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. {1} Those we 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. 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 in another language, but that aim is also shaped by contemporary and sometimes academic expectations. To see the dilemmas and alternatives thrown up in practice, we look at three modern translations of Racine's Athaliah — one in unrhymed verse approximating to the pentameter {2} and two in heroic couplets {3-4}

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 {5} and in the translation offered by prestigious {6} and popular outlets. {7} Strictly speaking — we should note because relevant to comments following — this 'free verse' is typically a truncated prose, not unattractive in its honest and thoughtful way, but one denied much shaping power on the syllable level because constrained by the needs of natural, everyday expression. {8} In fact, Professor Chilcot's lines are better called decasyllabic verse, too unemphatic to be termed blank verse, with breaks and sections indeed where the metre is uncertain, muffled or lost, possibly to avoid echoing 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, this measure occasionally being expanded or contracted 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 foregrounds inessential words. In approach and tone, declamation is replaced by something closer to the everyday speaking voice.

There is much to be said for the approach. Such translations can be written fairly quickly, without the repeated search for the heart-winning 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 Postmodernist and arguably more democratic approach. True, the lines may appear flatly categorical, where emotional impact ends at each sentence end, but Racine is often performed in a restrained manner, even on the Paris stage. {8}

Difficulties only appear if we expect the rendering to be aesthetically successful — i.e. do more than simply convey the prose sense — and they come in two areas: diction and the long 'tirades'. Today's poetry, on which this style is possibly modelled, is prose-based and uses an everyday language to provide a new perspective on the ordinary, or what we have hitherto seen as the ordinary. Like deconstruction generally, the language can bend back on itself to question, unsettle or simply provide an entertaining commentary on life. Contemporary diction is therefore essential, as it is contemporary usage and its ramifying extensions that are being examined, illustrated or sent up in these engaging little exercises.

Some examples: {9}

: pacings that allow words or phrases their proper significance. Jackson Mac Low: Circulation. And long long /Mind every/ Interest Some how mind and every long
: switches in mid line or stanza that disrupt or reverse expectations. Elini Sikelianos: Thus, Speak the Chromograph
: abrupt changes in viewpoint or of characters speaking. Hayden Carruth: now content with mystery simple/ and profound you /in the night
: variety in pace or attack: there is no metre to be negotiated. Mark Strand: the coming of love, the coming of light./ You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,
: fresh expression: John Canaday: I dream of grass so green it speaks.
: make large leaps in sense: Lucille Clifton: water waving forever/ and may you in your innocence/ sail through this to that
: phrasing based on units of sound rather than syntax: Cole Swenson: (the night has houses)/ and the shadow of the fabulous/ broken into handfuls
: repetition of words or phrases that reiterate but make no comment: E.M. Schorb: young, old, men women.
: antithesis as structure, not argument: Shel Silverstein: Everything's wrong,/ Days are too long,/ Sunshine's too hot,/ Wind is too strong.
: extended personification: Charles Simic: How much death works,/ No one knows what a long/ Day he puts in.
: inconsequential remarks linked by common tone: James Wright: We prayed for the road home./ We ate the fish./There must be something very beautiful in my body,/ I am so happy.

There are no grand narratives, no rhetorical devices and no sound patterning. Out has gone artifice, rhythmic subtlety and the great commonplaces of life, and in their place are teasing questions in a language conceivably used by real people in real situations, though the questions are far from everyday thought. But such is the warrant or justification for a style that seems very unlike previous literature: it does things that traditional poetry can't.

Even beyond the academia of serious poetry experimentation, this plain style has also become a universal currency, though often without its purposes being understood. Perhaps to evade the verse skills that were previously necessary, or simply wishing to appear up-to-date and accessible to the common reader, whose knowledge of poetry may be very slight, translators have adopted the new dress throughout. Translation has gone more easily without the baggage of an earlier age, though often with results unattractive to the trained ear. As should be clear, Chilcot's approach is not experimental or reflexive. His plain style is based on sensible discourse: the lines are fairly regular and there remains the vestige of metre. It is a pleasing mixture of understated verse and prose, and employs a largely contemporary diction.

