translating racine 1Introduction

Page one of this extended look at Racine's verse starts with matters of stagecraft and extended reference.

Page two then asks whether rhyming couplets render Racine's poetry effectively, and considers alternatives.

Page three examines the French alexandrine and its deployment in the celebrated passage of Phaedra Act 4, Scene 6.

Phaedra: Background

Jean Racine was born in 1639 and educated by the Jansenists. Rejecting these teachings, Racine began writing for the theatre in 1660, and by the time of Phaedra, performed in 1677, had nine plays to his credit, several of them masterpieces of the French classical theatre and containing some of the greatest poetry in the French language. Phaedra was poorly received, however, and Racine retired to private life, though returning a decade later with two further plays: Esther and Athaliah. {1} {2}

Theseus has been gone six months from Troezen. In his absence, Queen Phaedra fights a guilty passion for her stepson, Hippolytus, and he nurses a secret love for Aricia, a princess of Athenian (enemy) blood, to whom Theseus has forbidden marriage. When news comes of the death of Theseus, Phaedra, urged on by her nurse Oenone, declares her love for Hippolytus, but is rebuffed. As acting ruler, Hippolytus then releases Aricia from her marriage restraints, declares his love, and the two reach an understanding that Aricia will return to claim the throne of Athens. Phaedra, endangered and humiliated by her rejection, resolves to become ruler in Troezen to protect the child born to her and Theseus.

The wandering Theseus unexpectedly returns. Again at Oenone's suggestion, Phaedra accuses Hippolytus of attempted rape, and the enraged Theseus calls on Neptune for vengeance. Aricia and Hippolytus declare their love for each other before he goes quietly into exile. Alerted by the suicide of Oenone, and Phaedra's behaviour, Theseus now reconsiders, but the curse cannot be undone. A monster rises from the sea to terrify the horses of Hippolytus's chariot and kill their driver. Theramenes, Hippolytus's tutor and friend, returns to describe the dreadful scene. Phaedra confesses her sins, dying by poison. Remorseful and of sounder mind, Theseus makes Aricia heir to the throne of Troezen.
Containing some 1,650 lines and eight characters, Phaedra observes the rules of classical drama, but is only loosely modelled on the play by Euripides. Though Phaedra is often regarded as untranslatable, {3} there have been many attempts to bring the very different conventions into English, the best-known in recent years being those by Robert Lowell {4} Richard Wilbur {5} and Ted Hughes. {6} We look at these, and at the very actable version by Margaret Rawlings, readily available in a Penguin Classics bilingual edition. {7} There are also online versions by Robert Bruce Boswell {8} and Tony Kline {9} and several sites with the original text and Racine resources. {10}

Literal Translation

To start with something simple: the opening speeches of Act One, Scene One. The French text is:


Le dessein en est pris, je pars, cher Théramène,
Et quitte le séjour de l'aimable Trézène.
Dans le doute mortel où je suis agité,
Je commence à rougir de mon oisiveté.
Depuis plus de six mois éloigné de mon père,
J'ignore le destin d'une tête si chère ;
J'ignore jusqu'aux lieux qui le peuvent cacher.


Et dans quels lieux, Seigneur, l'allez-vous donc chercher ?
Déjà, pour satisfaire à votre juste crainte,
J'ai couru les deux mers que sépare Corinthe ;
J'ai demandé Thésée aux peuples de ces bords
Où l'on voit l'Acheron se perdre chez les morts ;
J'ai visité l'Élide, et, laissant le Ténare,
Passé jusqu'à la mer qui vit tomber Icare.
Sur quel espoir nouveau, dans quels heureux climats
Croyez-vous découvrir la trace de ses pas ?
Qui sait même, qui sait si le Roi votre père
Veut que de son absence on sache le mystère ?
Et si, lorsqu'avec vous nous tremblons pour ses jours,
Tranquille, et nous cachant de nouvelles amours,
Ce héros n'attend point qu'une amante abusée...


