Previous Phaedra Translations

previous phaedra translations book cover

One of the best known of translations in the first half of the twentieth century was that by Lacy Lockert, which went through several printings. {19} Lockert wrote in what he termed the old “heroic couplet” of Dryden and Pope, but gave it more flexibility by using imperfect rhymes and making the pauses appear in the middle rather than at the end of the line.

To aid comparisons, I will look at three sections in the play that show different aspects of Racine’s art.

The first is in Act One, Scene 1: simple narration that sets the scene: Theramenes speaking:

Et dans quels lieux, Seigneur, l'allez-vous donc chercher ?
Déjà, pour satisfaire à votre juste crainte,
10. J'ai couru les deux mers que sépare Corinthe ;
J'ai demandé Thésée aux peuples de ces bords
Où l'on voit l'Acheron se perdre chez les morts ;
J'ai visité l'Élide, et, laissant le Ténare,
Passé jusqu'à la mer qui vit tomber Icare.
Sur quel espoir nouveau, dans quels heureux climats
Croyez-vous découvrir la trace de ses pas ?
Qui sait même, qui sait si le Roi votre père
Veut que de son absence on sache le mystère ?
Et si, lorsqu'avec vous nous tremblons pour ses jours,
20. Tranquille, et nous cachant de nouvelles amours,
Ce héros n'attend point qu'une amante abusée...

Lockert’s translation runs:

And where, sir, wilt thou look for him? Ere this
To lull thy filial anxieties,
I have made passage over both the seas
Which Corinth sunders. Even on those shores
Where the dark kingdom of the dead devours
Acheron, I have asked for Theseus.
Elis I visited, and from Taenarus
Sailed to those waters which beheld the fall
Of Icarus. Now what new hope, withal,
Leadeth thee on, or in what blessèd place
Expectest thou of his steps to find a trace?
Who knows? thy royal sire, it well may be,
Desireth to preserve in mystery
His absence. While we fear lest he have died,
Perchance the hero doth unharmed but hide
Some newest love, wooing some ‘wildered maid . . .

Setting aside the diction, of its time but now dated, the text is perfectly speakable. The rhythms run naturally, more free verse than heroic couplets, with the pararhymes only faintly marking the line ends. It is not particularly powerful, however, and some of the phrases are more decorative than meaningful (e.g. traversed o’er the wave). The looseness of the phrasing would help an experienced actor, but doesn’t cohere into beautiful or memorable lines.

In the second section I’ve chosen, Act Four, Scene 6, the verse must grip the spectator as Phaedra is here bidding farewell to life:

Pardonne. Un Dieu cruel a perdu ta famille :
1290. Reconnais sa vengeance aux fureurs de ta fille.
Hélas ! du crime affreux dont la honte me suit
Jamais mon triste coeur n'a recueilli le fruit.
Jusqu'au dernier soupir, de malheurs poursuivie,
Je rends dans les tourments une pénible vie.

Lacy Lockert’s translation:

Some cruel god hath all
Thy house destroyed. See in thy daughter’s fall
A final stroke! Alas, never the fruit
Of that dire crime whose shame made such pursuit
Of me, my piteous heart hath tasted once!
Behold, how sorrow still unceasing hunts
Me even to my latest breath, and I
in torture end a life of misery.

Here, I think, Lockert’s verse is straining for effect, the declamation coming between us and the pity we should feel for the ruined queen.

The final section is that terrible description of Hippolytus’s death in Act Five, Scene 6:

1535. La fureur les emporte, et sourds à cette fois,
Ils ne connaissent plus ni le frein ni la voix.
En efforts impuissants leur maître se consume,
Ils rougissent le mors d'une sanglante écume.
On dit qu'on a vu même, en ce désordre affreux,
Un dieu qui d'aiguillons pressait leur flanc poudreux.
A travers des rochers la peur les précipite.
L'essieu crie et se rompt. L'intrépide Hippolyte
Voit voler en éclats tout son char fracassé.
Dans les rênes lui-même il tombe embarrassé.
Excusez ma douleur. Cette image cruelle
Sera pour moi de pleurs une source éternelle.

