BMCR 2007.03.30

Euripides: Medea

, , , Medea. 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.. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. 1 online resource (xi, 116 pages).. ISBN 1429402717 $10.95.

For over two decades now, Oxford’s Greek Tragedies in New Translations series has been publishing innovative translations of the Greek tragedies, operating under the sensible principle that it takes both the imaginative talents of the professional poet and the philological and historical knowledge of the classical scholar to produce a first-rate contemporary edition. Although the quality of the translations has inevitably varied from play to play, the series as a whole should be lauded for providing compact and affordable editions that excel at making the ancient plays accessible to the modern reader.

The latest edition in the series, Euripides’ Medea, produced by the poet/classicist team of Michael Collier and Georgia Machemer (hereafter C. and M.), accomplishes this goal of accessibility with great success. It features an introductory essay that evokes the original performance context in exceptionally vivid detail; a streamlined translation that is lucid, brisk, and reasonably accurate; and reference materials (consisting of endnotes, a glossary, and suggestions for further reading) that help mitigate the losses of semantic resonance required by the translation’s minimalist aesthetic. On account of these qualities, this edition would make an excellent choice either for the general reader of Greek tragedy or for students who are coming at Greek tragedy for the first time. However, for reasons that will emerge below, I believe this edition would be somewhat less suitable for more specialized courses that wish to focus on the historical specificity and cultural significance of the play, as a course on Greek tragedy or on women in the ancient world would presumably seek to do.1 In what follows, I first address some important issues raised in the translator’s preface, then evaluate the translation itself.2

In his brief prefatory essay, C. states that one of his central goals as a translator was “to find a way to control the almost hysterical emotional energy of the play” because he was worried about what he calls “the problem of melodrama” (33). This is surely a key disclosure, yet it is not entirely clear whether C. is saying that the play is inherently melodramatic or whether he means that twenty-first century audiences—nourished as we are on a steady diet of melodrama—are likely to misapprehend it as such.3 I cannot think that C. means the first possibility because it seems clear to me that Medea deploys its emotional energy for ends that are precisely not melodramatic. Intense emotional energy of the kind which C. rightly perceives in Medea is cultivated by many forms of drama, not by melodrama alone. Arguably, a play becomes “melodramatic” only when it uses such energy to recruit the audience’s sympathies and antipathies in fairly schematic ways, with the ultimate aim of making the dramatic action intelligible in stark moral terms.4 Euripides’ Medea, however, clearly goes out of its way to trouble, not to schematize, the audience’s sympathetic investments, and, far from making the dramatic action morally intelligible, the play ultimately presents both human and divine action as morally obscure.

Assuming therefore that, by “the problem of melodrama,” C. means that a twenty-first century audience is liable to view the play through a melodramatic lens, his determination to thwart such an anachronistic reception is admirable. However, the strategy that C. adopts to accomplish this produces uneven results. C. declares that, in order to avoid generating melodramatic effects, he has aimed for a translation that reads “with the force and clarity of a dramatic poem” (33). This has entailed not just adopting a “fairly regular iambic rhythm” but, more significantly, “tightening and compressing the language” of the play (33). These seem like promising tactics, and, as I have already indicated, C.’s minimalist approach does have its advantages. But the trouble is that C. sometimes takes the “tightening and compressing” of the Greek too far, resulting in an English version that tends to be too pared-down, too brusque. More problematically, this streamlining frequently flattens, rather than merely “controls,” the play’s emotional energy. In his adoption of a minimalist style, in other words, C. has perhaps overreacted to his own nervousness about the “problem of melodrama.” The emotional balance of his translation swings a little too far in the other direction.

