BMCR 2009.04.61

Euripides: Trojan Women. Greek Tragedy in New Translations

, Euripides: Trojan Women. Greek Tragedy in New Translations. New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008. 113. ISBN 9780195179101. $12.95 (pb).

The new translation of Euripides’ Trojan Women by Alan Shapiro, with Introduction and Notes by Peter Burian, aims to provides a poetic version of the text. The volume includes an Introduction set out in useful sections (pp.3-25) with a note on the translation by Shapiro (pp.27-8), the translation itself (pp.30-78), detailed notes to the text (pp.79-103), a glossary of names and places (pp.105-11) and a list of further readings (p.113). Although this reviewer has some minor criticisms, overall the publication is an important contribution to the field. Trojan Women has been translated very recently, in 2005 by Diskin Clay,1 and in 1999 by David Kovacs.2 Both of those editions contain good translations, ample bibliography and scholarly notes – Clay’s work in particular goes into some depth. However, neither work provides a consistently poetic translation, and this volume fills that gap.

As such, this edition will be useful for students of drama in general and Attic tragedy in particular, as it conveys the power of Euripides’ images. It will also benefit a second, equally important group of readers: would-be producers of an ancient play that has been frequently performed for modern audiences. Shapiro’s poetic translation works not just as a rendering of Greek, but as a good, at times gripping, English-language script. By translating Euripides’ text into blank verse, Shapiro makes his version performable. He creates a variety of rhythms within his lines that simulates the effect created by Euripides’ numerous ancient metres. Burian’s Introduction complements the performative aspect of Shapiro’s work. In the long section, What’s Hecuba to Us?, Burian presents a sequential analysis of the play that focuses on staging, movement and gesture. This brings the play to life for all readers, but will be particularly thought-provoking for those of a theatrical bent.

Burian’s introduction will be of use to students, though they should also consult Clay’s comprehensive Introduction for information on historical and technical matters. Burian aptly begins with a section on Context, focusing on Athenian politics. He writes clearly but still provides a nuanced discussion of important issues. This will assist the reader who is new to the questions of whether Athenian imperialism penetrated tragedy, and how much tragedy provided a site for cultural resistance. Burian provides footnotes that direct the reader to relevant scholarship on controversial issues. These will allow the interested student to pursue important matters, such as the possible connection between this play and the destruction of Melos, which Burian discusses in fn.9.

After making a strong case that Trojan Women to some degree reflects Euripides’ cultural and political context, Burian moves onto the thorny issue of whether Trojan Women was part of a trilogy. Burian explains how the fragmentary plays Alexander and Palamedes fit with Trojan Women to provide “an interconnected set of Trojan tragedies” (p.7). He gives his own interpretation of possible links between the plays but also directs readers to the fragments (n.14) and selected relevant scholarship (n.15). On the Alexander in particular, Burian gives a clear explanation of the state of the material evidence, and a reconstruction of the play which will benefit students.

Burian’s final and longest section, What’s Hecuba to Us?, tries to unpick the significance of movement and gesture in a sequential reading of the play, to counter Aristotle’s argument in the Poetics that tragedy can be read rather than seen. Burian’s point is valid, but this part of the Introduction is at times overly descriptive. The contextualisation of tragedy in terms of Aristotle’s reception of the genre does work well, giving the reader a useful example of ancient reception. Burian’s analysis of Hecuba’s behaviour, and how movement is intrinsic to the script and adds to her pathos, also provides the reader with important insights into her character. However, other sections, such those as on Cassandra, Andromache and Talthybius, provide description without much analytical depth. In this part of the essay Burian seems somewhat hampered by a decision to restrict himself to the action inside the text, where connecting the action with outside context might have enriched his essay. One example is his examination of Cassandra’s role in the play on p.16. Burian’s treatment is fairly descriptive, and he does not discuss the contemporary political significance of Cassandra’s anti-war argument. This omission is unfortunate, as in his section on Context (p.3-7), he made the case that Trojan Women reflected contemporary political concerns. When examining Cassandra’s speech Burian could have supported his earlier case, while providing students new to the text with a useful handle on a speech that would have been incendiary in its original performance context. However, despite the omission of some important material, overall the Introduction as it stands provides a good overview of some significant issues arising from the drama.

Shapiro’s note On the Translation follows, in which he says that he worked from Shirley Barlow’s prose version. At this point Shapiro could have aided the student by pointing out and explaining the discrepancy between the numbering of his own lines and the line numbers of the Greek, given at the top of each page in brackets. Despite working from a translation, Shapiro’s version is notable for its closeness to the Greek at many points, and Burian’s notes further tie the English to the original text. On occasion, Shapiro’s closeness to the original extends as far as replicating wordplays while maintaining rhythm, an important and noteworthy achievement. For instance, Hecuba’s description of Odysseus as a man who

twists everything
to nothing, twists
love to hate,
and hate to love

at Shapiro’s lines 314-7 transforms Euripides’ concise line 288 into even more compact English, so that the heroine almost spits the monosyllables out. Another example of excellent translating on a word-for-word level can be found in Shapiro’s lines 1149-50. Here the Greek etymological play on Aphrodite’s name in Euripides’ line 990 τοὔνομ’ ὀρθῶς ἀφροσύνης ἄρχει θεᾶς seamlessly becomes Hecuba’s scathing

It’s no coincidence that “witless” rhymes
With Cypris.

