Continuing my series on Medea translations, here I write about some of the subtle metaphors that are often lost in translation. Here I analyze two subtle but key word choices that fill out Medea’s character: language involving heroism and language describing her as an animal.
One of the most potent characterizations of Medea in the play is her masculinization. She describes herself — and others describe her — in heroic, Homeric terms of public honor and shame. Although Jason sees Medea as inferior because of her womanhood, Medea sees herself as his equal. So when he wrongs her, she reacts like a man. Two important roots associated with masculine honor are τιμη, “honor,” and κλεος, ”glory/fame.” For example, in the parados, the chorus laments:
Μήδεια δ᾽ ἡ δύστηνος ἠτιμασμένη
βοᾷ μὲν ὅρκους,
The wretched Medea, having been dishonored,
Cries out oaths, (lines 20-21)
The word ἠτιμασμένη (ētimasmenē) carries the τιμ- root and the alpha-privative, and should be translated to convey that sense of dishonor. But only two translations keep this nuance by rendering it “dishonored”: Wilner’s and Davie’s. Others translate it “cast aside,” “slighted,” or “enraged.” One reviewer comments on Collier’s translation:
… 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.
Another reviewer asks, in regards to Kovacs’ rendering: “Medea’s basic problem is that she appropriates the male standard of τιμη … I realise that this is difficult to bring out in English, but ‘cast aside’?” None of these convey accurately the sense of public shame Medea attributed to Medea, which would have been unusual for a woman in fifth-century Athens.
Another set of metaphors applied to Medea relate to animal imagery. Euripides often compares her to bulls, lions, and Scylla. This conveys how angry and out of control she is. One interesting example of this is uttered by the nurse, expressing her fear of Medea’s rage and what it might do to the children:
καίτοι τοκάδος δέργμα λεαίνης
though she has become bull-like in gaze,
like a lioness with cubs, to the servants, (187-188)
This mixed metaphor is hard to translate in English, as English does not have a verb meaning “to become bull-like.” (Also notice the cognates: λεαίνης (leainēs) sounds like “lion,” and ἀποταυροῦται (apotauroutai) has the “taur-” root in it, like “Taurus.”) Only Collier renders it fully:
and snarl when I approach,
like a lioness shielding
her cubs. She’ll snort like a bull.
Other translations capture the lioness comparison, but ignore the bull metaphor. The same happens earlier, when the nurse makes a similar statement:
ἤδη γὰρ εἶδον ὄμμα νιν ταυρουμένην
For already I have seen her become bull-like in gaze
to these ones; (92-93)
Only Collier and Davie render this bull imagery correctly. Wilner preserves the animal imagery, but changes it from a bull to a tiger! Warner refers only to her “blazing eyes.” Walton spectacularly understates the nurse’s tone with “I didn’t like the way she glared at them.”
Though she is a Greekless modern poet, Wilner most accurately renders these metaphors. She translates the heroic vocabulary nine times out of eleven, and renders the animal imagery accurately all four times. By contrast, Walton, in his desire to be colloquial, misses these nuances entirely and only translates the heroic vocabulary correctly twice.
A quick point. One might argue: by insisting this nuance be preserved in English, am I diminishing the ability of a translator to render the sense of a word rather than its literal meaning?
It is true that often the translator has to translate something in a way that is incorrect in denotation but correct in connotation. For example, suppose the Greeks considered bunnies fierce animals and compared Medea to bunnies to convey her ferocity. The translator might have to take liberties and change the denotation of the metaphor, as outside of Monty Python there are no fierce, murderous bunnies in the imagination of English-speaking culture. But this is not such a case. For the Greeks as for ourselves, bulls and lions still connote uncontrollable rage with the potential to kill a human. So there is no reason why this metaphor cannot translate accurately.
In the next post, I’ll look at the choral sections of the tragedy and their poetic features.