Given the principles that guide C.’s approach, it should come as no surprise that the resulting translation is at its best in the stichomythic sections, where the Greek itself tends to be terse and economical, and also in those speeches in which characters speak either with great emotional control or in an arrogant manner. A good example of how C.’s approach succeeds with emotionally controlled language can be found in the speech Medea delivers at the end of the third episode, just after the exit of Aegeus:

I’ll send a servant to summon Jason
and when he comes, I’ll tell him
what he wants to hear: yes, his marriage,
my abandonment—two parts of a brilliant plan. (765-68)

In this passage, the compression of the language from 6 lines in Greek to 4 lines in English creates a terseness (especially notable in the final part of the sentence) that accurately conveys Medea’s self-control without losing the sarcastic note that points to the anger simmering just beneath the surface.5 A similar case of terseness working to good effect can be found at the beginning of Jason’s reply to Medea’s speech of deception in the fifth episode:

Good, you’ve got the right attitude now.
I’ll let pass the earlier tantrums.
Women aren’t made to share their husbands.
And though it took awhile for you to change
your mind about my triumphant plan . . .
Well, I’m glad that reason has returned. (887-92; ellipsis original)

Here, C.’s decision to divide the first line of the Greek (908) into two blunt sentences (887-888) and, conversely, to compress the second and third lines of the Greek (909-10) into a single-line declaration (889) results in a clipped, paratactic style and a curt tone that excellently convey Jason’s arrogance and his patronizing manner.

As I mentioned above though, C.’s minimalist approach sometimes results in (usually minor) losses of semantic resonance. A typical example of this occurs towards the beginning of the prologue speech, where the nurse describes Medea’s reaction to Jason’s betrayal. C. translates: “Medea, / enraged, recites the list of Jason’s vows. . . .” (17-8). Here C. compresses the phrase ἡ δύστηνος ἠτιμασμένη (20), which one might literally translate as “the poor woman, having been dishonored,” into the single word “enraged.” The problem with this is twofold. First, since ἡ δύστηνος is dropped altogether, our sense of the nurse’s sympathy for Medea is diminished. Second, the translation of ἠτιμασμένη by “enraged” rather than by the more literal “dishonored” significantly alters this crucial first characterization of Medea, weakening the suggestion that she is motivated by a masculine, heroic concern for her honor, her τιμή. It is true that “enraged” could (quite appropriately) suggest that Medea has adopted an Achillean attitude, and it is also true that C. does offer “dishonored” for a related expression just a few lines later (29). But, without the close repetition of terms having to do with honor, the heroic aspect of Medea’s character does not receive the emphasis it deserves.

Somewhat more serious—but fortunately less frequent—than such losses of resonance are C.’s occasional expansions and interpolations. Medea’s entrance speech, in particular, contains several misleading interpolations. Consider, for example, how C. handles Medea’s complaint about the suddenness of her exile:

So quickly and suddenly
was it done, I wasn’t give time to console
myself or build alliances with friends.
A brutal man whom I once loved has smashed me
in the face so hard I wear the face of death. (236-40)

This starts out fine, and the initial interpolation (“I wasn’t give time to console / myself or build alliances with friends”) economically glosses for the modern reader why the suddenness of the exile is so distressing for Medea. However, the second interpolation (“A brutal man whom I once loved has smashed me / in the face so hard I wear the face of death”) is almost completely unmotivated by the Greek and gives, in my view, the wrong impression of Medea’s character, making her out in the image of a physically battered wife. Just a few lines later, a similarly misleading interpolation occurs when C. has Medea ask, “[a]nd who ever warned us / of a husband’s rough hands, / breath aflame on our neck . . . ?” (252-54; ellipsis added). The Greek, however, has nothing more lurid than οὐδ’ οἷόν τ’ ἀνήνασθαι πόσιν (“[women] can’t refuse their husbands,” 237). Finally, at the end of this speech, which should conclude with the forceful, ominous declaration that nothing is more “murderous” ( μιαιφονωτέρα, 266) than a woman who has been wronged in bed, C. has Medea add: “We’ve lain / in our own blood before . . . and have survived” (283-84; ellipsis original). These particular interpolations suggest a creative effort on C.’s part to foreground the fact that, in this speech, Medea is trying to gain the chorus’s sympathy by emphasizing their common sufferings as women in a patriarchal society. But what is strange about all three interpolations is that they seem to work directly against C.’s stated goal of tackling “the problem of melodrama” (33), for they actually increase the emotional intensity of Medea’s rhetoric, pushing it over the top.

