Sunday, August 04, 2013

Choral resonances in Hippolytus

A point on translation.

Euripides takes care to interweave his words in ways that link strands in disparate parts of the Hippolytus. Take for example these two choruses:

The first is the majestic opening chorus that begins with the world-encircling Ocean, and the robes of the queen, drying on the sun-drenched rock after being washed:
"κεανοῦ τις ὕδωρ στάζουσα πέτρα λέγεται,
βαπτὰν κάλπισι πα-
γὰν ῥυτὰν προιεῖσα κρημνῶν: 125
τόθι μοί τις ἦν φίλα
πορφύρεα φάρεα
ποταμίᾳ δρόσῳ τέγγουσα,
θερμᾶς δ᾽ ἐπὶ νῶτα πέτραςεὐαλίου κατέβαλλ᾽: ὅθεν μοι 130
πρώτα φάτις ἦλθε δεσποίνας,
There is a cliff dripping water whose source, men say, is the river Oceanus: it pours forth from its overhanging edge a flowing stream in which pitchers are dipped. [125] It was there that I found a friend soaking her clothes in the river-water and laying them out on the warm rock's broad back in the sun. From there it was that I [130] first had news of my queen.
This next comes at the center of the play, right after Phaedra has decided that she will end her life in a way that will teach Hippolytus a lesson in Sophrosyne. By sharing her suffering, he will, she says, σωφρονεῖν μαθήσεται - learn wisdom.

ἠλιβάτοις ὑπὸ κευθμῶσι γενοίμαν,
ἵνα με πτεροῦσσαν ὄρνιν
θεὸς ἐν ποταναῖς
ἀγέλαις θείη:                    735
κῦμα τᾶς Ἀδριηνᾶςἀκτᾶς Ἠριδανοῦ θ᾽ ὕδωρ,
ἔνθα πορφύρεον σταλάσ-
σουσ᾽ ἐς οἶδμα τάλαιναι    740
κόραι Φαέθοντος οἴκτῳ δακρύων
τὰς ἠλεκτροφαεῖς αὐγάς.
ἀρθείην δ᾽ ἐπὶ πόντιον
Would that I could flee to secret clefts in the high mountains, and that there a god might make of me a feathered bird amid the wingèd throngs! [735] Would that I might soar aloft over the surf of the Adriatic shore and the waters of the Eridanus where into the deep-blue swell the luckless [740] girls, in grief for Phaethon, drop the amber radiance of their tears.

One word that links both choral passages is πορφύρεα -- purple, deep blue, or wine-dark. One would not know this from the translations we're using. David Kovacs' prose translation (on Perseus) omits the adjective, offering simply "soaking her clothes." This elides both the color and the establishing sense that these are not the robes of some anonymous friend of the chorus, but the royal robes of the queen. (More on the robes here.)

David Grene's translation does make that much clear:
My friend was there and in the river water
She dipped and washed the royal purple robes.
πορφύρεα appears again in the second, central ode -- here it's the waters of the Eridanus (usually associated with the Po) draining into the Adriatic. Kovacs offers "deep-blue swell;" Grene has "deep-blue tide."

It's perhaps understandable that a translator would prefer a more literal rendering of the tide as "deep-blue," reflecting the sunny Mediterranean sky. But by choosing to use two completely different English words to represent the same Greek word, the translators have dropped a stitch that otherwise links the two passages, which in fact do have other poetic, figurative and thematic threads that connect them. Both, for example, contain rivers. I'll just mention one more.

In the first ode, the chorus depicts the river water "dripping" from Ocean: the word is στάζουσα. In the later ode, the chorus speaks of the mourning sisters of Phaethon, who at his death turned to poplars on the banks of the Po, and "drop the amber radiance of their tears." The lovely phrase, ἠλεκτροφαεῖς αὐγάς, combines the sense of amber (elektron), gleaming and sunlight. One way of putting it together could be to say "amber sheen of sunlight." This weeping sheen is in fact the tears of the Heliades, whose brother Phaethon fell into the river after his failed attempt to control the chariot of the sun. (Some ancient verbal depictions of the fallen boy and his chariot, destroyed by Zeus's bolt, are here.)

The image of the sisters' falling tears resonates with the first ode via the same word -- στάζω -- that means drip, or drop, fall, trickle down, shed drop by drop. Kovacs gets close by using "drop" to echo "drip" in the first ode. Grene uses "weep" in the second ode, and "streaming" in the first, dissipating any linguistic echoes between the waters of the river descending from Oceanus and the amber gleaming tears of the sisters of Phaethon. 

What is lost? At the very least, the reflective purple tint of the waters and robes. The waters of the Adriatic are purple as the sun sets, and perhaps were purple on that day when Phaethon, losing control of the sun, fell into the Eridanus. Purple waters, purple robes: From above, the robes of the queen could seem like a bloodstain upon the sun-drenched rocks. 

Bound together by image, Hippolytus and Phaethon are linked by theme as well. From the perspective of the play's concern with Sophrosyne, Hippolytus can be seen as overreaching. He is certainly seen that way by Phaedra, who, in the lines immediately preceding the ode above, calls him ὑψηλός -- high, lofty, stately, proud -- and she's not praising him. Rather, she's preparing to bring him down, unwittingly accomplishing the aim of Aphrodite. The messenger describing Hippolytus's disaster paints a vivid scene: a careering chariot smashing into rough rocks, mangling the boy, staining the rocks with his blood. The primal myth of Phaethon turns out to be a key subtext of the tale of Hippolytus, intimated from the first choral ode.

The delicate web of Euripides' work challenges any translator. Careful attention to his words brings us closer to the enigmatic power of his tight-knit text.

Fall of Phaethon - Sebastiano Ricci


ane pixestos said...

This is a comment to say how much I enjoy and appreciate your posts (I came to your blog via Ovid's Metamorphoses via rogueclassicism). There are posts at OM that I have bookmarked to return to but I am commenting here for the first time because this post happened to bring together some of my very first Greek words, which I came to as I was researching certain Victorian literature. This summer I am trying to learn at least a little bit of (Homeric) Greek but since I also have a lot of reading to do, a post such as this one is most helpful in terms of providing motivation. Thank you for all that you share via your blogs.

Tom Matrullo said...

Hello ane pixestos, and thanks.

rogueclassicism is a wonder. Apropos of learning Homer, I just happened upon this there:

Chasity said...

This is gorgeous!