BMCR 2008.06.18

Euripides. Medea, with an introduction and notes by Robin Mitchell-Boyask

, , , Medea. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008. xxvi, 71 pages : maps ; 22 cm. ISBN 9780872209244. $5.95 (pb).

This is the Medea we have been waiting for.1 It offers clarity without banality, eloquence without pretension, meter without doggerel, accuracy without clumsiness. A short comparison will, I hope, explain my enthusiasm.

I omit from the comparison prose translations. Euripides was a poet,2 and one who for all of his innovations never tried to break out of the metrical and syntactical conventions of his time and genre.3 I also omit the older translations:

Would God no Argo e’er had winged the seas
To Colchis through the blue Symplêgades:
No shaft of riven pine in Pêlion’s glen
Shaped that first oar-blade in the hands of men
Valiant …4

was admired when it appeared a hundred years ago, when any simpler diction would have seemed unpoetic, but after the poetry of the mid-twentieth century it is stilted and most un-Euripidean. Rex Warner’s translation, later included in the Grene-Lattimore series on which I was raised, once seemed to me reasonably clear and poetical—

How I wish the Argo never had reached the land
Of Colchis, skimming through the blue Symplegades,
Nor ever had fallen in the glades of Pelion
The smitten fir-tree to furnish oars for the hands
Of heroes who in Pelias’ name attempted
The Golden Fleece!5

—but after modern translation theory has made us aware of how poorly such a literal translation as “the smitten fir-tree” for τμηθεῖσα πεύκη reflects the effect of the Greek, Warner’s English seems unnecessarily convoluted. Lastly, I omit Eleanor Wilner’s poetical translation that appeared in the Slavitt-Bovie series; although it is better and more faithful than most of the translations in that collection, and has a perceptive and illuminating preface, it does not escape the collection’s original sin of requesting able poets to make more poetical a text they knew from translation, an assignment that can only mean: rewrite the text to what you would have written if you had been Euripides, which, of course, none of these eminent poets is. When the nurse, asked whether Medea has stopped moaning, answers ζηλῶ σ’· ἐν ἀρχῇ πῆμα κοὐδέπω μεσοῖ, the rendering ” I wish I shared your happy ignorance. Her pain has just begun its climb—like a building wave, it has not reached that peak where it will break, and crash6 cannot be considered a translation.

There remain, however, two excellent, accurate, readable, and literate translations, Philip Vellacott’s Penguin7 and John Harrison’s Cambridge translation.8 (There may, of course, be others that I have not seen; I apologize to their authors, but for this review I have preferred timeliness to thoroughness). A reader or a theatergoer who begins with Vellacott’s

If only they had never gone! If the Argo’s hull
Never had winged out through the grey-blue jaws of rock
And on towards Colchis! If that pine on Pelion’s slopes
Had never felt the axe, and fallen, to put oars
Into those heroes’ hands, who went at Pelias’ bidding
To fetch the golden fleece! (1-6)

or with Harrison’s

If only the Argo had never winged its way
To Colchis, through the blue-grey Clashing Rocks!
If the pines on Pelion’s glens had never fallen
To the axe, and those heroes never pulled the oars,
Who went, at Pelias’ bidding, to find the Golden Fleece! (1-5)

will know pretty well what is being said, and will recognize immediately, as the Greek audience must have, the urgency in the nurse’s words. Arnson Svarlien’s beginning seems to me a bit clearer,

I wish the Argo never had set sail,
had never flown to Colchis through the dark
Clashing Rocks; I wish the pines had never
been felled along the hollows on the slopes
of Pelion, to fit their hands with oars—
those heroes who went off to seek the golden
pelt for Pelias. (1-7)

but any one of these is a very serviceable translation, and I can only envy a generation that will be introduced to Euripides by translations like these.

Nevertheless, Arnson Svarlien (AS) has added some new dimensions that bring the Greekless English reader closer than he has ever been to Euripides. She attempts to use a single English word to translate each of the major Greek terms, and although I would have preferred “smart” to “wise” for σοφός in this play, her choices are not unreasonable, and she wisely (and smartly) does not adhere inflexibly to this helpful but not entirely possible rule.9

For spoken meter she employs, as the great English dramatists did and as many translators have before her, the iambic pentameter, which she treats with some more freedom than was once permitted; but she has given thought to the lyric meters as well, and has come up with an original and effective solution. Rather than try vainly to reproduce the original meters in our metrically impoverished language10 or to translate into a free but unmetrical line, she builds her lyric strophe out of iambs, trochees, dactyls and anapests, the chief building-blocks of English, and maintains responsion between strophe and antistrophe, so that

How can this city
of holy rivers,
receiver of friends and loved ones,
receive you—when you’ve murdered your own children,
most unholy woman—among them?

corresponds to

Where will you find it,
this awful courage?
The terrible nerve—how can you?
How can your hand, your heart, your mind go through with
this slaughter? How will you be able …

This, for the first time,11 is a responsion that an English reader can hear and feel; still, indeed, an alien tradition (it is not something we can easily understand in the Greek, either), but something recognizable and discussible, an aspect of tragedy that is now shown, rather than described, to those who read Euripides in translation.

