Category Archives: Greek

Bad Translation, or how Heraclitus got misrendered.

HeraclitusA few months ago I found a translation of Heraclitus’ fragments from Penguin Classics.  This would not have excited me so much had this translation not included the Greek.  A chance to read Heraclitus’ famous aphorisms in Greek!

However, my alarm bells started ringing when I found this translation was done by Brooks Haxton, a contemporary poet.  For reasons I’ll explain better below, I am very leery of “poetic renderings” of classical texts by modern  wordsmiths who may or may not have any clue about the ancient language they translate from.  (Haxton may have formal training in classical Greek, but I could find no evidence of it.)  This is as much a problem for Sufi poets as it is for Greek and Latin.  Sadly, in trying to convey the spirit of Heraclitus, Haxton often remakes Heraclitus into his own image: a contemporary free verse poet.

Awful Translations

Here I’ll look at two of Haxton’s strangest translations — and the much better Greek originals.  First we start with Heraclitus’ most famous fragment:

Ποταμοῖσι δἰς τοῖσι αὐτοῖσι οὐκ ἄν ἐμβαἰης· ἕτερα γαρ <καἰ ἕτερα> ἐπιρρεῖ ὕδατα. (fragment 41)

Haxton translates this as

The river
where you set
your foot just now
is gone —
those waters
giving way to this,
now this.

First of all, where does Haxton get this incessant line breaking?  This is not in the aphoristic Greek text.  He is making some poetry, and his own style of poetry no less, when that is simply not in the original.

What’s more, this translation is not even accurate.  It should be rendered something like

You cannot step into the same rivers twice; for different (and different) waters flow.

Haxton is not even close.  Of course all translation involves interpretation, but Haxton isn’t even translating.

Another aphorism runs thus:

Φύσις κρύπτεσθαι φιλεί. (fragment 10)

This aphorism is harder to puzzle out.  It literally translates to something like:

Nature likes to hide itself.

Indeed, this is how scholar of Greek philosophy Jonathan Barnes translates it in his Early Greek Philosophy, also in Penguin Classics (page 112).  But Haxton renders it:

Things keep their secrets.

This sounds deep and profound, if obscure and enigmatic.  But it is not Heraclitus.  Φύσις, or “nature,” (cognate with “physics”) is not the same as “things.”

Haxton should know better.  He is a poet, so he should know that precision in language is important, and that one should remain humble before other authors rather than taking such creative license with their work.  Instead, Haxton defends his idiosyncratic method:

My translation uses free verse to suggest the poetic ring of the original prose, which deserves to be called poetry as much as the metrical writings of thinkers like Empedocles and Parmenides. (xxviii)

This just doesn’t cut it for me.  I’m keeping this edition, but only because it has the Greek on one side of the page, not because of Haxton’s creative paraphrases.  Many reviewers on Amazon agree.

Haxton is not a lone phenomenon.  There are many modern translations of ancient literature purporting to be “more poetic” than more “academic” translations.  Aiming to replace the standard Lattimore/Green translations of the 1940s and ’50s, Oxford University Press debuted their Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, which aims to “go beyond the literal meaning of the Greek in order to evoke the poetry of the originals.”  The translations are not bad, but nor are they particularly accurate, turning the metric verse of classical tragedy into free verse.  While this series pairs a classicist with a poet, others eschew the classicist altogether, relying on a contemporary poet to translate a two-millennia old text from a different culture, in an archaic language, and which references the long-forgotten present of the text’s author.

But as I argued when I analyzed several contemporary translations of Euripides’ Medea, much of this is more publishing hype than a real advance in the art of translation.  Many of the great translators of Greek literature of the last century were also poets themselves!  Richmond Lattimore, whose Iliad and Odyssey were the accepted standard before Robert Fagles’ translations (and are still more accurate), published poetry for decades.  Fagles too was a poet. So is Barry Powell, a recent major translator of Homer.  Clearly it is not impossible to find scholars who also make good translators.

So Haxton represents what is, to me, an example of a lamentable trend in translation.  The intention is good: make ancient texts more relevant and interesting so the average person will read them.  But if one has to do seriously distort the text to do so, that is going too far.  And the best way to ensure that a translation is accurate is by hiring a scholar to do the translation rather than a contemporary poet. Not that scholars always do everything correctly.  And of course, no translation can get everything right.  But I err on the side of the historian and the philologist, not the poet.

