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Euripides' Medea
Translated with an Introduction and Notes by A.J.Podlecki
1991 ISBN 0-941051-10-2 US$5.95

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The Heracles of Euripides
Translated with Introduction, Notes, and Interpretative Essay by Michael R. Halleran
revised printing 1993 ISBN 0-941051-01-3 US$5.95

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Focus Classical Library
Focus Information Group Inc.
PO Box 369
Newburyport MA 01950
Tel. +1 508 462-7288

Reviewed by Simeon Underwood
Lancaster University

According to its publicity literature (, the US-based Focus Classical Library comprises 'texts for the educational market, primarily at college level'. But the educational market is a large and diverse sector; and the texts themselves contain no explicit statement of aims and strategies. So can we be more specific about their potential users?

There are, it seems to me, two categories of college student to whom they are going to be especially useful. The first is the student reading the plays in the original Greek. These translations are first and foremost old-fashioned cribs, direct descendants of Brodie and Loeb. They follow the Greek text line for line, almost word for word. Heroic attempts are made to reflect the nuances of particles. The only departures are minor adjustments to rectify, for very understandable reasons, inversions and other irregularities in the word order, most notably in the choral songs. This translation strategy adheres to the idea of faithfulness expressed by Nabokov:

The person who desires to turn a literary masterpiece into another language, has only one duty to perform, and this is to reproduce with absolute exactitude the whole text, and nothing but the text. ... If such accuracy sometimes results in the strange allegoric scene suggested by the phrase 'the letter has killed the spirit', only one reason can be imagined: there must have been something wrong with the original letter or with the original spirit, and this is not the translator's concern. (1)

The second is the student studying the plays in a course on classical civilisation. The translations themselves are accompanied by extensive notes (2) on matters of fact, notably mythology and geography (though there is little about the symbolic geography which is an important aspect of both these plays). Moreover, the translations and their notes are in turn surrounded by an extensive critical apparatus. Halleran's Heracles has a fourteen- page Introduction before the translation, in which he covers Euripides, the Heracles in performance, and the myth, as well as a fifteen-page 'Interpretation' and list of suggestions for further reading after it. Podlecki's Medea has an eleven-page Introduction, covering the mythical background, Medea in the work of Euripides and the design of the ancient Greek theatre, and eight pages of appendices, three of which are translations of ancient plot summaries and five of which list suggestions for further reading. Halleran, as one would expect of the author of Stagecraft in Euripides, has plenty of stimulating material on how Heracles would have been performed and how it might have been received by its Athenian audience.

Podlecki is less interested in this, although he does have a (short) account of Medea's subsequent cultural history. His focus is more on characterisation and through it on moral interpretations of Medea. An interesting feature of his volume is that its bibliography does not merely list the works of interest but also includes one or two sentences from them, partly as a summary of their main argument and partly in relation to his own argument. Much of this critical apparatus might usefully form the basis of discussion and debate at student seminars.

Equally, there are two categories of college student to whom these translations are not going to be helpful. The first is the college drama group wanting to perform the plays. In an article 'Translating for Actors' (3) Robert Corrigan names 'speakability' as his first law in translating for the theatre: 'It is necessary at all times for the translator to hear the actor speaking in his mind's ear'. He also touches on the problems of translating culture-specific references for performance: a point picked up in an essay by Peter Arnott, 'Greek Drama and the Modern Stage' which gives the translator the licence to edit or expunge (among several other awkward inconveniences) allusions which will not be intelligible to a theatre audience --the specific example he gives is the Ino chorus in Medea. Now imagine sitting in a theatre seat with the house lights dimmed for the opening lines of Halleran's Heracles:

What mortal does not know of the man who shared his marriage bed with Zeus,
Amphitryon of Argos, whom Alcaeus, Perseus' son,
Once begot, me, the father of Heracles ? (4)

Anyone acting this would have no chance of speaking it clearly; and anyone listening to it would be forgiven for wondering whether the 'me' refers to Amphitryon, Alcaeus or Perseus. Another example from later in the same play, in an exchange between Amphitryon and Heracles:

A And is the beast really in Eurystheus' house ?
H The grove of the Chthonian and the city of Hermione have it. (ll.614-5) (5)

Again, the audience would be none the wiser. The translator has resisted writing into the text the one two-letter or three-letter word which would help them. The strategy of these translations places faithfulness above performability.

The second--and this is by far the most important category of the four--is the student wanting to increase his/her literary awareness and appreciation by enjoying these plays in their own right. In his introduction Halleran refers in passing to Euripides' 'words' as 'vivid, moving and finely- textured poetry': but, sadly, poetry is what gets left behind when the introduction ends and the translation starts.

The English language has many technical resources available to the writer or translator who wants to heighten language in the direction of poetry. If we think of translations of Homer, for example, Lattimore and Logue use two completely different repertoires to achieve end results which are undoubtedly poetic if in very different ways. In their adaptations of the tragedies, Tom Paulin and Seamus Heaney approach the act of translation from a similar starting-point: yet the results they achieve are different to the point where the only similarity between them is their assertion of the poetic in their originals. Halleran and Podlecki, however, almost ostentatiously spurn all the available lexical resources. Also, they choose not to exploit any of the effects which might be achieved by using, or even hinting at, rhyme, metre or rhythm.

