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On Translating Medea

ISSUE:  Winter 2004
The story of Medea is one of the best known from ancient Greece and the play is one of the most widely translated Greek tragedies. As a result readers come to Medea knowing in some detail what will happen. Unlike other Greek tragedies there are no strong reversals and few surprises. When the play begins events have already reached a crisis. The Nurse tells us that Medea is starving “herself, except from grief / and endless hours of crying / … she loathes her children.” Medea, Jason, and their children are on a fast track to murder and destruction. There will be no veering. Added to this is the fact that for a modern reader or audience inured to the public flaunting of unhappy relationships between celebrities, Medea’s sacrifice of her two sons to avenge Jason’s divorce and remarriage is an act of such enormity that it seems excessive and unbelievable. All of this pushes the play in the direction of melodrama. As a translator, one of my biggest concerns was to find a way to control the almost hysterical emotional energy of the play so that it avoided becoming shrill with anger and blame or claustrophobic with revenge. This is a problem that modern actors and directors can partially solve through setting, pacing, gesture, and tone. I wanted, however, to make the text itself capable of controlling and releasing this emotional energy so as not to exhaust the reader too soon as well and perhaps to make the tragic events more plausible. In the end, I wanted the play to read with the force and clarity of a dramatic poem.

Uncertain of how to solve the problem of melodrama, I began by tightening and compressing the language. I found that a fairly regular iambic rhythm might control the play’s emotional urgency—somewhat—and that if the diction remained plain and direct, the characters might begin to speak in distinct ways. The range of diction I had in mind was that in Robert Frost’s “A Servant to Servants,” “The Death of the Hired Man,” and other of his dramatic narratives. It is my hope that the meter and diction of the translation, along with the voice of the speakers rising from these elements, offer the reader and dramatist a version of Medea that approximates the tonal shifts and emotional tensions in Euripides’ incomparable play.

The Messenger’s speech, printed here, is one of my favorite passages because it provides the longest uninterrupted narrative of the play. It also contains some of the most graphic and horrific images found in Greek tragedy. The horror of the Messenger’s report shows us the enormous evil Medea is capable of producing and is prelude to the butchery that awaits her children.

Our long wait for palace news is over.
One of Jason’s servants sprints this way.
Listen, he gasps from exertion.
When he arrives expect to hear about disaster.

(Enter servant of Jason’s as Messenger.)

Medea, such crimes, heinous—inhuman—
You must go, now, by any means,
land or sea. Don’t stay, fly!

What’s happened? Why should I escape?

The princess and her father, Creon,
lie dead, victims of your poison.

Splendid news! Let me reward you
with my undying friendship and protection.

Madness speaks through you.
How can you slaughter Creon’s family
and then rejoice so fearlessly?

There’s an answer to your question—but first
calm down, friend, and tell me
about their deaths. Pay special attention
to their agony so I might take some pleasure.

The moment your sons with their father
entered his bride’s house, all of us,
who once served you and who mourned
your fate, were heartened. A shout went up
that you and Jason had called a truce.
This was like music to our ears. Suddenly,
we wanted to kiss the children, touch their
lovely hair. Overwhelmed by happiness
I followed them inside the princess’s chambers.
Understand, she’s the woman we must serve
instead of you.
At first she saw only Jason
but when the children came into view,
she veiled her eyes, and turned away.
Impatient with this display,
your husband scolded her, saying:
“Look at us. Don’t revile your friends.
Your job is to love those your husband loves.
They’ve brought gifts. Accept them graciously
and for my sake ask your father to release
these children from their exile.”

The gifts astonished her with their beauty.
She agreed to what her husband asked.
So eager was she to wear the treasures,
even before Jason and the boys had reached
the road, she put on the colorful dress,
set the gold crown on her head,
and in a bright mirror arranged her hair.
She laughed with pleasure at the beautiful
but lifeless image. Then as if the gifts
had cast a spell, she stood up, traipsing
through her rooms, giddy with the feel of the gown
twirling so she could see repeatedly
her shapely feet and pointed toes.

But quickly her face changed color. She staggered,
legs trembling, almost collapsing
before she reached a chair. One of the older, wiser
servants believed some wrathful god possessed her
and so cried out in prayer to Pan,
until she saw the mouth foaming,
eyes wild and rolling and skin leached of blood.
Then the prayers turned shrill with horror
and we servants raced to find Creon
and Jason to tell them the piteous news,
filling the house with the sound
of our panicked feet.

All of this happened in less time
than a sprinter takes to run the dash
and quicker still was the way the princess
from her terrible trance woke, eyes
wider than before, screaming
in anguish. For now a second torture
wracked her. The gold crown exploded
in a fiery ring about her head, while
the delicate gown, brought by your sons,
ate into her sweet flesh. Consumed by flames,
she stood and ran, shaking her head
as if to throw the fire off, but the crown tangled
tighter in her hair and the blaze roared higher
as she fell to the floor and rolled
in the unquenchable flames.
Only her father could have known
who she was. The eyes had melted.
The face no more a face, while flaming blood
leaking from her head fueled the blaze.
But worse was how the flesh like tallow
or pitch sloughed off her bones.
All of this because the viperous poison
had locked her in its invisible jaws.

Schooled by what we’d witnessed, none of us
would touch the body, but her father
rushed to her side, not knowing what he’d find.
Nothing could prepare him for his daughter’s
corpse. Misery broke from his voice.
He embraced and kissed her, lamenting,
“Unhappy child, murdered so shamefully,
why do the gods torture an old man like me?
Daughter, let me die with you.”
But when his sobbing ceased
and old Creon wanted to rise, he found
he was woven to the fatal dress, stitched
to it like ivy to laurel, unable
even as he wrestled furiously
to free himself. The living father
who felt his flesh ripping from his bones,
could not match the strength of his dead daughter
and so he gave up and died, a victim
of her hideous fortune. Together now they lie
an old man and his daughter. Who wouldn’t weep.

As for you, Medea, and your fate,
hear my silence. From it will come your punishment,
swift and sure. As for our brief lives, I’ve learned
once more we are mere shadows. No longer
do I fear to say the truth: fine words
and clever plans breed folly.
No man can count on his happiness.
Some have luck and fortune on their side
but never happiness.


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