New translations of classical literature are always coming out. Among classicists, it’s kind of a joke, since there are only so many ways you can skin a cat. Here I post a modified essay I wrote for my Medea class this past quarter, focusing on aspects of the Greek and how well (or how poorly) they are translated by various translators.
Medea, like Homer, Sophocles, and Plato, has been overtranslated. Wikipedia lists several translations. After introducing some basic categories of translation style, I will focus on three elements of the tragedy as ‘litmus tests’ and how each translation method handles them: the nuanced metaphors describing Medea with heroic and animal imagery, the musicality and rhythm of the choral odes, and the pithy wisdom statements contained in the dialogue sections. Rather than trying to naively pick one translation as the best, I assess the strengths and weaknesses of each translation, and reflect on the dangers of overzealously applying one translation method to a multifaceted text.
Scholars of translation have invented several categorization systems to make order out of chaos. British scholar J. Michael Walton demarcates a range from translation to adaptation, ranging from literals (cribs) to complete adaptations/translocations to another culture. Here I will analyze texts from only three of his categories:
- Those with literary fidelity and the translator’s stamp, but with no claims as performance texts.
- Faithful to the original but actable
- Intended for, or deriving from production, with occasional license
This study focuses on six translations, chosen for their popularity and diversity of translators and emphases:
- Director and theatre scholar J. Michael Walton’s performance-oriented translation for the Metheun Student Editions series;
- Classicist Rex Warner’s verse translation for the first edition of the Grene and Lattimore The Complete Greek Tragedies series;
- Poet Eleanor Wilner’s verse translation for the Penn Greek Drama series;
- Classicist John Davie’s prose translation for Penguin Classics;
- Poet Michael Collier and classicist Georgia Machemer’s poetic translation for the Greek Tragedy in New Translations series
Of these six, the first translation fits Walton’s first group, the second fits his third, and the rest fit his second. Of course, any given translation may span more than one of the above groups.
Another way to categorize translations was created by James Robson, who groups verse translations into mimetic, analogical, content-derivative, and deviant categories. These range in order from most to least imitative of the original’s poetic style. For example, mimetic translations seek to preserve the precise poetic techniques (e.g. rhyme, meter) of the original, while deviant translations invent their own poetic style in the target language. While Davie is excluded from Holmes’ categories entirely, Collier and Walton fit a deviant style, which Wilner and Warner hover between a mimetic (which is in reality impossible) and an analogical style.
In the next post, we’ll look at some of the subtle metaphors in the play and how well translators render them.