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Soft by Nature and Quick to Tears

By (November 1, 2008) No Comment


By Euripides, translated by Robin Robertson
Free Press (Simon & Schuster), 2008

This is a strange thing that greets you when you look over the table of new books at your local bookstore, perhaps stranger than it seems at first: a new translation of the Medea of Euripides.

The book is a little hardcover with a red, white, and black dust jacket. In America, it will cost you $22. A few quick phone consultations confirm its presence in the retail bookshops of many large cities in America and Great Britain, signifying a considerable effort on the part of its publisher, Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster. Yes, the Medea is a famous classic, but that alone doesn’t explain much.

This new translation is by oft-published poet Robin Robertson, and it’s slim and attractively packaged, but it raises some interesting questions: who is it for? Who can it be for? Who would seriously buy it and read it?

It’s not for scholars; there’s an elementary dictionary of names and terms in the back, no notes, hardly any introduction, no scholarly apparatus at all. It’s not for students; it lacks any further explanatory matter than that simple glossary (and it’s a $22 hardcover of a work available in many, much cheaper paperback editions). It’s not for actors; the price tag alone relegates it from that notoriously impecunious lot. It’s not even for classicists, if any can still be found amongst the general populace; the liberties it takes with its source’s language will have them wandering back to their Loeb editions after only a few pages.

There remains that most elusive of creatures: the common reader.

But would this semi-mythical common reader, harassed by economy, ecology, virology, and the New York Times Bestseller List, ever actually consider reading the Medea of Eurpides? Would this person pause at the sight of this slim volume and think, “Ah! I’ve been meaning to get around to my fifth century Athenian tragedy! This’ll be just the thing!” Safe to say most common readers have not studied Euripides in school – perhaps a quick march through the Medea in a survey course, but nothing more than that. Almost a certainty to say no common readers know ancient Greek or much about Hellenic stage tradition. There have been modern stage versions, so the theater crowd in New York and Los Angeles might have a physical performance with which to reference the play, but it’s not common fare in most venues. This isn’t like a new hardcover edition of some Tennessee Williams play, or even Our Town. So what is Free Press up to?

Two possibilities come to mind. First, over the last decade or two, there has been a slight but noticeable vogue in publishing of bringing out new translations of classics geared toward attracting a larger, more general audience. Robert Fagles’ Homer volumes, Royall Tyler’s Tale of Genji translation, Seamus Heaney’s splashy version of Beowulf … it’s possible Free Press is hoping to add another success story to that list. And their hope that this volume might become that success story is obviously grounded on the second possible reason: this Medea is a wonderful reading experience, a clarion-clear and haunting evocation of the original, as much as anything in modern secular English can ever be. Certainly Robertson himself stresses that secular appeal, if by ‘secular’ we mean “choked with the buzz-words of a college Comparative Lit. course”:

Medea is a revenge tragedy that remains uniquely disturbing because it is so deeply subversive. Throughout the drama, at every level, Euripides undermines stereotypes and preconceptions, and manipulates our responses to the characters and their actions as deftly as Medea herself. This destabilization of expectation, combined with his close attention to gender conflict and racial “otherness” and his telling ironies and psychological insights, come together to make the play that shocked contemporary audiences and still feels shocking today.

Still, the introductory material is mercifully brief, and before it’s over, Robertson is stating his admirably simple goal as a translator and adaptor: “My main concern has been to provide an English version that is as true to the Greek as it is to the way English is spoken now.”

It should be pointed out, however sadly, right at the outset that this goal is impossible. The tragedies of ancient Greece were mostly chanted for an audience more thoroughly banked in the mythological settings than any modern audience could be (except for the aforementioned classicists, who don’t get out much). And then there’s the technical aspect: Euripides wrote (so far as we know – no originals survive) in iambic trimeter, furthered and alleviated by anapests – about as far away from most of the natural rhythms of English as Oz is from Kansas. The modern translator of ancient Greek tragedy must therefore grapple with a simple choice: out of the whole palette of things Euripides was doing with his verses, what one or two things will you chip off and channel for your Blackberry’d audience?

The play opens with an old Nurse wishing none of its events had ever happened; she’s lamenting that the whole story – Jason’s quest for the Golden Fleece, his passionate love affair with the sorceress Medea, their many adventures prior to bringing their children to Corinth and the illusion of security – happened in the first place, and in the venerable 1936 translation by Moses Hadas, she’s content to do so in prose:

Nurse: How I wish that the ship Argo had never winged its way through the gray Clashing Rocks to the land of the Colchians!

The next generation of popular rendition, that of Philipe Velacotte in 1963, serves up verse:

Nurse: If only they had never gone! If the Argo’s hull
Never had winged out through the grey-blue jaws of rock
And on towards Colchis!

You can see right away that this is less conversational but more poetic– and more dramatic, with those exclamation points almost doing double-duty as stage directions. It’s vigorous but also slightly boisterous, and Robertson wants none of that. His Medea wants to remind its audience at every turn that this is an unbearably sad story; his Nurse can speak her opening lines, but the exclamation points are gone – she could never vamp it up:

Nurse: If only it had never happened like this.
If Argo had never opened her sails and flown
To Colchis through the Clashing Rocks.

