BMCR 1996.01.10

1996.1.10, Meagher, Bakkhai/Euripides

, , Bakkhai. Wauconda, IL: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, 1995. vi, 97 pages ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780865162853. $6.00.

“The definitive aim of this translation has been to provide a playable script,” Meagher assures us in his preface (iv), which is as it should be. While ultimately it is as a stage piece that the translation must be judged, the reader has cause for misgiving before the preface is complete. “Both modern audiences and modern dancers, for different reasons, often find the continuous presence of the Chorus on stage to be problematic” (v): Meagher’s riposte is to substitute his own truncated Choral odes, “radically abridged … suitable … to the needs of contemporary composers and choreographers” (v) in an appendix at the back (91-97). While the Chorus is translated at length in the text, it is implied that a playable script needs Meagher’s substitutes, since those of Euripides are, “for our purposes, mostly too long and unwieldy” (v). His self-identified “zealous” (v) caution with the text—deleting only 2% of the whole, “for a complex of reasons” (v)—rings hollow as a result. If the calculations include the Chorus, the amount of adapted text leaps to over 23%, and this is no longer Euripides.

The passages Meagher admits he deletes are also telling. Lines 286-97 are supported in their authenticity by Pap. Oxy. 3718. Lines 1330-1339, mysteriously predicting the metamorphosis of Kadmos and Harmonia into snakes, are replaced with the flat “I have plans for you, demands to make. / Your way will be hard” (64). Certainly deletion removes a problem from the play. These lines tease the imagination of an interpreter of Bakkhai, urging a decision as to what has been lost in the lacuna. But Meagher does not like to be teased. Nine other lines are removed from the epilogue (1354-1360, 1371-1372), all similarly unfounded. (At any rate, the translation itself lacks any line numbers, so the information is of use only to Greek scholars.)

Similarly disappointing is the “Commentary” (69-90), a rambling, allusive discussion of some of the play’s themes. Bakkhai is identified as a “‘Poetics’ of Euripides” (70), bequeathed by the author to the world at the end of his career. This is an arguable case, but not one that can be made in isolation from Iphigeneia in Aulis, which Meagher has translated elsewhere. Making a case is not his concern, however. The commentary discusses notions of fluids, illusion, masks, mortality, and vision. The discussion of masks (77-79) in particular is out of place, as Meagher had earlier claimed (iv) that conventions such as masked acting also need translation, which—for him—is to say removal from a modern production.

Some of Meagher’s observations are interesting, but these are afloat in an insubstantial sea of vague style, which at times is mantically terse: “The reveler’s cup is shallow” (74); “Revelation is a process” (80). The extended and repeated use of apposition wears thin: “Like him [Pentheus], we are willing, even anxious, to stare into the chaos at the core of things, provided we may do so from a safe distance, untouched, untouchable” (81) is a representative example. Even the most basic details are missing (e.g. production date) which mean that the book would need to be supplemented if used as a classroom text. There is no hint of bibliography, save a glancing acknowledgement to Dodds’ commentary. Nevertheless, some knowledge of Euripides and Attic tragedy is clearly being assumed.

The translation of the episodes consistently maintains a tone that is modern and idiomatic. Trimeters are put into free verse, and the slangy roll of some speeches is at times appealing. As with any translation, there are bound to be points of dissatisfaction. Some words are over-translated (Dionysus is “the boy-child of Zeus” in line 1 [1]) and some are not translated at all. There are also several times when Meagher feels Euripides has not said enough. In general, though, the speeches in the episodes can be pronounced on a stage. Here are lines 918-922, spoken by Pentheus (44):

I see what seem to be two suns and two Thebes,
two cities, each with seven gates.
And you, my leader and guide,
have sprouted horns from your head.
You look to me like a bull.
Were you wild from the beginning?
You are wild now. Your savage leering eyes leave no doubts.
You are a wild bull.

These are not words for an actor to savour, on a large bare stage. They are not grand; the scale is too small.

Even with his expressed goal, Meagher’s offering does not provide much. As a playable script, it offers a very soft Euripides, lacking the bite of problem passages, the solid foundation of a majestic chorus, and the religious austerity of deity incarnate. The difficulties posed by production of Bakkhai are largely erased from this translation, as if they had never been. Meagher’s Euripides may sound modern, but he is no longer Greek.