Instead, what we get in both these translations is a curious mixture of the cod and the colloquial. By 'the cod' I mean lines and passages which would have a home in the famous Housman parody of a Greek tragedy. Here are some examples from Heracles:

Don't the good among mortals have the resources
For arguments, even if they're sluggish at speaking? (236-7)

Children, we are being led off, a not pretty yoke of corpses. (454)

Apollo, with what an opening do you begin your speech. (538)

Why won't you cry out a silent
Lamentation, old man ? (1053-4)

I know nothing except one thing: everything of yours is in misfortune. (1143)

and from Medea:

You! The scowling hater of your husband. (271)

O dearest hands, lips dearest to me
And form and face of my children so well born
Be fortunate. (1071-3)

and finally an all-purpose summary of Greek drama:

Realise finally that your children are no more. (1311)

This would all be admirably Nabokovian were it not for other moments when the translations go to an opposite extreme, in the form of extensive use of colloquialism. This is more evident in Medea than in Heracles: Podlecki offers us among many others 'I'm the one who gives the orders here', '... a fine blot on the new bridegroom's record', 'Jason, you've packaged these arguments attractively', 'my husband is the worst man in the world', '... a millstone round my enemies' necks', 'it's natural that you should put up with my moods', 'I thought this over and saw how very stupid I'd been' and (Jason to his children) 'I want to see you grow up big and strong' (274-5, 513-4, 576, 690, 808-9, 870- 1, 882-3, and 920 respectively). But Halleran also has his moments, notably when Heracles anticipates the reaction of the Athenian citizenry to his arrival in their city:

'Isn't this Zeus' son, who at one time killed his children
And wife ? Let him get the hell out of this land.' (1289-90)

to which one can hear the voice of Heracles as played by John Wayne saying 'The hell I will'.

There are also some notable moments when cod and colloquial come together: for example, Halleran's Heracles to his children after they have apparently been saved and are about to go back into the palace where they will in fact shortly be killed by their father:

'So your entrances to it are fairer
Than your exits from it, right ?' (623-4).

or this cumulative exchange between Podlecki's Medea and Jason about their children who will in fact shortly be killed by their mother:

J. And you, why do you turn your fair cheek
Away? Why shed such abundant tears?
Were you not pleased to hear what I just said?
M. It's nothing. I was thinking about these children.
J. Cheer up, then, for I'll take good care of them.
M. Very well, then, I don't distrust your words;
But a woman is womanish and prone to tears.
J. I don't understand why you're weeping so much for these children.
M. I bore them! (ll.922-930)

The voice one can hear in response to the last line of this passage is Dylan Thomas: 'Someone round here is boring me, and I think it's me'.

'Lament what is truly lamentable', Halleran's messenger declares when he comes to tell of Heracles' madness and its consequences. Should we also lament these truly lamentable translations, or excuse them on the grounds that they are intended 'for the educational market, primarily at college level'?

My own view is that we should lament. It is not axiomatic that cribs must be unreadable. Some Loebs are more readable than others. For that matter, I find Podlecki more readable than Halleran, although, perhaps because he is trying harder to be readable, his lapses into bathos are more profound. The overall failure of these translations is also profound, for there is nothing in them to suggest why any of the four categories of student mentioned above should read these works at all. For all the worthiness of the surrounding critical apparatus, the translations belittle Euripides and the potential of his plays for student users. Possibly they belittle their student users as well: what is 'for the educational market' is not necessarily truly educational.


(1) Vladimir Nabokov, 'Problems of Translation: Onegin in English', in Partisan Review 1955, vol. 4, p. 504 and 510.

(2) Nabokov from the same article: 'I want translations with copious footnotes, footnotes reaching up like skyscrapers to the top of this or that page so as to leave only the gleam of one textual line between commentary and eternity' (p.512)

(3) Robert W.Corrigan, 'Translating for Actors' and Peter Arnott 'Greek Drama and the Modern Stage' are both in William Arrowsmith and Roger Shattuck eds., The Craft and Context of Translation, University of Texas Press, 1961. The notion of performability which is implicit in their articles is firmly rejected by Susan Bassnett-McGuire in her essay 'Ways through the Labyrinth: Strategies and Methods for Translating Theatre Texts' , in Theo Hermans ed., The Manipulation of Literature: Studies in Literary Translation, Croom Helm 1985, pp.87-102: 'what it (performability) seems to imply is an attempt in the target language to create fluent speech rhythms and so produce a text that TL speakers can speak without too much difficulty (at least in the opinion of the translator).' Instead, she offers a complex account, located in contemporary semiotic theory of both translation and theatrical performance, of the range of strategies open to the translator working with a dramatic text.

(4) Vellacott's Penguin, itself rather flat-footed, is at least clearer: 'Is there a man living who has not heard of me /Amphitryon of Argos, whose bed welcomed Zeus?/Son of Alcaeus, grandson of Perseus; and father/Of Heracles.'

(5) Vellacott again is clearer: ''Who keeps him now? Eurystheus?' 'No; He's at Hermione, in Demeter's sacred grove.''

Simeon Underwood
Lancaster University

(Simeon Underwood was a university administrator for 17 years before taking a Postgradaute Diploma in Classical Studies at King's College London last year.)

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