Review: Iliad, Book I, by P. A. Draper.

Yesterday I went to my Greek professor’s office, frustrated at how slow and tedious translation homework can be.  (I admit, senioritis might play a role in my lack of motivation!)  He told me that doing Greek and Latin translation is like going to the gym.  Yes, it is tedious to look up every unfamiliar word and parse verbs and nouns.  But the more we do it, the better we get, even if the results are slow.  I left feeling reassured, ready to tackle more Greek.

51KHKSIg9UL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_But sometimes we do not feeling like going to the gym.  Sometimes we need to build up to a full workout.  Sometimes it’s okay to use readers with running glossaries. I’ve been practicing my Greek the past two summers using Nimis and Hayes’ Lucian’s The Ass: An Intermediate Greek Reader and Steadman’s Odyssey editions.  These readers go beyond most student commentaries’ grammar helps and give line-by-line vocabulary at the bottom of each page.  While they don’t facilitate much understanding of the nuances of each word, they do enable the reader to read fast and fluidly.

Earlier this quarter, I used Draper’s text to read parts of Book I of the Iliad.  Her book begins with an introduction on the current state of Homeric scholarship: who was Homer?  Was there a Homer?  When did he live?  How historically accurate is the Iliad?  She also spells out the intricacies of Homeric meter.  She has a huge bibliography of books on the Iliad, the Trojan War, and even modern fiction set in Troy.  And she has a lot of commentary.  A lot.  An example:

CCI02062015The art is a nice touch.

Although these glossed readers get a bad rap from Greek purists, I enjoy using them to read fluidly.  When I was straight out of first-year Greek, it gave me great confidence to be able to actually read something.  I would recommend Draper’s commentary on Homer to the student who wants to build that confidence.


Review: Commentaries on Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro.

This past quarter I read Plato’s Crito and Euthyphro in Greek.  My classmate Brian pointed out that this was the first time we’ve ever finished a work in Greek — previous classes on Herodotus and Homer clearly didn’t offer that satisfaction, and even when we read Euripides’ Medea we only got through about 2/3-3/4 of it.  This quarter’s plan was to read the two dialogues above, but we actually finished before the quarter ended, and got to read Aristophanes’ speech from the Symposium as a treat.

I thought it would be helpful for other Greek students to review the three commentaries we used this quarter: John Burnet’s 1924 critical edition with notes, Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries, and the Bryn Mawr Commentaries on each dialogue.  Obviously, I am not a Plato scholar, so I can’t assess how accurate and current each commentary is on Platonic scholarship.  But I can speak from my experience as a member of each commentary’s target audience: an intermediate student of Classical Greek.  Since it would be impossible to analyze every detail of all three, here I use a test case from the Euthyphro to generalize about all three commentaries and their series.

A Test Case: Euthyphro 10e9-11a3

In this passage Socrates concludes the argument that began in 10a about the difference between something being carried and somebody carrying something.  Clearly, the action comes before the state: something is carried because someone carries it, not vice versa.  In 10e9-11a3, Socrates crowns this line of reasoning by pointing out that Crito cannot equate piety with being god-loved, because, according to Crito’s logic, something’s being pious makes it beloved by the gods, so defining piety and beloved by the gods is circular reasoning.  Here Socrates plays with the distinction between φιλεῖσθαι and ἐφιλεῖτο, between “to be loved” and “someone loves it” (the middle voice cannot be rendered into English).  This is one of the most convoluted and difficult to translate passages of this dialogue:

ἀλλ᾽ εἴ γε ταὐτὸν ἦν, ὦ φίλε Εὐθύφρων, τὸ θεοφιλὲς καὶ τὸ ὅσιον, εἰ μὲν διὰ τὸ ὅσιον εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο τὸ ὅσιον, καὶ διὰ τὸ θεοφιλὲς εἶναι ἐφιλεῖτο ἂν τὸ θεοφιλές, εἰ δὲ διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὑπὸ θεῶν τὸ θεοφιλὲς θεοφιλὲς ἦν, καὶ τὸ ὅσιον ἂν διὰ τὸ φιλεῖσθαι ὅσιον ἦν:

G.M.A. Grube translates it:

But if the god-beloved and the pious were the same, my dear Euthyphro, and the pious were loved because it was pious, then the god-beloved would be loved because it was god-beloved, and if the god-beloved was god-beloved because it was loved by the gods, then the pious would also be pious because it was loved by the gods…

A real headache-inducer in any language!

