Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.08.09

David R. Slavitt, Palmer Bovie, Euripides, 4. Ion, Children of Heracles, The Madness of Heracles, Iphigenia in Tauris, Orestes.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvaia Press, 1999.  Pp. 408.  ISBN 0-8122-1697-0.  $19.95.  

Reviewed by Sarah K. Torrence, Miss Porter's School (
Word count: 3151 words

Reviews of the volumes in the new Penn Greek Drama Series certainly have been mixed. The question most likely on the mind of readers of BMCR concerns the viability and reliability of these texts for undergraduate courses. In this respect, the series does offer some general advantages over the Chicago series, which has long been the standard in the classroom. However, the criticisms levelled at the Penn series raise serious and legitimate concerns about the quality of a number of the translations included. I will address first the series as a whole, its advantages and its limitations, followed by a comment on each of the individual translations in this volume, beginning with the purposes stated in the translator's preface.

Palmer Bovie's introduction, which provides a brief (3 pp.) comment on the history of Greek tragedy, followed by an introduction to the life and work of the poet whose works are being presented, is reprinted in each volume. Its inclusion in every volume is helpful to the student who most likely will purchase only one of them for an undergraduate survey course. The introduction is far from comprehensive, and it would have been helpful, as Dale Grote suggests in reviewing Sophocles, 1 (BMCR 00.3.15), if the editors had altered this introduction to be more relevant to each specific volume, to give the student or general reader a sense of how the plays being presented fit into the playwright's work as a whole. But the editor provides enough information to suggest the original context of the plays, without getting the introductory student bogged down in scholarship. Students should certainly be informed about the complexity of the study both of the history of tragedy and of the lives of the poets, and they should be encouraged to follow the leads offered in this introduction to begin further research.

Besides the presence of the general introduction in each volume, another advantage of the Penn series is the "Pronouncing Glossary of Names." In addition to providing useful pronunciation help for the less experienced reader, this enables the translator to avoid the necessity of glossing a name within the translation. For example, at Ion 216-218, Roberts is able to retain the reference to βρόμιος ... βαχεύς as "Bromios ... the Bacchants' god" (Roberts trans., line 213) without further explanation. This contrasts with Willetts' translation of the lines in the Chicago series: "Bacchus, the boisterous god".1 In the glossary to the Penn edition, "Bromios" is explained as "Name for Dionysus, meaning 'the tumultuous one.'" In addition to affording the translator more flexibility in her translation, this introduces the student or reader to the Greek use of epithets as part of a god's or hero's name.

The main complaint against the series comes from academics, and the problem which they have noted is not a small one for those readers in search of a scholarly approach. Among the most recent reviewers, Dale Grote comments, "One reason for the discomfort among classicists is the series' use of the word 'translations' for these productions, when clearly they're not in any normal sense of the word. Many or most of the translators are without Greek ... If they had been called 'versions' or 'adaptations' or 'simultaneous acts of inspiration' -- anything but 'translations' -- much of the angst among classicists could have been avoided" (BMCR 00.03.15). In a statement facing the title page of each volume, the editors themselves assert, "The aim of the series is to make this cultural treasure accessible, restoring as faithfully as possible the original luster of the plays and offering in living verse a view of what talented contemporary poets have seen in their readings of these works so fundamental a part of Western civilization." The editors have, it seems, allowed a great deal of room for the individual translators to determine for themselves wherein lies the "original luster" of the plays and to convey that in their own "living verse." Given this opening statement, it seems fair to expect that the translations are not primarily to be considered an exercise in classical philology. In the current volume, Euripides, 4, four of the five translators are primarily poets. However, all five seem to have some familiarity with the Greek text and at least some sense of Euripides' style and vocabulary.

The translators contributing to Euripides, 4 express different approaches. In her preface to Ion, Roberts states, "In translating Ion I have tried to engage the reader in the story and to sustain the uncertainties and contradictions that further engage us even as they distance and disconcert us ... I have tried to write a translation that I would like to teach: one that the reader will experience as poetry and as drama, and one that insofar as is possible represents fairly where it cannot replicate the verbal texture of Euripides' play" (p. 8). It is clear throughout both her introduction and her translation that Roberts has worked closely and carefully with the Greek text in its various editions, and her translation is scholarly, accurate, and eminently readable. Roberts warns her reader that "misrepresentation is inherent in translation; not only translators' interpretations but their idiosyncratic solutions to problems will come between the reader and the text" (p. 8).

It is fortunate that the volume opens with her Ion, as she offers insight into the difficulties and ambiguities of dealing with works in translation, and her preface will help the teacher to caution his or her students against taking translations as adequate representations of the Greek text, rather than as acts of interpretation. Roberts provides a detailed explanation of her decisions in translating the important word γάμος in its various occurrences in the play. Here she both reveals the care with which she has dealt with the Greek text, and provides the student with a valuable and clear basic introduction to the difficulties inherent in translation. She also notes that hers "is one of three very recent versions in English, all quite different," and she suggests that the interested reader consult all three of them, in addition to "H.D.'s imagistic version", which Roberts calls "a work of literature in its own right" (p. 11). This reminds readers that no one translation can be taken alone as the "authoritative" English version of Euripides' work.

