Tuesday, December 19, 2017


Andy Hinds, with Martine Cuypers, Aeschylus' 'The Oresteia', in a Translation. London: Oberon Books Ltd, 2017. Pp. 172. ISBN 9781786821331. £14.99 (pb).

Reviewed by Matthew Keil, City University of New York, Queens College (Matthew.Keil@qc.cuny.edu)

Version at BMCR home site


Aeschylus' sole surviving trilogy has never been wanting for English translators, and the distinctive quality sought after in the present work seems to be a focus on the plays' performability. A longtime theatre director and prolific playwright, Hinds has also published a work on Shakespearean performance (Acting Shakespeare's Language, 2015), and even a companion volume to the present translation (Euripides' Iphigenia in Aulis, 2017). This focus on performability takes several forms in the present volume. There are, for instance, three appendices to the translation that are designed to help potential students use this text in performances: an "Author's Note on the Verse," an "Author's Note on Directing Agamemnon," and an "Index of Name Pronunciations." There is also an introductory "Author's Note on the Translation" that describes Hinds' process in creating this text. Lacking any background in Greek, Hinds describes this process as one of collating and adapting various translations of the Oresteia (with particular focus on Alan H. Sommerstein's 2009 Loeb edition), and then working together with Trinity College, Dublin, classicist Martine Cuypers in making sure that his rendering of the lines retained fidelity to the sense of the original. Despite this somewhat dubious approach of adapting the translations of others, albeit under scholarly guidance, Hinds insists that the present work is indeed a "'translation' of the original, as opposed to a 'version', 'interpretation', 'response', or 're-setting'" (12).

Hinds intends to create an "actable and stage-worthy" version (11) and to make his text a "clear, energetic, and relatively 'easy read'—one allowing the plays to be appreciated by academics, students, and general reader alike" (12). It is very questionable, however, how much profit each of these three categories of readers would reap from the present work in comparison with previous translations.

One immediate manifestation of this is the total avoidance of any nod in the direction of scholarship that might have informed the translation, even insofar as the performability of the plays is concerned. We hear no mention, for instance, of anything from the seminal work of Oliver Taplin regarding the stagecraft of Aeschylus, or, indeed, any indication at all of further reading that someone interested might pursue. This absence was no doubt designed so as to be less intimidating for the general reader, but it makes the book less attractive for undergraduate, pedagogical uses. Likewise, there is no mention of which critical editions of the Greek text were used other than to say that the translation did not adhere to any single one (12). This is much to be regretted, since the manuscripts of the Agamemnon alone poses so many problems, and so much of interpretation depends on the particular decisions of textual editors. There are no endnotes or explanations of any kind, so debated passages such as, for instance, the number of jurors at the end of the Eumenides (205), are presented unproblematically and without nuance, although Cuypers does provide a minimal note dealing with some of the themes of the plays and some of their connections to other Greek works. Line numbers are also lacking.

The looseness of the translation, too, has clear drawbacks. For instance, the opening line of the Agamemnon (θεοὺς μὲν αἰτῶ τῶνδ' ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων – I ask the gods for deliverance from these toils) is clearly programmatic for the entire trilogy in that it foreshadows the essential theme of divine deliverance from the curse of the House of Atreus, and, in a larger sense, from the inescapable pattern of inter-generational bloodshed that inevitably follows from a system of vendetta justice, obviated only by Athena's institution of a system of state-sanctioned justice in the trilogy's final play. Yet the present translation skips these words entirely, and begins merely with the bald exclamation: "A year it's been! A year!" (19) Even when four lines later we read the closest approximation to the first line of the original, it still misses the crucial point about divine deliverance: "Gods spare me from another night of it!" Furthermore, when twenty lines later in the same speech, the watchman reiterates the same phrase ἀπαλλαγὴν πόνων ("deliverance from toils") none of the connection to the first line can be perceived in the present translation, even though this time Hinds comes much closer to the original ("may we soon be freed from this affliction" [19]). The repetition deliberately underscoring this central theme is thus lost.

One could list other such defects as these that lie not so much on the level of translational infelicity, since Hinds' lines are, taken on their own terms, always direct, lively, and readable (in a way quite reminiscent of Stanley Lombardo's translations), but that speak rather to an understanding of the play's themes and language often imperfectly grasped.

Nevertheless, some of the translation reveals larger thematic resonances. For instance, in the opening choral ode, again of Agamemnon, when Agamemnon ἀνάγκας ἔδυ λέπαδνον (line 218), we here read that "the king took up the harness of necessity." (27) Though ἔδυ does not mean "took up," this rendering shows a fidelity to the text greater than that of even, say, Richmond Lattimore who incorrectly rendered the same phrase as "when necessity's yoke was put upon him"— an accurate recognition of the yoke metaphor, to be sure, but a use of the passive voice that does violence to the Aeschylean preoccupation with personal responsibility, and with the impossible ethical dilemmas to which a vendetta system of justice inevitably gives rise. Such correct translation of crucial lines that others have often gotten wrong before is also found in the so-called "carpet scene," wherein not carpets but fine textiles are placed upon the ground for Agamemnon "so that Justice may conduct him to a home that he did not expect to see." (60) Hinds gets it right and renders Aeschylus' εἵματα as "cloths."

Despite the general genus medium of Hinds' tone, there are moments of sublime and austere beauty. "My heart, like yours, is overrun with dread. I stand transfixed, as stricken with a spear. Now I have seen this sprig of hair, a storm of tears beyond consoling breaks relentlessly upon me. How can I believe this hair belongs to any other citizen? And it was not the murderess cut this from her head – she whose godless feelings towards her children mock the name of mother." (115) But more often the tone is rather flat, such as found in the turning of Pylades' famous sententia and only line ἅπαντας ἐχθροὺς τῶν θεῶν ἡγοῦ πλέον (better to reckon all men enemies than the gods. 901), with the slightly anemic "provoke the wrath of all mankind before you do a god's" (147).

In sum, the present translation seems best suited for high school students. This is in no sense meant as a criticism, but stands rather as a unique strength, making Hinds' Oresteia distinct among so many other, illustrious competitors. In my almost two decades as a high school teacher, I have often found that Aeschylus' language, even in the more standard translations, can be a stumbling block if not to flat-out comprehension, then at least to appreciation, since scenes of great pith and moment need to be parsed and dissected. On the other hand, millennial audiences that would otherwise be overwhelmed by a more literal/literary translation, particularly of the tougher passages like the choruses, could by such an unintimidating version be turned on to what is without question one of the greatest, and most important literary monuments of the western canon. This would be particularly true for the facilitating of performances, Hinds' stated goal, as I have directed a number of student performances of Aeschylus, and have always found it necessary to adapt and simplify the language of the plays, a need which the present version would totally do away with.

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