John Burnet

John Burnet’s critical edition and commentary on Plato’s Apology, Crito, and Euthyphro is the starting-point for the other commentaries, which both rely on his text.  Though he was one of the foremost Plato scholars of his day, by now his references to Plato scholarship are dated, since his text was published in 1924.  But his philological help is still good, and he also gives text-critical notes, which the other two do not focus on.  Judge for yourself:


But one major frustration with Burnet is that he often assumes a higher level of Greek than most of his readers would have nowadays.  We don’t see it here, but sometimes he will throw out a phrase such as “Archilochus writes that…” and quote the Greek of another author as if we have read him and know the work well.  Because of this, Burnet’s commentary is not enough for an intermediate Greek student to read Plato without a teacher.

Chris Emlyn-Jones’ Bristol Classical Press commentaries

Chris Emlyn-Jones, who wrote BCP’s commentaries on both Crito and Euthyphro, is a British classicist.  His texts come complete with lengthy introductions providing a guide to the arguments in each dialogue and some of the key contemporary scholarship.  His commentary provides some philological help, but more often focuses on the argument itself.



I really liked using Emlyn-Jones’ commentaries because they helped with the arguments more than the other two.  But having used the Bristol Classical Press commentaries on Homer’s Odyssey last year, I don’t think this is a general feature of the whole series, as those ones were more philological in nature.  In sum, if I were only using this commentary, I don’t think I would have been able to read the Euthyphro very well.

Bryn Mawr Greek Commentaries

John Hare‘s commentary on Euthyphro and Gilbert Rose‘s commentary on Crito are both much shorter, and geared strictly toward philology.  I had never used a Bryn Mawr Commentary before but this appears to be the modus operandi of the whole series.



Of all three commentaries, this was the best for understand some of the linguistic oddities of the text itself.  He helps parse unusual verb forms, explains messy syntax, and gives rough translations when necessary.


Which commentary should you buy?  All three, of course!  Each has different strengths.  Burnet’s is good for the text of Plato.  The Bryn Mawr commentaries were the most invaluable in actually reading Plato.  Emlyn-Jones’ were the most important for understanding Plato.  What’s more, while writing this review I also encountered Jacques Bailly’s commentary on Euthyphro for Focus Classical Commentaries, so there are at least four commentaries.  This is good news for anyone who is trying to read Plato without a teacher.

Onward and upward!

Review: Two Greek Philosophical Lexicons.

Since I have been studying Plato this past quarter, I thought I would order F. E. Peters’ Greek Philosophical Terms: A Historical Lexicon to see what I could glean from it.  I later discovered J. O. Urmson’s The Greek Philosophical Vocabularyanother book with the same objective.  Here I review both as a student of Greek, not a scholar of ancient philosophy.

Introducing the Competition

F. E. Peters, an ex-Jesuit classicist and scholar of Islam, wrote his short book in 1967.  J.O. Urmson‘s background is slightly different: he was also trained as a scholar of Greek philosophy, and translated Aristotle for Penguin, but went on to do work in moral philosophy.  Both market their books to intermediate students of Greek language and philosophy who perhaps have studied little to no Greek but still want to understand the ambiguous philosophical terminology they encounter in ancient texts.  Having taken a several philosophy courses, including three specifically on ancient Greek philosophy, I think I’m in his target audience.



Urmson’s book seems to be to be better for beginners.  In his introduction, he writes that his book has 500-600 entries, so he clearly covers more terms than Peters does.  For example, Urmson has 79 entries under A, while Peters has only 31.

Urmson’s definitions are much simpler and to the point.  He never runs over one succinct paragraph, always with quotes in both transliterated Greek and English from various philosophers.  For example, see his entry on kakos (evil, bad):


Urmson 2

And so on, so that we get a good sense of what the word means and where to go to look it up.  I do wish Urmson hadn’t transliterated the Greek: it doesn’t help the Greekless reader, and it gives me a headache because, well, Greek should be in Greek!

