Advice on reading Greek tragedies
June 27, 2016 5:52 AM   Subscribe

I've always wanted to become intimately acquainted with the Greek tragedies, but there's a huge part of me that says, "If you're not going to learn Greek, what's the point?" So, are there translations that truly do justice to the source material? Perhaps more to the point, are there longstanding translations which have themselves become more or less a part of the Western canon? If so, can someone recommend any particular editions? I'm particularly interested in Antigone, The Bacchae, and The Oresteia. And finally, does anyone have experience learning Classical Greek later in life for the purpose of reading the plays and epics? Was it worthwhile?
posted by jwhite1979 to Writing & Language (19 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
Well a major thing you learn from Aristotle's Poetics is that the really important stuff in the plays is the arrangement of incidents, more than the choice of words. He says that in a good tragedy, you feel the πάθος and fear of the story just from hearing a brief summary.

If you agree with him, then the events alone of a decent enough Oedipus translation will make it worth reading (unlike in Shakespeare where you lose jokes in translation). I read a nice Norton Anthology one...
posted by johngoren at 6:30 AM on June 27, 2016 [3 favorites]

There are no canonical translations, new ones come along at least every generation or so. I'll give you the same advice I give everyone who asks about translations: read a few pages of as many as you can find and choose the one that you like best, that makes you want to keep reading. That's far more important than whether one has a few more or less errors or theoretical infelicities than the other.

Also, H. D. F. Kitto's Greek Tragedy is an oldie but goodie, and it's not like they've discovered new tragedies since then. There are, of course, more recent books on the subject, and doubtless some are excellent, but I (being an oldie but goodie myself) am not familiar with them.
posted by languagehat at 7:00 AM on June 27, 2016 [8 favorites]

Oh, and I forgot the most important bit: if you enjoy learning languages at all, by all means give Ancient Greek a try; it's not that difficult, and reading Homer, Sappho, and the plays in the original is so much more satisfying!
posted by languagehat at 7:01 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

My father (Peter Arnott) was a specialist in Greek theatre: he argued that you need new translations about every decade. I am partial to his for obvious reasons, but he died in 1990, so alas, they are not at all recent.

One of the biggest things about Greek theatre is understanding the staging, and how that impacted the texts themselves. Many of the plays we still have were designed to be performed in massive stadiums, where you could hear the text, but not see small gestures, facial expressions, etc. of the actors (even if they weren't wearing masks, which they often were.) My father designed a method of doing productions using marionettes that conveyed the same basic scale and level of detail that he performed around the US and Canada for many years.

Anyway, this means that you have a lot of things in the text that modern performed productions sometimes leave in, and that can feel very clunky. ("Look! Here comes Creon!" "Look, here comes Oedipus, he has put his eyes out!" and so on..) which were much more necessary in a context where the visuals were distant. Likewise, the way things get repeated by the chorus, or key points get mentioned again and again, because you couldn't be sure everyone had heard it the first time.

The other thing is that, of course, the playwrights themselves were playing with well-known stories: Euripides, in particular, tends to take a story that everyone knew, take you halfway through it, and then flip the perception, or give you new information, or do something that makes you rock back and look at everything that's happened in a new way.

In terms of resources: I'd recommend my father's last book - Public and Performance in the Greek Theatre - as a great intro to the staging and other performance aspects (the cover also has a shot of the marionettes).

If you're not already familiar with the Perseus Project, from Tufts, they have been building a tremendous archive of materials for the last 20+ years that includes Greek and English texts of almost all the extant plays, as well as lexicons and other supporting material. If you look at a play in Greek there, you can click on a word to be taken to its lexicon entry, or flip over into a (older, out of copyright, but fine for meaning purposes) English translation very easily.

In terms of learning Greek, my own Greek is very rusty (but I took up through 300 level in college): there are some online lists and other resources for support though I can't recommend anything specific at the moment. However, it's pretty possible to get to a point where you can look at a text with a lexicon and find out interesting things about it, even if you never end up being able to read it fluently or comfortably.

