Monday, September 28, 2015


Oliver Taplin (trans.), Euripides: Medea. (With an introduction by Glenn W. Most and Mark Griffith). Chicago; London: University of Chicago Press, 2015. Pp. 68. ISBN 9780226203454. $8.00.

Reviewed by Michael R. Halleran, The College of William and Mary (

Version at BMCR home site

Euripides took third (i.e., last) prize in the tragic competition at the 431 City Dionysia with his tetralogy Medea, Philoctetes, Dictys, and Theristae. The other three plays survive only in scraps, but Medea has proved much more durable. Adopted into the canonical selection of ten plays in later antiquity, Medea has been immensely popular through the ages, inspired adaptations in various genres, and is thought to be more widely performed than any other ancient play. This is no surprise, as the play is bold in design, taut in construction and powerful in its exploration of desire, betrayal, family, violence, divinity and otherness. And holding it together is the dominating, complex and fascinating title character. What actor would not be eager to play this role? So, it is welcome to see a new translation of this vital play, and the expectations for this volume are extremely high when the translator is Oliver Taplin and the introduction is penned by Mark Griffith and Glenn Most. This is a trio of the highest order.

The translation is lively, staying close to the Greek but with no attempt to produce English verse. A wise decision, I think, as such efforts, when trying at the same time to adhere to the structure and images of the original, rarely meet with success. Taplin does, however, employ line-end breaks that echo the movement of the Greek text. As a text for performance, I think it would be very successful; in fact, I would not be surprised if this was one of Taplin's imagined purposes for this new translation. Tragedy's (and comedy's) alternation of speech and song provide the plays' fundamental rhythmic dynamic, and a good translator will use different registers to capture this alternation. Here, Taplin is very successful, and many passages in the odes convey both the intensity of the lyric mode and the contrast with the spoken rhythm that precedes and follows.

Translation is an impossible art. Any attempt to "carry over" the rich mix of semantics, rhythms, sound and tone from one language to another forces choices, and not everything will make the crossing. It is frustrating that we receive no indication from the translator what his intentions were in producing this translation. Who are the imagined audience? What accounts for the various choices Taplin has made? What did he hope to convey by these choices? We can only infer.

Inevitably there are choices, among the literally thousands made in translating a text of this length, that seem off-key. I mention a few. In her opening speech, Medea explains the challenge faced by women in their choice of a husband (235–36):

And here's the throw that carries the highest stakes
is he a good catch or a bad.
Taplin nicely captures the image of competition (agon) in 235, but "good catch or bad" produces a tone not generated by the Greek. λαβεῖν . . . with either κακόν or χρηστόν is not colloquial and jars in this context.

Another colloquialism also throws off the tone. After Creon leaves the stage, having granted Medea a day's stay for her exile, Medea launches into a powerful rhesis about her next plans (373–4):

he's let me stay for this one day—
the day on which I shall make dead meat of my enemies.
νεκρούς/θήσω, with its enjambment, is arresting, underscoring the new development in her plan: for the first time she declares that she will murder the princess, Creon and her husband. But this phrase, literally "will make [into] corpses," is not slang and Taplin's rendering introduces an incongruous tone.

Perhaps no set of words provides more challenges to a translator than exclamations and invectives. When Jason makes his initial appearance on stage, Medea's very first words are "ὦ παγκάκιστε" (465). Judith Mossman, in her translation, renders this "worst of all men," capturing the "pan" in "all." Diane Svarlien repeats the slur to capture the force, "You are the worst/You're loathsome," while David Kovacs offers the quaint "vilest of knaves." For this strongest of invectives (within the decorum of tragic diction) Taplin has "you cheating rat," while later in this speech the superlative without compound is translated "you stinking rat." This rendering is bathetic and undercuts the power of Medea's very first word to her husband; the language reminds one of the stylized argot from American gangster movies of the 1950s.

The preceding comments are not major criticisms, to be sure. My chief reservations concern less what is in this volume than what is not. The introduction is a sparse four pages. It covers with great brevity the play's date and composition (including the relationship to Neophron's Medea), myth, transmission and reception. But it offers nothing on ancient performance, contemporary politics, Euripides' life or any of the other standard elements of context-setting. Even more remarkable is the lack of any discussion on stagecraft, an understanding of which no one has done more to advance in the past 50 years than Taplin. The only concession on this score is in the form of embedded stage directions.

Matching the sparseness of the introduction are the notes. Following the translation are one-and-a-half pages of textual notes, but neither a single footnote nor any endnote provides any exegesis. The original Chicago series, under the editorship and David Greene and Richmond Lattimore, was similarly devoid of any explanatory apparatus but in the last few decades the trend (a very positive trend, I believe) has been for translations to include notes to explain, guide and enrich the understanding of the (typically) non-expert reader. This lack of even modest exegesis limits this translation's value.

The volume is attractively produced, with a sewn binding, a handsome layout and no typographical errors, at least none that I noticed.

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