Beyond the power of individual lines, certain longer sections of Shapiro’s translation stand out for capturing the essence of Euripides’ original in genuinely poetic form. When she comes onstage, Hecuba gives a powerful lament at Shapiro’s lines 109-171. Shapiro recreates Euripides’ complex nautical imagery, as Hecuba both talks about the actual boats that brought the war to Troy and envisions herself as a ship buffeted on the waves. Shapiro’s repeated imperatives as Hecuba tells herself to “lift,” “look,” “bear” and “sail”, capture the insistent strength of Hecuba’s directives to herself in the original, ἐπάειρε (99), ἄνσχου (101) and πλεῖ (102). As the Greek passage continues Euripides creates a dual meaning through τοίχους (118), sides of a ship here used to used to represent Hecuba’s own flanks. Euripides’ powerful metaphor of woman as ship reinforces Hecuba’s passivity and helplessness. In her commentary, Barlow discusses the complexity of the language in these lines and says “the metaphor…is almost impossible to render in English adequately”.3 Shapiro uses a creative image of Hecuba’s heaving sides as a “spine-keel” at lines 135-6. This unusual English wordplay captures the dual meaning inherent in the Greek, making explicit the latent nautical wordplay in the original. Shapiro’s success in expressing the Greek metaphor is evidence of his skill as a poet. Further, if I am reading Shapiro’s blank verse as he intended, then here he makes excellent use of punctuation for poetic effect, to create a rhythm that reflects the content of the lines and the speaker’s character. The off-beat pauses in Hecuba’s lines 119-20

Sail as you do, and have, and will
On the winds of chance. AIAI. AIAI.

create a breathless rhythm similar to that of the original’s anapestic beat.

Other noteworthy passages in Shapiro’s translation are: the duet between Hecuba and Andromache, which uses split lines and raises the tension to fever-pitch, Andromache’s lament for Astyanax, and the Chorus’ apostrophe to Ganymede. These are particularly high points in a good translation.

Occasionally Shapiro is free with Barlow’s reading of the Greek in her dual language edition. Generally his alterations allow the translation to work as a script. One example of this is when he changes the subject of the verb ἔπαθεν from Ajax to the Greeks, in his line 81 of the Prologue (line 71 in the Greek). This creates a good flow in the dialogue, and does not compromise the sense of the original. I question an alteration from the Greek in one place though, where it seems to me to significantly alter the substance of the text. At Shapiro’s lines 462-3, Cassandra makes the politically charged case, that wars in general ought be avoided but at least a war at home can be fought nobly. This is line 400 in Diggle’s edition, φεύγειν μὲν οὖν χρὴ πόλεμον ὅστις εὖ φρονεῖ. Shapiro translates this as

All sane men think
A war of choice is madness for a city.

The insertion of “choice” into the English translation here alters the meaning of Cassandra’s argument.

Generally Burian’s notes are helpful. Where applicable, he gives references to literary and mythological precedents to explain references made by the characters. These will be particularly useful for students new to study of the classical world. Throughout the notes, Burian points out recurring echoes and motifs that unify the play, such as the concept of what “just one woman” can or cannot accomplish, which applies to both Andromache and Helen in very different ways.

The best aspect of Burian’s notes is the careful elucidation of ancient Greek throughout. This may well whet the appetites of those students coming to the text without knowledge of the language, another important achievement of this translation. The notes suggest a profitable collaboration between Burian and Shapiro in the writing of this translation, though unfortunately the process is not addressed in the Introduction. At Shapiro line 1031 the translator puns on Helen with “She’s Hell”. Burian explains that this is inspired by the Greek text with its ἑλεῖ from αἱρέω, and gives further examples of literary punning on Helen’s name. Similarly, notes on Cassandra point out a peculiarity of the Greek, that Euripides describes Cassandra’s prophetic “madness” in Dionysian terms (p.83, p.86). This conflation of Dionysian madness with Apolline prophecy is almost impossible to express in English, so Burian’s notes are crucial for the student to fully understand how Euripides characterises Cassandra.

The glossary provides important information for students. Burian concisely describes ancient geography and documents many relevant stories from Greek mythology. One minor mistake may lead to confusion for students, though; in the entry for Achilles Burian has Achilles’ “killing by Hector” rather than “killing of”.

In general, the volume has been well proofed. Exceptions: Palamedes on p.10 should be italicised, being the play not the character; in the Introduction n.27 refers to the sentence prior to the one that the superscript number is appended to; in the notes Shapiro’s lines 262-92 have incorrect corresponding Greek line numbers; and in the glossary entry for Chronos, “Zeus,.” has a superfluous full-stop.

Certain information could have been added to this good volume to make it an even better edition. The Introduction could have included deeper consideration of the gendered aspects of Trojan Women. Information on women in Athenian social contexts, or women in myth, or women in tragedy, would have been useful both for students and prospective producers of the play. Basic information on Greek metrics should have been supplied, as Burian names particular metres and analyses their dramatic effects. A more in-depth and transparent account of how the translation process involved Barlow’s translation and possibly collaboration between Shapiro and Burian, would have made this version more scholarly. Lastly the suggested Further Reading list (p.113) is very brief, containing only six items. As Kovacs and Clay have both recently published editions including substantial bibliography, Burian and Shapiro’s brevity is perhaps understandable. However these two recent editions are not given in Burian and Shapiro’s list as resources.

Generally though, the volume as it stands undoubtedly achieves its primary aim. It produces that all-too-rare thing: a poetic translation of poetry.


1. Diskin Clay (ed.), Euripides The Trojan Women. Newburyport MA, Focus Classical Library, 2005.

2. David Kovacs (ed.), Euripides: Trojan Women, Iphigenia among the Taurians, Ion. Loeb Classical Library 10. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

3. Shirley Barlow (ed.), Euripides: Trojan Women Warminster, Wiltshire, Aris and Phillips Ltd., 1986. p.163.