Wednesday, March 26, 2014


Diane J. Rayor (trans.), Euripides' Medea: A New Translation. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013. Pp. xxix, 100. ISBN 9781107652217. $14.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Geraldine O'Neill, The Open University (

Version at BMCR home site

This book is the end-product of a process which began in February 2012. The Heritage Theatre Group in Grand Rapids, Michigan committed to present the premiere production of this translation of Euripides' Medea for its summer season of 2012. Diane Rayor and the actors (including director, producer and music composer) collaborated in a number of workshops on drafts of the play, using Donald Mastronarde's text of 2002. In late May, rehearsals began and Diane Rayor again worked closely with the cast to produce a script. In her Introduction she gives an interesting insight into achieving a translation that works on stage, that is meant to be heard rather than read. She refers to fine-tuning the translation into an actable script (Introduction, p. xxvii). Occasionally a line looked fine on paper but did not sound right when spoken on stage. For example, the Nurse's lines 124–5 were first translated as 'May I grow old in security' but when spoken on stage came across as 'insecurity' which was completely wrong. The line finally became 'May I grow old without greatness, secure' which captures the Nurse's sentiments that moderation in all things and a simple life are better than great wealth and power which cause envy in others.

The book has three main sections:

(1) 'Introduction', in which Diane Rayor supplies very useful information on many aspects of Greek Tragedy, such as 'the Festival of Dionysos', 'Greek Theatre conventions' and 'the Play Structure'. But she also includes 'Social Background', in particular, 'Women in Athenian Society'. There are then notes on the background for Euripides' Medea and how Medea is 'different among women'. Accompanying this are references to the Selected Bibliography (pp. 97–100), so that anyone wishing to follow up a point or topic is directed to an appropriate source or book. Although there are no scenes as such in a Greek Tragedy, she provides a 'Scene List' (pp. xxviii–xxix) which breaks the play down into a manageable structure for a modern reader.

(2) 'Notes to the translation' (pp. 69–96) explain words or phrases as well as references to concepts that were important to Greek society, for example, the ritual of supplication, the power of oaths, and kinship and family. Occasionally, she touches on a textual problem and Donald Mastronarde's comments, but not so often and never in such detail that the flow of the translation is interrupted. She is also very good at adding a comment that really captures the essence of a character. At line 610, near the end of his first confrontation with Medea, Jason tells Medea that if she needs some money from him to help her and the children in exile, she only has to ask. Diane Rayor adds the comment, 'Picture Jason whipping out his wallet' (p. 81). Preceding the 'Notes' is a short essay by Karen Libman, who directed the play and also participated in the workshops held to put together a draft of the translation. She gives some insight into the ideas explored in this production, in particular how they dealt with the choral odes, always a difficulty for modern audiences (pp. 65–7). She makes the observation (clearly born from practical experience) that no matter how many books you read on Greek drama, on the analysis of theory and practice, the only way 'to truly understand a play is to mount it' (p. 67).

(3) The most important section, however, is the translation itself and in this task Diane Rayor has been successful. It reads as a modern play, despite the fact that it was written almost 2,500 years ago. She retains features of the original text such as nautical terms (of which there are a lot) without the tone becoming awkward to a modern ear. In her Introduction she hoped that 'the characters' language should be contemporary without breaking into short-lived slang'. For example, line 554 was translated by Rex Warner (1949) 'and by producing more of them'; by Philip Vellacott (1963) 'to raise a numerous family'; by David Kovacs (2001) 'to rival others in the number of my children' and by Judith Mossman (2011) 'an urge for a competition in having many children'. Diane Rayor translates it 'or eager to hold a baby-making contest', which carries extra punch. Throughout she displays a fine skill in pinpointing a character's frailties; in lines 989–95 the chorus address Jason as 'You reckless, poorly wed son-in-law of royalty . . . Unhappy man, how far you've strayed from your destiny'. These are wonderfully chosen words which are both poignant and cruel in their depiction of Jason. Where the translation really sparkles is in the agon scene (465–575), in Jason's speech in the Exodos, and in the altercations between Jason and Medea (lines 579–626, 1361–1404). These are no-holds barred scenes which the language reflects; for example, Medea begins her agon speech by calling Jason pankakiste, which Diane Rayor translates as 'Vile bastard' (line 465) and Jason returns the compliment at the end when he calls Medea 'Vile woman, the gods, I and all the human race utterly despise you' (lines 1323–4). This is a play where the action never drags and the translation throughout maintains the tempo and frantic atmosphere.

I would recommend this translation especially for some one who is not particularly familiar with Greek Tragedy. This is a translation that is and sounds modern and makes an ancient play accessible without losing any of the original spirit of the play. No doubt the fact that it was produced through close work with the actors involved helps to give it an immediacy that would be missing from a straightforward 'academic' translation. I think that Diane Rayor has done an excellent job here.

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