I am not competent to discuss the many
translation issues of Medea and Greek tragedy generally, and for these
reference should be made to Mastronade’s book or the bibliography
in Svarlien’s translation, both listed in the ebook References. My aim has
been simply to produce the sort of translation I enjoy reading, i.e.
with some claim to literary respectability, and in decent verse if the
original is so written.
We may read a Medea translation for many reasons: to check our understanding of the Greek text, for the light thrown on the beginnings of western theatre, for historical or sociological information, or simply because its study forms part of a school or college course. None of these is to be despised, and an academic approach is often essential to a proper understanding of the play. But equally important is an appreciation of the play as literature, that transcendent quality fusing together craftsmanship, the extra dimension we call poetry and a profoundly moving view of the world.
Because the original is written in formal verse throughout, often very
beautifully, with a flexibility to accommodate anything from Chorus
homilies to the cut and thrust of everyday conversation, it seems
natural to attempt something similar in English. For reasons outlined
in the notes attached to my translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus at
Colonus, I have found the following to be the best approach:
1. Work from a standard prose translation, here Professor Kovac’s graceful version in the Loeb edition.
2. Adopt the layout and line numbering of the Greek text. Where, for example, the text shows a speech of eight lines, also write a speech of that length.
3. Add rhyme to give formal shape to the lines, generally unobtrusive but occasionally with the marked antitheses of Euripides’ style.
4. Employ tetrameters rhymed in free order for the chorus sections, and pentameter couplets for the remainder.
In this case, I have made the language less elevated than that of the Oedipus translation, in line with the more everyday style of Euripides.
The section compared in other
translations becomes this in the author's rendering:
Why should I weaken or withhold the blade
for all that horror here makes me afraid
of my own heartlessness. I see my wrath
bears all before it down a dangerous path.
For yet my sons could live with me, and grace
my hopes hereafter in some other place.
1060. But then the Furies would ensure they end
their lives in punishment my foes could send.
Such fearful pain would visit them that I
shall not prevaricate in asking why.
Besides, by now the crown is on her head,
and in the murdering gown her life is sped,
and so this soul, on saddening courses set,
will send her sons down roads more saddening yet.
But let me speak with them before they go.
In trying to give more emotional shading to Medea — that the pain she inflicts she also feels — this version gives what the section probably intends but doesn’t quite say. Repetitions are welded together in rhymed couplets that shape, enclose and enforce the meaning, but at the cost of variety and vividness in the original dialogue.
Since the Greek is written in formal verse, and formal verse is the easiest way to achieve some quality in English verse translation, I have adopted a style that has worked well in the past, modifying as necessary. The result is no doubt an anomaly among contemporary translations, but to render the great works of antiquity in today’s lumpenproletariat fashion may be to negate why we read the classics at all — which is to understand another world in the splendour of the ways it understood itself.