BMCR 2000.06.05

Euripides: Iphigenia among the Taurians, Bacchae, Iphigenia at Aulis, Rhesus (with introduction by Edith Hall)

, , Iphigenia among the Taurians ; Bacchae ; Iphigenia at Aulis ; Rhesus. Rhesus.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999. liii, 227 pages : maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0198150946. $79.00.

Many have tried to give us Euripides in English, and Morwood’s new translations of four plays of Euripides are a welcome addition to the throng.

Learning Greek is hard; translating Greek, tragedy especially, the way we’d all like to see it translated is well nigh impossible. Since no one person can recreate all the qualities of an ancient original in a modern language, translators must decide what approach they are going to take, and this will inevitably means that they emphasize some aspects and de-emphasize others.

Morwood’s translations fall into the literal, prose, and “useful” camp. His aim is to be faithful to the text — as far as that can be done, a vexed question, as everybody knows. He renders accurately. He writes English, and has avoided the trap of being so faithful to Greek grammar and other speech habits peculiar to Greek that he ends up translating into no language at all.

No one, though, is going to be struck dumb by the power and brilliance of his diction or moved to tears by the pathos of his poetry. Although some libretti read pedestrianly and work well in the theater, these versions are not for the stage. Here the characters all speak alike, and neither the passages originally in iambics (which may legitimately be turned into prose) nor the choral and lyric sections possess any rhythmical graces realizable in sound.

So, Morwood’s translations constitute a clear, accurate, and readable account of what’s in the Greek. Morwood was quite plainly not attempting to translate Euripides in a striking, fanciful, poetic way. He knows that others have outdone him in the theater and on the screen. He has, however, shown care and scruple in getting the meaning across. I take that to have been his principal intention, and since he has accomplished it, I say his translations are a success.

I am chagrined to think my assessment sounds like damning with faint praise. I confess that though I read Morwood with pleasure, I cannot work up much enthusiasm for the style of rendering he chose. Neither can I work up any hostility. Clarity, precision, and accessibility are splendid virtues, and anyone who can achieve them has not deserved contempt.

The few things that rubbed me the wrong way in Morwood’s translations are indicative of a peculiar problem. In this style of plain language, anything the least bit out of the ordinary stands out like piece of blue glass on a sandy beach. At IA 944-5 ἐγὼ κάκιστος ἦν ἂρ’ )Αργείων ἀνήρ, | τὸ μηδέν… he has: “I shall be proved the most cowardly of the Greeks, a mere cipher…” “Cipher”? Greek mathematics had no zero. The metaphor wrenches us out of the ancient setting. In the same play at 429 he translates οἱ δ’ εὐδαίμονες | ἐν πᾶσι κλεινοὶ καὶ περίβλεπτοι βροτοῖς as “Yes, those of blessed estate are regarded by all as famous, the observed of all observers.” The quote from Shakespeare coming directly after such unemotive language made me feel like I had stumbled over a curb. I got the same feeling from Ba. 1148 and 1232 where Morwood has “tragedy” for ξυμφόραι and “tragic sight” for ὄψιν οὐκ εὐδαίμονα. “Tragedy” here is too modern in usage1 and might delude students into thinking Euripides regularly practiced blatant self-referential irony. “When the tuneful sacred pipe peals forth its sacred merriment” for Ba. 160 λωτὸς ὅταν εὐκέλαδος | ἱερὸς ἱερὰ παίγματα βρέμηι sounds like it comes from an oratorio by Handel. On the other hand, Morwood writes many phrases that are felicitous though not specious. I applaud his rendition of that difficult line ὅτι καλὸν φίλον αἰεί“What is noble is precious — that ever holds true.”