Lacy Lockert’s translation:

Terror lays hold on them,
And deaf for once, they heed not voice or rein.
Their master struggles vainly to restrain
Their flight. With bloody foam their bits are red.
Amid the whirling tumult, it is said,
A god was seen, who did with prick and thrust
Of goad assail their sides, besmeared with dust.
Fear drives them over the rocks. Load groans the nave.
The axle snaps. Hippolytus the brave
Sees fly to pieces all his broken car,
And tangled in the reins, is hurled afar.
Forgive my grief. This cruel sight will be
An everlasting source of tears, for me.

Sensible and vigorous, Lockert has captured the prose sense admirably, which may sum up the translation generally. The rendering is intelligent, conveying the sense faithfully and in a language an actor would have little difficulty speaking (though it needs modernizing). What is missing, however, is the power, the compressed irony, the memorable phrasing and the poetry, all of which become necessary in the great scenes that make Phaedra what it is.

Robert Lowell

Robert Lowell’s 1960 translation burst on the literary scene to equal praise and condemnation. {20} It was immensely readable, vivid and contemporary. Many lines had that idiomatic exactness of phrasing that marks a good poet, and to this was added rare verve and excitement. No one had ever heard Racine before as:

1. No, no, my friend, we’re off! Six months have passed
since Father heard the ocean howl and cast
his gallery on the Aegean’s skull-white froth.

1306. Must I still listen and drink your poisoned breath?
My death’s redoubled on the edge of death.
I fled Hippolytus and I was free
till your entreaties stabbed and blinded me.

Unfortunately, the failures were equally glaring, and made an impressive list. Lowell’s approach was foreign to French classical tragedy, and indeed to the classical world: it was Lowell’s play and not Racine’s.

Does he need helpers to share
the plunder of his latest love affair;
shipload of spectators and his son
to watch him ruin his last Amazon.

The writing was also uneven: pieces of superlative verse craft could be followed by inanities:

when he leaps to crush her like a waterfall
of honeysuckle.
You are cynical,

The sheer energy often swamped the lines, making for a play without lights and darks, or even sufficient shading in the characters.

The translation failed in the great scenes, the lines passing into rant and bombast.

My lover flees me still, and my last gasp
is for the fleeting flesh I failed to clasp.

The diction was an awkward mix of social registers.

lascivious eulogist of any belle

Whole sections were Lowell’s invention, which did not improve the play.

The three sections under comparison:

Where, my lord? I’ve sent a host
of veteran seamen up and down the coast;
each village, creek and cove from here to Crete
has been ransacked and questioned by my fleet;
my flagship skirted Hades’ rapids, furled
sail there a day, and scoured the underworld.
Have you fresh news? New hopes? One even doubts
if noble Theseus wants his whereabouts
discovered. Does he need helpers to share
the plunder of his latest love affair;
a shipload of spectators and his son
to watch him ruin his last Amazon—
some creature, taller than a man, whose tanned
and single bosom slithers from his hand,
when he leaps to crush her like a waterfall
of honeysuckle?

You cannot kill me; look, my murderer
is Venus, who destroyed my family;
Father she has already murdered me.
I killed myself—and what is worse I wasted
my life for pleasures I have never tasted.
My lover flees me still, and my last gasp
is for the fleeting flesh I failed to clasp.

and then the horses, terror struck, stampeded.
Their master’s whip and shouting went unheeded,
they dragged his breathless body to the spray.
Their red mouths bit the bloody surf, men say
Poseidon stood beside them, that the god
was stabbing at their bellies with a goad.
Their terror drove them crashing at a cliff,
the chariot crashed in two, they ran as if
the Furies screamed and crackled in their manes,
their fallen hero tangled in the reins,
jounced on the rocks behind them. The sweet light
of heaven will never expunge this sight:

