BMCR 1998.08.14

Euripides; Morwood, Slavitt and Bovie

, Medea; Hippolytus; Electra; Helen, translated and edited by James Morwood, introduction by Edith Hall. Oxford World's Classics . Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. xlii, 218 pages. ISBN 9780199537969.
, , Hippolytus; Suppliant Women; Helen; Electra; Cyclops. Penn Greek Drama Series . Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Volume II. ISBN 9780812216264.

There will always be a market for new translations of Euripides. The tragic poet has spoken differently to each generation, and will continue to do so. Both these volumes have aspirations to become university textbooks (a paperback edition of Morwood has just appeared in the Oxford World’s Classics series), and the Slavitt/Bovie volume also claims to expect staged performance (p. ii). It is as prospective classroom texts that I shall evaluate their success, paying particular attention to the treatments of Hippolytus, Electra, and Helen, plays found in both volumes which are likely candidates as classroom introductions to the playwright. Certainly Hippolytus and Electra need no apology for inclusion in such a list. Nor should Helen, which well demonstrates one of the directions in which Euripides took the genre in his later years. I believe this is important for students, who have no difficulties reading Medea on their own if they have also read some Sophocles, but are not yet prepared to read, say, Ion or the Iphigeneia plays.

Let us begin with the translations, starting with an unproblematic passage, Hippolytus 925-931, a single sentence in the Greek. Here is Richard Moore in Slavitt/Bovie (Theseus speaks):

Men should possess a reliable test, boy,
how to determine a friend, that he’s honest;
how to be sure that he’ll never betray you.
Every man ought to have two clear voices
speaking inside him. The first shall be justice.
As for the other — whatever it chances.
Then, let the just voice silence the false one!
Let it reveal all hypocrites, traitors!

And here is Morwood:

Alas, men should have some clear test of their friends established, a way of judging their hearts, to show who is a true friend and who is not. And all humans should have two voices, an honest voice and the one they would have had anyway so that the one that speaks dishonest thoughts might be convicted by the honest one — and then we should not be deceived.

Both versions are acceptable, though I prefer Morwood despite the clinical sound (to my ear) of ‘humans’. Moore pursues the strictest metrical form in Slavitt/Bovie, a dactylic tetrameter catalectic which irresistibly became sing-songy as I spoke the play aloud. Moore interprets, reconstructing the feu= as ‘boy’ (to help scansion?), and reaching for a false climax in the final line. Morwood’s prose is more literal and in many ways quite close to Kovacs’ Loeb. “Alas” is not elegant, but it does represent the Greek. One might ask if anything is to be preferred for such cries. Later in Moore, line 1312b oi)/moi becomes only a stage direction, (an inarticulate cry of anguish) which I believe does reflect the impact of the Greek better than Morwood’s ‘Alas!’ (again). As often in Slavitt/Bovie, the translators’ efforts to make their text relevant injure the result: Moore sees ‘something downright New Age about [Hippolytus]’ (p. 4), with Theseus as ‘an old lecher of a father’ (p. 5).

Part of the reason for this is the apparent methodology used to solicit translations by Slavitt/Bovie. As described by Elizabeth Seydel Morgan, in her preface to Electra (pp. 229-235), she was commissioned as a poet, and her lack of Greek was not to be an impediment. To a large part, it seems she has made up for this with detailed exegeses from Christopher Pelling (among others). Here is the end of Electra’s monody, lines 159-166:

Oh, cruel the edges of the axe
that dripped with your red blood.
Oh cruel the day you sailed from Troy
to the plot at home awaiting you.
Were you greeted by your wife
with a victor’s garland?
With ribboned wreaths? Oh, no!
With a sharpened two-edged blade
all for Aegisthus’ filthy love.

There is still some expansion and interpretation here (toma=s sa=s becomes ‘the edges … that dripped with your red blood’, and the vocative pa/ter remains untranslated), and it is not clearly superior to Morwood’s more literal rendering:

Alas, alas I cry for the cruel cutting of the axe, for the cruel plotting, chemed, father, for your return from Troy. It was not with ribbons of victory that your wife greeted you and not with garlands either. No, she made you the victim of the grim outrage of Aegisthus’ two-edged sword and got a husband through guile.

The translators disagree as to whom the yi/fos in line 164 belongs: Morwood is right, as the double killers of Agamemnon are themselves doubled in Electra and Orestes killing Clytemnestra.

The unusual tone of Helen must be confronted by any translator. I think Euripides wrote genuine laughs into this tragedy, such as are found in Don Taylor’s Methuen version. Despite claims of its comic nature (Slavitt/Bovie p. 139; Morwood p. xxiii) neither translation fulfilled this promise for me. Rachel Hadas’ version in Slavitt/Bovie uses a ‘loosely rhymed pentameter’ (p. 144) which in practice means a lot of eye-rhymes and half-rhymes, which can prove anticlimactic aurally and visually as well. Here is a brief excerpt from the reunion duet, lines 664a-668:


I spit it out, the vileness I must tell.