Cher Théramène, arrête, et respecte Thésée.
De ses jeunes erreurs désormais revenu,
Par un indigne obstacle il n'est point retenu ;
Et fixant de ses voeux l'inconstance fatale,
Phèdre depuis longtemps ne craint plus de rivale.
Enfin en le cherchant je suivrai mon devoir,
Et je fuirai ces lieux que je n'ose plus voir.

And very literal translation is:


The intention is taken. I leave, dear Théramène,
And quit the stay of the agreeable Trézène.
In the deadly doubt where I am agitated,
I begin to blush at my idleness.
Since more than six months moved away my father,
I ignore the destiny of a head so dear;
I ignore until the places that can hide it.


And in what places, Lord, do you therefore go to look?
Already, to satisfy your just fear,
I ran the two seas that separate Corinth ;
I asked for Thésée of the peoples of these sides
Where one sees Acheron losing itself with the dead ;
I visited Elides, and, leaving Toenarus ,
Passing as far as the sea that saw Icarus fall
On what new hope, in what happy climates
Believe you will discover the trace of his steps?
Who even knows, who knows if the King your father
Wants of his absence one to know the mystery?
And if, when with you we tremble for his days,
Calmly, and us hiding from us his new loves,
This hero only waits for a deceived lover...


Dear Théramène, stops, and respect Theseus.
From his young errors in the future he is returned,
By an obstacle unworthy he is held back;
And fixing of his wishes' fatal inconstancy,
Phèdre for a long time does not fear any more a rival.
Finally while seeking it I will follow my duty,
And I will flee these places which I do not dare any more to see.

Rawlings 1961 Version

Margaret Rawlings was an accomplished actress and her version was specially written for the stage, indeed grew out of the rewriting needed to make Robert Bruce Boswell's 1890 version actable. It starts as:

My mind's made up. I go, Theramenes:
I can no longer stay in beautiful
Troezen. In mortal doubt I waver; grow
Ashamed of idleness. Six months or more
My father has been gone! I do not know
What has become of that beloved head;
Nor even here upon the earth he hides.

The verse does not control the speech, but enables a good actor to vary the pace and emphasis as the situation requires.

Robert Lowell 1960 Version

Robert Lowell's version is vigorous and idiosyncratic:

No, no my friend, we're off! Six months have passed
since Father heard the ocean howl and cast
his galley on the Aegean's skull-white froth.
Listen! The blank sea calls us — off, off, off!
I'll follow father to the fountainhead
or marsh of hell. We're off. Alive or dead,
I'll find him.

The images are striking — skull-white-froth, blank sea — and the phrases magnificent: heard the ocean howl and cast / his galley. Equally obvious, they are Lowell's and not Racine's.

In detail the rendering can be rather silly:

Does he need helpers to share
the plunder of his latest love affair;
shipload of spectators and his son
to watch him ruin his last Amazon.

(Would King Theseus share his women, and what an Amazon be 'ruined' in this way?)

And rather hit or miss in texture. A line can have very natural phrasing ( One even doubts / if noble Theseus wants his whereabouts / discovered) only to be followed by some clumsiness of wrenched accents (Does he need helpers to share). Long sections are entirely Lowell's invention, and the rhymes can be atrociously contrived:

when he leaps to crush her like a waterfall
of honeysuckle.

You are cynical,

Lowell's Phaedra is immensely readable, but does not convey the elevation, shimmering exactness and unruffled malevolence apparent to a French audience.

Wilbur 1984 Version

Richard Wilbur's version is quieter, and much more faithful and intelligent:

No, dear Theramenes, I've too long delayed
In pleasant Troezen; my decision's made.
I'm off, in my anxiety I commence
To tax myself with shameful indolence.
My father has been gone six months or more,
And yet I do not know what distant shore
Now hides him, or what trials he now may bear.

The phrasing is often excellent and the lines have a quiet dignity. The fatal lack is what the Lowell version has in abundance: energy. The verse does not carry the impetus of the emotionally-charged voice, and some phrases seem tacked on (or what trials he now may bear). Rhymes are too easily found at times (commence / indolence), and this can make for staid and somewhat mechanical verse.