Ted Hughes

Ted Hughes’ Phèdre of 1998 was warmly received. {17} The translation was staged in London in 1998, and this production, starring Diana Rigg, transferred to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1999. Unfortunately, perhaps attempting to express Racine’s passion as more primeval forces, Hughes replaced the restraint, dignity and beauty of Racine’s lines with a monolithic free verse that is often little more than prose. Like Lowell, he rewrote sections to his own liking, and the result is a coarsening of Racine’s meaning and effect. The three sections:

But where, my lord, would you begin to look?
We have done all we can to find him.
Our ships have searched both seas, they have gone
as far as Acheron
Where it dives to the underworld, and nowhere
Can Theseus be found.
We have searched Elis, and on past Tenaros,
As far as the ocean
That drowned Icarus when he fell out of heaven.
We have searched every coast within reach
For news of the King and found nothing.
Do you think you’ll fare better?
What unsearched patch of earth do you think might hold him?
In any case, who knows—
He might have chosen to vanish.
He might be lying low for his own good reasons.
While we rack ourselves
Imagining his death,
He is lolling at ease, tucked away
With some beauty—soon to be deserted,

O Father, you have to forgive me.
The pitiless goddess
Would not loosen her grip on your family.
I am one more trophy of her vengeance.
My crimes were execrable.
Their shame walks with me like my shadow.
But they brought me no profit—
Not one flicker of gratification.
No, my every step
Carried me deeper into evil fortune.
My whole life has been wretched and ends in torment.

Then the horses went mad—
I heard Hippolytus shouting among the screams
Of the horses, and the blasts of that beast.
The wonderful strength of Hippolytus was helpless.
Some of the others saw something
I can hardly credit, I did not see it.
They saw the glowing figure of a naked god
Astride the shoulders of the demented horses—
Goading and urging them
Among the rocks of the foreshore
With the chariot, stripped of its wheel,
Bounding like a bucket behind them.
Hippolytus had wound his arms in the reins.
He tore the horses’ mouths but they felt nothing.
And the voice they had grown up with
Became a scream that added to their terror
As the chariot disintegrated beneath him.
Then it was two mad horses dragging a man.
Oh my lord, forgive me! The sight of it
Is like a great wound through my body,
It’s never going to heal.

The characters lack dignity: 'lying low for his own good reasons'. Racine’s meaning is brutalised: 'But they brought me no profit.' 'Then the horses went mad' and 'Bounding like a bucket' are unintentionally comic. 'Carried me deeper into evil fortune' is the language of pantomime and fairy tales. And so on. Hughes was continuing the modernizing trend of Lowell, but had by this time lost the gifts that made his earlier poetry so memorable.

Robert Boswell

Blank verse does not always give flexibility, as sections from Robert Boswell’s 1898-91 translation show: {21}

And where, prince, will you look for him?
Already, to content your just alarm,
Have I not cross’d the seas on either side
Of Corinth, ask’d if aught were known of Theseus
Where Acheron is lost among the Shades,
Visited Elis, doubled Tœnarus,
And sail’d into the sea that saw the fall
Of Icarus? Inspired with what new hope,
Under what favour’d skies think you to trace
His footsteps? Who knows if the King, your father,
Wishes the secret of his absence known?
Perchance, while we are trembling for his life,
The hero calmly plots some fresh intrigue,
And only waits till the deluded fair—

Spare me! A cruel goddess has destroy’d
Thy race; and in my madness recognize
Her wrath. Alas! My aching heart has reap’d
No fruit of pleasure from the frightful crime
The shame of which pursues me to the grave,
And ends in torment life-long misery.

Fear lends them wings; deaf to his voice for once,
And heedless of the curb, they onward fly.
Their master wastes his strength in efforts vain;
With foam and blood each courser’s bit is red.
Some say a god, amid this wild disorder,
Was seen with goads pricking their dusty flanks.
O’er jagged rocks they rush urged on by terror;
Crash! goes the axle-tree. Th’ intrepid youth
Sees his car broken up, flying to pieces;
He falls himself entangled in the reins.
Pardon my grief. That cruel spectacle
Will be for me a source of endless tears.

