BMCR 2005.07.41

Euripides: The Trojan Women

, , The Trojan women. Focus classical library. Newburyport, MA: Focus Classical Library, 2005. 122 pages ; 22 cm.. ISBN 1585101117. $8.95 (pb).

This is the fifth tragedy of Euripides to appear in the Focus Classical Library. Unlike other publishers, Focus makes its translations of Aristophanes, Euripides, and Sophocles available both bundled and as individual texts, so instructors can order only those plays they intend to assign. In accordance with the series format, Trojan Women is preceded by an introduction and accompanied by stage directions, explanatory notes, and suggestions for further reading. The volume is additionally enhanced by six illustrations (ranging from the Cycladic amphora from Mykonos that shows the Greek warriors peering out of the Trojan Horse to a nineteenth-century study by Frederic, Lord Leighton for “Captive Andromache”) and two appendices, the first collecting the fragments of the lost plays of 415,1 and the second presenting a translation of Gorgias’ Encomium of Helen. While this material seems somewhat recondite for the classics-in-translation students who are the series’ target audience, its inclusion is in line with the translator’s own interests: Clay’s introduction and his notes both pay particular attention to the play’s intertextual connections on the one hand and its philosophical and theological outlook on the other.

Trojan Women is particularly relevant to our times by virtue of its subject matter. The play demonstrates that war’s suffering falls on the vanquished in the short term, but eventually leaves its mark on the victors as well. As Clay puts it (p.10), “It is not about any particular war. It is about war, in which conquerors and conquered are all victims.” Yet for a play about war, its atmosphere is strangely calm. The chorus of captive Trojan women sing about Troy’s past and their own future — both painful topics which, however, are distanced by means of lyric elaboration. The episodes transpire in the equally painful present, yet they too are curiously introspective. Each of the atrocites committed by the victorious Greeks could have furnished the material for a vivid, harrowing narrative, and they do just that in other literary contexts: the sacrifice of Polyxena is the subject of a messenger speech in Euripides’ Hecuba, the death of Astyanax is the subject of a messenger speech in Seneca’s Trojan Women, and the death of Priam forms the climax of Virgil’s Iliupersis in Aeneid 3. Yet in Trojan Women these three deaths are mentioned almost in passing. As I have previously argued,2 the episodes are most fruitfully read as a series of logoi in which the speakers — Hecuba and her daughter and two daughters-in-law — try to come to terms with what has happened through a variety of speech modes: lamentation, celebration, curse, apologia, epitaph.

Such a structure poses challenges to the translator, who must capture the distinctive tone of each logos without forfeiting the sense of a whole. Lamentation is the most consistent and recurrent of the Trojan women’s speech modes, and Clay carries it off with panache. As Shirley Barlow points out in the introduction to her own translation of the play,3 Trojan Women, abounds in cries of woe — oimoi, otototoi, and the like — that are almost impossible to translate. It is not quite the case, as Clay claims in his introduction (p. 32), that “Grief in Anglo-Saxon culture is best expressed by silence, or silent prayer” — we might think of Lear’s “Howl, howl, howl, howl,” as he enters bearing Cordelia’s body in his arms — but indubitably English is not as rich as Greek in sounds of despair. Clay opts consistently, and in my view successfully, for the technique that translators such as Barlow have applied selectively: he transliterates the Greek sounds rather than translating them, so their note of strangeness and pathos is heard throughout the play.

Words for “miserable” and “wretched” — τλήμον, τάλας, and the like — also abound, and here Clay is flexible in his treatment. Thus at 184 Hecuba speaks of herself as a δούλα τλάμων, which Clay renders as “a miserable slave,” but at 248 she speaks of her daughter as τλάμονα Κασσάνδραν, nicely translated by Clay as “suffering Cassandra.” Less satisfactory is his handling of 1324, where he translates ὀυδ’ ἐτ’ ἔστιν ἁ τάλαινα Τροία as “enduring Troy exists no more.” Presumably with “enduring” he intends to activate the latent force of the root and imply that Troy will transcend its physical destruction to survive in poetic memory, but for a student who does not know Greek the statement will barely make sense.

In general Clay displays a keen sense for what matters in the original. As Barlow further points out, Cassandra’s monody gains force by the repetition of words freighted with religious meaning. Clay carries over these repetitions (311-14) :

Blessed is the bridegroom
And blessed I who will be wed to a royal bed
in the land of Argos.
Hymen, Lord Hymenaeus!

He conveys the vehemence of Andromache’s curse on Helen (766-69) by largely limiting her to one- and two-syllable words:

And you, daughter of Tyndareos, you were never the daughter of Zeus!
I say that you are the spawn of many fathers:
Avenger first, then Spite,
Gore, and Blood, and Death.
All the crop of evil Earth yields begot you!