Ted Hughes 1998 Version

Ted Hughes' version is the most disappointing. The text is admirably clear — perhaps the clearest of any rendering — but is written as notes in a plebeian diction (extremely pleasant, makes me sweat) and ungainly speech rhythms. Hughes handled tight forms well in his early work, but several decades of writing in a powerful prose left him ill-equipped for a very different conception of poetry. Hughes' version has no elevation, no beauty of phrasing, and Racine's tightly-plotted nuances of meaning are entirely lost.

I have made my decision.
It is six months now
And there hasn't been one word of my father.
Somebody somewhere knows what's happened to him.

Life here in Troezen is extremely pleasant
But I can't hang around doing nothing
With this uncertainty. My idleness makes me sweat.
I must find my father.

Other Attempts

There have been many versions. A Victorian rendering, which Margaret Rawlings had to make acceptable to a modern audience, was by Robert Bruce Boswell: {7}


My mind is settled, dear Theramenes,
And I can stay no more in lovely Troezen
In doubt that racks my soul with mortal anguish,
I grow ashamed of such long idleness.
Six months and more my father has been gone,
And what may have befallen one so dear
I know not, nor what corner of the earth
Hides him.


And where, prince, will you look for him?
Already, to content your just alarm,
Have I not cross’d the seas on either side
Of Corinth, ask’d if aught were known of Theseus
Where Acheron is lost among the Shades,
Visited Elis, doubled Tœnarus,
And sail’d into the sea that saw the fall
Of Icarus? Inspired with what new hope,
Under what favour’d skies think you to trace
His footsteps? Who knows if the King, your father,
Wishes the secret of his absence known?
Perchance, while we are trembling for his life,
The hero calmly plots some fresh intrigue,
And only waits till the deluded fair—


Cease, dear Theramenes, respect the name
Of Theseus. Youthful errors have been left
Behind, and no unworthy obstacle
Detains him. Phædra long has fix’d a heart
Inconstant once, nor need she fear a rival.
In seeking him I shall but do my duty,
And leave a place I dare no longer see.

Tony Kline's rendering is clear and accurate, but the rhythm is halting, and many rhymes are not integrated into their verse lines: {8}

My plans are made, dear Theramenes, I go:
I’ll end my stay in pleasant Troezen so.
Gripped as I am by deadly uncertainty
I’ve grown ashamed of my inactivity.
For more than six months, far from my father, here,
I’m unaware now of the fate of one so dear.
I’m unaware, even, in what place he might be.

Our Rendering

For comparison, so that we can discuss the many ways of going wrong, here is a rendering of the opening section:


I leave, Theramenes: my course is set.
No more in pleasant Troezen will I let
Uneasy idleness be seen as shame.
In six months since my father left, his name
brings nothing certain but vague fears instead.
I'll know the destiny in that dear head,
Nor heed the distances where it may hide.


But, Prince, where look for him? I've scoured each side
The oceans bounding Corinth for some word
Of Theseus, what was rumoured, who had heard.
My search to calm your natural fears has led
To shores where Acheron fades into the dead.
I've called at Elis and from Taenarus
Surveyed the waters swallowing Icarus.
It may be some rich country is possessed
With news of our dear hero, name but guessed
At, fresh accomplishments there preserved,
But isn't it possible that he preferred
To leave unhatched more amorous designs,
And while we tremble for his life, he twines
Around some neck what few of us suspect. . . ?


Good Theramenes, show more respect.
Our king renounced such errors with his youth.
And that once dangerous obstacle to truth,
His fateful, wandering heart, is as the throne,
Bestowed on Phaedra, and on her alone.
As I too, leaving what I cannot face,
Return my duty to its rightful place.


Suppose we look at practicalities: what Racine's verse achieves and how. We start with stagecraft.

The Rawlings version is in blank verse (i.e. unrhymed iambic pentameters) but opens with short statements, perhaps needed to let the audience settle in, before in the following three lines link together to flow into persuasive speech. Margaret Rawlings wrote as an actress, and realized that any rendering must do what Racine did: set the scene swiftly (time, place, situation) introduce the characters (personalities and motivation), foreshadow the plot, and instill a sense of foreboding and expectation. Her rendering was not poetry, and was not intended to be, but it did meet the first requirements of drama, the ignorance of which has closed many verse-plays after the first week.

