Racine's Athaliah: Literary and Academic Renderings

Difficulties and Translation Approaches

Racine's Athaliah (Athalie) brings exceptional problems, for translator and for the reader. The themes, incidents and characters are far from contemporary concerns. The classical theatre of the French was much more rule-bound, static and formal than our seventeenth century stage. Racine's choruses employ intricate rhyme schemes, and the speeches generally exhibit great subtleties in the alexandrine — all of which have to be conveyed in a fluid and ever-varying manner if the rendering is not to fall into monotonous and antiquated bombast.

There are many ways of approaching translation. Those I examine here all involve fidelity, but fidelity to different aspects of the original: to the prose sense, to the French verse structure, and to the English verse tradition. Few matters in literature are clear-cut, and distinctions between academic and literary translation depend very much on what is being discussed, and the viewpoints adopted. Generally we call a translation academic if it scrupulously, and possibly self-consciously, makes the faithful rendering of the prose sense its primary objective. No doubt a literary translation aims to do more, to also convey the spirit and literary quality of the original into another language, but that aim is also shaped by contemporary and sometimes academic expectations. As always, the devil is in the details, and to see the many dilemmas and alternatives thrown up in practice, we look here at three modern translations of Racine's Athaliah — one in unrhymed verse approximating to the pentameter {1} and two in heroic couplets {2-3}

Tim Chilcot's Translation of Athaliah

The first, by Tim Chilcot, is quiet, accomplished and faithful to the original text. Plainly-written, stripped of rhetoric, it's also close to the 'free verse' styles generally preferred today, in poetry {4} and in the translation offered by prestigious {5} and popular outlets. {6} Strictly speaking — we should note because relevant to the translation here — this 'free verse' is typically a carefully hobbled prose, often attractive in its honest and thoughtful way, but one denied much shaping power on the syllable level because constrained by the needs of natural speech. {7} Professor Chilcot's lines are closer to blank verse, though with breaks and sections where the metre is lost, probably to close off any approach to 16th-18th century English stage verse.

The opening French:

Oui, je viens dans son temple adorer l'Eternel ;
Je viens, selon l'usage antique et solennel,
Célébrer avec vous la fameuse journée
Où sur le mont Sina la loi nous fut donnée.
Que les temps sont changés ! Sitôt que de ce jour
La trompette sacrée annonçait le retour,
Du temple, orné partout de festons magnifiques,
Le peuple saint en foule inondait les portiques ;
Et tous, devant l'autel avec ordre introduits,
10. De leurs champs dans leurs mains portant les nouveaux fruits,
Au Dieu de l'univers consacraient ces prémices.
Les prêtres ne pouvaient suffire aux sacrifices.
L'audace d'une femme, arrêtant ce concours,
En des jours ténébreux a changé ces beaux jours.
D'adorateurs zélés à peine un petit nombre
Ose des premiers temps nous retracer quelque ombre.
Le reste pour son Dieu montre un oubli fatal ;
Ou même, s'empressant aux autels de Baal,
Se fait initier à ses honteux mystères,
20. Et blasphème le nom qu'ont invoqué leurs pères.

An uncorrected Google machine translation runs:

Yes, I come to his temple to worship Jehovah;
I come, according to ancient and solemn custom,
Celebrate with you the famous day
Where on Mount Sina the law was given to us.
Let times be changed! As of this day
The sacred trumpet announced the return,
Of the temple, adorned with magnificent festoons everywhere,
The holy people in crowds flooded the porticoes;
And all, before the altar with order introduced,
10. From their fields in their hands bearing the new fruits,
The God of the universe consecrated these first fruits.
Priests could not suffice for sacrifices.
The audacity of a woman, stopping this contest,
In dark days has changed these beautiful days.
Of zealous worshipers hardly a small number
Ose of the first times we trace some shadow.
The rest for his God shows a fatal oblivion;
Or even, hastening to the altars of Baal,
Be initiated to his shameful mysteries,
20. And blasphemeth the name of their fathers.