He echoes the specious clarity of Helen’s rhetoric as she ticks off points in her own defence (919-31): “First then … Second … Attend now to how the story unfolds … Consider how the tale now turns …” And he mirrors the Greek word-order of Hecuba’s epitaph for Astyanax(1190-91) with an effective enjambment: “THE ARGIVES ONCE KILLED THIS CHILD/ IN FEAR OF HIM.”

Although the translation is helpfully divided into lines whose numeration approximates that of Diggle’s Greek edition, neither in the episodes nor in the odes does Clay aspire to verse, and there is no way for readers to distinguish among trimeter, anapestic, and lyric passages. The latter are marked, however, by a heightened stateliness of tone, with increased alliteration and repetition; there are some happy touches, such as “misfortunes no chorus can dance to” for ἄτας … ἀχορεύτους (121) and “my impossible dream is …” for εἴθ’ (1100).

Clay dutifully brackets lines condemned by Diggle and discusses some textual issues in the footnotes, but he also makes his own additions and omissions, some of which are open to question. In the very first line of the translation Poseidon introduces himself with “You see me here before you.” There is no equivalent for this statement in the Greek; in fact, Euripides makes a point of leaving the addressee indefinite in his opening monologues, and the addition is jarring and unnecessary. In Andromache’s rhesis Clay cuts the lines (655-56) in which Andromache notes that she knew when she should prevail over Hector and when she should give in to him; the omission flattens her picture of the give-and-take that characterized her marriage. Clay drops 731, in which Talthybius reminds Andromache that the Greeks can easily contend with her, “a single woman;” the line is significant because it resonates with the theme of “one woman” that is sounded at 372, 498-99, and 781. He translates the final sentence of the play, ὅμως δὲ πρόφερε πόδα σὸν ἐπὶ πλάτας Ἀχαιῶν, as “Suffering, we must move now to the Achaean ships.” The omission of the adverb ὅμως, with its connotations of endurance, gives a misleading picture of the Trojan women’s state of mind at the end of the play.

The translation is largely accurate, but there are a few slips. At 99-100, where Hecuba says, “This is no longer Troy, and we are no longer the royal family of Troy,” Clay’s version omits the “no longer.” At 661 he makes much of Ἕκτορος κάρα, associating it in a footnote to the widow’s “crad[ling of] the head of her dead husband in the rituals of public mourning, a scene often shown in Greek vase painting.” Surely this is normal tragic periphrasis, and “head of Hector” stands for “Hector.” At 1052 Menelaus’ remark that a lover’s constancy depends on “how the mind of the beloved is disposed” emerges as “Do you want to give my mind some distance from the object of its love?”

Stage directions are a welcome addition to any translation, whether or not it is intended for performance, but Clay’s on occasion mislead. In the prologue (p. 35, cf. p. 31) he writes that “Poseidon appears on top of the walls of Troy;” this direction might prompt a student to imagine an elaborate stage set at variance with the realities of the fifth-century stage. In the same scene, Hecuba is described as “writhing” (p. 15),” rolling in grief” (p. 35), and “rolling in dirt” (37). Poseidon, however, describes her merely as “lying before the doors” of the skene (37), and she should probably be imagined as lying still; it is unlikely that she would draw attention to herself by convulsive movements as long as the gods are speaking. At 270, when Talthybius makes his veiled comments on the fate of Polyxena, he is described in a stage direction as “addressing a woman who does not hear.” At 624-25, however, Hecuba reveals that she has absorbed everything Talthybius said, although she was indeed puzzled by its ambiguity. At 1042, just before Helen begs Menelaus “by [his] knees” to spare her life, Clay describes her as “moving closer [to Menelaus] but still standing.” It is hard to see why Helen should make a virtual supplication of her husband at this juncture, when she has everything to gain and nothing to lose by a real one.

With these qualifications, Trojan Women is a welcome addition to the Focus Classical Library. Instructors will be glad to have this thoughtful and intelligent translation of one of Euripides’ most powerful plays.


1. For an exemplary presentation of these fragments, complete with Greek text, English translation, bibliography, and commentary, see now C. Collard, M. J. Cropp, and J. Gibert, eds., Euripides: Selected Fragmentary Plays, Vol. II (Oxford, 2004) pp. 35-104.

2. In Euripides and the Instruction of the Athenians (Ann Arbor, 1991) pp. 156-58.

3. S. Barlow (trans.) Euripides: Trojan Women (Warminster, 1986) pp. 37-38.