BMCR 2001.10.09

Euripides’ Herakles, with Introduction and Notes by Christian Wolff

, , , Herakles. Master and use copy. Digital master created according to Benchmark for Faithful Digital Reproductions of Monographs and Serials, Version 1. Digital Library Federation, December 2002.. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. 1 online resource (vii, 112 pages).. ISBN 1423735285. $10.95.

The volumes in Oxford University Press’s slowly growing “Greek Tragedy in New Translation” series seek to offer, in the words of William Arrowsmith, “a re-creation of these plays—as though they had been written, freshly and greatly, by masters fully at home in the English of our own times” (v). For this reason, the series editors—both past and present—have insisted upon a close collaboration between scholars and poets in the translation of each play. The quality of the volumes in this series has varied widely, but this new translation of Euripides’ Herakles is a strong addition to the list and should serve well its (apparent) intended audience of nonspecialist, general readers and undergraduate students who do not have a working knowledge of the Greek language. The eminently readable translation was composed by Tom Sleigh (working with the help of a literal translation provided by Christian Wolff, along with several other editions, translations, and commentaries), and is accompanied by an informative introduction and notes by Wolff. The volume concludes with a useful glossary of names and places.

With their combined expertise in poetry, music, literature, and the classics, Tom Sleigh and Christian Wolff seem the perfect combination for providing a translation which is everything that one would want it to be: readable, musical, poetic, and faithful to the text and spirit of the original. For the most part, their offering lives up to this expectation.

One of the specific challenges for translators of the Herakles is the movement of the play. There is a strong temptation to smooth over the play’s disjointedness and, in so doing, to violate the peculiar tension of this most tragic and troubling work. Wolff and Sleigh have been careful to avoid this temptation, and their version of the Herakles is every bit as troubling and disjointed as the original. The problems with the play are discussed clearly, but without excessive depth given this volume’s audience, in the introduction; and the reader is prepared well for the shift between the movements of the drama.

In addition to addressing the movement of the play, Wolff’s 20-page introduction considers the characterization of the hero, the role of the gods and religion, and “the role of poetic performance as the play itself draws our attention to it” (p. 3). Wolff provides enough information and analysis for the reader previously unfamiliar with Euripides to enjoy and appreciate the importance and complexity of the play and to understand the critical questions concerning the play’s meaning. He leaves much open for discussion, offering an insightful introduction to the challenges that await any who would read the Herakles and who would attempt both to understand this play and to come to terms with the ambivalence of its conclusion.

Complementing this introduction are 13 pages of notes following the translation. The notes are referenced to the line numbers of the translation; and, in addition to explaining language, references, and allusions, they provide a good basic guide to the structure of Greek tragedy in general and of the Herakles in particular. The notes do not go into great depth of explanation, but they are sufficient for the purposes of the series.

The translation itself is remarkably coherent and fluent. Sleigh possesses tremendous poetic talent, and he has used that talent well to tell the story and to draw out the themes and images of the original in living English. He has composed the speeches primarily in pentameters and the choral lyrics in trimeters, and his verses move fluidly and recreate as much as seems possible, in English, the rhythm and flow of the original. Despite these strengths, however, the translation does suffer from the inevitable weaknesses of collaborative translation.

Amphitryon’s pride and indignation ring clear at the opening of Sleigh’s translation:

Say the name Amphitryon of Argos
And the whole world snaps to. I’m the very man—
That same Amphitryon who shared his wife with Zeus.
You’ll recognize my father, Alkaios,
And Perseus, my grandfather—another household name.
And as for my son, can there be anyone
Alive who hasn’t heard of Herakles? (Sleigh tr., 1-7)

The first word in the Greek play is τίς, and it seems important that Euripides opens his play with the question τίςοὐκ οἶδεν. Sleigh has altered Euripides’ diction significantly, and regrettably has separated what is a single rhetorical question in the Greek into four sentences, diluting the force of the opening question. However, this treatment of the opening does more justice than many other translations to the sense of outrage present in the Greek. Compared with this, the opening of the Washburn/Curzon translation1 has a tone more pathetic than indignant, and certainly less dramatic:

Everyone in Thebes knows who I am: Amphitryon. Those who
trace pedigrees know the whole tale. My own
father was the son of Perseus… (Washburn/Curzon tr., 1-3)