Professor Chilcot's translation:

I come to worship God here in his shrine.
To follow the old and solemn ritual
And celebrate the famous day with you,
When holy law was given us on Sinai.
How times have changed. The sacred trumpet then
Had scarcely sounded out the day's return
Than crowds of worshippers streamed through
The temple doors. Garlands were everywhere.
They walked up, row by row, up the shrine,
10. Bearing the harvest of their field, first-fruits
that they would consecrate to God. The priests
Were all too few to make the sacrifice.
And now a reckless queen has stopped the crowds
And changed those days of joy to darkest night.
A tiny group of faithful worshippers
Dares still keep up some shadow of those days.
The others have forgotten God;
They even crowd around the shrine of Baal.
They've quickly learned his shameful mysteries;
20. They curse the name their fathers once invoked.

Professor Chilcot's introductory notes spell out the objectives. To cut through the assertive rhetoric of Racine's lines, a quiet English pentameter is employed, the traditional English equivalent to the alexandrine, occasionally expanding and contracting the measure for variety and dramatic effect. Racine's expressive force, created with highly-wrought and interlinked sentences, is replaced by short, straightforward sentences where the verb is prominent. The lines are also unrhymed because rhyme commonly emphasizes inessential words. In short, declamation is replaced by something closer to the everday speaking voice.

There is much to be said for the approach. Such translations can be written fairly quickly, without the repeated search for the telling phrase that traditional verse requires. The prose sense is given fully, sensibly and immediately: a boon to busy students. If Racine's own verse is in couplets, they are also very consistent couplets i.e. the regularity has little expressive power in itself, but serves mostly as a frame in which syntax and subtle shifts in the alexandrine phrasing provide the necessary semantic and emotional shading. The plain English style is also more accessible to the speaking gifts of the actor, who is free to phrase and emphasize matters as he or she sees fit, not being so constrained by the verse form — a Post-modernist and arguably more democratic approach. True, the lines may appear somewhat conversational, and their emotional impact is muted, but Racine is often performed in a restrained manner, even on the Paris stage. {8}

The difficulties come in two areas: diction and the long 'tirades'. Racine's word choice is indeed limited, but the alexandrine liberates words from their everyday connotations, and allows the simplest words to resonate on an elevated emotional plane. Here a relaxed and natural speaking voice is substituted for the deeply-moving, compact, and inward-referencing language that classical drama believed was necessary. Everyday words call up everyday connotations, moreover, and these can be inappropriate. Racine's 'En des jours ténébreux a changé ces beaux jours.' is banal without the paused tempo of the alexandrine, for example, though Professor's Chilcot's 'And changed those days of joy to darkest night.' is certainly very acceptable. Less so perhaps are the unmetrical 'Dares still keep up some shadow of those days.' and 'They curse the name their fathers once invoked.' — if only because everyday language does not have the long-acquired resources of traditional verse that enable the unusual to be expressed naturally. {7} Indeed, on some occasions, there are no immediate equivalents, and bathos follows. An extreme example.

So there you are, you scum.
You vicious seed of secret packs and plots

The French is rather different:

1705. Te voilà, séducteur,
De ligues, de complots, pernicieux auteur,

But it's in the tirades that the difficulties with the everyday delivery become most marked. Athaliah's final speech:

Dieu des Juifs, tu l'emportes !
Oui, c'est Joas ; je cherche en vain à me tromper.
1770. Je reconnais l'endroit où je le fis frapper ;
Je vois d'Okosias et le port et le geste.
Tout me retrace enfin un sang que je déteste.
David, David triomphe : Achab seul est détruit.
Impitoyable Dieu, toi seul as tout conduit.
C'est toi qui, me flattant d'une vengeance aisée,
M'a vingt fois en un jour à moi-même opposée,
Tantôt pour un enfant excitant mes remords,
Tantôt m'éblouissant de tes riches trésors
Que j'ai craint de livrer aux flammes, au pillage.
1780. Qu'il règne donc ce fils, ton soin et ton ouvrage ;
Et que, pour signaler son empire nouveau,
On lui fasse en mon sein enfoncer le couteau !
Voici ce qu'en mourant lui souhaite sa mère :
Que dis-je, souhaiter ! Je me flatte, j'espère
Qu'indocile à ton joug, fatigué de ta loi,
Fidèle au sang d'Achab qu'il a reçu de moi,
Conforme à son aïeul, à son père semblable,
On verra de David l'héritier détestable
Abolir tes honneurs, profaner ton autel,
1790. Et venger Athalie, Achab et Jézabel.