Manuals on writing make the same point: unless bewilderment is an important element in the plot, sketch in quickly what the audience has to understand. In his very first line, Racine presents the character of Hippolytus and his devotion to Theseus, round which the play revolves: an upright nature that cannot cope with the guilty passions of Phaedra, or the turbulent suspicions of his father, ending in disaster for all three. As the play opens, Hippolytus plans to look for Theseus: the dutiful son, and also Racine's chance to set the scene in its wider, mythological home — many of the references, as we shall see, looking ahead to the larger themes of the play.

Now consider Lowell's version. Magnificent lines, but not setting the scene, not representing the character of Hippolytus, and somewhat glorying in what the Greeks feared most: a world at the mercy of passions, unconstrained by reason and common sense. Father heard the ocean howl and cast his galley on the Aegean's skull-white froth would make a wonderful voice-over, but it's not how the Greeks saw their world. The gods are unpredictable: tragedy can strike the best-ordered and blameless families: without passion, nothing worthwhile is achieved, but that passion needs restraint. Racine the courtier knew what could be said and what could not, and Aricia, the only character to emerge undiminished in the play, is the hereditary ruler of Athena's city.

We also see the problems with the Wilbur rendering. I'm off, in my anxiety I commence / To tax myself with shameful indolence shackles the movement with its obvious and heavy rhyme. No, dear Theramenes, I've too long delayed / In pleasant Troezen; my decision's made also misses the French meaning of Le dessein en est pris, je pars — The drawing/decision/course is taken and I leave. Hippolytus does indeed — quitting his whole life in the few short hours of the play. Racine's lines abound in these mordant ironies, {11} which are not cynicism but an understanding of the precarious nature of life, an attitude inherited from his Jansenist upbringing and demonstrated every day in the French court of Louis XIV.

Movement is also stillborn with Ted Hughes' I have made my decision. What then? We desperately need that decision to open into consequences, but Hughes' translation, written as unconnected thoughts in a schoolgirl's diary, makes that very difficult. The lines following only compound the problem: Life here in Troezen is extremely pleasant / But I can't hang around doing nothing / With this uncertainty. / My idleness makes me sweat. / I must find my father. Everyday speech is itself composed of metaphorical expressions, but here they are shopworn, and call up the wrong overtones. Not conventions entirely, but the need to say something significant and moving, are what governed the French classical stage.

I'd hope that our rendering avoids these obvious problems, and that the verse points up the difference between the upright but sometimes priggish Hippolytus and his more mellowed and worldly-wise tutor, Theramenes. But now we must look closely at the departures from a literal rendering.

Reference and Irony

Racine's art deserves a lifetime of study, but here are just three examples of the densely-woven thread of irony and reference, all taken from the opening speeches.

1. Reference to Acheron. The French and literal meaning:

J'ai demandé Thésée aux peuples de ces bords
Où l'on voit l'Acheron se perdre chez les morts ;

I asked for Thésée of the peoples of these sides
Where one sees Acheron losing itself with the dead ;

Acheron in Greek mythology had a definite if not exact location: it rose near Epirus in northwest Greece, {12} as Racine well knew, referring to the matter in his Preface to the play. But here it seems to spread itself into the inhabitants along the coastlines bounding Corinth. The realms of the dead surround the city of Troezen, which therefore seems to emerge into sunlit clarity as that extraordinary line resonates. Hence our rendering:

My search to calm your natural fears has led
To shores where Acheron fades into the dead.

And why more 'sensible' renderings not only depart from Racine's text, but lose its power:

Along both coasts from Corinth, visited
That spot where Acheron wells up with the dead.

2. Reference to Icarus. The French and literal meaning:

J'ai visité l'Élide, et, laissant le Ténare,
Passé jusqu'à la mer qui vit tomber Icare.

