BMCR 2009.06.50

Euripides: Medea

Robin Robertson, Euripides: Medea. New York: Free Press, 2008. xxii, 85. ISBN 9781416592235 $16.00.

When I noticed this title on the BMCR list of books received, I could not avoid asking myself, “Does the world really need another English translation of the Medea ?” As recently as last year David M. Schaps, the reviewer of BMCR 2008.06.18, announced: “This is the Medea we have been waiting for,” in reviewing Diane Arnson Svarlien’s new translation of the play.1 We also have several other English translations which have appeared in the last several years, not to mention the Loeb of David Kovacs, Euripides: Cyclops, Alcestis, Medea, from as recently as 1994.

So what does Robin Robertson contribute to this feast of translation? Certainly not a faithfully literal rendering of the Greek text. We find an excellent example of a translation that supplies that desideratum in David Kovacs’ translation. In fact Robertson acknowledges Kovacs’ edition as “my primary source” (xxii). In general, but not in every detail, Robertson’s translation relies on the same Greek text Kovacs uses. Places where ‘Robertson’s translation seems to reflect different textual choices suggest that he has also made use of Donald J. Mastronarde’s Cambridge edition,2 which appeared in 2002.

But what are we to make of the merits of this new translation? Above all it is a more dramatic translation than Kovacs’ in every respect, couched in language which is more vivid and striking than that of Kovacs. And because of this I would judge Robertson’s translation to be a much superior acting text to Kovacs’. The dialogue moves swiftly and makes an impact on the (imagined) theatrical audience which Kovacs’ scholarly translation does not. Bold new metaphors in Robertson’s English do not so much translate as mark the text in places where Euripides’ Greek makes a strong impression, but the metaphors are Robertson’s creations, so in a sense Robertson’s translation is “inspired” by the Greek but in no sense a rigorously literal rendering of the original. Therefore I would choose Robertson’s text to stage the play, but Kovacs’ would be far more useful in a class devoted to the specifics of Euripidean style and expression. Some examples will, I hope, make this clear.

Perhaps the first critical test of the translation occurs at line 20 (p. 6), where Kovacs translates the word ἠτιμασμένη as “cast aside.” Mastronarde points out (p. 167) that the idea of honor is a key to Medea’s heroic, even man-like, character, which, I would submit, is key to her extraordinary actions in the play. Here Robertson translates “dishonored,” highlighting a thematic point by simply translating literally. At line 26 the same word appears in the Greek and Kovacs and Robertson each translate it in the same way they did above.

Earlier, at line 16 (p. 6) the Greek is νῦν δ’ ἐχθρὰ πάντα καὶ νοσεῖ τὰ φίλτατα ’. Robertson translates “but now this house is full of hate; its timbers are rotten with it.” In Robertson’s rendering Euripides’ abstractness is converted to a very concrete and bold image of a rotting building. The extremely abstract τὰ φίλτατα becomes the timbers of the building, which the audience can imagine concretely. The English is a powerful piece of dialogue that strikes the imagination, whereas the vagueness of Euripides’ Greek would not make for a striking line if it were translated literally. Yet the word “rotten” reflects the connotations of the original νοσεῖ. It is this strategy of substitution that marks Robertson’s approach and is, I believe, a major merit of his text.

Again, at lines 44-45 (p. 7) an unfamiliar (to a modern audience) reference to singing a victory song is replaced by the very plain and blunt “and none who spark her rage will walk away.” Here the idea of clashing or dashing together in συμβαλών is reflected by the substitution “spark her rage.”

At line 107 Robertson translates νέφος οἰμωγῆς as “black clouds of grief,” whereas Kovacs translates “cloud of lament.” The latter preserves the synesthesia of the original but lacks the monosyllabic force of Robertson’s rendering. It is this staccato sound that makes an impression on the ear.

At 237 the phrase ἀνήνασθαι πόσιν has occasioned some comment. Kovacs translates “to refuse wedlock,” but Robertson seems to agree with Mastronarde that it means to refuse intercourse, translating “we can refuse him nothing.” Robertson translates the preceding lines as follows: “but if we divorce / we are seen as somehow soiled , as damaged goods.” This is based on the less vivid language of the Greek: οὐ γὰρ εὐκλεεῖς ἀπαλλαγαὶ / γυναιξὶν, of 236-237. The original sense seems to be a dilemma: divorce brings disrepute, but refusal of conjugal rights is not possible. Kovacs’ interpretation is neater: one cannot refuse to marry, but divorce is not a real option.

At 258 the phrase μεθορμίσασθαι τῆσδ’…συμφορᾶς ’ is translated by Robertson as “to shelter me from shame,” whereas Kovacs uses the word “calamity.” Robertson’s alliteration is striking and highlights the disgraceful aspect of Jason’s abandonment, which is foremost in Medea’s mind. Here the substitution of “shame” seems justified, as it is the shame above all which Medea resents (cf. line 20).