The Google translation:

God of the Jews, you carry it!
Yes, it is Joas; I seek in vain to deceive myself.
1770. I recognize the place where I caused him to be beaten;
I see Okosias and port and gesture.
Everything at last reminds me of a blood I hate.
David, David triumphs: Ahab alone is destroyed.
Pitiless God, you alone have led everything.
It is you who, flattering me with an easy vengeance,
Twenty times in a day to me opposite,
Sometimes for a child exciting my remorse,
Sometimes dazzling me with your rich treasures
That I feared to deliver to the flames, to pillage.
1780. That this son, your care and your work, reigns;
And that, in order to point out his new empire,
In my bosom, make him thrust the knife!
Here is what dying wishes his mother:
What do I say, wish! I flatter myself, I hope
Let him be disgusted with thy yoke, tired of thy law,
Faithful to the blood of Ahab he received from me,
In conformity with his grandfather, his like father,
We shall see of David the detestable heir
Abolish your honors, profane your altar,
1790. And avenge Athaliah, Ahab, and Jezebel.

And Professor Chilcot's rendering:

God of the Jews, you've won.
It's Joash, yes, I can't deceive myself.
I recognise the spot I had him stabbed.
It's Azariah's bearing, gestures, looks.
All conjures up a blood that I detest.
And David triumphs. Ahab is destroyed.
You pitiless God! Alone, you fashioned this.
You flattered me with sweet revenge, set me
Against myself a score of times a day,
Arousing my remorse now for a child,
Now dazzling me with riches and with gold.
I feared to pillage, throw into the flames.
Then let him reign this son, your handiwork;
and as a sign of his new power, tell him
To plunge his knife deep into my heart.
His dying mother wishes this for him.
Wishes, did I say? I'm proud to hope
He'll not endure your chains — your laws will tire —
That he'll keep faith with Ahab's blood in me,
that like his grandfather, his father too,
He'll be seen as David's loathsome heir
Who'll crush your honour, desecrate your shrine,
And so avenge Athaliah, Ahab, Jezebel.

This rendering is generally correct, but perhaps a little forced and unconvincing. Even sections of the Google translation can be better. In place of 'I recognise the spot I had him stabbed', Google gives 'when I can recognize the mark I made', for example. And in place of 'Who'll crush your honour, desecrate your shrine', Google gives 'Abolish your honors, profane your altar'. Athaliah's last appearance on the stage lacks persuasive power because the words are second-hand, drawn from the quotidian rather than hammered out afresh in the heat of the queen's defiance. The difficulty may be this: while tragedy generally needs a heightened and compelling language that operates in another reality we call art, contemporary poetry insists on everyday word usage. The translator is thus constrained to use a language that is neither quite one nor the other, a composite that breaks down at demanding points because of conflicted aims.

Geoffrey Alan Argent's Translation of Athaliah

In his Translator's Note to the second rendering we look at here, Geoffrey Alan Argent writes: 'After all, as Proust observes, "the tyranny of rhyme forces good poets into the discovery of their best lines", and while subjected to that tyranny, I took great pains to render Racine's French into English that is incisive, lucid, elegant and memorable. For I believe that the proper goal of a work of literature must be, first and foremost, to produce a work of literature in the language of the target audience.'

Dr. Argent's rendering of the opening lines is:

Yes, to His temple I come, to adore the Lord,
As solemnly, from old, he's been adored,
And celebrate that glorious day that saw
Our God, on Sinai's height, bestow His Law.
How times have changed! Once, at the trumpet's sound,
Announcing this great day had come around,
This hall, magnificently decorated,
With floods of pious folk was inundated;
They passed before the altar solemnly,
Bearing the first fruits of their husbandry,
To consecrate them to our Heavenly King.
We'd too few priests to accept their offering!
No longer: since one woman's brazen spite
Has changed to dismal day days once so bright.
Of such devoted souls but few remain
Who dare to trace those pious paths again.
The rest, alas! Forget the Lord Most High,
Or what is worse, to Baal's altars fly,
Where they, in shameful rites initiated,
Blaspheme the Name their fathers venerated.