Apart from these occasional, “melodramatic” interpolations, most of the time the translation works to flatten rather than to increase the emotional intensity of the play. This emotional flattening is most evident in the lyric passages and in those speeches in which affective registers are strongly sounded, such as in Medea’s famous monologue in the fifth episode. In his streamlined translation of this speech, C. persistently deformalizes Medea’s rhetoric and almost completely eliminates the more obviously emotional features such as exclamations, apostrophes, and outcries, thereby depriving the speech of its full emotional and dramatic impact. In the interest of keeping this review brief, I will quote C.’s translation of just one important section of this speech:

Oh, children, I don’t understand your looks.
Why smile as if it were your last?
I despair of what to do.
See, my strength
and resolve vanish in the children’s
lively faces. It can’t be done.
Farewell to my schemes. When I leave, I’ll take
my sons with me. Why should I make them
suffer to revenge their father and make
my own suffering so much worse? No, farewell.

And yet what will change? My foes
unpunished mock me.
Should I endure it? The pledges I’ve made
my heart have weakened me. (1017-29)

With its simple diction, its straightforward syntax, and its restrained tone, the translation here is characteristically clear and approachable. However, these same features render the speech much more prosaic and emotionally uninteresting than it need be. This reduction of pathos will not matter much to first-time readers of the play because the speech is sufficiently fascinating even when rendered in a relatively unemotional style. But, again, for an advanced course or—even more—in performance, it probably will matter that, at this key moment, Medea is not presented in a sufficiently distraught and emotionally tortured state.

In sum, despite the mostly minor kinds of shortcomings that I have indicated, this translation should definitely be praised for its contemporary tone and its overall lucidity. Since, in addition to the accessible translation, C. and M. have provided a lively, informative introduction, helpful endnotes, a full glossary, and judicious suggestions for further reading, I have no qualms about recommending this edition for all but the most specialized reading contexts. As a final vote of confidence, I should like to mention that I myself have ordered this edition for an introductory-level course in Comparative Literature, and I have no doubt that my students will both enjoy and benefit from it.


1. For such courses, a carefully literal translation, such as that of A. J. Podlecki (Focus Publishing, 1989), might be more useful, though such literalism obviously has its own disadvantages.

2. The translation is attributed to both C. and M., and they seem to have collaborated closely on it; but since the prefatory essay, “On the Translation,” is attributed only to C., I treat the principles of translation set forth in it as his own.

3. A melodramatic aesthetic clearly pervades popular media, including film, television, music, and computer games. For a compelling discussion of the pervasiveness of melodrama in American film, see Linda Williams’s essay “Melodrama Revised” in Refiguring American Film Genres: History and Theory, edited by Nick Browne (University of California Press, 1998).

4. Defining melodrama is a notoriously difficult task, and I have settled here for a fairly basic, rather than a contentious, definition. Some of the most significant critical works on melodrama include Peter Brooks’s The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac, Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess (Yale University Press, 1976); Christine Gledhill’s essay “The Melodramatic Field: An Investigation,” in the volume she edited entitled Home is Where the Heart Is: Studies in Melodrama and the Woman’s Film (British Film Institute, 1987); Linda Williams’s essay “Melodrama Revised” (cited in note 3, above); and, more recently, John Mercer and Martin Shingler’s Melodrama: Genre, Style, Sensibility (Wallflower Press, 2004). Those wanting a simple, compact overview of the critical efforts to define melodrama will especially appreciate Mercer and Shingler’s study.

5. The six lines in Greek are 774-79 in James Diggle’s Oxford Classical Texts edition (Oxford University Press, 1984). I quote and cite from Diggle’s edition throughout.