Margaret Rawlings, {22} who modernized the text for her own acting purposes, pointed out the shortcomings. The diction is Victorian. The phrasings are disjointed, and lack the urgency of emotion that must carry the speakers on. Some words have changed their meaning: we can’t now say:

129. You have been seldom seen with wild delight
Urging the rapid car along the Strand.

John Cairncross

John Cairncross’s 1963 translation, printed by Penguin Books, will have introduced many to Racine’s plays. {14} The same volume contained translations of Iphigenia and Athaliah, each with an individual introduction, and a most useful introduction to Racine’s place in the French classical stage. Cairncross’s phrasings were more subtle than Boswell’s, and the diction more contemporary. Within its blank verse limits, the rendering was generally faithful, and individual lines could be very well turned. The end-stopped lines prevented a pleasing flow of utterance, however, and, deprived of convincing voices, the characters did not come alive.

And, where, my lord, would you make search for him?
Already to allay your rightful fears,
I have scoured both the seas that Corinth joins;
I have sought for news of Theseus on the shores
Of Acheron, the river of the dead;
Elis I searched, then sailed past Tenaros
On to the sea where Icarus came down.
What makes you hope that you may find his trace
In some more favoured region of the world?
Who knows indeed if it is his desire
To have the secret of his absence known?
And whether, as we tremble for his life.
He is not tasting all the joys of love,
And soon the outraged victim of his wiles. . .

Forgive me. Venus’s wrath has doomed your race.
Your daughter’s frenzy shows that vengeance forth.
Alas, my sad heart never has enjoyed
The fruits of crimes whose dark shame follows me.
Dogged by misfortune to my dying breath
I end upon the rack a life of pain.

Carried away by terror, deaf, the steeds
No more responded to his curb or voice.
Their master spent his efforts all in vain.
They stained the bridle with their bloody foam.
In this wild tumult, it is even said,
A god appeared, goading their dusty flanks.
Over the rocks fear drove them headlong on;
The axle groaned and broke. Hippolytus
Saw his whole chariot shattered into bits.
He fell at last, entangled in the reins.
Forgive my grief. For me this picture spells
Eternal sorrow and perpetual tears

Richard Wilbur

Richard Wilbur’s 1984 translation went back to Augustan verse for its inspiration, and was the most accomplished to date. {18} Hexameters were expressed as rhyming couplets, and many of the lines were extraordinarily pleasing.

159. These veils, these baubles, how they burden me!
What meddling hand has twined my hair, and made
Upon my brow so intricate a braid.

and here (though less appropriately, as it’s the horror that Theramenes is conveying):

1 557. The rocks are red with it; the briars bear
Their red and dripping trophies of his hair.

The rendering was also remarkably close to the original, employing much of its imagery, and retaining Racine’s restrained and dignified style. The difficulties lie in four areas.

One is the costume drama diction of woe, sire, maids, ere, hark, behold, etc. The second is the sometimes mechanical nature of the verse, which manhandles the natural cadence of words and phrases into lines that break its pleasing fabric.

6. And yet I do not know what distant shore
Now hides him, or what trials he now may bear.

A third is the archness of expression that rhyme leads Wilbur into, sometimes verging on pantomime language.

785. No doubt it was surprise that made him mute,
And we do wrong to take him for a brute.

The fourth difficulty is Wilbur’s detachment, the staccato stating rather than phrasing to evoke the emotion, particularly apparent in the great scenes.

1293. Misfortune dogs me till, with my last breath,
My sad life shall, in torment, yield to death.

The three sections:

You’ll go in search of him, my lord? But where?
Already, to appease your fears, I’ve plied
The seas which lie on Corinth’s either side;
I’ve asked for Theseus among tribes who dwell
Where Acheron goes plunging into Hell;
Elis I’ve searched and, from Taenarus bound,
Reached even that sea where Icarus was drowned.
In what fresh hope, in what unthought-of places,
Do you set out to find your father’s traces?
Who knows, indeed, if he wants the truth about
His long, mysterious absence to come out,
And whether, while we tremble for him, he’s
Not fondling some new conquest at his ease
And planning to deceive her like the rest? …

Forgive me. A cruel God destroys your line,
Behold her hand in these mad deeds of mine.
My heart, alas! not once enjoyed the fruit
Of its dark, shameful crime. In fierce pursuit,
Misfortune dogs me till, with my last breath,
My sad life shall, in torment, yield to death.