And it is a sad story, even on paper, even two thousand years later. Jason is no longer a wavy-haired young adventurer with a lady-sorceress in every port; he’s a middle-aged father now, wanting more than anything the peace and security of respectable life. He’s come to Corinth and managed to enamor the daughter of the king – the ultimate security. The only problem? The mother of his children, the foreign and volatile Medea (whom Euripides’ audience – and who all but the densest of modern audiences – knew already to be the one great love of his life, as Jason himself knows, hence the tragedy), is middle-aged now too, and she won’t go gently into matronly retirement while Jason sets his sites on his royal young chippie (such women, she avers, are “soft by nature and quick to tears”). She boils with anger and resentment – never good things to arouse in a beautiful woman, much less so when she’s the grand-daughter of the sun god, especially one who might be past her prime in the looks department. When she learns of his plan to wed the king’s daughter (and thereby give social security to the children, as well as himself), she hurls abuse at him, and he tries to be patient, here as Hadas renders it:

Jason: It looks as if I need no small skill in speech if, like a skillful steersman riding the storm with close-reefed sheets, I am to escape the howling gale of your verbosity, woman. Well, since you are making a mountain out of the favors you have done me, I’ll tell you what I think. It was the goddess of love and none other, mortal or immortal, who delivered me from the dangers of my quest. You have indeed much subtlety of wit, but it would be an invidious story to go into, how the inescapable shafts of Love compelled you to save my life. Still, I shall not put too fine a point on it. If you helped me in some way or other, good and well. But as I shall demonstrate, in the matter of my rescue you got more than you gave.

And Medea responds, clinging to furious reason even though she knows it’s useless by now:

Medea: Yes! I do hold many opinions that are not shared by the majority of people. In my opinion, for example, the plausible scoundrel is the worst type of scoundrel. Confident in his ability to trick out his wickedness with fair phrases he shrinks from no depth of villainy. But there is a limit to his cleverness. As there is also to yours. You may as well drop that fine front with me, and all that rhetoric. One word will floor you.

She says all the things you’d expect her to say: that he’s dumping her out of concupiscence, not convenience, that he might at least have consulted with her, that he doesn’t care about the children. Hadas has an ear for the middle class complacency of Jason’s rationale – ‘not put too fine a point on it,’ ‘good and well’ (standing out all the more for its intentional avoidance of the cliché ‘well and good’), ‘as I shall demonstrate’ – he wants us to hear a vaguely self-satisfied prig. Velacotte has the tricky task of transmuting these delicacies into some kind of verse, and his results are less than stellar:

Jason: I have to show myself a clever speaker, it seems.
This hurricane of recrimination and abuse
Calls for good seamanship: I’ll furl all but an inch
Of sail, and ride it out. To begin with, since you build
To such a height your services to me, I hold
That credit for my successful voyage was solely due
To Aphrodite, and no one else divine or human.
I admit, you have intelligence; but, to recount
How helpless passion drove you then to save my life
Would be invidious; and I will not stress the point.
Your services, so far as they went, were well enough;
But in return for saving me you got far more
Than you gave.

And Medea’s reply:

Medea: No doubt I differ from many people in many ways.
To me, a wicked man who is also eloquent
Seems the most guilty of them all. He’ll cut your throat
As bold as brass, because he knows he can dress up murder
In handsome words. He’s not so clever after all.
You dare outface me now with glib high-mindedness!
One word will throw you …

My theater friends are unanimous in their verdict that this – and much of Velacotte – doesn’t ‘speak’ well, that it doesn’t sound right to say or to hear, and certainly it doesn’t look right to read: the pauses come in all the wrong places, the stresses make you sound like you’re moving furniture while you’re speaking. It’s precisely in passages like this that Robertson’s real skill becomes immediately apparent, weaving the poetry of Euripides with the cadences of how people might actually say this stuff (note the affectionate tip of the ‘not to put too fine a point on it’ hat to Hadas):

I see I must be a skillful captain once more,
And steer carefully; I’ll trim my sail
And run before the storm of all your words.
Let’s get this straight.
You wildly overstate your role in all this.
It was Aphrodite who saved the Argo, Aphrodite alone.
You are clever enough, surely,
To see that the rest was all Eros and his arrows.
Not to put to fine a point on it, you were driven by Desire.
You helped me, of course you did, and I’m grateful.
But you gained more than you gave.

Even the Greekless reader will see some of what’s missing here, and some of what’s changed; Robertson has trimmed and shaped the language of the original. There’s no more quibbling about beings ‘divine or human,’ and Jason’s acknowledgement of Medea’s intelligence no longer stands alone – it’s been enlisted into his argument. Changes like these do no harm to the thrust of what Euripides is saying, and what he’s having his characters say is inestimably helped by flawlessly conversational lines like “you helped me, of course you did, and I’m grateful.” The same is true for Medea’s reply, here still stiff with hauteur but much more human:

Well, Jason, that’s one way of looking at it.
I see things from a different point of view.
An eloquent brute is still a brute.
Someone who defends their evil plausibly
Deserves the greatest punishment.
And that goes for you.
You cannot dazzle me with gilded words and fancy rhetoric,
Nor can a thousand pretty phrases cover up your crime.
Your arrogance is matched only by your stupidity.
If I pull one thread, the whole thing unravels.

