causes mortal kind the greatest evils." The long note then explains the controversies surrounding this speech, including the questions about "my plans" vs. "raging heart" and the textual emendations made by various editors. She also states her own view that "Medea is saying that her decision has been made and planned out rationally and with full awareness but that her thumos drives her in the same direction even more powerfully" (428). It is this kind of straightforward explanation of the problems involved in the text, in interpretation, and therefore in translation that is so valuable in this volume.

III. Helen, translated with introduction and notes by Bella Zweig (BZ)

In her introduction to the play, BZ argues that the Helen foregrounds attention to the construction of gender identity within the ideals of beauty for women and martial valor for men. And, "In the end," she says, "what seems to remain most puzzling is how we are meant to understand the value of beauty" (235). Her argument treats the "poetic background" of the myths and also rituals concerning Helen. Throughout the introduction, BZ stresses the ambiguities involved in both the traditional figure of Helen (she reviews portrayals of Helen in Homer, Sappho, Aeschylus, Stesichorus, Herodotus, Gorgias, and other plays of Euripides) and in this play as a whole. BZ explores the Helen as a "play of ideas," with issues such as illusion vs. reality, the nature of divinity, and even the idea of tragedy within the play's own dramatic form. She ends with a brief summary of the figure of Helen in later literature and the influence of this play on Athenian drama, and then describes her translation, noting briefly that the manuscript is problematic.

In her translation, BZ tries "to capture both the literal and connotative meanings of the Greek, and to reflect to some extent the rhythm of the dramatic presentation" -- no easy task while keeping the same number of lines. It seems for the most part that the literal wins out: some examples from Helen's prologue, lines 31-32: "Meanwhile, Hera, upset that she didn't defeat the goddesses, blew my marriage to Alexander away into thin air," with "blew away into thin air" for ἐξηνέμωσε. Sometimes this literalness can lead to less polished English -- such as "his son hunts to marry me" (line 62), using the very literal meaning of θηρᾷ instead of a smoother word such as "seeks" or "pursues". But in both these cases, the imagery involved in the literal meaning is important, so the literalness has its value. On the other hand, the "connotative" leads to additions such as in line 41, explaining the divine causes behind the Trojan War: "and in order to make Achilles famous as the greatest hero of Greece," where the Greek does not mention Achilles by name but merely says "to make known the best/strongest of Greece." The note to this line says that a major theme of the Iliad is the glorification of Achilles, but a reader would not know from the notes that an interpretation was made here. Interpretive issues also come into a translation of γάμους as "rape" (line 190), where the note explains stories about Pan but not the choice of the English word for the Greek; a more straightforward explanation for why "marriage" with Pan might be interpreted and translated differently than γάμος in another context would be helpful here.

IV. Iphigenia at Aulis, translated with introduction and notes by Mary-Kay Gamel (MKG)

MKG tackles the play with the most difficult textual problems. She accepts the manuscript ending as genuine, a position with which few Euripidean scholars would agree. She argues in the footnote to line 1531 that although many editors consider the end an interpolation, "the dramaturgy, including the false ending and the ambiguous resolution, seems utterly Euripidean," (477) but she might have said more in the introduction about the textual problems.

In the introduction MKG treats "Euripides' IA as a Text" with a "structural analysis ... focusing particularly on the movement from conflict to resolution" (311) and the blurring of categories such as divine/human, public/private, Greek/barbarian, free/slave, male/female. She argues that the IA makes the audience rethink the Iliad and Agamemnon. Then MKG considers the IA in performance in some detail, including subjects from the physical theater, its lighting and costumes, to the music and dancing in performance, indications of gender, and "metatheatricality." Within these subjects, she suggests how the details of the production might affect its reception by the audience. This leads to her discussion of the historical context of its performance at the end of the Peloponnesian War, but again with emphasis on the play's refusal of "any definitive judgment of its meaning (either in its original context or later)" (327). The notes give background on many cultural subjects such as class tensions, mechanics of letter writing, related vase paintings (especially for the first choral ode), the opposition of logos/ergon, the conflation of marriage and death (with references to scholarship), other wedding customs, including the roles of males and females in the wedding arrangements and rituals, the "heroic code," and matters of performance such as the description of facial appearance in dialogue versus the masks the actors are wearing, and changes of meters and its effect.

MKG's translation "follows the diction and word order of the original closely with little attempt to evoke the poetic effects of the original." One sees the loss of poetic effect when, for example, she translates ἀνάγκης ζεύγματα as "unavoidable trap" (line 443), losing the imagery of the yoke. Hers seems the most colloquial translation of the collection: she gives "trashy wife" for κακὸν λέχος (line 389), "brains" for νοῦν (line 374), "Shut up!" for ἔχ' ἥσυχος (line 1133), and various renderings of emphatic expressions like φεῦ as "Hmmm!" (line 710) and "Ughhh!" (line 1124) and οἴμοι as "Damn." (line 742). Reactions to this style of translation will vary. Nevertheless, the volume as a whole provides a good introduction to feminist reading of these plays, accessible translations, helpful background material, and openness about the translators' methods. It is a valuable addition to translations of Euripidean tragedy.


1.   Rabinowitz, Nancy Sorkin, Anxiety Veiled: Euripides and the Traffic in Women. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1993.
2.   Dale, A.M., Euripides' Alcestis. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1954.

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