I visited Elides, and, leaving Toenarus ,
Passing as far as the sea that saw Icarus fall

The reference is to the dangers of pride, and Neptune does indeed punish Theseus for calling on his powers too recklessly. Theramenes' speech therefore serves not only to show his admirable character, and to place Troezen in its classical setting, but to foreshadow the horror of the last act. The French is again a little shadowy — does Theramenes cross the sea, or only get to its borders? — which we have to render in a line equally ambivalent, here possessing an eddying and slightly threatening motion:

I've called at Ellis and from Toenarus
Surveyed the waters swallowing Icarus.

We can be much more definite:

Called in at Ellis and from Toenarus
Traversed the waves that swallowed Icarus.

But that somehow seems to place us on the far side of natural powers, rather than hemmed in by them. And changing Traversed to Bestrode gives Theramenes the air of a conquering Caesar rather than the dutiful friend:

I've called at Ellis and from Toenarus
Bestrode the waves that swallowed Icarus

3. Reference to Theseus's wandering eye. The French and literal meaning:

Et fixant de ses voeux l'inconstance fatale,
Phèdre depuis longtemps ne craint plus de rivale.

And fixing of his wishes' fatal inconstancy,
Phèdre for a long time does not fear any more a rival.

Our rendering departs quite widely from the French:

His fateful, wandering heart, is as the throne,
Bestowed on Phaedra, and on her alone.

Which has no 'throne', but an ironic underlining of the word inconstance. In our rendering the irony is shifted to Phaedra's position, and in place of the constancy of Theseus's affections, outraged at the accusation of rape, and unable to conceive that those affections could be unreturned, is the equally problematic notion of the security of Phaedra's throne. A couplet closer to Racine's meaning seems difficult to achieve. Wilbur has:

Phaedra need fear no rivals now; the King,
Long since, for her sake, ceased philandering.

Which is not too elegant and not quite what Racine says (though closer than ours). Use of the obvious past/last rhyme is too heavy (and indeed clumsy):

Of his inconstancy her fears are past,
And for a long time Phaedra's known she's last.

The rival/arrival rhyme lets us write such things as:

And heart hungering and fluttering at each arrival
Is set on Phaedra, who does not fear for rival.

Which are rhythmically deft, but unsatisfactory on a host of other grounds: 1. do king's hearts flutter? 2. do we want a heart to fasten like a gun-dog with set?, 3. would for rival be heard distinctly beyond the front stalls? and 4. do we want the 'rime riche', enchanting to a French ear but detestable to ours?

These, and many other passages in the rendering above, are matters to think about, and probably to adjust as a translation proceeded and sections settled in place. Overleaf we look at what's been largely assumed to date, that English rhymed couplets are the equivalent of Racine's alexandrine.

The author's full (and free) translation of Racine's Phaedra is published in pdf format by the Ocaso Press.

A 568-page free pdf ebook on practical verse writing is available from Ocaso Press. Click here for the download page.

Notes and References

1. Jean Racine (1639-1699) NNA. Usual sensible article in the Books and Writers series.
2. Jean Racine. literature-of-specific-countries/french-literature/jean-racine.jsp. Questia has many books and articles on Racine.
3. Translating Racine. Patrick Swinden. Summer 1997. Useful and extended article, touching on Lowell and Wilbur's and many other translations: argues for a free verse that renders nuances of meaning.
4. Robert Lowell, Phaedra: Racine's Phaedra in an English version by Robert Lowell ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960)
5. Richard Wilbur, Jean Racine's Phaedra: Translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur (Dramatis Play Service, Inc., 1986)
6. Ted Hughes, Jean Racine: A New Translation by Ted Hughes. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)
7. Margaret Rawlings, Phèdre by Jean Racine: Translated by Margeret Rawlings (Penguin Books, 1961)
8. Jean Racine: Phaedra: Translated by Robert Bruce Boswell.
9. Racine: Phaedra. Rhymed translation by Tony Kline.
10. Racine: Phèdre. NNA. Good collection of articles and links.
11. Norah K. Drown, Jean Racine: Meditations on his Poetic Art. 1982. 49-62.
12. Homeric World: Rivers. (Extract from


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