At 465 Kovacs translates παγκάκιστε as “vilest of knaves.” Robertson wisely paraphrases: “There are no names for something / as foul and spineless as you. / A man who is no man at all.” This rendering skillfully incorporates the meaning of the Greek by totally recasting the form, whereas Kovacs tries to preserve the form of the Greek: “for that is the only name I can give you, the worst reproach tongue can frame against unmanly conduct.” The last two words translate ἀνανδρίαν, which Robertson skillfully renders “a man who is no man at all.” The repetition of the word “man” echoes the repeated initial syllable in the Greek ἀνανδρίαν .

Robertson frequently demonstrates his skill in effective paraphrase, creating a vibrant English equivalent to the Greek, rather than a word for word rendering. In this sense, Robertson’s language is more suitable to performance, while Kovacs’ prose is more serviceable to a reader who may need help with the Greek.

Again, at 470 Kovacs’ translation is perfectly accurate: “to wrong your loved ones and then look them in the face,” but Robertson makes the line more forcefully sarcastic: “to wrong your family and then visit them” (emphasis in the original). Using the word “visit” to render ἐναντίον βλέπειν goes beyond the connotation of the original Greek but captures Medea’s sarcasm better than Kovacs’ more literal rendering. The benevolent connotation of “visit” is what, in context, creates the irony and sarcasm.

In lines 520-521 a punctuating choral distich is marked by the figure of polyptoton in φίλοι φιλοῖσι. Kovacs’ translation of this line is flat but very faithful: “Terrible and hard to heal is the wrath that comes when kin join in conflict with kin.” Robertson has “There is no anger worse than this / when dearest love has turned to deepest hate.” The medical connotation of δυσίατος is lost in Robertson’s translation but the rhetorical features are reflected in the opposition of dearest love/deepest hate. Moreover the English couplet scans as iambic tetrameter and pentameter respectively. The juxtaposition of love and hate reflects the juxtaposition of φίλοι φιλοῖσι. Thus, the English of Robertson preserves the gnomic quality of the Greek without reproducing the words exactly.

Robertson omits to translate line 782, which Brunck deleted on the grounds of redundancy given line 1060, whereas Kovacs accepts and translates the line. Yet Robertson’s rendering reflects the omitted καθυβρίσαι in his reference to “rabble” in translating line 781. One can find other examples of subtleties in this translation which bespeak a familiarity with more than just the Loeb edition Robertson acknowledges.

On the negative side of the ledger, at 535 Jason uses the phrase ὡς ἐγὼ φράσω, “as I shall make clear” (Kovacs, 299). Mastronarde points out (261) the almost forensic overtones of this phrase and cites 522-5 and 548-50 as other examples of “self-conscious reference to the performance of the argument.” But this forensic connotation is lost in Robertson’s translation, where the whole self-referential phrase is omitted and the whole line of Greek becomes simply “but you gained more than you gave” (30).

At 623-26 Medea’s parting shot mocking Jason as a lover is elaborated and cast in colloquial English by Robertson What is perhaps implicit in the dismissive imperative νύμφεῡ ’ is made lurid and slangy in Robertson’s rendering: “I can tell you’re keen to get back to the palace / and your hot little playmate. She’ll be waiting in bed, / I imagine, dying for it / Go play the bridegroom while you can…” Moreover, Robertson has chosen to add a reference to the bride’s sexual desire in addition to the πόθος of Jason in the Greek original. One is moved to wonder, “Is this a mistranslation or merely an “improvement” on the Euripidean original? By their colloquialism in English these lines stand out from the more elevated tragic register elsewhere. However, it might be a good practice to use English colloquialism to translate only what we can identify as Greek colloquialism in the original.

Of course, as in the case of any other translation, one can find fault with Robertson’s lack of attention to other aspects of the Greek one might wish to see reflected, if possible, in English. For example, the striking sigmatism of line 476 and the repeated π of 478 is not reflected in either Kovacs’ or Robertson’s translation. Or again at 807-8 when Robertson compresses three adjectives in the Greek ( φαύλην, ἀσθενῆ and ἡσυχαίαν) into the phrase “mild as milk.” At line 53 Robertson translates τέκνων ὀπαδὲ πρέσβυ as “old teacher, tired slave of Jason’s children” for no apparent reason. In a conspicuous lapse at 155 Robertson translates καινὰ λέχη σεβίζει as “thresh [sic] in the bed of desire.”

But to give a more complete impression of this translation as a whole and a taste of its rapid and forceful colloquial language, I submit the following lines (p. 32), corresponding to lines 579-87 of the Greek text:

MEDEA Well, Jason, that’s one way of looking at it.
I see things from a different point of view.
An eloquent brute is still a brute.
Someone who defends their evil plausibly
deserves the greatest punishment.
And that goes for you.
You cannot dazzle me with gilded words and fancy rhetoric,
nor can a thousand pretty phrases cover up your crime.
Your arrogance is matched only by your stupidity.
If I pull one thread, the whole thing unravels.
If this marriage is so sensible you could have been honest
and talked it through with me first, won me over.
But no, you kept your grubby secret to yourself.
Have you ever told the truth?

Whatever is lost in this translation — and a lot of detail is lost — is compensated for by the eminently speakable and actable nature of the English Robertson has crafted.


1. Diane Arnson Svarlien (trans.), Euripides. Medea, with an introduction and notes by Robin Mitchell-Boyask. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008.

2. Donald J. Mastronarde (ed. and trans.), Euripides, Medea. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002.