There are doubtless things that we can quibble with: the medieval connotations of 'pious folk', the rather hymnal 'the Lord Most High', the stop-go nature of the line flow, the sometimes contrived nature of the rhymes, and the excessive assonance of 'adore.. Lord. . .adored. . saw . . .Law', etc. But the lines do have a dignity denied the previous rendering: we are on the classical stage and subject to what Racine in his Preface declared essential to tragedy, an evoked pity and terror. Rhymed verse requires time, gifts and experience, but, done properly, has a neatness and expressive power that 'free verse' cannot match. Dr. Argent's version conveys the formality, diction and the static, end-stopped nature of Racine's verse: a very considerable achievement.

That final speech of Athaliah's is rendered as:

God of the Jews, You win!
Yes, Joash lives! To fool myself is vain:
The scars my dagger left are all too plain;
I see, too, Ahaziah's form and face:
They bear the marks of his detested race.
David has triumphed, Ahab's driven out.
Pitiless God, 'twas You brought this about.
'Twas You Who, flattering me with victory,
Set me against myself repeatedly:
Now roused to pity for this hapless child,
Now by the lure of treasure too beguiled,
Afraid to see the flames devour it.
then let him reign, Your son, Your favorite;
And to inaugurate his reign, 'twere best
That he should plant a dagger in my breast.
Hear now his mother's last wish, as she dies.
Her wish? No!— Athaliah prophesies
that weary of laws that make his soul repine,
Faithful to Ahab's blood that flows in mine,
Shunning his forebear's influence in vain,
David abhorrent scion will profane
Your altar and defame Your majesty,
avenging Ahab, Jezebel, and me.

Still maintaining the end-stopped lines of the original, Dr Argent's version does indeed convey some of the compelling power needed to round off Athaliah's 'tirade'. Perhaps the diction is a little dated, though this is a rendering of seventeenth century verse. Perhaps, too, the rhymes lack the seeming inevitability of good verse, though they're vigorous enough. What is only faintly conveyed, however, is Racine's poetry, not through any incompetence on Dr. Argent's part, but by the nature of his translation aims. What works in the French tradition will not necessarily work in English. Vocabularies, verse conventions, rhyme preferences and indeed the very sounds of the languages are markedly different.

Ocaso Press Translation of Athaliah

My Ocaso Press translation was made before I knew of the Chilcot and Argent translations, but I have greatly profited from their reading, and have occasionally made a few changes to my own version, generally bringing it closer to Racine's prose sense.

Since small details of pacing and sonic echoes, on which Racine depends, and which the Ocaso Press version does its best (in its own way) to reflect, may be inaudible to readers familiar only with prose in the theatre, I will have to make some comparisons, which are not intended to detract from the achievements of the Chilcot and Argent renderings, but point out differences of approach.

First, as will be clear at many places in the text, the Ocaso rendering is a fully literary translation, a recreation, one where I have usually made small departures from a literal transcription if these will make a verse better enabled to carry the power of the original. As I see it, academic renderings that aim to convey the prose sense as closely as possible, and which, in Dr. Argent's rendering, include the end-stopped nature of Racine's lines, face three dangers. A faithful rendering of the prose sense that also preserves the aa bb rhyme scheme is usually compelled to sacrifice many features of pleasing English verse, i.e. the euphony, cadences, sonic properties of words and a dozen contrivances that lift the phrasing from the flat-footed to the seeming inevitable.

The second danger is much more serious, which is to the tendency carry into English what strictly belongs to the French tradition. There is rarely a central caesura in English verse, for example, and no preference for the rime riche, indeed the very opposite. Rhyme in English verse, unless serving pointed antitheis, needs also to be unobtrusive, and not too blatantly lead the sense.