One of my major frustrations with this book is that Urmson seems to base his work far too heavily on Plato and Aristotle.  For example, under phusis I found no mention of the pre-Socratics, only 8 citations of Plato and Aristotle.  I found little on any later philosophers.  Also, Urmson could have put something in his introduction about how his work differs from Peters’.


41a2rcDf6BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Peters’ book, on the other hand, seems better for more advanced students.  Rather than providing a concise explanation for each word, he gives a history of its usage.  That way the reader doesn’t try to read, say, the Platonic use of eidos (form) into the pre-Socratics or Aristotle.  For many entries, Peters also explains how the word was used in pre-philosophical texts such as epic poetry.  His entry on phusis runs for five paragraphs, divided by thinker:

  1. Heraclitus
  2. Parmenides, Empedocles, Atomists, Plato
  3. Aristotle
  4. Stoics
  5. Plotinus

For each thinker, he cites specific passages, making this book far more useful for anyone seeking to trace the history of a term in Greek philosophy.  As a comparison to the entry on kakon in Urmson, here’s Peters’ version:




This format means that Peters’ entries are longer, though he covers fewer words.  For example, his entry on kakon runs for two pages, versus Urmson’s one paragraph.  But there are some words not in here that I felt should be.  Since I was reading Crito and Euthyphro, I looked up the words discussed in those two dialogues.  I found dike, eidos, episteme, kakon, and pathos, but found no mention of idea, which Urmson included.  Neither lexicon included eusebeia or hosion.  Hosion, which means holiness or piety, is a pretty major oversight, since that is the entire subject of Euthyphro.  Nor were “holiness” or “piety” in the English-Greek index.  If these words are missing, what else might be?  To be fair, this book is only 200 pages, and not everything can fit.

In the back of the book, there is also an English-Greek index, so readers who want to know, say, the Greek word for “justice” or “intellect” can figure out where to look.  He provides entries for many English words to account for the diversity of translations, but sometimes still misses the mark, as when he omits “right,” a possible translation for the Greek word dike.

Despite these advantages, Peters’ book might be information overload for beginners.  This book is not very useful for the student who doesn’t know philosophy as well.  I was hoping for something that explained terms on a more basic level, as Urmson does, rather than giving brief references to various thinkers.  I don’t merely want to know that a particular thinker used a term a particular way.  I’d like a brief summary of the text, or a quote from that text.  Without those things this book is less useful to the student of Greek who is just starting her study of philosophy.  Also, it is more dated than Urmson’s book: Peters’ book came out in 1967, while Urmson’s debuted in 1990.


Ideally, you should get both of these, as neither is obviously better than the other. Both Urmson and Peters [1] [2] were reviewed favorably by academics.  But if you’re on a tight budget, I would go with Peters, because his entries make it clearer how different authors define a word, and tend to be more comprehensive in covering a wide range of Greek thinkers.

Translating Plato: what gets lost in translation?

Now, at the end of the term, I have finally finished the paper for which I was reading Allan Bloom on translating Plato.  My paper, “Justice In Translation: Rendering Platonic Drama in English,” analyzes Plato’s characterization of Crito and Socrates in the Crito.  Through an examination of each character’s style of speaking in particles, syntax, and forms of address, I conclude that Plato’s dramatic portrait of each character is inseparable from the philosophical arguments contained in the dialogue.  For Plato, poetry and philosophy, form and content, are one.  (Imagine what Plato would be like if he had wrote treatises rather than dialogues!)  In the second part, I look at six contemporary translations, and I find that none of them render Plato’s literary element in a satisfactory way.  They seem to be focused only on the content of each character’s arguments.

Anyway, if you’re interested, my paper is here.  It was fine to write because it pushed my philological skills, and it made me look at the Greek particles systematically (and use Denniston) for the first time.

Allan Bloom on Translating Plato.

After I wrote my paper on translating Medea last quarter, I am continuing with that theme in this terms’ Plato course.  We are reading Crito and Euthyphro.  I’m focusing on the Crito, but am also reading literature about other Plato translations.  I don’t agree with his method, but I do appreciate Republic translator Allan Bloom’s honesty.

