Greek Tragedy in Translation

Nothing gives a case-hardened critic more pleasure than the chance to say, “This is it. No qualifications. Go out and buy it, everybody.” I haven’t felt like this since I did the first job on Needham’s history of Chinese science, and that, after all, was a work of limited appeal. The David Grene and Richmond Lattimore edition of The Complete Greek Tragedies (4 volumes; Chicago, 1959) is something for absolutely everybody. As this job has been coming out over the past few years in small volumes I have said that it was a major event in American scholarship, a historical event in the translation of the classics, and far from a minor event in American poetry. Since the Renaissance, one of the symptoms of cultural health has been the ability of a given period of national culture to raise translation to the level of high literature, to assimilate the past on the most noble level. Maybe American civilization isn’t so bad off as us readers and writers for the liberal weeklies sometimes get to thinking. We have produced something over here to match the great Tudor and Victorian translators. (Yes, the Victorians were great translators. We just aren’t Victorians, so they seem Victorian to us.)

Where do you begin with such a feast of good things? David Grene, John Frederick Nims, William Arrowsmith, Rex Warner, Witter Bynner are all very good poets in their own right, Richmond Lattimore and Robert Fitzgerald are, for my taste, especially fine ones, and I have always considered Bynner’s translation of Yuan Ch’en’s “Lament for His Wife,” in The Jade Mountain, one of the best American poems of the twentieth century, quite the equal of Pound’s more famous translations. Many of the others may have published good poetry under their own names that I am not familiar with; certainly here, working with the Greek text, they come off very well — without any exceptions. Of course it is true that some are better than others, but none is bad. What is more, none is odd — like the exasperating recent translation of the Odyssey by Robert Graves — without doubt the most misleading translation in English since the Urquhart-Motteux Don Quixote. None of the plays is anachronistic or a hobby-horse perversion of what the Greeks actually said. They are all clear, accurate reflections of the Greek in well-polished mirrors of contemporary American language and taste.

Not just language and taste, but, although they are far from being playbook “treatments,” they are eminently actable — at least they are when the Greek is. I have only the mildest objection. Euripides, on the whole, has been cleaned up. It is not that they have made him better, they have made him just a little more tasty. A lot of nonsense has been uttered, following T.S. Eliot, about Gilbert Murray’s Swinburnian translations of Euripides. If Eliot had had more Greek, he would have known that Euripides does sound like Swinburne — given the idiom of his time. He was a hysterical neurotic, and for the turn of the century, Murray did convey very well the special vertigo of his verse. It is a pity he was never translated by Baudelaire, but alas, Baudelaire, financed by an American millionaire, only translated a bit of Hiawatha! Swinburnism is a lesser, more childish thing than “La Cloche Fêlée,” but it’s the best approximation our grandfathers could find. The translations of the choruses of the Ion and the Hippolytus that H.D. did long ago, and which can be found in her Collected Poems, hit off the Euripidean vertigo exactly, and it is a great pity they couldn’t have been incorporated in these versions. But who could dare to raise a quarrel on this score? The translation is more accurate, and lines like David Grene’s “Aphrodite has broken her spirit / With the terrible sickness of impious love” catches exactly the Euripidean accent as he tells the story of that lewd queen.

Not least, as a piece of bookmaking, this is what Hollywood calls a spectacular — but a spectacular in perfect taste. The beautiful typography, the satisfying paper, the chaste decorations, all of which have become familiar as the small volumes came out, have been climaxed by a stroke of genius. The box is an “off black,” with a terra cotta band, white letters and two small decorative black animals, and the books — four volumes lined up, Aeschylus, Sophocles, two volumes of Euripides, in beautifully graded tones of terra cotta, volume for volume from cream to Venetian Red, black vertical lettering and little white people off the vases. What a joy to see.

Why should these books be, as they say, in every home? And why these books especially in every American home? They are so pretty, they are ours and for us, but beyond typography and even translation — we of all people need most the Greek tragedians. Hard as it may be for you and me to believe, irrefutable evidence is piling up inescapably that an appreciable number of Americans really do believe the Great Fraud of the mass culture, what the French call the hallucination publicitaire. They only know what they read in the papers. They think it is really like the movies. Try saying to a well-educated American, even a psychoanalyst or a fashionable minister of God, “Life is tragic.” Nine times out of ten he will answer, “Oh, well, now, I wouldn’t be so pessimistic as all that.” He doesn’t know that the art of being civilized is the art of learning to read between the lies. He is very far indeed from knowing that the deepest, the most unshakable optimism is based on the tragic sense of life, as one good European once called it. They say our civilization is based on the Bible, Homer and the Greek tragedians. For my taste, the Bible is a dangerous book, because it can be, and with few exceptions has been, interpreted to give guarantees to life that life in fact never offers. Here in these plays, as in Homer, is life as it really is, men as we really are, when we beat our wives or cheat our grocer or plan our perfect societies or run for office or write our poems — but projected against the empty and splendid heavens, and made noble. Take away the costumes and the grand language, it is the same pride, the same doom haunting Orestes that haunts every certified public accountant, every housewife, every automobile salesman. How much nicer people, and how much happier, they’d all be if they only knew it. Here is their chance to learn.



This review of David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (ed.), The Complete Greek Tragedies (University of Chicago Press, 1959) originally appeared in The Nation (12 December 1959) and was reprinted in With Eye and Ear (Herder & Herder, 1970). Copyright 1959. Reproduced here by permission of the Kenneth Rexroth Trust.

Other Rexroth Essays