Previous Translations of Euripides' Medea

Coleridge and Murray

Since this may be the only fully rhymed version to have appeared since Gilbert Murray’s translation of 1913, the translator needs to say something for readers unfamiliar with older conventions. Today’s preference is for free verse, usually a rudimentary verse that purposely avoids interposing anything too literary between reader and text. Too finished a translation, it is thought, will not allow the authentic excellences of the original to shine through, an argument put by T.S. Eliot in his Euripides and Professor Murray essay. There is some merit in the view, as can be seen by comparing different renderings of lines 225-9, to which Eliot most objected in Murray’s version:

euripides medea previous translations

E. P. Coleridge (1891)

But on me hath fallen this unforeseen disaster, and sapped my life;
ruined I am, and long to resign the boon of existence, kind friends,
and die. For he who was all the world to me, as well thou knowest,
hath turned out the worst of men, my own husband.

Gilbert Murray (1913)

But I —
This thing undreamed of, sudden from on high,
Hath sapped my soul: I dazzle where I stand,
The cup of all life shattered in my hand,
Longing to die — O friends! He, even he,
Whom to know well was all the world to me,
The man I loved, hath proved most evil.

Later Medea Translations: David Kovacs (1994/2001)

In my case, however, this sudden blow that has struck me has destroyed my life. I am undone. I have resigned all joy in life, and I want to die. For the man in whom all I had was bound up, as well I know — my husband — has proved the basest of men.

Diane Arnson Svarlien (2008)

My case is different. Unexpected trouble
has crushed my soul. It’s over now; I take
no joy in life. My friends, I want to die.
My husband, who was everything to me—
how well I know it—is the worst of men.

Ocaso (C.J. Holcombe) Translation (2010)

But, friends, remember that this severing blow
has killed the happiness I used to know.
So grieved my spirit, it would follow on
to where my innocence in life has gone.
However be my world, it's not as then:
230. I know my husband as the worst of men.

The two prose versions are similar. Coleridge’s version is the more compact but very dated. Kovac’s is closer to contemporary idiom, though 'undone' has connotations of melodrama, and I want to die sounds a little peevish. Murray’s version has semantic problems. I dazzle should perhaps be I am dazzled, though dazzled is not the right word for numbing grief. The meaning of 'The cup of all life is shattered in my hand' is clear in context, but a rendering so free as to become an interpolation. 'Longing to die' is an orphan in the text.

Svarlien’s is a contemporary translation: clear, lively and intelligent, with impressive set of stated aims: to be faithful to the diction, tone, connotation, context, echo, image, euphony and image, and to render dialogue, lyric and anapaest sections by different English measures. Many students will find this a helpful approach, and not worry that the result is only nominally English verse. It is older readers who may miss the range and effectiveness of traditional measures, seeing the dialogue possibly as stress verse: five beats to the line, with a diction close to everyday speech, making for naturalness but not poetry. The anapaest sections are again not strictly anapaests, but do give lines that can be vigorously chanted: e.g. lines 89-91 in Kovac’s numbering:

Hurry up now and get yourselves inside the house—
but don’t get too close to her, don’t let her see you:
her ways are too wild, her nature is harmful. . .

The Chorus sections are generally prose fragments, but occasionally adopt metre and lyricism: lines 832-3 in Kovac’s numbering:

They say that there
the nine Pierian Muses once gave birth
to Harmony with golden hair.

Comparison of Renderings

As will be clear, Ocaso Press's rendering tries to do something different, not replicate features of the original, but create something that works in the English literary tradition as Euripides does in the Greek.

No translation carries over all the features of the original, and it may help to compare the trade-offs made by various renderings. If we take lines 1057-69 in Kovac’s numbering, part of that repetitious, disputed passage where the hitherto resolute Medea seems to lose her way:

Gilbert Murray

Ah, Ah, thou Wrath within me! Do not thou.
Do not. . . . Down, down, thou tortured thing, and spare
My children! They will dwell with us, aye, there
Far off, and give thee peace. Too late, too late!
By all helps living agonies of hate.
They shall not take my little ones alive
To make their mock with! Howsoe'er I strive
The thing is doomed; it shall not escape now
From basing. Aye, the crown is on the brow.
And the robe girt, and in the robe that high
Queen dying.
I know all. Yet . . . seeing that I
Must go so long a journey, and these twain
A longer yet and darker, I would fain
Speak with them, ere I go.

Murray’s language is of the period, and though rhyme is strictly observed, it does not lead or enforce the sense. Unity comes from the elevated diction and consistency of tone.

Diane Arnson Svarlien

Oh no, my spirit, please, not that! Don’t do it.
Spare the children. Leave them alone, poor thing.
they’ll live with me there. They will bring you joy.
By the avenging ones who live below
in Hades, no, I will not leave my children
at the mercy of my enemies’ outrage.
Anyway, the thing’s already done.
She won’t escape. The crown is on her head.
The royal bride’s destroyed, wrapped in her robes.
I know it. Now, since I am setting foot
on a path that will break my heart, and sending them
on one more heartbreaking still, I want to speak
to my children.

Here it is the undignified jumble of cliché that does the mischief. Medea is a semi-divine princess to whom the commonplaces of human decency do not apply: she needs to speak with the majesty of such an elevated being.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Greek pages.