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Euripides speaks to us via perfect translator

Times Staff Writer

“GRIEF Lessons,” the Canadian poet and classicist Anne Carson’s new rendering of four plays by Euripides, reminds us that the difference between competent and inspired translation is more than a matter of even bravura technical competence.

It involves a kind of discreet union between writer and translator, a certain convergence of aesthetic impulse and intellectual inclination. The issue of such a union can take a reader’s breath away because it just seems so right -- a work that stands firmly on its own but is somehow contented to be the sum of its parts. Carson’s is, in other words, an altogether worthy heir.

The late Stanley Kunitz’s translations of Anna Akhmatova come quickly to mind, along with Seamus Heaney’s “Beowulf” and, more recently, Carson’s own justly praised version of Sappho’s fragments, “If Not, Winter.”

Every memorable translation is not simply a new rendering of the text but also a fresh reading. Carson’s take on “Herakles,” “Hekabe,” “Hippolytos” and “Alkestis” is emphatically that, something she makes abundantly clear in this volume’s afterword -- “Why I Wrote Two Plays About Phaidra” -- which the translator “attributes” to Euripides. Carson also has provided each of the plays with brief but provocative introductions that stand as sort of keys to her intentions and suggestions about these classic plays’ continuing claims on our attention.

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The introduction to “Herakles,” for example, would be worthwhile reading simply to come on this literary apothegm concerning the choral function. “One of the functions of the tragic chorus is to reflect on the action of the play and try to assign it some meaning. They typically turn to the past in their search for the meaning of the present -- scanning history and myth for a precedent. It was Homer who suggested we stand in time with our backs to the future, face to the past. What if a man turns around? Then the chorus will necessarily fall silent. This story has not happened before.”

Can anyone who reads our contemporary news media read that without a shiver of recognition?

If you’ve ever read “Herakles” and puzzled over why it seems to be two rather distinct plays in one, Carson the poet provides a convincing explanation of how Euripides may have subtly subverted dramatic conventions to his own ends. It’s a fascinating reading because there remain scholars who grumble over Euripides’ inclusion in the triumvirate of great Athenian tragedians alongside Aeschylus and Sophocles.

Euripides, we’re told, is too skeptical, philosophical and discursive to stand in their austere and disciplined company. (These are the critics who hold against him an intimate connection with Socrates, Anaxagoras and the leading sophists. We all should have such skeletons in our closets.) His reputation, some argue, derives mostly from the fact that we have 19 complete plays and a fragment from among the 95 plays he wrote, while Aeschylus and Sophocles are known to us from just seven tragedies each. Some even accuse Euripides of an excessive rhetorical fluency, agreeing with English poet and historian Thomas Macaulay that “tragedy is corrupted by eloquence.”

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Carson, who is perhaps the most unobtrusively and learnedly philosophical of our major contemporary poets, is just the classicist to lay this carping to rest.

She accomplishes this most forcefully when the stakes are highest -- in Euripides’ masterpiece, “Hippolytos.” Angelenos are particularly fortunate because the world premiere of Carson’s translation of this play is the inaugural production at the new outdoor classical theater at the Getty’s renovated villa. The first preview is tonight, and the formal run begins Sept. 7 and continues through Sept. 30. The Getty Villa itself has mounted an accompanying exhibition, “Enduring Myth: The Tragedy of Hippolytos and Phaidra,” which will be on view until Dec. 4.

In the play, the Athenian king Theseus has gone into penitential exile accompanied by his son, Hippolytos, and his queen, Phaidra, who is the young man’s stepmother. Hippolytos disdains physical love and its goddess Aphrodite, and instead he makes ideals of chastity and its patroness, Artemis, the goddess of the hunt. Aphrodite takes it badly and incites Phaidra into a passion for Hippolytos. When the treacherous nurse in whom the queen has confided informs Hippolytos, he denounces his stepmother and all women in a famously misogynistic declaration. Phaidra hangs herself. Theseus, misled into believing that she was raped by Hippolytos, curses his son, who dies as a consequence. Divine and mortal ruminations on fate ensue.

Stephen Sachs, who is directing the Getty’s production of “Hippolytos,” has praised Carson’s translation for the way in which “the dangerous relationship between man and god is vividly brought to life, and demonstrates how a strict moral and spiritual fundamentalism can be one person’s salvation and another’s downfall.” It’s a reasonable and reasonably provocative contemporary reading. Carson has that in mind -- and something else too.

Here is how she renders the exchange between Phaidra and the nurse, when the latter offers to provide a “love-charm” that will abort the queen’s desire for her stepson:

Phaidra: These charms -- ointment or potion?

Nurse: I’m not sure. Don’t fret about details.

Phaidra: Your expertise scares me.

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Nurse: Everything scares you. Why worry?

Why, indeed? As the chorus shortly intones:

Eros, Eros, deep down the eyes

you distill longing,

sliding

sweet pleasure

into the soul where you make war:

I pray you never come at me with evil,

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break my measure.

No weapon,

not fire,

not stars,

has more power

than Aphrodite’s

shot from the hands

of Eros, child of Zeus.

This dart, in other words, is no cherub’s pin-prick of an arrow, and later in the same sequence, Euripides’ chorus labels Eros “that tyrant God.”

In her own 1998 book “Eros,” Carson recalls that “It was Sappho who first called eros ‘bittersweet.’ No one who has been in love disputes her.” In the afterward to this volume for which she appropriates Euripides’ name, Carson has the playwright muse: “Human forms are puny. Desire is vast. Vast, absolute and oddly general. A big general liquid washing through the universe, filling puny vessels here and there as it were arbitrarily, however it lights on them, swamping some, splitting others, casually ruinous....”

How contemporary is that?

As Samuel Beckett admonished us: “There is no endgame between a man and his fate.”


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