Rendering Revenge: Comparing Medea Translations, Part 5.

To conclude my series on translating Euripides’ MedeaI sum up some of the lessons I’ve learned, and note a frustration I’ve found.

Perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned from comparing translations is that it is dangerous to apply one translation technique uniformly to an entire play.  Thus Collier and Wilner over-poeticize the text and mistranslate rhetorical passages, while Davie makes it too prosaic and misses entirely the poetry of the choral odes. Walton makes his translation entirely too colloquial and simplistic in his overzealous quest for something that, in his judgment, sounds good on stage.

All have one theme in common: they start with an a priori translation technique that is then uniformly applied to the entire work. But as we have seen, the diction, form, and tone of classical tragedy differs from section to section. A translator should be skilled enough in Greek literature to identify these shifts in tone, and should be skilled enough in English to convey them.

As mentioned above, there is a babel of translations of Greek literature, with new ones constantly flooding the already drowned market. How is the average Greekless reader to find an ark to sail on? Classicists should invest in guiding the public to find intelligent translations. Readers can be alerted to various styles of translation and how each leads to a different result.  Many new translations — especially those by the big publishers such as Hackett, Oxford, Chicago, and U Penn — are reviewed in academic journals.  But who reads those apart from academics?

What I’m envisioning is a book written for the public on contemporary translations and their differences.  This would be useful for courses on translation as well.  Scholars could provide guidance on issues such as archaizing versus colloquializing translations, or translations designed for private reading versus those designed for performance. Rather than trying to answer the naïve question of which is the “best” translation, we would do better to pick several “best” translations and explain where each one succeeds and fails.  Biblical scholars have done a good job of writing about this.  Think of works like Joel Hoffman’s And God Said, Gordon Fee’s How to Choose a Translation for All Its Worth, and The NIV: The Making of a Contemporary Translation.  Why have classicists not written similar works for choosing translations of Homer and Sophocles?

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