The Play Speaks to You: How a Translator Stays True to the Text and Connects with the Audience

HUMANITIES, Spring 2017, Volume 38, Number 2

Based on Euripides’ fifth-century BCE drama Hippolytus, Jean Racine’s 1677 tragedy Phèdre is widely regarded as one of the greatest accomplishments of French theater. With its majestic tone and economy of speech (only 800 different words are used), Phèdre follows the tragic collision course of a haughty king, his guilt-ridden queen, and his wrongly accused son.  

In most of the plot points Racine’s version matches up with those of Euripides’. King Theseus has been away from the palace for an extended time, so long, in fact, that his wife, Phèdre, wonders if he is still alive. She confides to her nurse unchaste thoughts she harbors for her stepson, Hippolytus. The nurse convinces Phèdre to reveal her feelings to the young prince, who rejects her. Upon the unexpected return of Theseus, Phèdre accuses Hippolytus of trying to rape her. Theseus confronts Hippolytus, who denies the charge but flees anyway on his chariot. Theseus, in a rage, enlists Neptune to send deadly waves onto Hippolytus as he speeds along the coast. When a messenger brings reports to the palace of Hippolytus' mangled corpse, Phèdre admits her lie to Theseus and kills herself with poison.

But Racine adds a character to his play that transforms the Greek tragedy into a sublimely French affair: A young ingénue named Aricia is introduced as Phèdre’s rival and the object of Hippolytus’ love. In Euripides’ play Hippolytus is a chaste devotee of the hunt and of Artemis, while in the Gallic version the sporting prince expands his amorous horizons. As Racine’s play closes, Theseus looks optimistically toward the future and adopts Aricia as a daughter.

Not only is Racine’s play particularly French in its flavor, but its language is constructed of musical alexandrine verses—rhyming couplets composed of twelve syllables, six feet, and a caesura—which were performed by the Comédie-Française, the troupe organized with the approval of the Sun King, Louis XIV. So, translating the play poses numerous challenges of duplicating the verse but also the tone and intent. Despite the difficulties, it has been translated umpteen times—into English, Swedish, Italian, German, Spanish, Russian, Japanese, and even Scots. A problem specific to translating Phèdre into Scots is the perception that the language is better fit for comedy than it is for tragedy. It takes a certain amount of art to leap over that hurdle.

“The big, looming problem which I was aware of in doing the translation was that it’s very easy,” said Edwin Morgan at a roundtable in Edinburgh on translating Phèdre, “to produce humorous effects in Scots ... because so many Scots poets, like Robert Burns ... were basically comic writers.” Burns, known for humorous poems such as “To a Louse” may be foremost in many minds when hearing Scots on stage. The fear is that Phèdre might suffer in translation from French to Scots, unintentionally sounding like mock epic.

Just glancing at a few lines of Morgan’s translation, though, can demonstrate how well Scots can hold up in tragedy. Near the play’s end, King Theseus refers to the bloody corpse of his son—Hippolytus—and says to his queen, “Weel then, ye win. Ma son is deid. Ye’re crawin. / Oh but ma fears, ma fears! Therr’s a sherp doot / In ma hert tae excuse him, and that’s bad.”

The passage is mostly clear to English speakers, except for a few words such as “Ye’re crawin,” which is for Phèdre’s “crowing,” in Theseus’s mind, about her triumph (“vous triomphez” in the French original). That touch alone demonstrates the artful nature of this translation: The verb triompher denotes to win, or to triumph, in French but becomes the more colorful “craw” in Scots. Scholarly translations lean toward word-by-word approaches and on transpositions—exchanging one part of speech for another, without altering the message. Literary translations eschew word for word, incorporating modulation—a change in the point of view that sometimes slightly alters the original message. Literary translation can be an art, then, by way of its creativity in connecting authentically with the audience of the target language.

Translation is also a science. Translating Phèdre requires perfect knowledge and understanding of how the French works, yes, but also perfect linguistic understanding (not just the native speaker’s innate command) of how the target language works as well. Full understanding of the context is a must.

Phèdre’s final words, as she’s dying from having taken poison—after admitting to Theseus that she lied about Hippolytus raping her—are a case in point. Here’s poet Ted Hughes’s English translation:

“My eyes go dark. Now the light of the sun  

Can resume its purity unspoiled.”

A.S. Kline’s 2003 translation has it this way:

“And Death, from my eyes, stealing the clarity,

Gives back to the day, defiled, all his purity.”

Racine’s French, for the record, goes like this:

“Et la mort à mes yeux dérobant la clarté,

Rend au jour qu’ils souillaient toute sa pureté.”

Throughout the play, Phèdre says in one way or another she feels polluted for having felt sexual desire for her stepson, Hippolytus. So Phèdre’s own death, she acknowledges, restores light, day, and life to a purified state. By merely looking upon the day, she has been, following the image in the source language, sullying it with shameful thoughts. Hughes’s more natural-sounding version comes from the uncomplicated syntactical path he chooses from dark to light to purity. Kline’s more faithful rendering, though, is a somewhat more tortuous approach. Additionally, Hughes chooses to leave out the word “death” in these lines, implying it nonetheless.

On the one hand, Hughes’s version is cleaner, more elegant, and poetic. But what might be lost? Kline’s version maintains a stronger link to the idea that Phèdre’s “polluted” thoughts carried with them tarnished particles in the very light of her vision. This makes light a concrete image in a way that Hughes’s version doesn’t, and is more in line with the image in the source language. The lines from Kline, then, are more faithful to the original and also to the intellectual context of fifth-century B.C.E. Athenian natural philosophers. Hughes’s translation supports the view that translation is for the most part an art, while Kline’s, more that it is a science.

The ongoing debate of whether translation is an art or a science will not be resolved anytime soon. Perhaps the answer lies in what we witness in any translator’s rendering of a text: “Couriers of culture,” as translators are sometimes called, have a foot in both worlds.