Tuesday, July 19, 2016

2016.07.22

Francis C. Blessington (trans.), Euripides. Trojan Women, Helen, Hecuba: Three Plays about Women and the Trojan War. Wisconsin studies in classics. Madison; London: University of Wisconsin Press, 2015. Pp. xvi, 250. ISBN 9780299305246. $18.95 (pb).

Reviewed by Geraldine O'Neill, The Open University (g.oneill@open.ac.uk)

Version at BMCR home site

The first thing that caught my attention was Francis Blessington's choice of Euripidean tragedies: Trojan Women, Helen and Hecuba. The usual grouping is Trojan Women, Hecuba and Andromache, often mistakenly described as 'Euripides' Trojan Trilogy', even though the three plays were written for separate festivals. Francis Blessington, however, has changed the usual configuration and substituted Helen for Andromache. It is an inspired change. Instead of the seemingly unending suffering and wretchedness of the Trojan royal women and Trojan women captives in general, which we find in Trojan Women and Hecuba, the substitution of Helen for Andromache (with yet more woes) introduces another dimension to the story of Helen, her sojourn in Egypt rather than Troy and her rescue by Menelaus. Unlike the Helen of Trojan Women, who appears as Hecuba's arch-nemesis, the woman Euripides portrays in the eponymous tragedy is merely a pawn of the gods. She is still a clever woman (and certainly cleverer than Menelaus) but she is by no means the feisty, confident woman who faces Hecuba in the agon scene of Trojan Women. Indeed, some dispute that Helen is a tragedy at all, since no one dies—at least, no Greeks die.

The translations of the three plays are preceded by a very brief note on Euripides (described as 'The Philosopher of the Stage') with the opening statement that 'the tragedies of Euripides challenged those of his predecessors'. Whereas Homer presented war directly, Euripides dramatised its aftermath, as these three tragedies illustrate vividly, in particular in relation to women. This brief note is followed by a chronology of Euripides' life, extant tragedies and major historical events in contemporary Athens. The author's notes on his translations (pp. xv–xvii) highlight particular difficulties in translating Euripides, for example, in dealing with compound adjectives and achieving the correct register in language. Exclamations and interjections, often 'word music in Greek', such as ototototoi, can become hackneyed in translation as (for example) 'O My God'. Blessington also includes details of the different metres used in Greek tragic verse for dialogue, lyric passages and choral odes.

The translation of each play follows the same format: a sound informative introduction tailored to the individual play, followed by a list of the editions consulted for that play. The translation itself is followed by notes relating to the play. The notes provide useful information to the reader on the structure of a Greek tragedy: Prologue, Parodos, First Episode etc. They also explain references in the play to mythological figures, proper names, family connections and social values, such as supplication, which were important to Greek society. Such notes are very useful to a reader not familiar with the wide mythological background to the Trojan War. There is an Appendix (pp. 237–241) on 'Elements of Greek Tragedy' in which Francis Blessington covers the origins and conventions of Greek tragedy: the number of actors, the chorus, the use of masks, theatre venues and the sources for the subject-matter of tragic plays. This gives a clear and straightforward description of these topics that I think would have been more suited to a general introduction to the plays rather than confined to an Appendix. The final section of the book provides a reading list in which asterisks mark basic reading material, a useful aid for someone trying to find a way through the numerous works on Greek tragedy.

To come to the actual translations. Each one reads very well and is devoid of any sense of archaic language or phrasing. Blessington has retained features of the original Greek text, such as nautical terms (see Trojan Women 102–4, 136–7). He has also retained references to the Greek ritual of supplication where other translations have omitted it. For example, Hecuba 286 is translated literally 'I beg you by your beard'; David Kovacs (1997) retains this, but Philip Vellacott (1954) has 'Then be my friend; let awe and pity move your heart', and John Harrison (2008) has 'Please, dear man, show me respect, have pity', omitting all reference to the fact that Hecuba is supplicating Odysseus and thus losing an important Greek concept. In his introductory notes Blessington says that he has 'tried to indicate the formality and rhetoric of the Greek text without sounding "literary"'. Retaining the formality of the Greek text, as he does in many instances, produces a sharp reminder of the society of fifth century Athens. For example, Trojan Women 20, translated accurately as 'so that after ten seed-times', is a reminder that the ancient Greeks measured time according to the natural world, especially the agricultural seasons. That sense is lost in the translations of Alan Shapiro (2009) and Vellacott, who both have 'after ten long years'. Blessington keeps the familiar metaphors of 'the yoke of marriage' and 'the yoke of slavery' (Trojan Women 675, 678) whereas Shapiro and Vellacott do not.

