BMCR 1995.01.08

Euripides’ Electra

, Electra. The Greek tragedy in new translations. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. vii, 89 pages. ISBN 9780195085761 $7.95 (pb).

Since literature in translation courses are the mainstay of most classics departments today, there has been an increasing demand for fresher, more accessible translations. The teacher of Greek tragedy in particular is faced with a bewildering array of choices, including the original Chicago series edited by Grene and Lattimore, which continues to be the standard against which others are measured, the Penguin series, that of Aris and Phillips, and the Methuen’s World Dramatist Series. To this catalogue may be added Oxford’s Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, edited by Herbert Golder and the late William Arrowsmith, a series which aims to revitalize and recreate ancient tragedy for today’s audience in the belief that poetry “can only be properly rendered by translators who are themselves poets.” This series delivers on its promise of offering readers, particularly students, language that is vibrant, accessible, and immediate.

The most recent volume of this series, Euripides’Electra, again pairs Janet Lembke with Kenneth Reckford, who previously translated Euripides’Hecuba for the same series. The preface to the translation, dated 1988, reveals how long it has taken for this book to come to press. The printing of the hardcover version of the book, originally scheduled to appear in October, 1993, was cancelled at the last minute and replaced last spring with the paperback version. And although Strauss and von Hofmannsthal found inspiration in the Sophoclean version of the tale, Euripides’Electra has fared less well among general audiences. But a new translation, one which can rival that of Emily Vermeule in the Chicago series, as this one does, will perhaps awaken further interest in this most interesting play.

The brief preface, written with grace and clarity, makes available to readers unfamiliar with Greek tragedy several lines of interpretive approach. Lembke and Reckford use Shakespeare’s Hamlet as a springboard for their discussion of Euripides’ play (although, unfortunately, this comparison may not be all that helpful to today’s undergraduates). Sidestepping the thorny and complex questions which occupy scholarship on this play, the essay focuses instead on developing a coherent interpretation which will render the play more accessible to the general reader Here Lembke and Reckford convincingly elucidate the tensions between the heroic world of myth and the pedestrian character of life in Argos, between the grand action required by the myth and the frailty of the human characters called upon to execute it. Drained of its epic imperative, the central action of the play becomes a perverse and almost meaningless spectacle. Lembke and Reckford also nicely bring out the play’s comic incongruities: the menial labor of Electra, the domestic raillery between husband and wife, and the decidedly unheroic Orestes whose recognition token, a scar which resulted from “chasing a pet deer around the yard,” stands in ironic contrast to his Homeric predecessor.

But how does one judge a translation without reducing it to a matter of personal taste? If, in the words of Longfellow, “something must be relinquished,” what will be sacrificed? A translation intended for classroom use has its own requirements; at the very least, it should be accurate, clear and engaging. By comparing Lembke and Reckford’s translation to the standard version of Emily Vermeule found in the Chicago series, we are better able to judge its merits. First, let us look at the lyric lament of Electra, at vv. 140-146:

Set this vessel down from my head, O
take it, while I lift music of mourning
by night to my father
Father, the maenad song of death
I cry you among the dead
beneath the earth, the words I pour ….

Down with this weight that I carry, for only
at dawn can I cry out the dirges
that catch in my throat night-long.
Wailing, words, the full music of death
Father, to you in the dark earth
all of my body sings dirges.
(Lembke and Reckford)

Lembke and Reckford overcome the somewhat stiff and formal syntax suggested by Vermeule’s first line “set down this vessel from ….” with a more direct phrase, “Down with ….” They also successfully capture the contrast of night and day implied by the adjective, nukhious, and the hapax, eporthroboan, ‘to cry aloud in the early morning’ (see Denniston, ad loc). The inaccurate rendering of iakhan, Aida, melos as “the maenad song of death” by Vermeule suggests a confusion of iakhe, “cry,” with iakkhos, the mystic name of Dionysus. Lembke and Reckford not only translate the line more precisely as “wailing, words, the full music of death” but also more successfully convey the agitated, incoherent effect of the original word order. The off-rhymes, “death/earth,” “only/long,” and the repetition of “dirges” further add to the musicality of their translation. The phrase “all of my body” has no correlative in the original text, and one can only assume it is meant to communicate the intensity of Electra’s feeling and the physical gestures which accompany her lament.

For the rendering of dialogue, compare these two versions of vv. 518-523, from the recognition scene:

Is there a chance your brother has arrived in secret
and paused to stare upon his father’s shabby tomb?
Look at the lock of hair, match it to your own head,
see if it is not twin to yours in color and cut.
Often a father’s blood, running in separate veins,
makes the two bodies almost mirrors in their form.

But someone came in stealth perhaps your brother,
home and shocked by a father’s neglected grave.
Go there. Inspect the curl. Compare it with your own
cropped hair. See if the colors match.
There’s often a natural resemblance
in children of the same father’s blood.
(Lembke and Reckford)

The divergence between these two translations is even more pronounced than above. Vermeule’s end-stopped lines adhere more closely to the original Greek, while Lembke and Reckford’s clumsy syntax in the opening two lines, along with the use of short imperative phrases and enjambment in Vermeule 520, renders the translation a bit choppy. However, Lembke and Reckford overall are more in keeping with the prosaic tone of this passage. Vermeule brings in poetic language and imagery not found in the original text: the quaintly archaic use of “twin,” and the phrases “running in separate veins” and “mirrors in their form,” which, lovely as they are, have no basis in the original Greek. Where Vermeule is high-flown, Lembke and Reckford are more apt to include explanatory filler. For instance, with “Go there,” Lembke and Reckford gloss the dramatic inconsistency that the characters are not actually present at the tomb. Vermeule, on the other hand, simply ignores this problem.

The translation is followed by a one-page note on staging, and eleven pages of notes on the text, which discuss translation choices, stage directions, give background on earlier versions of the myth, as well as raise questions. While these notes, for the most part, are quite helpful and interesting, the fact that they are not flagged in the body of the text, either with asterisks or footnotes, makes it difficult for readers to use them. A glossary of names completes the volume.

There has long been a need for a new series of Greek dramas in translation sold in individual volumes at a reasonable price, but the Oxford series does not fit the bill. At $7.95 for one play, teachers are not likely to assign it, especially since the volume in the Chicago series, which includes this play and two others, sells for the same price.

In conclusion, this translation vies with Vermeule in the immediacy, clarity and accessibility of its language. While it does not always achieve the grand style characteristic of Greek tragedy, as the earlier translation does, students will probably find Lembke and Reckford’s version easier to follow, and more enjoyable all around.