Roberts' translation is very thorough and accurate. She is at least as literal as Willets, more so than Velacott,2 and yet her Ion is more elegant and readable than either. She is the only translator in the current volume who has indicated clearly in her introduction not only which edition of the Greek she has primarily followed (Diggle's 1981 OCT), but also those places where she has departed from that edition's reading and why. It becomes clear as one reads through the volume that she is the only translator included who is primarily a classical scholar. At the same time, she presents an extraordinarily accessible and enjoyable version of the play.

J.T. Barbarese asserts in his preface to Children of Heracles, "I worked toward a text that was readable, if not actually speakable, and if not on Broadway then in those venues where plays are read ... If not as accurate as the versions whose unspeakability makes them useless as scripts, this one is founded on indebtedness to good scholarship and a humility before strugglers against different odds -- and, I gather, toward different goals -- as well as an equally warm admiration for Euripides" (p. 96). Unlike Roberts, Barbarese characterizes himself openly as "relieved of the primary role of translator" (p. 96), and he bases his adaptation more on the translations of those who have gone before than on the original Greek. Barbarese is, however, familiar with the Greek text of Heracleidae, and in his preface he places it within the context of the history of Greek tragedy as he understands it. He defends his use, for the most part, of rhyming couplets in a variety of meters as a combination of his experience of the poetry of the Greek itself and of various examples English poetic diction. He does not address issues of textual problems, "out of candid self-interest," stating only the following at the close of his preface: "My first encounter with the bare Greek text left me with a clear and chastening recollection of variant-crowded footnotes and several braces of lines of poetry in editorial brackets. I cannot and therefore do not take a useful position on any of the play's several cruxes, and at just about every fork have taken the road more traveled" (p. 100).

That said, Barbarese's Children of Heracles is, as promised, a readable and consistent, although far from strictly literal, version of the play. The rhyming couplets are at some times distracting (perhaps most where he is influenced by Dr. Seuss [p. 96]); however, if read fluidly, they work well. As the translator has warned his readers, his version does not remain faithful to Euripides' vocabulary so much as to his cadence. The messenger speech at ll. 799ff. will illustrate the vast difference between the lines constructed by Barbarese and those presented in Gladstone's translation for the Chicago series:3

One anecdote encapsulates it.
Once our ranks were in place
and we stood face to face,
Hyllus pulls up in his fast chariot,
hops from the still bound-
ing car to the ground,
and midway between the Argives and us,
as he coasts to a stop
one foot down, one foot up,
across the fields yells,
"Eurystheus, general,
let's have a detente between Athens and you.
Let Athens be. This
is just between us.
Here is my advice.
One life pays the blood-price.
Yours or mine, Eurystheus. Just you and I
can settle this thing.
A man-to-man meeting
at midfield. You win
and I give up my kin
and myself. If you lose
you restore me to those
titles and benefits that are mine legally,
the Heraclids' house
and whatever else
was his and is mine -- my patrimony." (Barbarese trans., ll. 886-911)
Here, Barbarese has used many short lines, with significant rhyme, to achieve a faster pace for this excited speech. Gladstone, by contrast, keeps carefully to the line-numberings of the original, and presents the following, more literal translation of the same passage:
I'll give you the whole story here and now.
When we had drawn our own troops up and stood
Directly opposite the enemy,
Hyllus dismounted from his chariot,
Standing in no-man's land between the two,
He called to Eurystheus, "What's the use
Of hurting Athens, king? Why not expose
Just one man's life, instead of harming your
Land too? I challenge you to fight it out
With me alone. If you win, you can take
The sons of Heracles, and if I do
I'll win my family seat and honor back." (Gladstone trans., ll. 799-810)
Despite the liberties Barbarese has taken with vocabulary and line structure, his translation reads well. It is vivid and fast-paced, and it seems a fair, if not exact, translation of the Greek -- more literal than I had expected after reading his introduction.

Following Barbarese's Children of Heracles, David Curzon, in the preface to The Madness of Heracles, also states a goal of performance: "Our aim was to produce an accuracy of effect, a performable translation that would convey something of the dramatic vision a Greek audience might have comprehended" (p. 164). Curzon and Katharine Washburn have collaborated in this translation. Although their goal is performability, Washburn kept her "gaze on the Greek text" (157), and the two have attempted to remain close to the original. Washburn gives the following explanation for their decision, in places, to depart significantly from literal translation: "Where we took liberties with the text, our intention was not to assume the role of translator as auteur but to mimic the echoes and riddles that are clamorous in the Greek text but elusive in English" (p. 161). She suggests that they have followed the editions of Murray (Oxford, 1913) and of Bond (Oxford, 1981).

Carolyn Kizer introduces her Iphigenia in Tauris with the following note: "I have been thinking, throughout this version, of how to stage it. Nearly all the translations of this play treat it as an academic exercise rather than as a living drama. Any liberties I have taken are to serve the latter end" (p. 244). She acknowledges that she has altered the text in some places, and she has added italics within her translation to indicate those speeches attributed in the text to Orestes which she has given to Pylades. She does not indicate which version of the Greek she has used, and her preface is little more than a synopsis and comment on the action of the play itself.