It’s sweet when troubles dwindle to a tale.


To begin with, then, I didn’t float
off to Paris’ bedroom in a boat
with madly flailing oars. Nor did I fly,
lustful wings flapping, towards adultery.

Some of the rhymes are successful, but others seem forced. Here is Morwood:


I detest the words, the words I shall utter.


But speak them even so. It is pleasant to hear of troubles that are past.


I did not rush to wed a barbarian youth on the wings of an oar, on the wings of desire for a sinful marriage …

The effect of the repeated oi(=on and the repeated pe/tomai participle are both captured convincingly by Morwood, and there is contempt in the use of ‘barbarian youth’ absent in the glossed ‘Paris’. Neither translator recognizes the paradox in the long-suffering Menelaus’ Schadenfreude, as ironic identification is made between him and the tragic audience.

The three plays already discussed in Slavitt/Bovie are the best in the volume: in contrast, John Frederick Nims’ Suppliant Women is terrible, despite its valuable introduction on the process of translation. Ordinary Greek words are given such extraordinary meanings that it is hard to take the poet seriously: line 117 ‘Hardly hush-hush, your traipsing around Greece’; line 359 w)= geraiai/ becomes ‘good grannies’; line 513 w)= pagka/kiste is rendered ‘Son of a b____!’ [sic]. How does an actor speak this line when the translator himself is shy of it? There is a place for swearing in translations, and if this is such a place, then the translator should actually have the character swear (and with an expression that is clearly vocative). Theseus completes line 513 with inappropriate comic censure, ‘Just button your lip, Adrastus’. Bovie’s own Cyclops (which the back cover glaring calls ‘the so-called satyr play of disputed authorship’!) is equally aberrant. The translation is funny at times, as it should be, but the humour is found in such unusual places, that students unfamiliar with the genre will be left aswim. Take Cyclops 1-2, please:

Ho, Bromio! Oh, my aching Bacchus!
It’s your fault I’m working now,
in my old age, just as hard as I
had to when I was … well, jung
and easily freudened.

Morwood’s notes often show students how particular themes and tropes help to unify a play, though at times they repeat information and do not mesh perfectly with Edith Hall’s introduction. She provides a healthy outline to the plays and their context, and is succinct and generally clear. Of course there are points where one can quibble: to call Euripides ‘a cuckolded greengrocer’s son’ (p. xii) is probably misleading; she shies away from a direct claim that Euripides makes contemporary allusions in his plays (p. xiii); Medea as ‘not quite mortal’ (p. xvi) is overstated, as is Glauce the ‘younger model’ (p. xvii); that an appearance ex machina ‘is certainly to act as a metatheatrical “alienation” device drawing attention to the author’s power over the narrative’ (p. xxviii) is often assumed but has not been demonstrated. A fairly detailed Select Bibliography (pp. xxxvi-xlii) will also be helpful for students (though of course personal choices will always be missed: for Helen, I would have included W. G. Arnott, ‘Euripides’ Newfangled Helen‘, Antichthon 24 (1990), 1-18; for Hippolytus, J. Griffin, ‘Characterization in Euripides: Hippolytus and Iphigeneia in Aulis‘, in C. Pelling (ed.), Characterization and Individuality in Greek Literature [Oxford 1990], 128-147). These supporting materials should be of great help to a reader new to tragedy, though for some aspects, especially the chorus, too much is still left unsaid. (It is also to be regretted that neither Morwood nor Slavitt/Bovie properly recognizes or explains strophic responsion.) In contrast, Bovie’s introduction to the Penn volume contains much that is misleading or wrong: e.g. a statue of Dionysus was not kept in the centre of the orchestra throughout a tragic performance (p. viii); there were ten not five competitors for each day of dithyrambic competition at the City Dionysia (p. viii); there is no indication of revolving scenery in the fifth century (p. ix); no extant Greek tragedy requires a fourth actor (p. ix); there are ten select and nine alphabetic plays of Euripides (p. x); and again, the biographical tradition is taken too literally (p. x: ‘the son of prosperous parents … spent most of his life in study and writing poetry “in a cave by the sea in Salamis.”‘)

Anyone can find passages in a translation with which to disagree. The final evaluation must be based on an individual teacher’s ability to integrate a work into classroom discussion; certainly none of these translations seems to me, as someone who has directed many ancient plays, to be destined for modern performance. The back cover of Slavitt/Bovie makes high claims for the Penn series, with an implied intention to replace the Chicago series as a classroom standard. The mixed bag presented here falls short of that hope. On the other hand, Morwood’s steady prose translation, clear and entertaining, could easily be integrated into an undergraduate literature survey or mythology class.