She is not the first to have attempted stichomythia, but she does it very well. Students who have been told about Euripidean simplicity and directness must find it odd to hear Medea ask Aegeus (who has just said that he is childless) δάμαρτος οὔσης ἢ λέχους ἄπειρος ὦν; and to hear him answer οὐκ ἐσμὲν εὐνῆς ἄζυγες γαμηλίου (672-3), and indeed Vellacott’s Medea asks “You have a wife, or not?” and receives the answer, “I am married.” Harrison’s translation is almost identical; he omits the words “or not”. AS, on the other hand, gives us

MEDEA: Do you have a wife, or do you sleep alone?
AEGEUS: I’m married, and we share a marriage bed.

This is not a literal translation, but it is close, and it is real stichomythia. She maintains it, as Euripides does, throughout the scene.

Were I to summarize Euripides’ style, as Matthew Arnold summarized Homer’s in four principles, my principles would be: he is a poet; he is simple and direct in his diction, though not so thoroughly so as modern parallels might lead us to believe; he loves gnomic statements, offering a proverb or two for every situation; and he loves rhetoric—if you can’t make Jason seem convincing (and that is precisely what makes his speech so exasperating), you can’t translate Medea. We have before us a translation that shows us all of these aspects without sacrificing the dramatic power that makes Medea one of the most-performed tragedies of all time. The introduction and notes of Robin Mitchell-Boyask give the reader briefly, clearly, and engagingly the background he needs to make sense of what is happening; and the translator has added a short preface and a few notes of her own. No English Medea can ever be Euripides’, but this is as close as anyone has come so far, and a good deal closer than I thought anyone would ever come.

There are many more Euripidean tragedies to translate, but the most interesting part is still ahead. Aeschylus and Sophocles are very different from each other, and from Euripides. No translator with whom I am familiar has succeeded in getting this across in English. Can AS, who has shown herself exceedingly skillful in making Euripides sound Euripidean, make Aeschylus sound Aeschylean? Now there’s a challenge.


1. It is available in two different editions: the stand-alone version that I review here, and as part of an edition, which I have not seen, including translations by Arnson Svarlien of Alcestis, Medea, and Hippolytus.

2. It will not do to point out, as Lucas does, that many considered Euripides himself prosaic (D. W. Lucas, trans., The Medea of Euripides [Cohen & West, London, 1949] xviii), for prosaic poetry is not prose. Many considered e. e. cummings prosaic, but i sing of Olaf glad and big is by no means prose; it is not even easy to imagine what might be left of it in prose.

3. Kovacs’ prose translation (David Kovacs, Euripides: Cyclops, Alcestis, Medea [Loeb Classical Library, Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA]) is intended, among other things, as a guide to the reader of the Greek text and as such is properly compared only with other Loeb translations, a comparison that it wins quite handily.

4. Gilbert Murray, trans., The Medea (G. Allen & Unwin, London, 1910), lines 1-5.

5. Rex Warner, trans., The Medea of Euripides (John Lane, the Bodley Head, 1944), lines 1-6.

6. Eleanor Wilner with Inés Azar, Medea, in David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, eds., Euripides, 1 (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1997), lines 60-2.

7. Philip Vellacott, trans., Euripides: Medea and Other Plays (Penguin, Harmondsworth/Baltimore, 1963).

8. John Harrison, trans., Euripides: Medea, with Introduction to the Greek Theatre by P. E. Easterling (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2000).

9. Throughout the play she has a good sense for verbal echoes. At 305 Medea reassures Creon by saying εἰμὶ δ’ οὐκ ἄγαν σοφή, and at 583 she says of the unjust man who speaks “wisely” ἐστὶ δ’ οὐκ ἄγαν σοφός. AS translates both as “Yet I’m (he’s) not all that wise”; Vellacott and Harrison seem to have missed the echo.

10. The problem is partly that we do not have a clear length distinction that would allow us to build a convincing meter on the basis of syllable length; but more importantly, the English word has an alternating stress, with subsidiary stresses on every second syllable, so that most words of more than one syllable fall naturally into iambs or trochees, and nothing but. Anapests and dactyls are possible and often effective, though they require effort; spondees are rare and difficult; and the more complicated meters, which generally include at least two consecutive longa, can rarely be produced at all.

11. In Vellacott Then how will such a city corresponds to Where will you find hardness of purpose?; in Harrison How can this city of sacred rivers corresponds to How will you harden your heart….