The cleaner line produces a truer note of drama. Partly this is necessity (including all that Euripides did is impossible unless you use his line-lengths, which would kill every scene with strangeness), and partly it’s the times (stage drama now universally frowns on the rococo), but in any case you can see how effective it is. Robertson has given us a Medea in language that could easily be transferred directly to rehearsals.

Contrary to what a modern reader might expect, those rehearsals would hinge not on the performance of Medea but on the rendition of Jason. Euripides writes him with a reality unseen in drama before that point. He knows he’s offending Medea, knows the reasons for her outrage, and maybe he even knows he’s in some way wrong – and yet, when he speaks of not wanting more children, not really needing the effort of bedding another young beauty, he sounds confused, not evil, exasperated, entirely three-dimensional. Euripides knows that if he makes Jason the living embodiment of Athenian arrogance, he’ll lose the sympathy of his Athenian audience for the horrible things the play makes Jason suffer. Yet English versions of the play have been slow to warm up to this dramatic nicety. In Hadas the pair’s strained talk clearly has Jason as an intolerable buffoon:

Jason: Look here, I do not intend to continue this discussion any further. If you want anything of mine, to assist you or the children in exile, just tell me. I am ready to give it with an ungrudging hand and to send letters of introduction to my foreign friends who will treat you well. If you reject this offer, woman, you will be a great fool. Forget your anger, and you will find it greatly to your advantage.

Medea: I would not use your friends on any terms or accept anything of yours. Do not offer it. The gifts of the wicked bring no profit.

In Velacotte he’s only a bit more human, and, as we’ve come to expect, both of them sound like high school drama students woodenly reciting lines from Moliere:

Jason: I’ll not pursue this further. If there’s anything else
I can provide to meet the children’s needs or yours,
Tell me; I’ll gladly give whatever you want, or send
Letters of introduction, if you like, to friends
Who will help you. – Listen: to refuse such help is mad.
You’ve everything to gain if you give up this rage.

Medea: Nothing would induce me to have dealings with your friends,
Nor to take any gifts of yours; so offer none.
A lying traitor’s gifts carry no luck.

But in Velacotte we at last come around to something like the human complexity Euripides originally meant. Here are two people in the worst emotional predicament two people can be in, where the passion of one has died and in dying caused the passion of the other to unhinge and explode. It’s true that Robertson again has to cheat a little (Jason doesn’t interrupt himself, 20th-century-style, in the original), but what results makes the reader squirm a little with how sharply uncomfortable it all is, where more stately renditions miss that effect entirely:

This is pointless. If I can help with some money
To help with your … for the future, for the children and yourself,
Just say. I’m prepared to be generous,
And I’m happy to give you letters to bring to friends abroad,
Who’ll take you in, I’m sure. Look, this is a good offer;
Why don’t you just swallow your pride
And your anger, and accept it?

I need no friends of yours to take me in.
And I’ll have nothing to do with your money either.
Is that for “compensation” or just to shut me up?
The gifts of the damned are poison.

Of course, ultimately no amount of humanization can soften the play’s horrifying climax, in which Medea kills her own children – ostensibly because she can’t live without them, but really out of madness, to hurt Jason in the only way she knows possible. Ancient writers (killjoy Aristotle chief among them) disliked the abrupt appearance of Atreus offering Medea sanctuary in Athens, and they derided her last minute escape in a chariot pulled by dragons. But the real power of the play comes from the fact that neither Jason nor Medea can change their past – they can’t go back and enter the little space in their fantastic adventures where they were both happy. Medea’s response is cataclysmic, and Jason’s confused and bumblingly well-meaning, a straining normality caught rather well, oddly enough, by the American novelist John Gardner in his 1973 verse-novel Jason & Medeia:

Fiona Shaw as Medea

But yes [Jason says],
I bowed, dubious, true to my nature yet granting its limits.
What more can heaven demand of a man?
Tell me what to fear!
I’ve walked, cold-bloodedly honest, to the rim of the pit, I’ve affirmed
Justice, compassion, decency. When granted power
I’ve used it to benefit man. I’ve fiercely denied that life
Is bestial – having seen in my own life the leer of the ape.
Yet the sky turns dark, and gods threaten me. If the
Universe is evil, then let me be martyred in battle with the universe.
If not, then where am I mistaken?

Robin Robertson has caught all of that and more in this sparkling new version of the Medea. The common reader, it turns out, will be greatly pleased, and some marketing executive at Free Press will be unbearably smug for a few weeks.

Panagiotis Polichronakis is a graduate student at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. He divides his spare time disproportionately between playing bocce ball and working on a new translation of the odes of Pindar. This is his second piece for Open Letters.