In this installment of my Medea series, I look at the poetic features of Medea‘s choral odes and critique their translation.
Famed translator of Greek literature Richmond Lattimore called the choral odes of Greek tragedy “impossible” to translate. Although the entire tragedy is in verse, the choral odes have idiosyncratic and complicated meters, compact and archaic language, heightened emotional tone, and Doric (not Attic) pronunciation. For example, one reconstruction:
Hence the choral odes are another litmus test for a good translation. They should be rendered differently than the rest of the play, and their more intricate poetic technique should be on display. To test each translation, I analyze a choral ode from the parados: lines 131-137, the chorus’ opening lines asking about Medea:
ἔκλυον φωνάν, ἔκλυον δὲ βοὰν
Κολχίδος: οὐδέπω ἤπιος;
ἀλλ᾽ ὦ γεραιά, λέξον. ἀπ᾽ ἀμφιπόλου
γὰρ ἔσω μελάθρου βοᾶν
ἔκλυον, οὐδὲ συνήδομαι, ὦ γύναι, ἄλγεσι
δώματος, ἐπεί μοι φιλία κέκραται. (131-137)
I heard the sound, I heard the cry
Of the wretched
Woman of Colchis; is she not yet soothed?
But O woman, speak. For from the double-gated
Hall a shout
I heard, I am not rejoicing, O woman, at the pains
Of the house, since for me friendship has been mixed.
We see on display here some of the features of choral odes.
- Internal rhyme within a given line, which tragedians employed rather than rhyming the ends of lines (Woodruff 499). In line 131, we see the “ον…άν…ον…άν” rhyme, and in line 133, Euripides writes “Κολχίδος… ἤπιος.”
- Euripides also employs hyperbaton (mixing phrases together for metrical effect) in lines 136 and 137: “I feel no joy, O woman, at the pains of the house.”
- The archaic Doric dialect is also used in line 131 for φωνάν and βοὰν, which in Attic would be φωνήν and βοήν. (The Attic ends with a long “a” as in “bay,” while the Attic ends in a shorter “a” as in the “o” in “oxen.”)
Although it would be impossible for any translation to convey all of these features, a good one should attempt to. At the very least a translation should attempt to convey some difference in sound between dialogue and chorus passages.
Only two translations attempt to convey this difference: Warner’s and Wilner’s. Here I focus on Wilner. Her translation, already in verse, even tries to approximate the meter of the Greek. She writes:
“I cast all their speeches in hexameters, and those of the Chorus mainly in dimeter and trimeter, with large if not compulsive amounts of both end and internal rhyming in the choral odes.”
Using this guiding philosophy, Wilner does the best job of translating the ode, as she conveys many of the nuances of the Greek:
It was her voice,
Her cry, the wretched
woman of Colchis –
again I heard it. Is she will
not calm? Is there no balm
to soothe her? Old
woman, tell me the truth.
Even inside my double-gated
House I heard those chants
I heard her cry –
But of what wrongs?
I can take no pleasure
in the misfortune
of this house, for I have shared
the cup of friendship there.
Wilner’s usage of phrases such as “balm…soothe” and “double-gated house” conveys the archaic and lofty language of the ode, paralleling the archaic and Doric sound of the Greek. She also includes some of the internal rhyme, such as “calm….balm,” and preserves the final line’s metaphorical association of friendship with wine and libations. Her lines are shorter than the dialogue lines, conveying a sense of the more rapid rhythm and compactness of the Greek. However, her translation takes liberties with the Greek, even adding imagery that is not in the original, such as the “bed” of death that Medea desires to “sleep” in (151-154). Wilner admits to adding images and metaphors, something reviewers have picked up on and critiqued.
On the other hand, Walton completely fails at translating the choral ode’s gravity and poetry. His translation is meant for performance, so it renders the tragedy in a very colloquial, down to earth style. He renders the final four lines of this ode:
I heard through the door
That awful sound of sorrow.
Such misery strikes to the heart.
This has been a good house.
Walton writes that “the varied metres of lyric passages like this one often convey heightened emotion,” but his translation fails to convey that (Walton 43). One reviewer refers to it as “prosaic,” and deems that it “miss[es] much of the word-magic, which … must have transmuted some of the passages of their originals into moments of pure incandescent sound.” Mostly it’s just bland.
Translating choral odes is tough. Translators have to find a suitable balance between lofty archaic language, and accessible colloquial language. Lattimore expresses the balance between archaic and contemporary rendering best:
“You should come out with something that reads as modern English verse, and yet not like any modern English verse ever written; at best, infected with some vital germination from contact with the great aliens…” (56)
This balance is a very delicate and hard to recognize achievement, but Wilner seems to have approximated it best. As in her rendering of metaphors, Wilner conveys the Greek more fully than the philologists do.