The third danger is related to the last. Like dialogue generally, speeches have to disclose the speaker's personality, background and motivations, carry the plot, create decisive twists in the story-line, heighten tension or conflict between the speakers, record subtle changes in their relationships, remind the audience from time to time of what it may have forgotten, foreshadow important events, and establish the right mood or tone. To that a long list should be added, I think, the traditions of the English stage. Racine's lines are restrained and deadly, the emotion resonating as it were between the confines of the balanced and end-stopped alexandrine. The English theatre is quite different. Speeches are expected to come alive, i.e. carry a forward-sweeping momentum and cogency, expressing what real people would say in real situations. For that reason I have tried to recreate the verse from the inside, often writing more by the paragraph than the couplet. Many lines are therefore far from the economy, balance and elegance of Racine — i.e. more energetic, phrased for the speaking voice though still I hope observing vowel harmony and melodic invention. Translation is in fact by the paragraph rather than by the line, and the aim is a flowing unity of utterance.

Originally (for those who still have the pre-February 2016 version) I evaded the opening problem, and wrote a forward-driving:

Yes, for love of the Eternal One,
I come in Temple custom, as was done
to praise that glorious day, which would be still
were laws as handed down from Sinai's hill.

But eventually realized I was overlooking what Racine thinks important, that the lines should serve as an introductory coda. So, in the latest version:

In Temple custom, yes, I come to praise
our God on this revered of hallowed days,
and celebrate with you what would be still
were laws as handed down from Sinai's hill.

The Ocaso Press version continues with:

How times have changed! For when the dawn's first red
by sacred trumpet had been heralded,
the Temple with its festooned porticoes
was thronged by worshippers. In endless rows
they progressed to the altar, there to yield
10. the first of fruits they'd gathered from the field,
with blessings of the universal god to ask
that priests were scarcely equal to the task.
But now that one audacious woman's cast
her shade on blest occasions of the past,
there are of fervent worshippers but few
who dare recall to us the ways we knew.
The rest are sunk in dire forgetfulness
and even to the shrine of Baal would press,
in shameful mysteries so far gone
20. as curse the name their fathers called upon.

The verse in Athaliah is compact, sometimes sonorous, but above all effective. The surface prettiness of the earlier plays is gone, as is the sensuous rhetoric and shifting emotional depths of Phaedra. There are many celebrated passages, but the verse is not so finished, either because Racine's powers were waning or because the incessant polisher had little opportunity to rework what was written for private performance.

Racine was never one to load each rift with ore, and the verse in Athaliah sometimes passes from the efficient to the mechanical.

377. Voici notre heure : allons célébrer ce grand journéé
Et devant le Seigneur paraître à notre tour.

Or loosens towards prose:

688. Oui... Vous vous taisez ?
Quel père
Je quitterais ! Et pour...

In short, Racine was not always at his best in Athaliah. His limited vocabulary caused him to write:

1237. D'un pas majestueux, À coté de ma mère,
Le jeune Eliacin s'avance avec mon frère.

Dr. Argent's rendering is exact:

With a majestic stride, beside my mother
Young Eliakim advances with my brother?

But 'majestic'? Everyone understands what Racine was trying to convey — gathering confidence — but 'majestic' too much exposes the poverty of Racine's diction, at least to English ears. I have rendered this as:

Here comes Eliacin with mounting stride
at now his mother's and my brother's side.

Dr Argent's renderings are generally more than competent, with many pleasing lines, but they also have also have sections like the following, where rhymes, following French usage, lead the sense too much:

What fires you with a hatred so intense?
Does zeal for Baal provoke such vehemence?
For me, you know, a child of Ishmael's race,
Nor Israel's creed nor Baal's do I embrace.

The French is:

915.Qui peut vous inspirer une haine si forte ?
Est-ce que de Baal le zèle vous transporte ?
Pour moi, vous le savez, descendu d'Ismaël,
Je ne sers ni Baal, ni le Dieu d'Israël.

More in the English tradition of verse is:

Or is it zeal for Baal that you pursue?
As for me, I come from Ishmael's stock
and neither bow with Baal's nor Israel's flock.

Nonetheless, it seems wise not to emphasize too much the antithesis inherent in the heroic couplet, and in place of :


Who counters then these realms of hungry beasts?


Need I tell you? Levites and our priests.

Which just about renders the French:

207. Qui donc opposez-vous contre ses satellites ?
Ne vous l'ai-je pas dit? nos prêtres, nos lévites.

Write something rather less neat or glib:

So who resists her followers today?
Our priests and Levites. surely. Need I say?