The French classical stage, however, did not use an everyday diction. Words were given a universality by being purged of everyday associations. A limited vocabulary was isolated in stiff decorum, where the formality created aesthetic distance, separating art and life. But with that 'purity' of diction came the freedom to employ a host of rhetorical and verse devices. Just as a painter will isolate elements of his visual field — select, adjust and reconstitute — to create a fresh, more dynamic and compelling representation, so the dramatist could select, heighten and reorganise elements shaken free from the grey language of everyday usage. Words so 'liberated' could be deployed without much reference to anything else, i.e. without the connotations, histories of usage, pointers to tone and context and the like that must plague the writer today. Assonance, alliteration, textural devices, organising rhetoric — devices that contemporary poetry banishes because signalling artifice — became possible, indeed essential.

They are still essential. The devices — from rhetoric to subtle verse shading — were there for a purpose, and the success or otherwise of translation today is often a measure of the presence or absence of their sensitive deployment. That deployment is not based on theory, moreover, but on experience, what long traditions have found to be necessary. Simply removing devices leaves something that is not poetry, as too much of our translation today, a vast literary industry, commonly shows. What was emotionally alive, beautiful and memorable becomes flat, plebeian and maladroit.

Speeches recast into Professor Chilcot's short, non-nonsense sentences remain just that: effective when 'simple statements of fact' are needed, as in the opening section quoted, but less so in the second. Art traditionally contains an emotional component, none more so than in the swelling 'tirades' where we need to feel the mounting conviction of the characters and Racine's message of God's purposes. That emotional component needs careful evocation and cultivation, with each sentiment building on another, which is achieved in the French by the rhetoric of the verse structure. 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 is the 'Dares still keep up some shadow of those days' where the 'keep up' belongs to more mundane register, and 'They've quickly learned his shameful mysteries', where 'shameful' has rather jocular connotations. Even the words themselves, sensibly adopting Postmodernist injunctions to bring art closer to its audience, can draw on social registers inappropriate to the classical stage. Occasionally the translation entirely crosses over into street jargon, and dissonance follows. An extreme example is:

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, and conforms to its stated intentions. The sense of meter is stronger, but the words are regimented without much ear for their intrinsic texture and sonic patterning, so that the narrative becomes both assertive and rather wooden. The culprit is again contemporary poetry, which has thrown out verse craft, but then has to push words into rhythms where they are not at ease if not dropping naturally into speech patterns. Even short sections of the Google translation can be better than the renderings in this second 'tirade'. In place of 'tell him/To plunge his knife deep into my heart.', Google gives 'In my bosom, make him thrust the knife!', for example. And in place of the over-written 'Who'll crush your honour, desecrate your shrine', Google gives 'Abolish your honors, profane your altar'. The difficulty is that, while tragedy generally needs a heightened language operating in another reality we call art, contemporary practices insist on everyday phrasing. The translator here is restricted to a language that is neither quite one nor the other, a composite that breaks down at demanding points because of conflicted aims.

If we revert to earlier conceptions of verse we can write:

You carry all, then, God of Jews.
Of course it's Joash. Why deceive myself
when I can recognise the scar that's made?
In gait and gesture it is Azaziah,
and all reminds me of the blood I hate.
David triumphs. Ahab is destroyed.
How hard that God who led in everything.
You who flattered me with easy vengeance,
and set me all the time against myself,
that for an infant I would feel remorse,
have riches dazzle me but, fearing loss
in fire and pillage, would be slow to strike.
In this, your care and handiwork, he reigns,
and, to inaugurate what all has changed,
I'd have him thrust the knife into my breast.
This is what the dying mother wants.
Wants? I fool myself. It's what I hope,
when tired of law, and by the yoke brought down,
and bound by Ahab's blood received by me,
as were his father and his father's too,
become at last detested David's heir,
befoul the altar and disgrace his name
avenging Ahab, me and Jezebel.

