Three versions of a choral lyric by Euripides

I’ve just read David Grene’s startlingly beautiful English rendition of Euripides’s Hippolytus — a play which didn’t make nearly as deep an impression on me when I read Paul Roche’s version. Here, side by side, are the Grene and Roche translations of one of the choral lyrics from Hippolytus, with Gilbert Murray’s version (courtesy of Gutenberg.org) thrown in for good measure.

Gilbert Murray (1902) David Grene (1942) Paul Roche (1998)
 

STROPHE

STROPHE I

Erôs, Erôs, who blindest, tear by tear, / Men’s eyes with hunger; Love distills desire upon the eyes, / Eros, Eros, clouding our eyes / With a mist of yearning
thou swift Foe that pliest / Deep in our hearts joy like an edgèd spear; / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy. / when you sweeten the hearts / Of those against whom you plan your attack. /
Come not to me with Evil haunting near, / I pray that love may never come to me / with murderous intent, / Please never show yourself to wound me. /
Wrath on the wind, nor jarring of the clear / Wing’s music as thou fliest! / in rhythms measureless and wild. / Please never turn everything upside down. /
There is no shaft that burneth, not in fire, / Not in wild stars, far off and flinging fear, / Not fire nor stars have stronger bolts / Neither lightning nor the fall of a star / Wreaks more havoc
As in thine hands the shaft of All Desire, / Erôs, Child of the Highest! than those of Aphrodite sent / by the hand of Eros, Zeus’s child. than Aphrodite’s / Lance when loosed from the hand of Eros, / Zeus’s boy.
 

ANTISTROPHE

ANTISTROPHE I
In vain, in vain, by old Alpheüs’ shore / The blood of many bulls doth stain the river / And all Greece bows on Phoebus’ Pythian floor; / In vain by Alpheus’ stream, / In vain in the halls of Phoebus’ Pythian shrine / the land of Greece increases sacrifice. / Useless, useless, the pouring of blood / That Greece has shed of slaughtered kine / On the banks of Alpheus or Apollo’s shrine: /
Yet bring we to the Master of Man no store / But Love the King of Men they honor not, / Useless, if Eros isn’t adored. / Dictator of men,
The Keybearer, who standeth at the door / Close-barred, where hideth ever / The heart of the shrine. although he keeps the keys / of the temple of desire, / the keeper of the keys / To Aphrodite’s beds of love–
Yea, though he sack man’s life / Like a sacked city, and moveth evermore / although he goes destroying through the world, / He is the prime wrecker of mortals, /
Girt with calamity and strange ways of strife, / author of dread calamities / and ruin when he enters human hearts. The bringer of catastrophe / When he attacks.
Him have we worshipped never! /    
* * * * *

STROPHE

STROPHE II
There roamed a Steed in Oechalia’s wild, / The Oechalian maiden There was a girl in Oechalia /
A Maid without yoke, without Master, / And Love she knew not, that far King’s child; / who had never known / the bed of love, known neither man nor marriage, / A filly unbroken by man: / Unbedded, unbridled, unfettered, /
But he came, he came, with a song in the night. / With fire, with blood; and she strove in flight, / A Torrent Spirit, a Maenad white, / Faster and vainly faster, / Sealed unto Heracles by the Cyprian’s Might. / the Goddess Cyrpis gave to Heracles. / She took her from the home of Eurytus, / maiden unhappy in her marriage song, / wild as a Naiad or a Bacchanal, / with blood and fire, Who was driven by Love, Aphrodite, / And fled like a flame or a Bacchant / Far from her home; and was given / As a bride to Alcmena’s son /
Alas, thou Bride of Disaster! a murderous hymenaeal! In a wedding most gory.
 