Sheer panic takes them; deaf now, they pay no heed
To voice or curb, but bolt in full stampede;
Their master strives to hold them back, in vain.
A bloody slaver drips from bit to rein.
It’s said that, in that tumult, some caught sight
Of a God who spurred those dusty flanks to flight.
Fear drives them over the rocks; the axletree
Screeches and breaks. The intrepid prince must see
His chariot dashed to bits, for all his pains;
He falls at last, entangled in the reins.
Forgive my grief. That cruel sight will be
An everlasting source of tears to me.

Ocaso Press Translation

As we’ve seen, it’s perfectly possible to translate Racine’s Phaedra into something other than it is. Grossly simplifying, Lowell turned it into melodrama. Hughes’s version is a prose enactment of mythic forces. Cairncross’s is a close-textured mosaic of correct rendering. Wilbur’s is an elegant exercise in heroic couplets. What is missing from all these is the empathy with a style of writing that is no longer used to express our profoundest yearnings. To make a translation effective, we have to enter Racine’s world, and devise equivalents that affect us today in ways comparable to Racine’s appeal to a seventeenth century French audience.

In making this translation, I should emphasize how much I have benefited from previous attempts. Many have suggested rhymes or useful phrasings, which I have recast in my own fashion. In disagreeing with approaches I have come to see my own more clearly, and what others have achieved in their renderings has guided my own choice of form. That said, I have developed rather than copied. Where previous translators have partly gone back to earlier verse forms to accommodate Racine’s rhetoric, I have started from Augustan techniques and brought them forward, modifying and extending as follows:

1. Toned down where possible the declamatory interjections, replacing them with something more acceptable to the contemporary stage.
2. Done away with archaisms and the dialogue of costume drama, the likes of woe, sire, maids, ere, hark, doom, etc.
3. Aimed for a supple continuity of line, indicating changes of tone and force in dialogue by word textural properties in a strict iambic verse.
4. Given the long speeches (tirades) more of a driving force by absorbing the individual lines into the fabric of argument and getting them to flow across the rhyme boundaries.
5. Written a more rhythmically virile and urgent line.

My overall aim has been to recreate the poetry, without which Phaedra is scarcely worth reading. That this can be done, I hope this translation demonstrates. For ready comparison, here are my renderings of the three passages under discussion:

Then, Prince, where look for him? I've scoured each side
the oceans bounding Corinth for some word
of Theseus, what was rumoured, who had heard.
My search to calm your natural fears has led
to shores where Acheron fades into the dead.
I've called at Elis and from Cape Taenarus
surveyed the waters swallowing Icarus.
What makes you think that through some happy place
the steps of our dear hero left their trace?
Perhaps the king, your father, is not prone
to have the secrets of his absence known
and while we tremble for his life he stays
20. in blessed tranquillity, in hiding plays
with some new love who cannot yet suspect. . .

Forgive me that I let a god in wild
1290. reprisal sow her fury through the child.
Never the once to what it sought for came
this heart, but sadness only, and to shame.
Phaedra in sighs, with which her path was rife,
in agonies gives back a painful life.

The horses, terrified, must then stampede
and to his voice and curb could pay no heed.
Hippolytus was wrestling but in vain
to gain a purchase on the blood-wet rein.
It’s even said by one a god appeared
1540. and ran along their dusty flanks and steered
the chariot over boulders, headlong on
until the axle groaned and all was gone.
Hippolytus among the broken stone
was in the reins entangled and then thrown —
the scenes so harrowing that they will stain
all memory afterwards with vivid pain.

Phaedra (Phèdre) References and Resources

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