(Even when I wasn't rusty, I was painfully slow at anything earlier than New Testament Greek, and that's mostly because the latter uses a relatively small vocabulary with a lot of repetitions and predictable 'this word probably means X'.)

It's an amazingly nuanced language when you know what it's doing - there are ways to say "I am doing this for my own benefit." with a voice choice (middle voice), to convey different things going on at the same time, to indicate with a two letter particle that "No, really, I'm reporting this, but I swear it's the truth." and all sorts of other complex things.

Homer is a lot like Shakespeare, in English: there are a lot of words that appear there that are coinages or otherwise not commonly used in the rest of the language, for artistic and descriptive effect. This can be really frustrating, swapping between text and glossary and lexicon, but it can also be really rewarding when you track something down. Homer is, I think, a lot harder than the plays, because of this. (Plato, who is a classic post-introductory Greek author, is pretty straightforward, in terms of language and thus often a good starting place for actual texts.)

Should you happen to read Herodotus his language choices are also pretty straightforward. Anywhere he isn't talking about people fighting, an unknown word probably has something to do with food. If he's talking about fighting, any unknown verb can probably be translated as 'to attack' until you figure out what it means in more detail.
posted by modernhypatia at 7:34 AM on June 27, 2016 [54 favorites]

Translation is really a matter of taste-- read a few pages, and if it doesn't do it for you, move on. That said, I love David Mulroy's Oedipus Rex.

I don't think there is anything better than learning Greek, at any age. Since you mention epics, I'd suggest Homeric Greek to start with. I used to grade exams for incoming classics majors and was always impressed by how much more Greek high school kids knew when they had that as a foundation. It gets you into actual reading faster than anything I know.
posted by BibiRose at 7:38 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Oops, I didn't answer the first part of your question. johngoren has a point. Of all Greek/Roman literature, Homer and the tragedians probably come across best in translation. It's not like Vergil's Eclogues or something where the meaning is very much about relationships of words and subtexts. Everything modernhypatia says is very helpful, respecting that we have different suggestions for your entry into the language.
posted by BibiRose at 7:51 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

I am not against Homer! I just think that it's good to know what you're getting into, there.

Which reminded me of a thing: so one of the things that makes Greek challenging is that you can have changes to both the beginning and end of the word, depending on what's going on. (Mostly verbs). This can make it really hard to look things up in a lexicon, because you have to figure out what the entry for the thing you want to look up is. (And there are some consonant and vowel shifts with prefixes which are mostly predictable but not always, and some of the plays use dialects that have similar shifts which again, you can usually learn but may throw you initially.)

However, this is a thing the Perseus Project does really well, and is thus no longer nearly so frustrating as when I was learning (when it was out on CD-ROMs, but I didn't have trivial access at my finger tips whenever I felt like it.) Because now you can in fact click on a word, figure out what it comes from, and not spend an hour beating your head against a lexicon only to discover from a glossary entry you missed the first six times that it's an obscure verb tense of a verb you know very well.

Which I clearly did a lot and it left a mark, obviously.

Online look ups also often avoid the problem of a glossary entry explaining something early on, but not at the place where you come across it (if you're reading out of sequence) but this is a thing to be aware of in general.
posted by modernhypatia at 8:15 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Christopher Logue did amazing free translations/transformations of the Iliad: War Music and All Day Permanent Red. I don't read Greek but they were great as a new way of seeing it.
posted by Hypatia at 8:16 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Having done it in college and then again recently as an adult, I whole-heartedly recommend studying Greek as a pastime, but there are certain things to consider:

(a) Unlike with many modern languages, to get started, you have to take a class. Unless you are a straight-up linguistic genius or someone with a saint-like tolerance for frustration and confusion, going through textbooks on your own is not going to be sufficient. There are just far too many exceptions and too much complicated interplay of rules for a solitary learner to sort out on her own.