Kizer eliminates lines bracketed in the Diggle text (e.g., ll. 59-60), and she shortens Iphigenia's opening speech in an effort to make the text more accessible (as she explains on p. 244). As a result, her version contains fewer lines than the Greek (1370 lines, compared with 1499 lines in Diggle's 1981 Oxford edition). More significantly, she has compressed the lines which she has translated in order to move more readily in English. For example, in her version of lines 674-686 Pylades addresses Orestes with the following words:

How can I live if you are killed?
I would be disgraced. I have shared your troubles
and your voyages. I must share your death.
If I sail home to Argos and to Phocis,
I shall be branded knave and coward.
People who are knaves themselves
will say I have betrayed you.
Or even that I killed you,
so that I as your sister's husband
might gain your throne.
I must breathe my last with you,
and, as I love you,
give my body to the knife and fire. (Kizer transl., ll. 631-643)
In Bynner's translation,4 the same lines read as follows:
How can you wrong me, thinking I would live
And leave you here to die? I came with you.
I shall continue with you to the end,
Or I could never show my face again
On an Argive hill or in a Phocian valley
But to be pointed out and rightly spurned
As one who had betrayed a friend. People
Might say worse things than that, the worst
An evil mind could think of to enjoy:
That I had wished or even caused your death
To benefit, as husband of your sister,
By my inheritance -- to win your throne.
Such thoughts are frightening, but worse my shame
In your imagining that I might leave you.
If you meet knife and flame, then so do I.
I am your friend and there's no more to say. (Bynner trans., ll. 674-686)
Bynner's version is more Greek in spirit and, in places, more literal. But Kizer's is not an inaccurate rendering of the sense of Pylades' speech in these lines. This example represents well her entire translation; wherever she can, she compresses the language to accommodate a taste for more fast-paced English. For the most part, she manages to do this without obscuring important details, and her poetry stands out for its elegance and directness.

Greg Delanty does not state explicitly his purposes in producing the present translation of Orestes. His preface, however, suggests a different approach from the other contributors to this volume. Delanty considers the attempts of various earlier translators and scholars to account for the confusion surrounding this play. He suggests in response to those who have attempted in the past to defend the play, "We must ask ourselves ... whether the play's viability may not be to some extent limited to the particular time and place for which it was created", and that "its topicality distorts it and diminishes its lasting literary value" (pp. 313-314). He suggests that this play is more interesting for its contribution to the reader's understanding of the history of Greek politics, culture, and theater than for its own literary merit. It is not surprising, therefore, that Delanty's Orestes is rendered mostly in prose, with the exceptions of the choruses and the final scene.

For students and readers who have some knowledge of Greek, and for the classical scholar, this may not be the ideal text. The line numbers provided do not correspond with the Greek text, as they do in the Chicago series, and most of the translators do not indicate which version of the Greek they have used, if any. However, given the valuable tools provided in the introduction (albeit cursory) and the glossary, the well-written, clear, and helpful essay by Roberts presented as her preface to Ion, the outstanding elegance of Roberts' Ion and Kizer's Iphigenia in Tauris, and the accessibility of all five texts, I would recommend including this volume in an introductory course on Greek mythology or literature. The five plays included are lively and rich. In particular, I found it interesting to read, side-by-side, Iphigenia in Tauris and Orestes. The translations, produced by talented and accomplished poets, are more accessible to the young student or the general reader than many previously included in such collections.

Whatever problems there may be with some of the translations included in the series, this particular volume seems quite carefully and well done. The range of knowledge of Greek is certainly wide among the contributors, but all (in this volume) exhibit some familiarity with the text in its original language. Most of the various translators do well openly to admit the purposes and limitations of their translations, which also vary from piece to piece. While Roberts has explicitly set out to produce a teachable and accurate original translation of Ion, most of the other translators at work in this volume seem more concerned with performance. Introductory material in several places warns the reader against mistaking translation for an exact replication of the work of Euripides. Working on this review, with an eye both on the Greek text and on the work of various translators, I have seen more clearly than ever that it is impossible in English faithfully and fully to convey all that Euripides does in his Greek verse. The periodic renewal of interest in the texts through the production of fresh translations serves to prevent a work of translation from becoming fixed in the minds of its audience as the "correct" version, and reminds readers that there will never be a substitute for the real thing. Meanwhile, those who will not have the opportunity to learn Greek, or who have not yet made the decision to study the language, will benefit from and enjoy the Euripides, 4 volume of the Penn series.


1.   Ronald Frederick Willetts, trans., Ion, in Euripides III, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1958. Pp. 178-255.
2.   Phillip Velacott, trans. Euripides: The Bacchae and Other Plays. London: Penguin Books, 1954 (Reissue 1973).
3.   Ralph Gladstone, trans., Heracleidae, in Euripides I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955. Pp. 110-155.
4.   Witter Bynner, trans., Iphigenia in Tauris, in Euripides II, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1956. Pp. 118-187.

Read Latest
Index for 2000
Change Greek Display
Books Available for Review

HTML generated at 13:26:57, Friday, 03 April 2009