Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.06

David R. Slavitt (trans.), Aeschylus, 1: The Oresteia.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.  Pp. xv, 159.  ISBN 0-8122-1627-X.  $14.95.  

Reviewed by Victor Bers, Yale University (
Word count: 969 words

For Agamemnon 11301 Slavitt gives us: "I am hit! Oh! Oh! Deep in the gut!"

"Gut!," even an Eduard Fraenkel might exclaim, pleased and impressed by that simple way of conveying the impact of καιρίαν πληγὴν ἔσω. Good enough perhaps to drown out the voice of parody ("Your arithmetic is quite correct") persistent in my own head since I made the great mistake of reading Housman's "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy" before reading the Greek itself. But in the debate of choreutai at 1139 Slavitt's version seems to insist that what Housman parodied was itself already an Aeschylean parody of tragic convention:

We could go and see?
We can't. We're only the chorus.
We can never leave this space. It's one of the rules.

In the Translator's Preface Slavitt defends his version of the passage as displaying his "discovery that Aeschylus is often funnier than remembered or than any of my guides would have led me to expect... [T]he inability of the chorus to speak is both comical and awesome" (pp. 5f.). Slavitt's guides presumably included Euripides, who in his Electra parodied the recognition scene of the Choephoroi, and Aristophanes, whose Frogs hits on much that could easily, if unfairly, be ridiculed (or at least remarked on) in Aeschylus, e.g., the use of mutes (Frogs 920); also Aristotle or Pseudo-Aristotle on the chorus (Poet. 1456a, Problemata 922b). Of course they give no hint that Aeschylus, intentionally or unintentionally, introduced such an astounding mix of γέλοια and σπουδαῖα. But Slavitt, who thinks the conventions of tragedy allow the chorus of the Agamemnon to speak of "living on shit" (1669), apparently trusts himself more than those ancient guides or any modern scholar.

Some translations are not usefully evaluated even as "kissing through a handkerchief," to borrow I.B. Singer's metaphor for the process, and I considered approaching this review as if the book were called David R. Slavitt, My Oresteia, i.e., as a drama of his own suggested by the Greek play. But the publisher's blurb rules that out: "Teachers and students will find that this edition remains loyal to the Greek originals..." Slavitt's own manifesto is more nuanced, to say the least: "A translation of a great work is not so much a rendition into a different language as the record of a reading. It is the outcome of a literary encounter, an act of criticism and interpretation, and even, under ideal circumstances, an exploration not only of the text but [here comes a sizable loophole] of the translator's soul" (p. 3). If so, I hereby declare that anything said here in praise or blame of Slavitt's book should be understood as directed only to his taste and knowledge, not his soul.

First, praise. Slavitt's English reads very well. He tends to the short phrase and a natural cadence. In fact, glancing back and forth between his Oresteia and Peter Meineck's (published the same year, a translation tested in a number of readings and stage productions), I judge Slavitt's the easier one for actors to perform. And Slavitt is often very pungent and elegant, successfully translating meaning behind the words while staying true to the tone. Two examples from the Agamemnon: (The Herald complains of the weather at Troy [563ff.])

... and then the cold that froze the birds in the sky.
... you can feel ...
your eyeballs poach in your head.

(Clytemnestra describes the death of Agamemnon [1389ff.])

He bled like a pig! It spurted out and splashed me,
and I was delighted. A farmer, wet in the rain
of the spring that will give him his crops, could not be more
happy and graceful than I was then!

Now, blame for repeatedly making things up that are sure to mislead the innocent.

Slavitt cannot resist inserting the self-referential or meta-theatrical into his translation. A few instances:

[Cassandra at Ag. 1189f.]

There is a chorus here -- not you, but the Furies...

[The Chorus at Eum. 307ff.]

Let us dance together, sisters.
There is an order in the dance
in which each step is fated. Chance
appears to guide our rhythmic turns,
but the attentive observer learns
how each comes right at last...

[Athena at Eum. 988ff.]

Isn't this fine? They are altogether changed.
Remember how they were at the start of the play?

Aeschylus' φανέντος ορφναίου πυρός (Ag. 21) is turned into something out of Camus:

... flash out in the indifferent heavens.

Changing directions, at Ch. 585ff. Slavitt has Aeschylus portray the natural world as a projection of the super-ego:

The earth is full of horrors,
and the sea, too,
monsters, teeming as in a nightmare,
the creatures we somehow deserve.

Readers of BMCR know about the interesting anachronisms present in Greek tragedy, but these are insufficient for Slavitt, who gives us such with-it translations as "trophy-wife" (approximately Ag. 736ff.: it is hard to say just which Greek words that is meant to represent), "Are you on drugs?" (Ag. 1407f.), "But what a short attention span!" (Eum. 121). Worst of all, given the book's shadowy reference to the relevant recent history of the Areopagus (a global question about justice is posed on p. 5, but the Athenian particulars are nowhere to be seen), there is the confusing implication that courts and shyster lawyers were already operating in Athens before Orestes' arrival: "Save me from clever lawyers" (Eum. 719).

Plenty of wit and energy in this Oresteia. And to be sure, experiments and jokes are acceptable in a work that makes a quite different contract with the reader, say the Catullus translation by Celia and Louis Zukofsky. But this book cannot be recommended to Greekless readers who trust the jacket copy when it promises that what lies inside is "loyal to the originals."

οἶκος δ' αὐτός, εἰ φθογγὴν λάβοι σαφέστατ' ἂν λέξειεν. Who could believe it would confess to being the Fun House in the Atreid Theme Park of Slavitt's overactive imagination


1.   To allow quick comparison with the Greek, I give the standard line numbers, but Slavitt has inconveniently used his own, in this respect repeating the bad example of the revised Chicago Sophocles.

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