(b) It's a long stern march from starting to being able to handle sophisticated texts. Part of the problem is that, under the historical circumstances, few intermediate-complexity texts of any aesthetic interest survive. You end up going straight from "I See Sam" to The Portrait of a Lady, with no pauses at good YA novels. When you are reading a common "beginner" text like the Apology (which usually comes in during the third term of a normally-paced adult class), a solid 3/4 of your attention is going to be devoted to just deciphering sentences. So while a person thoroughly-skilled in reading Greek undoubtedly gets more out of reading the texts in the original, in terms of engaging with the text's substance, I don't necessarily think that's the case for even intermediate students. Of course, you can remedy that by reading a translation at a pace lagging your reading in the original, but it's something of a challenge.

(c) While there is a nice collection of well-known texts in the dialect known as Attic, others use different dialects, or use them partially. Homer is written in what they call a Kunstsprache--it's an artificial language never spoken by anyone day-to-day, although it's based primarily in the Ionic dialect. After three terms of Attic Greek, I opened the first page of Book I and literally recognized under twenty percent of the words. So you should decide in advance which text is your dream goal and choose accordingly. The plays are also often encumbered with archaism and 'poetic' syntax, which, given Greek's already very free word order, makes them extra-challenging. And if you are interested in Sappho, she wrote in Aeolic, which is not tremendously well-understood.

(d) That said, these days there are many editions aimed at the intermediate reader struggling to make the transition (or to adjust to a new dialect). I don't think these existed when I was in college--an annotated text had to have the figleaf excuse of scholarly apparatus, with the occasional helpful note to a beginner wedged in. Now there are books that are very forthright about providing hand-holding to new readers. As you can imagine, there is controversy among teachers about them, but if you're working independently or semi-independently, they make a path possible that would have been incredibly challenging a couple generations ago.

(e) With four cases, six principal parts, and a vast and branching verb system, Greek can pose quite the challenge to the middle-aged (or older) memory.

(f) For independent students, this is definitely helped by Project Perseus, described above--if you get really stuck, you can usually unstick yourself by consulting it. Basically, while the digital classical world isn't flashy, it's gotten to the point that it can spare you a lot of the hopeless, arduous labor of early years. However, you have to avoid depending on it as a crutch.

All of this said, the reason to learn Greek is to read these foundational texts of western civilization. There is so much wonder and beauty there. Certainly our modern era has excellent translations available. But if you care a great deal, tackling the original is a worthwhile project.
posted by praemunire at 8:53 AM on June 27, 2016 [5 favorites]

FWIW, I asked an English teacher of my acquaintance if, when a class was studying a play and had both the text and a film of a stage performance available, if she would prefer the read the play first, or watch the performance first. She said, as far as she cared, they could watch the performance and skip the reading. Surprised me.

Which is a long-winded way of suggesting that you might enjoy watching as well as reading.
posted by SemiSalt at 10:27 AM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

Yeah, the easiest and most enjoyable way to become acquainted with the plays is to check out some performances. We think of them as texts, but the Greeks thought of them as spectacles. There's no shortage of full-length videos of modern stage and film productions on YouTube and elsewhere (which vary wildly in their approach to adaptation) -- you could start by watching a few of those.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 10:55 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

As for whether learning Greek is worthwhile, for me personally it's been the single most intellectually rewarding thing I've ever done. I started as a teen, but I know people who started much later and feel similarly. You should know what you're getting into, though (what's "not that difficult" to languagehat might not be so to lesser mortals) -- don't expect to make quick progress, especially if you've never studied a grammatically complex foreign language before. But the first time you read a sentence by Homer or Sophocles and get it is intensely pleasurable.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 11:17 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

> what's "not that difficult" to languagehat might not be so to lesser mortals

Well, I don't mean it's not difficult—learning another language is always hard! But by comparison with, say, Russian, let alone real monsters like Georgian, it's not that difficult. And Homer in particular is not that hard, despite:

> Homer is a lot like Shakespeare, in English: there are a lot of words that appear there that are coinages or otherwise not commonly used in the rest of the language, for artistic and descriptive effect. This can be really frustrating, swapping between text and glossary and lexicon