This book is intended to be a literal translation.  […]  Such a translation is intended to be useful to the serious student, the one who wishes and is able to arrive at his own understanding of the work.  He must be emancipated from the tyranny of the translator, given the means of transcending the limitations of the translator’s interpretation, enabled to discover the subtitles of the elusive original.  The only way to provide the reader with this independence is by a slavish, even if sometimes cumbersome, literalness — insofar as possible always using the same English equivalent for the same Greek word. (xi)

Literal translation makes the Republic a difficult book to read; but it is in itself a difficult book, and our historical situation makes it doubly difficult for us.  This must not be hidden.  Plato intended his works essentially for the intelligent and industrious few, a natural aristocracy determined neither by birth nor wealth, and this translation attempts to do nothing which would contradict that intention. (xviii)

(Taken from the Preface to Allan Bloom, trans., The Republic of Plato, 1968.)

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?

Review: Drosilla and Charikles: A Byzantine Novel.

418D0RG5MWLIn the Christmas stash from my mom this year, I got a copy of Drosilla and Charikles: A Byzantine Novel by Niketas Eugenianos, translated by Joan B. Burton.  Though I had read part of Pseudo-Lucian’s The Ass in Greek, I had never been exposed to Byzantine Greek novels before this.  After taking a class in Byzantine art, I had the general impression that the Byzantines did nothing but sit in church all day.  Imagine my surprise to find this novel of pagan gods, sex, and romance!

I wanted this book primarily because it is a bilingual edition, and promised notes on the inside for students of Greek.  (The publisher, Bolchazy-Carducci, prints many books for students of Greek and Latin.)  However, despite the story and Burton’s translation being entertaining, this book is not very useful for the student of Greek.

First, the novel.  The Hellenistic novel, which this Byzantine novel emulates, is a fun genre: romance, pirates, shipwrecks, cities conquered, Dionysian rites, and lots of pining for lost lovers.  This novel was written in the twelfth century, during a renaissance of classical learning, and it seems to be set more in the pagan world than in Christendom.  This novel focuses on Drosilla and Charikles, who are separated when their city is conquered.  The plot follows their quest to be reunited.  Although it was often fun and fanciful, I can’t say this rivals Homer or Sophocles.  The plot was unlikely, the characters melodramatic and over the top.  I was fed up with the male characters, who annoyingly echoed the laments of the sting of Eros, imploring beautiful women to be merciful and help put out the fires of love which their beauty inflamed.  The most interesting aspect of this novel for me was the pagan setting.  Dionysus, not Christ, plays the largest role in reuniting the lost lovers.  Even so, the heroine, Drosilla, takes care to preserve her chastity until a Dionysian priest marries her to Charikles.  I think of this as the paperback fiction of the ancient world: escapist, playful, but not exactly thought-provoking.

Second, the editing and translation.  I wanted this book not for its content, but for its Greek.  And on that count, it’s not very useful.  Burton writes in the introduction that this is designed for students of Greek.  At least it is bilingual, and Burton’s translation follows the line numbers of the Greek, so you can see what the original is for a word or phrase.  But this is neither helpful for the beginning-intermediate student nor for the advanced student of the Greek novel.  It does not have the running glossary or help with constructions that Evan Hayes and Stephen Nimis’ Lucian readers have.  But Burton’s 7 pages of notes are also not enough for the advanced student who wants a detailed commentary on the Greek such as found in the Cambridge green-and-yellows or the Bristol Classical Press commentaries.

Most crucially, there is no help with vocabulary.  Medieval Greek was a syncretistic language, taking many loan-words from Turkish, Russian, and Italian.  (See Robert Browning’s Medieval and Modern Greek for an overview of the language’s post-classical history.)  Nor is there any help understanding the meter, as this novel is written in verse.

Overall, I’m glad I read this, but it is not as helpful for a Greek student as I had hoped it would be.

Rendering Revenge: Comparing Medea Translations, Part 4.

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
the gods
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.

Rendering Revenge: Comparing Medea Translations, Part 3.

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
τᾶς δυστάνου
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
Of lamentation;
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.