Euripides' use of compound adjectives is one of the difficulties highlighted by the translator in his introductory notes. Yet he deals very well with these, as in Helen 355–6 'the sword-killing thrust / of throat-gushing slaughter'. Compare this with Vellacott, 'and eager iron shall grope and blood leap forth', or James Morwood (1997) 'with a sword's killing thrust to my throat'. Blessington's exact translation reproduces the succinctness of Euripides' lines. The translator shows considerable skill in reproducing word-play found in the original Greek text. For example, Helen 503 is translated by Vellacott as 'known all over the world' and by Morwood as 'my name is well-known throughout the world'. Blessington has 'I'm not nobody anywhere', which retains the double negative of the original Greek and conveys the pompous character of Menelaus.

In Trojan Women 468 Euripides has an accumulation of different tenses—present, perfect and future—with alliteration of the letter 'p' to produce a neat rhetorical effect. Shapiro reproduces the series of tenses with alliteration of the letter 's' but that requires two lines. Vellacott has no alliteration, also requires two lines, and replaces the tenses with the adverbs 'today', 'yesterday' and 'tomorrow'. Blessington very neatly reproduces the pattern of Euripides' single line including alliteration of the letter 's', thus capturing the terseness of the original in one line: 'For what I suffer and have suffered and still will suffer'. The cleverest attempt at replicating word-play is found in Trojan Women 989–90 where Euripides makes a play on the first two syllables of the name of Aphrodite and the Greek noun aphrosune meaning 'folly'. Vellacott does not attempt to reproduce the word-play; Shapiro makes a rhyme between 'witless' and 'Cypris' (another name for Aphrodite), but this does not really work. Blessington has 'For truly / does the goddess' name begin like aphrodisiac'. Although he claims in the note for this line that it is not possible to reproduce the original pun in Greek, he still manages to keep the play on the first two syllables of Aphrodite (the goddess' name) with 'aphrodisiac'.

Blessington is not afraid to use what some might consider coarse language at times. In Hecuba 775 Agamemnon's reaction to Polymestor's murder of Hecuba's son is translated by Vellacott as 'a murderer', by David Kovacs as 'cruel man!', and by John Harrison as 'the criminal!'. Blessington has Agamemnon say simply 'the bastard', entirely suitable in this context. In a similar vein, in Hecuba 1257, after Hecuba has exacted a horrific vengeance on Polymestor, his reaction to Hecuba's actions is translated by Vellacott as 'blood-guilty wretch!', by Kovacs as 'you knavish creature!', and by Harrison as 'vile creature'. Blessington's 'you bitch' is much more expressive and conveys the highly charged atmosphere. One final example I would highlight is the translation of the Greek verb apoptuo meaning 'I spit out', almost an onomatopoeic word in Greek, carrying great force. Lines 75–6 in Helen are translated by Vellacott as 'May the gods abhor you as the perfect copy of Helen'. Blessington retains the meaning of the Greek verb with 'May the gods spit on you for your likeness to Helen!'. Again in Helen 663, Vellacott has 'the words will choke me', and Morwood, 'I detest the words, the words I shall utter': Blessington translates the line exactly 'I spit upon such a tale'. Lastly, in Hecuba 1275 Vellacott translates, 'No! Never! May the gods fulfil such words for you'; David Kovacs, 'Pah! I give you back these words to apply to yourself!'; and John Harrison, 'Pah! I make the same prophecy for you!'. Here Blessington says 'I spit that prophecy back on you', which accurately conveys the venomous relationship between Hecuba and Polymestor.

I have only been able to touch on a small number of features in these three translations. Overall, I found them very readable and very skilful in use of language. I was impressed by the fact that Blessington clearly strove to reproduce what Euripides wrote and to do so in a verse translation. His aim, according to his introductory notes, was 'to produce a contemporary poetic idiom that can be read, performed, and taught today'. I certainly think that he has achieved his aim.

A few typographical errors: on p.xiv read 'Archelaus', not 'Agelaus'; in Hecuba, p. 186, l. 269 'Tyndareus', not 'Tydareus'; on p. 239 'choregos', not 'choragos'. On p. 245, in 'Suggestions for Further Reading', the correct name is 'Judith Mossman'.

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