ANTISTROPHE

ANTISTROPHE II
O Mouth of Dirce, O god-built wall, / That Dirce’s wells run under, / O holy walls of Thebes and Dirce’s fountain / You hallowed Theban ramparts / And mouth of Dirce’s stream, /
Ye know the Cyprian’s fleet footfall! / bear witness you, to Love’s grim journeying: / You can tell how gently / Aphrodite comes.
Ye saw the heavens around her flare, / When she lulled to her sleep that Mother fair / Of twy-born Bacchus, and decked her there / The Bride of the bladed Thunder. / once you saw Love bring Semele to bed, / lull her to sleep, clasped in the arms of Death, pregnant with Dionysus by the thunder king. But the mother of Bacchus she flared / To bed with bloody Death.
For her breath is on all that hath life, and she floats in the air, / Bee-like, death-like, a wonder. Love is like a flitting bee in the world’s garden / and for its flowers, destruction is in his breath. Over the earth she breathes: / A bee, she hovers.

These three translations are too different from one another to allow for the kind of close line-by-line comparison I used in evaluating 15 versions of Dante. Nor can I recognize enough Greek words to be able to compare each translation directly to the original and make an educated guess as to how faithful each is, as I was able to do to some extent with the Dante translations. Nevertheless, here are some general comments and impressions on the three versions.

(I tell myself that I have no business learning Greek until after I’ve at least mastered the language of the country I live in — but I can’t say I’m not tempted. In the meantime, I’m trying to learn the useful skill of evaluating translations without being able to read the original.)

Strophe I

As English poetry, Grene’s version is by far the best of the three — though drawing from that fact any conclusions about its quality as a translation is obviously risky. In general, a translation which reads superficially like poetry (like Murray’s, which rhymes and scans) is suspect. On the other hand, it may actually be a sign of fidelity when a translation is poetic in a deeper sense. I base this judgment on the assumption that the writer being translated — generally considered to be one of the greatest in the whole history of Western literature — was a far better poet than any of his translators could ever dream of being, and that therefore wherever the translations touch greatness it is likely that their pale fire was snatched from the sun.

Grene slips in a few rhymes in the first strophe (intent and sent, wild and child), but these are apparently serendipities; the rest of the poem is evidence that he followed no policy of forcing the lines to rhyme. What seems more significant to me is that he knows where to put his line breaks and how to preserve ambiguity long enough to give added force to the line which resolves it. “Love distills desire upon the eyes, / love brings bewitching grace into the heart / of those he would destroy” — in that order, with those line breaks — is perfect. Murray tips his hand too early by starting right off with tears and hunger, and by calling Eros a “swift foe” first and making an afterthought of the joy he brings to human hearts. Roche does a passable job in this regard — certainly better than Murray — but his lines don’t pack the same punch as Grene’s.

Grene’s is the only version which talks about Eros rather than addressing him directly. Since he’s the odd man out here, he’s likely to be the one who is straying from the original Greek.

Murray’s “All Desire” instead of “Aphrodite” is unforgivable, a clear sacrifice of reason to rhyme.

Antistrophe I

It’s hard to judge which version is most accurate here. The disagreement over what exactly Eros bears the keys to is surprising: “the heart of the shrine,” “the temple of desire, ” and “Aphrodite’s beds of love” are all quite different things.

Strophe II

Grene lacks the horse metaphor of the other two and is probably in the wrong. Roche makes no mention of the Naiads which appear in the other two versions (I’m assuming that’s what Murray’s “Torrent Spirit” is meant to be), and his version also lacks the “blood and fire” pairing found in the other two.

As usual, Murray throws in a lot of rhyming crap that doesn’t belong in the poem.

Antistrophe II

Here Grene is talking about “Love” (i.e., the masculine god Eros), while the other two versions are about Aphrodite. Grene is clearly in the wrong here, as it interferes with the meaning of the poem. When he has the masculine Love bring Semele (not mentioned by name in the other two) to bed, it’s easy to misinterpret what’s going on — a problem which does not arise when it is Aphrodite. Also, Grene’s otherwise perfect ending is marred by its confusing image of a male bee flitting through the garden of life.

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