Tag Archives: Medea

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?

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.

Rendering Revenge: Comparing Medea Translations, Part 2.

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:

What marriage to Medea must have been like.

What marriage to Medea must have been like.

καίτοι τοκάδος δέργμα λεαίνης
ἀποταυροῦται δμωσίν,
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:

She’ll growl
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?

The Greeks could have considered bunnies fierce animals.

The Greeks could have considered bunnies fierce animals.

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.

Rendering Revenge: Comparing Medea Translations, Part 1.

New translations of classical literature are always coming out.  Among classicists, it’s kind of a joke, since there are only so many ways you can skin a cat.  Here I post a modified essay I wrote for my Medea class this past quarter, focusing on aspects of the Greek and how well (or how poorly) they are translated by various translators.

Medea, like Homer, Sophocles, and Plato, has been overtranslated.  Wikipedia lists several translations.  After introducing some basic categories of translation style, I will focus on three elements of the tragedy as ‘litmus tests’ and how each translation method handles them: the nuanced metaphors describing Medea with heroic and animal imagery, the musicality and rhythm of the choral odes, and the pithy wisdom statements contained in the dialogue sections. Rather than trying to naively pick one translation as the best, I assess the strengths and weaknesses of each translation, and reflect on the dangers of overzealously applying one translation method to a multifaceted text.

Scholars of translation have invented several categorization systems to make order out of chaos.   British scholar J. Michael Walton demarcates a range from translation to adaptation, ranging from literals (cribs) to complete adaptations/translocations to another culture. Here I will analyze texts from only three of his categories:

  1. Those with literary fidelity and the translator’s stamp, but with no claims as performance texts.
  2. Faithful to the original but actable
  3. Intended for, or deriving from production, with occasional license

This study focuses on six translations, chosen for their popularity and diversity of translators and emphases:

  1. Director and theatre scholar J. Michael Walton’s performance-oriented translation for the Metheun Student Editions series;
  2. Classicist Rex Warner’s verse translation for the first edition of the Grene and Lattimore The Complete Greek Tragedies series;
  3. Poet Eleanor Wilner’s verse translation for the Penn Greek Drama series;
  4. Classicist John Davie’s prose translation for Penguin Classics;
  5. Poet Michael Collier and classicist Georgia Machemer’s poetic translation for the Greek Tragedy in New Translations series

Of these six, the first translation fits Walton’s first group, the second fits his third, and the rest fit his second. Of course, any given translation may span more than one of the above groups.

Another way to categorize translations was created by James Robson, who groups verse translations into mimetic, analogical, content-derivative, and deviant categories. These range in order from most to least imitative of the original’s poetic style. For example, mimetic translations seek to preserve the precise poetic techniques (e.g. rhyme, meter) of the original, while deviant translations invent their own poetic style in the target language. While Davie is excluded from Holmes’ categories entirely, Collier and Walton fit a deviant style, which Wilner and Warner hover between a mimetic (which is in reality impossible) and an analogical style.

In the next post, we’ll look at some of the subtle metaphors in the play and how well translators render them.