BMCR 1992.01.02

Aeschylus, The Suppliants

, Aeschylus, The Suppliants. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991. Pp. xxv + 60. ISBN 9780691014951 $25.00 (hb).

Of the Greek poets almost none is as difficult to translate as Aeschylus, and of his surviving plays, the Supplices holds a special place because of its unusually mangled textual transmission and its unique design, which until a papyrus discovery in 1952 led almost everyone to conclude it was by far the earliest surviving tragedy. Peter Burian, like others before him, senses the raw beauty of much of the poetry, especially in the lyrics, and the “prodigious thematic density of the text” (xv). Two formal decisions mark the translation. First, Burian translates the strophic lyric sections with “strict syllabic responsion” between strophe and antistrophe, thereby creating some sense of the structure of the Greek lyric systems. Second, in order to highlight the articulations between song and speech which create the basic dynamic of Greek drama, he translates the spoken dialogue into a “relaxed blank verse.” Two other views, one smaller, one larger, also inform the translation. In his desire to capture the verbal connections between different sections of the text he “found himself constantly risking what might seem to be overtranslations” (xv). He also explains that he considers his translation a “form of writing, not designed to reproduce, much less replace, an existing text, but to complement it and extend its life” (xviii).

Burian has a good ear and the English reads well, often capturing the rich and bold language of the original. Rendering the lyrics into stanzas of identical syllabic length creates some sense of the formality of Greek lyric. The varying length of individual lines within a stanza, although it corresponds to nothing specific in the Greek, allows the reader to get an idea of the varying length of verse in the Greek strophic system. The “relaxed blank verse” of the dialogue (often very relaxed) contrasts effectively with the lyrics. My reservations are on points of detail. In the course of translating a 1,000-plus line play the translator makes innumerable decisions. Many, even most, of Burian’s seem sensible and work well, but there are many others which strike me as odd. All translation offers interpretation and, as Burian acknowledges, at times he overtranslates to capture some of the verbal connections in the play. For example, at 190 the phrase σάκος ἄρρηκτον, a traditional image, is rendered “a shield no man can penetrate,” a translation which highlights the recurrent sexual motifs of the play. While Benardete’s more subtle “a shield impenetrable” might be preferable, the overtranslation has, at least, some point. Similarly, the attempt to capture the alleged verbal play in γενοῦ πολυμνήστωρ (535) with “remember your long wooing” can be justified (and is explained in the notes). But there are many examples of words left untranslated, rhetorical structures ignored, and changed metaphors where the reason for the omission or alteration is unclear. A few examples (of many possible ones): ξυντίθησι (65), which adds an interesting point, is omitted; γάμον (106), so thematically important, is not recognizable in translation; the metaphor in 327 is changed; the repetition of πόλις at verse-final position at 357-8, is not carried over in translation; πολυπόνων (382) is ignored. There is also no instance of antilabe in Aeschylus; yet in the dialogue Burian frequently breaks off lines half-way, thereby distorting the tight formal structure of the original. Although any of the individual instances I have noted (or noticed) might be thought small, the collective effect is of a Supplices different from Aeschylus’ in unnecessary ways with no apparent gain.

The introduction to the work (“On Translating the Suppliants,” “The Danaid Myth and Aeschylus’ Tetralogy,” “Reading Aeschylus’Suppliants,” and “A Note on the Text”) is helpful and the first section on Burian’s process of translation offers an interesting glimpse of his approach to his task. The notes which follow the translation (55-60) are good, but would be more helpful if more plentiful. In particular more notes on the translation might allow the reader a better sense of where and why Burian departs from Aeschylus. As in many translations—for reasons which mystify me—the only line numbers given are for the translation without even headers to indicate the corresponding lines in the original. Translation and original are, thankfully, only slightly out of sync. The production by Princeton University Press is of a very high quality and the paperback price affordable. In general the translation should be considered a qualified success. Although I would not recommend this book for the classroom (with all its modifications of Aeschylus close analysis would not be easy), it is a lively interpretation of this difficult, important, and too often neglected text.