Edith Hall’s introduction contains no surprises. She gives a brief account of each of the plays, and of the context in which they were performed, up to date and agreeably standard, containing nothing anybody can reasonably quarrel with. I appreciated her comments as an appreciator of Gilbert Murray’s vision of Euripides and Murray’s efforts at popularizing him. Murray has suffered far too much from that “Cup of life all shattered in my hand” picked out by Eliot. We can’t all be poets. Hall is good on Rezeptionsgeschichte. I, as a child of the 60s, was a little disappointed that she did not mention the immense meaning the Bacchae had for us classical hippies. This was the play that ekplêx’d us and converted us to Greek-freaks. Hall’s bibliography is very full. I always like to see a full bibliography, no matter what level a book is aimed at. As an undergraduate I learned that bibliographies are often a treasure map to surprising delights.

The one thing that troubles me is for whom is this edition intended? Oxford prices the hardbound at $79.00, which is absolutely unrealistic if this book is to be used as a classroom text.2 Furthermore, plain prose translations of Greek tragedy would seem to appeal to a limited audience. If I were teaching literature-in-translation or theater I would choose something more exciting. If I were teaching Greek, I would forbid my students the use of any translation whatsoever; and yet the notes here are full of material only a Greek student could really use. Even then, when the note on Ba. 977-1023 says that the meter of the original is “dochmiac,” or the note on IA 317-401 says the original is “trochaic,” why were not these meters defined (preferably with examples)?

When Morwood comments on literary features of the plays, he seems to aim for undergraduates still agog at the idea of irony. Fine and good, if this edition is intended for undergraduates for reading on their own. But if it is to be used in the classroom? Are the teachers to be tied the notes? If licensed hellenists have to be prompted on poetic nuance, I despair. If this is the case, τί δεῖ με χορεύειν; The person I imagine can make best use of Morwood’s book is a Greekless theater-director who is staging one of the four plays. While he or she will probably choose a translation in more pungent English to use as a script, Morwood’s literal rendering can stay close at hand to clarify what slant a poetic translator has given the text, or where he takes liberties with it. Morwood’s careful marking of what in the IA is probably Euripides’ and what is probably interpolation gives a director the choice to make cuts intelligently.

An aside. For the ephebe, I think we ought seriously again to consider what John Herington proposed in his Arion article of 35 years ago, “Classical Commentaries for Our Time.” The most respectable, the most laudable pony would be a classic text on one page, paraphrased in simple, scholastic Greek on the facing, with grammatical difficulties noted and keyed to Smyth and with a continuous exhortation to look to LSJ. The task of the teacher, as Herington expresses it, would be to demolish the idiotic and pedantic comments of the pea-brained and amousos scholiast/editor, thereby rousing students to love the poet for himself. Adolescence is a poetic and romantic age: kids want their pathos straight — if they’re deep, they as often want technical knowledge as well. Let us raise up more Rimbauds.

I am also concerned that Oxford look to their standards. Some of the notes are placed out of order in reference to the English, and the excuse that they are keyed to Diggle’s Greek text is not acceptable. Surely I am not the only person to notice that their typesetters have begun to omit to use ligatures when “fi”, “ffi”, “fl”, and “ffl” are to be printed? Newspapers may neglect these elegancies, but for Oxford to do so shames them. Some typefaces can tolerate typewriter style setting; in the book under review, the dots of the i’s overlap with the serifs of the f’s so that the latter look as though they have a runny nose.

The Bacchus by Caravaggio in the Uffizi is an odd choice for a cover-picture. I cannot imagine the Dionysus of the Bacchae as anything like this epicene youth in after-dinner languor.

Behind all these blemishes I smell the presence of a slovenly, uncaring, or incompetent editor. It’s to Morwood’s credit that these mosquito-bites detract so little from the excellence and value of his main work, the translations. That which is solid remains solid.


1. Neither τραγῳδία nor τραγικός used with reference to anything other than a stage-play in antiquity (LSJ); “tragedy” first used unambiguously in the modern sense of “real-life disaster” in 1617 (OED).

2. As of 31.5.00 OUP’s website ( listed no paperback edition of this book.