Euripides' Medea Translation: Verse Styles Choices

Free Verse

Why not dispense with metre, as is common today, and write some form of free verse that gives the closest access to the original Greek? Because:

1. Any English translation that respects the features of the original Greek is likely to be as highly structured as its source, i.e. not free verse.

2. Greek tragedy belongs to the classical tradition, which expresses given truths in the public arena. Contemporary literature, by contrast, is commonly a retreat into the writer's consciousness — to make autonomous creations that incorporate diverse aspects of modern life (Modernism), or freewheeling creations constructed of a language that largely points to itself (Postmodernism). Free verse in its discontinuous prose varieties may be admirably suited to contemporary poetry, which often poses as individual voyages of discovery, but it renders universal truths with difficulty, if not abhorrence.

3. Good free verse with a convincing exactness of idiomatic expression, the lines seeming exactly right in the circumstances — appropriate, authentic and sincere — is exceedingly difficult to write. Most free verse today, claims notwithstanding, is a mixture of metered verse and prose, or a mosaic of prose fragments.

4. None of the free-verse translations of Greek tragedy known to me is very successful. One of the best is C.K. Williams’ version of Euripides’ The Bacchae: certainly very readable but not quite fish nor fowl. {10} Lines 21-7 illustrate the mixture of verse and prose:

When I had taught my dances there, established
the rituals of my mystery, making
my divinity manifest to mortals.
I came to Greece, to Thebes, the first Greek city
I’ve caused to shriek in ecstasy for me,
the first whose women clothed in fawnskin and in
whose hands I’ve placed my ivy spear, the thyrus.

Blank Verse

Blank verse was the great standby in translation from classical languages, at least until recently, but tends to produce rather undistinguished lines if generated from prose translations. {5}
A safer approach is to work from the original, as has been done in these examples from Catullus: {11}

(C1: 1-4) Whom else could I present little book
to, all the roughness pumiced off
but you, Cornelius, once kind enough
to think these little trifles worth your time?

(C63: 84-90) In anger so the goddess spoke, and loosed
forthwith the beast. It roared and tore away
and went on bounding through the thickets till
it reached the wet, soft margin of the sands
and saw frail Attis near the ocean waves.
It roared and went for him, when Attis fled
to wood’s deep darkness, a perpetual slave.

(C101: 1-4) Over many seas and peoples I have come,
brother, bearing these sad funeral offerings,
to make a last obeisance to the dead
as though my breath could stir the silent ashes.

The range that blank verse commands should be apparent, but the difficulty with Euripides (besides the effort required from this translator, who is not a good linguist), is the perplexing nature of the original, the meaning over many stretches being a consensus of scholarly research and conjecture, {13} i.e. not directly given to sympathetic reading.

Rhymed Verse

Heroic verse was popular on the eighteenth-century stage, but has been used infrequently since. What was adopted here is a little different {12} — a more idiomatic diction, less noun and adjective inversion and fewer end-stopped lines — but does echo some of its strengths:


The style can cope with practically everything, and even the most mundane thoughts become verse, avoiding the ever-waiting dangers of prose banality:

193. when clearly they could never quell the fire
of pain with dance and music of the lyre.


520. How hard to heal that grievous sin
that pits in battle kin with kin.


518. Great Zeus, if gold’s so marked, why can’t we see
the glint of counterfeit in husbands too?


1168. She got up, skipped about the room, to be
a queen delighting that her white feet made
an embassy for what the clothes displayed.

Pathos and lyricism:

1073. How sweet the touch is, and how soft the skin,
how fragrantly the breath wells up within.
Go in, my children, yes, now go away.
I cannot bear to look at you, but pay
the first instalment I must undergo
of endless torments that my actions sow.

Rhythmic subtlety:

57. In me Medea’s grief has given birth
to troubles petitioning both heaven and earth.

Narrative ease:

1171. But as again the mirror turned to show
the long smooth tendons of the legs below
there came a change, a sudden change, and she
could feel her skin discolouring, and see
her legs begin to shake.

Equally apparent are the difficulties:

Rhyming couplets may appear artificial or contrived to readers unfamiliar with pre-Modernist styles. So the following, which is neat but hardly colloquial:

51. Recounting troubles to your own tired ears
has left Medea’s service in arrears.


The translation lacks the variety of the original Greek, particularly in the Chorus sections.14


The prose meaning has to be entirely recast to meet the couplet form, usually some process of rearrangement, contraction and expansion. The odd phrase is sometimes left out, or a simple phrase expanded inordinately. An extreme instance, here to make the speech equal in line length to the original, is:

201. It is the feast’s abundance fills their thoughts,
and that forgetfulness which pleasure courts
until the very sense of it is lost.

Professor Kovac’s prose translation simply runs:
The abundance of the feast at hand provides mortals with its own pleasures.

Verse Quality

In summary, this translation runs smoothly, but rarely rises to the compelling inevitability we expect of poetry. Though it’s not difficult to go beyond what the text strictly says, the rendering then becomes more the translator’s play than Euripides’. In general, matters are left in the middling position illustrated by this couplet, clear but restrained by rhyme needs:

47. still young, they’re simply led in their beliefs,
and do not dwell too much on other’s griefs.


1. Euripides. Usual Wikipedia article, with helpful links.
2. Kovacs, D. Euripides: Cyclops, Alcestis, Medea. Loeb Classical Library. (Harvard University Press, 1994). A graceful prose version.
3. Medea Themes. Themes and plot summaries.
4. Medea (play) Wikipedia article, with a list of modern productions and translations.
5. Holcombe, C.J. Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus (Ocaso Press, 2008). oedipus.html. Note on Translation in this free pdf document.
6. Murray, G. The Medea. Translated into English rhyming verse with explanatory notes by Gilbert Murray. (1913). Previous fully rhymed version.
7. Eliot, T.S. Euripides and Professor Murray: The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1922).
8. E. P. Coleridge Medea (1891)
9. Svarlien, D.A, (trans) and Mitchell-Boyask, R. (intro). Medea. (Hackett, 2008). A lively rendering in contemporary speech, with an introduction and excellent notes.
10. C.K. Williams and Nussbaum, M . The Bacchae of Euripides; A New Version. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990) An attractive rendering in free verse and rearranged prose: has an excellent introduction.
11. Holcombe, C.J. Selections from Catullus (Ocaso Press, 2010). catullus.html Free pdf document.
12. See the workshop example and summary of Augustan verse features on:
13. The Greek text does not always have a clear, unambiguous meaning. ‘If conjecture were eliminated, these plays over long stretches would hover tantalizingly on the edge of intelligibility, or be simply unreadable.’ Kovacs 1994, p. 39.
14. Mastronade, D.J. Euripides: Medea (CUP, 2002)
15. John Harrison. Euripides: Medea (CUP., 2000). Good commentary.

Classical Greek Resources (General)

1. Howatson, M.C. (ed.) The Oxford Companion to Classical Literature. Oxford Univ. Press. 1989/2005.
2. Hornblower, Simon and Antony Spawforth (eds.) The Oxford Classical Dictionary (3rd Edition). Oxford Univ. Press. 2003.
3. Classical Greek Resources.
4. Elpenor.
5. Greek and Latin Literature Resources.
6. Ancient Greek Literature Resources.