Yeah, but unlike Shakespeare, a great deal of it is repetitive and straightforward; a little vocabulary will take you a long way. I often recommend people start Greek with Pharr's Homeric Greek (you can download it here); you start reading real Homer from the very beginning, so you don't have to waste your time for a year or so on the equivalent of "the pen of my aunt is on the table." And unlike Greek tragedy, with its complex mix of choral meters, there's only one meter, the epic hexameter, which is easy to learn (and will stand you in good stead with Vergil if you decide to give Latin a shot).
posted by languagehat at 11:58 AM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

Hi! I am a Greek teacher (from time to time; mostly I do Latin since that is my job-job), but not your Greek teacher!

You can absolutely learn Greek on your own without a class, particularly if you have a lot of time to throw at the problem. But it is not easy (Latin is way easier), and a goal of reading Attic tragedies is among the most difficult Greek goals (Homer or the New Testament are much, much easier IMO).

A few things you might like to know:

There are several dialects of ancient Greek. The tragedies, because they were written in Classical Athens, are in Attic Greek. This is the same dialect used by Plato, Thucydides, or Aristophanes (if you're also interested in comedy!). It is similar, but not identical, to the dialect used by "Homer," which is a little easier (fewer contractions). Most textbooks that you might pick up with either teach you Attic (if it just says "Greek") or Homeric (it will specify). There are textbooks aimed specifically at learning Koine (the dialect of the New Testament), but again, these will specify and are probably not the best for your purposes.

If your goal is really Attic tragedies, I'd use an Attic textbook and not a Homeric one.

I would recommend using a book with an answer key if you're going it alone. Luckily, there are lots of those available. The Textkit website has lots of (public domain) resources for people learning Greek (or Latin), including textbooks and answer keys, but also forums with people who will help answer questions.

Besides Textkit, another online resource for people self-studying Greek are the GreekStudy mailing lists. They take a textbook and go through it VERY slowly as a group, emailing once a week. I know lots of people like those groups; I can't say anything about them personally.

If you're looking for a more modern textbook, colleges often use Hansen and Qunn, but that does not have a published answer key, I don't think. It is very, very grammar-heavy. (And just plain ol' heavy. It can be intimidating.)

Another popular textbook is Athenaze ("To Athens"), which is more of a reading method book (meaning there are long passages of narrative to read in every chapter instead of just sentences) and a little lighter on grammar. It's sort of charming. There are teacher's guides floating around for the older editions, but I haven't seen one for the newest edition. (The second edition is totally fine, fwiw.) You learn about an Athenian family, Dicaeopolis the farmer, his wife Myrrhine, their kids Philip and Melissa, and Grandfather (not to mention Xanthins, the lazy slave); there are also a lot of stories about mythology and history and 'authentic' passages in each chapter. It works up to unadapted passages of various Attic authors. There are also culture and history readings in English throughout, which again are really nice versus Hansen and Quinn's grammar-grammar-grammar focus. There are also, because Athenaze is popular with schools, support materials online (flashcards on the various flashcard sites as well as dedicated practice things such as this one or this one).

Finally, once you've made it to "intermediate" level (ready to read actual texts), go ahead and jump right into a tragedian if you want (although in a college program you'd probably do a semester of prose, traditionally Xenophon, first). I'd be looking for the sort of intermediate-level textbook that gives a lot of help with forms and vocab, because that's the difficult part of Greek. Euripides is easier than Sophocles is easier than Aeschylus. I personally would recommend Geoffrey Steadman's editions because they have a very small amount of vocabulary that must be known by heart (a core vocab list), and then everything else is defined on the same page (SO helpful for Greek), and he is very good at identifying what grammar the intermediate level student will need help with. I see he has a Medea edition! With a basal-Greek textbook completed, you can also jump right into Homer: a good intermediate edition will also identify the basic differences from Attic, and seriously, much easier to learn Attic and then do Homeric than learn Homeric and then have to do Attic.