Small points, but we have to remember the actors speaking the lines.

Occasionally, the English verse conventions are entirely thrown away in Dr. Argent's rendering, as in this section, where speech rhythms break the iambic flow:

You think it possible they won't comply?
Curious reluctance! What could be the cause?
Strange new suspicions might well give me pause.
Jehoiada or his wife must bring them here.
I speak now as your sovereign: is that clear?

The French is:

Manquerait-on pour moi de complaisance ?
De ce refus bizarre où seraient les raisons ?
590. Il pourrait me jeter en d'étranges soupçons.
Que Josabet, vous dis-je, ou Joad les amène ;
Je puis, quand je voudrai, parler en souveraine.

A literary translation keeping tone and sense more within the rhythmic outlines of the heroic couplet would be:

Why do you hesitate, condemn
my words to hopes with which they won't comply?
590. I could have doubts of someone asking why.
With Josabeth, or husband, have them seen,
for I can talk, when need be, as a queen

The differences are most pronounced in the Chorus sections where lines of varying length, often repeated in different speeches, and exhibiting a complex interweaving of rhyme schemes, have to be rendered by a verse that will convey some poetry in Racine's uncompromising declarations. An example:

1490. Triste reste de nos rois,
Chère et dernière fleur d'une tige si belle,
Hélas ! sous le couteau d'une mère cruelle
Te verrons-nous tomber une seconde fois ?
Prince aimable, dis-nous si quelque ange au berceau
Contre tes assassins prit soin de te défendre ;
Ou si dans la nuit du tombeau
La voix du Dieu vivant a ranimé ta cendre ?

Few singing lines appear in Dr. Argent's version, which — by its terms of reference — employs a conventional diction and often turns alexandrines into hexameters, those most unwieldy of English forms:

Sad remains of a royal dynasty,
The last and dearest flower of so fair;
Alas, will this most cruel of mothers once more dare
To lift the fatal knife against her progeny?
Say, sweet prince, by some angel were you blessed,
Who at your cradle, stayed the assassin's blade?
Or did God's voice, when you'd been laid to rest,
From the tomb's darkest night recall your shade?

Literary versions, I would argue, keep more to the spirit of the play, at the cost of divergence from the exact prose sense:

1490. So rest the sad remains of kings,
the last fair blossoming of one bright stem:
What cruel mother would condemn
us see a second time such brazen things.
Did some angel, tell us, from your birth,
take care that no assassin threaten you?
Or in dark ashes of the earth
the living voice of God breathe fire anew?

That divergence may be troubling or unacceptable to educators. The queen's final speech in the Ocaso version is:

You triumph, God of Jews.
Of course, it's Joash. Why have truth delayed
1770. when I can recognize the mark I made?
It's Ahaziah's bearing and the rest
of that inheritance which I detest.
So David conquers; Ahab is destroyed.
How pitilessly has your God enjoyed
the flattery by which he vanquished me,
so often true and not, continually.
At times for this poor child he sent remorse,
and then that greed for gold, a deadly force,
until the fire and pillage I must shirk.
1780 So let him reign, this child, your handiwork.
Were well, to signal a new realm, he pressed
his dagger deep into a mother's breast.
This dying woman would accept the blow.
Accept? It is the dearest act I'd know.
For tired of yoke, and by the law deceived,
still bound by Ahab's blood that I received,
as were the grandsire, and the father too,
you'll die detested David's heir, undo
the altar, and your hallowed name as well,
1790. avenging Ahab, me and Jezebel.

Where, of course, 'This dying woman would accept the blow . . .' is so free as to seem the translator's invention, curiously when more faithful renderings come easily:

It is my dying wish to make it so.
Wish? More dearest yearning I could know,

So they do, but the freer variants better maintain the momentum of the speech, and keep that penumbral echo of poetry so essential to Racine.

The play's final four lines are:

Par cette fin terrible, et due à ses forfaits,
Apprenez, roi des Juifs, et n'oubliez jamais
Que les rois dans le ciel ont un juge sévère,
L'innocence un vengeur, et l'orphelin un père.