That's close to being literal, and carries the argument smoothly on. But it's also a little flat. If we allow a little licence in the translation — and more of the verse devices and rhetoric once integral to blank verse — we can craft this into the more appropriate:

Your will's accomplished, God of Jews!
Of course it's Joash. Why deceive myself
when I can recognise the knife-mark made?
In gait and gestures it is Ahaziah,
the very bearing of the blood I hate.
So David, David conquers; Ahab falls.
How merciless was God in everything
to flatter me with easy consequence,
that daily set me more against myself.
He sent remorse for one poor child, and then
by gold bedazzlement, though, fearing loss
in fire and pillage, I was loath to act.
But let him reign, this child, your handiwork,
and, more, commemorating all that's changed,
I'd have him thrust this blade into my breast
and end it as this dying mother wants.
Wants? I fool myself when I foresee
that, tired of law and by the yoke brought down,
still bound by Ahab's blood that I received,
as did my father and his father too,
he'll end his days detested David's heir,
befoul the altar and disgrace his name
avenging Ahab, me and Jezebel.


A quieter rendering, perhaps more suitable for a radio broadcast, could be achieved by slowing the tempo and using simpler expressions:

So all has been accomplished, God of Jews
Of course it's Joash. Why deny the claim
when all too clearly marked is what I made.
In gait and gestures it is Azaziah, plain
enough, with features of the blood I hate.
So Ahab falls and David is preferred.
How pitiless was God in everything
who led by promises of sure success
to hourly set me more against myself.
Sometimes I thought of that poor child, and next
of gold, and dazzlement, but also loss
that from the fire and plunder I held off.
It is your handiwork that leaves this child:
well, let him reign then, and to mark the change
require the knife be plunged into my breast
and end this matter as the mother wants.
Yet death is futile now, for I foretell,
that tired of law and of its wretched yoke,
beset by that foul blood which I possess,
as were my father and his father too,
he'll end reviled as hated David's heir,
renounce the altar and his hallowed name,
and join with Ahab, me and Jezebel.

This is more conversational but grows effective as the verse craft tightens — suggesting that a convincing rendering will need more formality rather than less.

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 antithesis, 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. The aim is not exact fidelity to the French, but a flowing and persuasive 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: the day was especially propitious. 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:

What generates such vehement hate in you,
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 :

JOSABETH

Who counters then these realms of hungry beasts?

JEHOIADA

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:

Refuse me? Strange that you'd condemn
commands to doubting whether they'll comply.
590. I hold as suspect he who'd question why.
With either parent have the two be 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 well with vengeance has your God enjoyed
the flattery by which he vanquished me,
assured success, and not, continually.
At times for this poor child he sent remorse,
and then desire for gold, a dazzling force
where loss in fire and pillage also lurk.
1780. But have 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? I fool myself, for this I know:
that 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,
he'll die detested David's heir, undo
the very altar, and his 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? I fool myself, for this I know:

There are many possibilties, 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 Verse

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.

References

1. See, for example: Edwin Morgan's Phaedra: Apotheosis of Glesga by J. Derrick McClure. ScholarCommons, The Translator's Voice: An Interview with Richard Howard by Paul Mann. Center for Translation Studies, 1982, or Articles on Literary Translation in Translation Directory.
2. Andromache, Phaedre, Athalie 2003 by Tim Chilcot. Chilcot Translations. http://www.tclt.org.uk/translations.html
3. The Complete Plays of Jean Racine, translated by Geoffrey Alan Argent: Volume 4: Athaliah. Pennsylvania State University Press, 2012.
4. Racine's Athaliah, translated by Colin John Holcombe. Ocaso Press, 2011.
5. The Poetry Foundation. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/
6. The Poetry Translation Center. http://www.poetrytranslation.org/
7. Poetry in Translation. http://www.poetryintranslation.com/
8. E.g. Racine Phèdre. Naïve LibresLivres 2005. Recorded 1er Janvier 1958.
9. Writing Verse: A Practical Guide by Colin Holcombe. Ocaso Press, 2015. pp 348-9. Also see: After Free Verse: The New Non-Linear Poetries by Marjorie Perloff. http://epc.buffalo.edu/authors/perloff/free.html