Racine's Athaliah: Literary and Academic Renderings

The Academic Translation in Context

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 self-consciously covers all the bases, most particularly if it makes the faithful rendering of the prose sense its primary objective. But while a literary translation aims to do more, to also convey the spirit and literary quality of the original into another language, that target language is also shaped by contemporary and sometimes academic expectations.

athaliah literary and academic renderings

As always, the devil is in the detail, and to see the many alternatives thrown up, we look at three modern translations of Racine's Athaliah (Athalie in French)— one in unrhymed verse {1} and two in heroic couplets {2-3}.

The first is quiet, accomplished and faithful to the original text. It's also written as expected of serious poetry today: matter of fact, stripped of unnecessary detail, and adopting an emotionally neutral investigation of the everyday world.

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 ;

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 the sacred trumpet then
Had scarcely sounded out the day's return
Than crowds of worshipper streamed through
The temple doors. Garlands were everywhere

Indeed, the explanatory notes spell out the objectives. Rather than write rhyming couplets, which would seem unreal to contemporary audiences, and involve many contrivances, we'd do better to convert the text to short and straight-forward sentences. Those sentences can then be assembled into lines approximating to blank verse but still kept simple, i.e. devoid of rhetorical flourishes common in declamation from the stage. Certainly the lines are unrhymed, but if Racine's own verse is in couplets, they are also very well-behaved couplets that use subtle shifts in the alexandrine to provide line shape and emphasis.

Put another way, the rendering is more open to the actor, who is free to phrase and emphasize matters as he or she sees fit, not therefore so restricted by the verse form — a post-modernist and arguably more democratic approach.

If we judge it on those terms, the rendering reads admirably. The lines may be somewhat dislocated, and their emotional impact kept from to swelling into grandiloquence, but Racine is usually performed that way, even on the Paris stage.

The difficulties come in two areas: diction and the long 'tirades'. Racine's diction is indeed limited, but the style moves beyond the mundane. For what works on an elevated plane there are often no simple English equivalents. An extreme example.

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

The French is rather different:

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

Before looking at the rhymed versions, we should note the obvious: that traditional verse is difficult to write, requiring gifts, experience and sustained application. Tony Kline, for example, who employs a very serviceable free verse for his popular translations, made this early attempt on Phaedra.


My plans are made, dear Theramenes, I go:
I'll end my stay in pleasant Troezen so.
Gripped as I am by deadly uncertainty
I've grown ashamed of my inactivity.
5. For more than six months, far from my father, here,
I'm unaware now of the fate of one so dear.
I'm unaware, even, in what place he might be.

Just about everything is unfortunately wrong with the rendering: the lines don't scan; the phrasing is awkward; rhymes are contrived; the translator has no ear for the graces of English verse. That it still ranks well in Google is probably testament to the many useful translations on the PoetryinTranslation site, though it may also point to the lamentable level of English verse appreciation among academics and their captive students.

Racine's Athaliah (Athalie) brings exceptional problems, for translator and 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 English couplets are not to fall into monotonous and antiquated bombast.  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 try to explain what's involved.

First, as will be clear at many places in the text, the Ocaso Press rendering is a literary translation, a recreation, one where I have usually made small departures from a literal translation if these will make a verse better enabled to carry the power of the original. Those who cannot read the French, and want a closer rendering of the prose sense, can be referred to John Caincross's very serviceable blank verse translation, or to the new version by Geoffrey Alan Argent in faithful heroic couplets.

Here we might note that academic renderings, which aim to convey the prose sense as closely as possible, and, in Dr. Argent's rendering, the end-stopped nature of Racine's lines, face three dangers. A faithful rendering preserving 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. As much as possible I have tried to avoid rhymes like decorate / inundate, which verge on pantomime effects, enjoyable in a mundane setting, but out of place in Racine's plays. For the same reason, I have kept the diction somewhat elevated: Racine does not use an everday French.

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. It's an aim that departs very much from the French classical tradition, the reader should be warned.

Much in my notes on Phaedra applies equally to Athaliah, particularly Racine's verse skills and my reasons for writing rhymed couplets rather than blank verse. Those views are echoed in the Mr. Argent's intentions, which are, I think, to create an academic version in the best tradition of the word. The formality, diction and the static, end-stopped nature of Racine's verse are all faithfully rendered: a very considerable achievement.

What is not always 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.

We can see differences between the two versions, academic and literary, almost from the beginning. In the second line of the play Racine achieves one of those little miracles in verse, employing the nasal sounds and the evocative 'antique et solennel' in a flowing sentence that emphasizes the importance of the day.

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.

Dr. Argent's version is very faithful, conveying well the halting rhythm of the first line, and representing the phrase in question by a sonorous 'solemnly, from old':

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.

It's excellent, in all perhaps but the excessive assonance of 'adore.. Lord. . .adored. . saw . . .Law'.

Originally (for those who still have the pre-February 2016 version) I evaded the problem altogether 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 clearly 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 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.

Mr 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.

In his Translator's Note (whose tone echoes Racine's own introductions), Dr. 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.' Worthy aims, but, as I have mentioned above, difficult to achieve in academic translations. Dr. Argent's renderings are generally more than competent, with many pleasing lines, but they also have also have sections like the following, where Racine's static lines are transferred bodily into English:

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 :

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 conversions 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 soupḉons.
Que Josabet, vous dis-je, ou Joad les amène ;
Je puis, quand je voudrai, parler en souveraine.

A literary translation has to keep tone and sense more within the rhythmic outlines of the heroic couplet:

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 more 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 keep more to the spirit of the play, diverging from the exact 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 is a conscious choice. The queen's final speech:

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.

Is rendered adequately, if a little freely, by Dr. Argent as:

hear now his mother's last wishes as she dies
Her wish? No! — Athaliah prophesies
That, weary of laws that make his soul repine,
Faithful to Ahab's blood, which flows from mine,
shunning his forebear's' influence in vain,
David's abhorrent scion will profane
Your altar and defame Your majesty,
Avenging Ahab, Jezebel, and me.

The Ocaso Press literary translation is:

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 hope and long 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? 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.

Which is rather expanded, with rhymes somewhat contrived. 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.

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 converts readily to 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.

Some Details

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 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,

I have often avoided the like of:

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

and written something like:

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, 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.

References and Resources

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