Throughout the play, the English of Sleigh’s translation is natural and rhythmic, and he clearly seeks to retain the tone and purpose, if not the diction, of the original. In his own note on the translation, he asserts his purpose to “reimagine Euripides’ play from the inside, to get the feel and timbre of the characters’ voices, and to embody those voices in a way that doesn’t violate the spirit of Euripides’ Greek…to make those voices over into contemporary English full of the nuances and subtleties, the intimate qualities of morals and mind, of each character’s individual habits of speech” (p. 25). To this end, he at times departs rather significantly from literal translation. The opening of the Chorus’s first stasimon serves as an example:

When victory’s all we know,
Our songs are full of joy.
But then they turn to grief:
We know hatred.
Strife. Death.
And both our joy and grief
Blend in Apollo’s notes
So pure they break our hearts…
With his golden pick he plucks
Taut strings that quaver
Deep in the inner ear
Hearing beneath that sound
The dead’s toneless music
Welling from underground. (Sleigh tr., 393-406)

αἴλινον μὲν ἐπ’ εὐτυχεῖ
μολπᾶι Φοῖβος ἰαχεῖ
τὰν καλλίφθογγον κιθάραν
ἐλαύνων πλήκτρωι χρυσέωι (Eur. Her. 348-351)

Sleigh’s version of this passage provides an excellent case in point of the difficulty of truly rendering Euripides in English. Much is packed into Euripides’s four lines, and the literal meaning of the words will not express the full sense to a general audience. For this reason, Sleigh has, here and elsewhere, rewritten Euripides rather freely.

Sleigh’s translation of Herakles’ final words in the play provides further illustration of this point. Here, he does not depart as much from the Greek as in the previously discussed passage, but the translation still lacks the force of the original, due to the difficulty in rendering in English the significance of a Greek word:

Everything I thought was mine sank in storming seas
My shameful deeds stirred up.
Now I’ll follow
In Theseus’ wake, a little boat in tow.
If in your heart you put wealth and power
Over loving friendship, I tell you—you are mad. (Sleigh tr., 1783-1786)

ἡμεῖς δ’ ἀναλώσαντες αἰσχύναις δόμον
Θησεῖ πανώλεις ἑψόμεσθ’ ἐφολκίδες.
ὅστις δὲ πλοῦτον ἢ σθένος μᾶλλον φίλων
ἀγαθῶν πεπᾶσθαι βούλεται κακῶς φρονεῖ
(Eur. Her., 1423-1425)

Sleigh’s translation of this passage appropriately emphasizes the theme of friendship, which has been building throughout the play and reaches its culmination here, at the conclusion. Sleigh has faithfully maintained this theme, and these lines are effective and poignant. In his lines 1783-1784, Sleigh does make clear Herakles’ lament of his own agency in the death of his family. However, the omission of the adjective πανώλεις modifying ἐφολκίδες in the following line is unfortunate, as this word in the Greek text greatly intensifies the pathos of the image. This is an important point, because the word ἐφολκίδες is used once earlier in the play, by Herakles ( ἐφολκίδας, at line 631 of the Greek text), to assert his intention to protect his wife and children, precisely the ones whom he now laments having destroyed.

The exact sense, tone, rhythm, and literal meaning of the Greek can be found only in the original Greek and cannot be translated perfectly. No reader of Greek will ever be completely satisfied with a translator’s choices, particularly with respect to a poetic text. Nevertheless, translations are essential in our efforts both to keep these texts alive to our contemporary world and to examine fresh interpretations. The more translations available, the better, and the present offering of Sleigh and Wolff is a welcome addition.

On a practical note, it seems advantageous that the plays in the Oxford series are published individually. Not only does this provide flexibility for teachers who may only have room for one of the plays in his or her curriculum or who may want to teach a combination of plays that are not offered in the same volume of another series, but it also tends to lead to greater depth and focus in the treatment of the individual play.

The virtues of this volume clearly outweigh its weaknesses. Perhaps most importantly for the general audience, it is an effective piece of English poetry, both to read and to hear. The introduction, notes, and glossary provide enough information for the beginner, without being either facile or condescending. Unfortunately there is no bibliography, which would have been a useful appendix, but the footnotes to the introduction provide some leads for those who wish to engage in further research on the context and criticism of the play. Sleigh and Wolff’s Herakles will serve well as a text for individual reading, for performance, and for the undergraduate, Greekless classroom.


1. Washburn and Curzon, “The Madness of Heracles,” in Euripides, 4. Edited by David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bowie. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999.