Good luck: εὐτυχὴς ἴσθι.
posted by lysimache at 1:59 PM on June 27, 2016 [29 favorites]

I can't speak too much about specific translations, but I generally recommend trying to stick with translators who try to stay accurate to the text. Richmond Lattimore has a fine translation of the Iliad, and so I'd generally recommend looking at his other translation work. Specific to the Iliad, in addition to Lattimore, Peter Green is a very recent translation (came out within just the past year or two) that is very accurate, but a bit more readable (partly because it's a bit more modern) than Lattimore.

This is definitely potent with Homer, who's been inundated with an innumerable amount of translations. The popular translations such as Fagles and Fitzgerald are quite a bit looser. Pope is rather popular too, but his barely even counts as a translation.

If you want to become very intimate with the texts, then definitely try to delve into some of the scholarship. Some of the scholarship you'll have to find on your own, these will be randomly published articles and books that you'll find with university presses. For instance, The Making of the Iliad by M. L. West. However, there's a specific set of works that I can point you to, and that's the Cambridge Greek and Latin Classics series. These works will have the work in the original language, but will be accompanied with an introduction and commentary. The commentary will run line by line, effectively, through the work, which you may skip if you're not learning the language. But the introductions can be very valuable because the analyze the text in terms of how the text very masterfully achieves its goals, and other things such as interpretation, and pointing you to further pieces of scholarship.
posted by Dalby at 2:11 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Bakkhai is one of my favorite Greek tragedies, so I've read quite a few translations. My absolute favorite is by Robert Bagg. It's wonderful to read, and is also a translation that lends itself particularly well to being played on stage, with forceful, stripped down dialogue and choruses that are exquisitely poetic but also very simply presented.
posted by merriment at 2:15 PM on June 27, 2016 [2 favorites]

(Missed the edit window. On talk of book learning:)

Hansen and Quinn is good, but I personally recommend Learn to Read Greek by Keller and Russell. It's very much structured like Hansen and Quinn, but every chapter is also accompanied by pages and pages of actual Greek. This helps ease that initial transition between knowing the grammar and having an initial vocabulary, but still having difficulty putting it all into practice because of the flexibility and various constructions that Greek'll throw at you. Also, you can get an answer key from them, which makes them a bit better for self study than Hansen and Quinn.
posted by Dalby at 2:17 PM on June 27, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Loeb translations of Greek and Latin works tend to hew relatively closely to the text. The older ones, I believe, are in the public domain, but, in some cases, you have overblown Edwardian English translations and any naughty bits translated into, or left in, Latin. I "grew up" on Lattimore's translations, reading them in high school, but, as noted above, there are loads of others. I like Anne Carson's (non-literal) just because I love how she writes.

Re: learning Greek, YES. I was a horrible student of Homeric Greek in high school, but it left enough memorized conjugations and declensions in long-term memory that I was able to pick it up as an adult, which is when I started to study Latin. Despite years of on-and-off study, I'm far from fluent (or maybe because it was on and off...), but being able to read a page of a tragedy or epic in the original is hugely satisfying, allowing you to see (and agree or disagree with) how the translator did their thing. I did that with Agamemnon last year, and it was very cool. Likewise Koine for the Greek NT—I mean, religious or not, being able to read the hugely influential reported speech of Christ is amazing.

Best of luck!
posted by the sobsister at 11:13 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

> I'm far from fluent [...] but being able to read a page of a tragedy or epic in the original is hugely satisfying

Yes, exactly! I doubt anyone can claim to be fluent in Ancient Greek, there are just varying degrees of familiarity, but even the most basic acquaintance, the ability to read a line of Homer or Sophocles out loud and have a decent sense of what it means, is indeed hugely satisfying. Don't think of it like you have to put in years of study before it starts to pay off, think of it like, I don't know, learning a song in French even if you only had a year of French in high school. Your accent may be off and you may be missing some allusions or implications, but so what? You love singing that song!
posted by languagehat at 1:14 PM on June 28, 2016 [4 favorites]

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