Which Dr. Argent translates as:

From that condign and dreadful end she's she's met,
Learn well, king of the Jews, and ne'er forget:
Kings have, in heav'n, a Judge, stern and severe,
Innocence an Avenger, hovering near,
Orphans a Father, Who holds His children dear.

That's rather expanded, with rhymes tacked on. We can write:

Learn from that fierce ending, King of Jews,
how heaven's stern judge of kings exacts His dues.
Do not forget that virtue has redress
in He who's father to the fatherless.

But it seems better to aim for the poetry more, and stress innocence rather than virtue, thus ending on a quieter note:

Learn from that fierce ending, King of Jews,
how Heaven's stern judge of kings exacts its dues,
that innocence when wronged will have redress
in He who's father to the fatherless.

So the literary tradition, which draws its words from the overall sense of the piece, closely guided by the original text but at times creating what is only latent in the original.

French and English Conventions

French and English follow different rhyme conventions. As I have mentioned, the French surrender to the rime riche, which to English ears is detestable, mere pantomime verse. The English are quite content with the rime pauvre, however, indeed prefer it, or some variation of rime pauvre and rime suffisante. These conventions have to be respected if the translation is to read as competent English verse, let alone poetry. For Racine's continual use of such rhymes as:

133. Que sur toute tribu, sur toute nation,
L'un d'eux établirait sa domination,

It seems best to avoid the like of:

when over every tribe and every nation
extend throughout a single domination,

and write something closer to:

when every tribe would know, and every state,
a domination none repudiate

For the Choruses I have retained the rhyme schemes and approximated to the changing line lengths (as has Dr. Argent on both counts), but tried initially to make the verse rise out of the alexandrine texture of Racine's verse. In place of the rather grandiloquent

315. In vain is fury found
to mute a people or their praise confound.
Never perishes His name
but passes day to day in glory crowned.

I first wrote the easier running:

315. Violent falsehood's never found
enough to suffocate a people's sound.
Nor shall ever fade His name
but be from day to day as glory crowned.

But then came to realize the uncompromising nature of the Choruses, which not so much add a descant to the play but exist in another dimension altogether, adding momentum and religious significance to actions in the world below. The lines went back to being more standalone:

315. In vain is fury found
to quell a people or their praise confound.
Never surely fades His name
that's daily more in power and glory crowned.

The limited and conventional nature of Racine's rhymes I have generally rendered with equally conventional English rhymes, occasionally allowing two rimes suffisantes, but generally aiming for more variety.

In a few places, quite against the French tradition, I have written a free-flowing verse with rhyme entirely incidental, i.e. not shaping the lines. One example is Athaliah's momentary confusion:

435. No, I cannot leave: you see how weak
I am. Bring Mattan here, for I must speak
to him, and have his happy wisdom find
the peace I want but still eludes my mind.

Athaliah does not depend on our empathy with the characters, but on the sheer power of its writing, that close interlocking of stagecraft with superlative technique. The play succeeds or fails as the verse convinces us that something is irrefutably the case. The verse is therefore self-enclosing, and made more so by the end-stopped nature of the alexandrine. To make something more virile and faster moving, I have let the content flow across the lines more than Racine allows, but kept its hard surface by writing in exact, iambic rhymed couplets that aim to give the full sense immediately.

Students who want a close rendering that respects Racine's end-stopped and static lines will find Dr. Argent's version the more useful. Those who want more fluid verse in the English manner, and something that works on the stage, may like to consider the free Ocaso Press offering. Professor Chilcot's version, also free, admirably conveys the prose sense in everyday diction.


1. Andromache, Phaedre, Athalie 2003 by Tim Chilcot. Chilcot Translations. http://www.tclt.org.uk/translations.html
2. The Complete Plays of Jean Racine, translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent: Volume 4: Athaliah. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.
3. Racine's Athaliah, translated by Colin John Holcombe. Ocaso Press, 2011.
4. The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/
5. The Poetry Translation Center. http://www.poetrytranslation.org/
6. Poetry in Translation. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/
7. Discussed at some length in: Writing Verse: A Practical Guide by Colin Holcombe. Ocaso Press, 2015. especially pp 149-51.
8. E.g. Racine Phèdre. Naïve LibresLivres 2005. Recorded 1er Janvier 1958.