Continuing my series on Euripides’ Medea in translation, here I’ll write about the pithy philosophical statements found in Euripidean tragedy. Euripidean tragedy is not a monolithic literary style, but is composed of subtypes of literary forms: dialogue sections in iambic trimeter, choral odes in varying and highly complex meters, highly formal and sometimes contrived debate scenes, and messenger-speeches with tinges of epic diction. One specifically Euripidean tragic feature is the pithy wisdom statements said by minor characters.
Euripides frequently puts these maxims into the mouths of slaves and women, characters not usually considered by ancient Greek authors to have much worth saying. These pithy wisdom statements, like the debates, serve as a litmus test for a translator’s ability to convey a diction and style that can seem highly rhetorical and artificial, even unnatural.
Here I will analyze one such pithy statement, the nurse’s musings on moderation in 119-130:
δεινὰ τυράννων λήματα καί πως
ὀλίγ᾽ ἀρχόμενοι, πολλὰ κρατοῦντες
χαλεπῶς ὀργὰς μεταβάλλουσιν.
τὸ γὰρ εἰθίσθαι ζῆν ἐπ᾽ ἴσοισιν
κρεῖσσον: ἐμοὶ γοῦν ἐπὶ μὴ μεγάλοις
ὀχυρῶς τ᾽ εἴη καταγηράσκειν.
τῶν γὰρ μετρίων πρῶτα μὲν εἰπεῖν
τοὔνομα νικᾷ, χρῆσθαί τε μακρῷ
λῷστα βροτοῖσιν: τὰ δ᾽ ὑπερβάλλοντ᾽
οὐδένα καιρὸν δύναται θνητοῖς,
μείζους δ᾽ ἄτας, ὅταν ὀργισθῇ
δαίμων οἴκοις, ἀπέδωκεν.
The thoughts of tyrants are full of dread, and
How few they are ruled by, yet they rule many,
Their desires changing with difficulty.
For to live on equal terms
Is better. For me, anyway, let me grow old
Securely and in moderation.
For to first speak the name of moderation
Is victory, and the best by far
For mortals. But the excessive things
Are not fitting for mortals,
But greater destruction, when the anger
Of gods at their home is kindled.
This statement could have been lifted directly from Aristotle’s Ethics. It is not only a philosophical maxim in keeping the Greek search for ethics as part of a good life, but a social critique of the values of the rulers as opposed to the values of the common person.
This kind of speech sounds odd in real conversation. A good translation should neither colloqualize it nor make it into a choral ode. And though his translation fails at rendering choral ode, Davie’s prose translation works quite well for this type of dialogue:
They have frightening natures, those of royal blood; because, I imagine, they’re seldom overruled and generally have their way, they do not easily forget a grudge. Better to have formed the habit of living on equal terms with your neighbors. Certainly, what I want for myself is to grow old in secure and modest circumstances. For moderation in the first place sounds more attractive on the tongue and in practice is by far the best for a man. Excess, though, means no profit for man and pays him back with greater ruin, whenever a house earns heaven’s anger.
Davie’s use of words such as “moderation,” “excess,” and “habit of living” convey the didactic, argumentative nature of this statement. Rather than trying to make short sentences, he accurately conveys the flavor of the Greek in long, wordy sentences: “For moderation in the first place sounds more attractive on the tongue and in practice is by far the best for a man.”
In contrast to Davie’s rhetorical rendering, more poetic translations skew the passage by trying to make it more artistic. For example, Wilner:
For those with power
are dangerous; used to being obeyed; nothing checks
their willfulness. They swing from mood to mood, loose
cargo in a stormy hold. Let me grow old, secure and
unassuming, used to no more than my share; the middle way
is best; and keeps life on an even keel. Riches in excess
and lordly privilege aren’t meant for mortals – no. When
fall on those who have the most, they pick them to the bones.
While Wilner’s rendering is certainly beautiful, it is hardly a translation. Wilner, a poet, wants to make this passage poetic just like the choral songs. Although sailing metaphor such as “loose cargo in a stormy hold” and “life on an even keel” are appropriate for the mercantile city of Athens, it is not in Euripides. Also, something is lost in her avoiding the Aristotelian term “moderation” for the more vague “middle way.” By packing this passage with figurative language and shorter clauses, Wilner distorts the tone of the Greek.
Many of the most popular translations of Greek literature bill themselves as highly poetic. One popular series, the Greek Tragedies in New Translations series from Oxford University Press, describes itself:
The Greek Tragedies in New Translations series offers new translations that go beyond the literal meaning of the Greek in order to evoke the poetry of the originals.
I agree that we need good translations to get the public reading great literature. But this approach also runs the danger of making all of the play equally poetic. Tragedy’s poetic qualities wax and wane throughout the play, shifting from scene to scene, subgenre to subgenre. These translators fall into the trap of applying a uniform tone to the text. They apply one translation style to the entire play, erasing differences within the play in their quest to make it entirely poetic.