translating racine 3Points Illustrated

Writing at the higher level.


Of Racine's art, Lytton Strachey said: "The splendour of the verse reaches its height in the fourth act, where the ruined queen, at the culmination of her passion, her remorse, and her despair, sees in a vision Hell opening to receive her, and the appalling shade of her father Minos dispensing his unutterable gloom." {1}

That speech is in Scene 6, where the French text is:

Ils s'aimeront toujours.
Au moment que je parle, ah ! mortelle pensée !
Ils bravent la fureur d'une amante insensée.
Malgré ce même exil qui va les écarter,
Ils font mille serments de ne se point quitter.
Non, je ne puis souffrir un bonheur qui m'outrage,
OEnone. Prends pitié de ma jalouse rage.
Il faut perdre Aricie. Il faut de mon époux
Contre un sang odieux réveiller les courroux.
10. Qu'il ne se borne pas à des peines légères :
Le crime de la soeur passe celui des frères.
Dans mes jaloux transports je le veux implorer.
Que fais-je ? Où ma raison va-t-elle s'égarer ?
Moi jalouse ! Et Thésée est celui que j'implore !
Mon époux est vivant, et moi je brûle encore !
Pour qui ? Quel est le coeur où prétendent mes voeux ?
Chaque mot sur mon front fait dresser mes cheveux.
Mes crimes désormais ont comblé la mesure.
Je respire à la fois l'inceste et l'imposture.
20. Mes homicides mains, promptes à me venger,
Dans le sang innocent brûlent de se plonger.
Misérable ! et je vis ? et je soutiens la vue
De ce sacré Soleil dont je suis descendue ?
J'ai pour aïeul le père et le maître des Dieux ;
Le ciel, tout l'univers est plein de mes aïeux.
Où me cacher ? Fuyons dans la nuit infernale.
Mais que dis-je ? Mon père y tient l'urne fatale ;
Le sort, dit-on, l'a mise en ses sévères mains :
Minos juge aux enfers tous les pâles humains.
30. Ah ! combien frémira son ombre épouvantée,
Lorsqu'il verra sa fille à ses yeux présentée,
Contrainte d'avouer tant de forfaits divers,
Et des crimes peut-être inconnus aux enfers !
Que diras-tu, mon père, à ce spectacle horrible ?
35. Je crois voir de ta main tomber l'urne terrible,
Je crois te voir, cherchant un supplice nouveau,
Toi-même de ton sang devenir le bourreau.
Pardonne. Un Dieu cruel a perdu ta famille :
Reconnais sa vengeance aux fureurs de ta fille.
40. Hélas ! du crime affreux dont la honte me suit
Jamais mon triste coeur n'a recueilli le fruit.
Jusqu'au dernier soupir, de malheurs poursuivie,
43. Je rends dans les tourments une pénible vie.

If we run this through a machine translation program, and make the odd correction, we get a fractured but powerful rendering.

1. They will love each other always.
To the moment that I speak, ah! mortal thought!
They brave the fury of an insane lover.
Despite this same exile that will separate them,
They take a thousand vows of not at all to leave each other.
No, I not then to suffer a happiness that outrages me,
Oenone Takes pity of my jealous rage.
It is necessary to waste/lose Aricie. It is necessary of my spouse
Against a hateful blood to awaken wraths.
10. What it does not limit himself to light penalties:
The crime of the sister passes the one of the brothers.
In my jealous transportations I want it to implore.
What do I? Where my reason will she mislead?
Me jealous! And Thésée is the one that I implore!
My spouse is living, and me I burn again!
For that? Which is the heart where claim my wishes?
Every word on my forehead causes to stand up my hair.
My crimes henceforth filled the measure.
I breathe at once the incest and the imposture.
20. My homicidal hands, prompt to avenge me,
In the innocent blood burn to thrust themselves in.
Miserable! and I live? and I support the view
Of this sacred Sun of which I am descended?
I have for grandparent the father and the master of the Gods;
The sky, all the universe is full of my ancestors.
Where can I hide? Flee in the infernal night.
But what do I say? My father there holds the fatal urn;
The fate, says one, so put in his harsh hands:
Minos judges to the hells all the pale humans.
30. Ah! how much will shudder his terrorized shadow,
When It will see his girl to its eyes presented,
Constrained to acknowledge so many various infamies,
And maybe unknown crimes to the hells!
What will you say, my father, to this horrible spectacle?
35. I believe to see from your hand fall the terrible urn,
I believe to see you, looking for a new torture,
Yourself of your blood to become the butcher.
Forgive. A cruel God has lost your family:
You recognizes her vengeance from the furies of your daughter.
40. Alas! horrible crime of which the shame follows me
Never my sad heart did collect the fruit.
Until the last sigh, of followed misfortunes,
43. I give back in the agonies a painful life.

What have previous translations done with this?

Rawlings 1961 Version

The Margaret Rawlings' rendering is not particularly accomplished verse, but the sense is clear and language generally appropriate (except perhaps 'dogged'): {2}

35. The fateful urn crashed from thy hand. I see
Thee seeking some unheard-of punishment
Thyself become my executioner.
Pardon! A cruel God has damned thy race,
Destroyed thy family. Oh, recognize,
In thy poor daughter's frenzy, her revenge.
Alas, my sad heart heart never picked the fruit
Of pleasure from the frightful crime of which
I stand accused and dogged by shame. Alas,
To my last gasping breath by griefs pursued
43. I here surrender my tormented life.

Robert Lowell 1960 Version

Robert Lowell's rendering has sensed the power but twisted the sense, which goes off on a track of its own, to fall into bombast: {3}

35. You cannot kill me; look, my murderer
is Venus, who destroyed my family;
Father she has already murdered me.
I killed myself — and what is worse I wasted
my life for pleasures I have never tasted.
My lover flees me still, and my last gasp
is for the fleeting flesh I failed to clasp.
Go die, frighten the false flatterers, the worst
43. friends the gods can give to kings they've curst!

Wilbur 1984 Version

Richard Wilbur's rendering is faithful, but perhaps a little too well turned, the phrases falling mechanically, not helped by some false notes (Behold, mad deeds). The rhythm is uncoordinated, and the concluding line tacked on lamely: {4}

35. I see you drop the fearful urn; you seem
To ponder some new torment fit for her,
Yourself become your own child's torturer.
Forgive me. A cruel God destroys your line;
Behold her hand in these mad deeds of mine.
My heart, alas! not once enjoyed the fruit
Of its dark, shameful crime. In fierce pursuit
Misfortune dogs me still, with my last breath
My sad life shall, in torments, yield to death.
43. Now hides him, or what trials he now may bear.

Hughes 1998 Version

Ted Hughes' rendering still needs verse of some sort to deepen and orchestrate the emotive power of the phrases: each line cries out to be realized properly: {5}

35. I see your hand fall from the dark urn
That contains the lots for the common dead.
I see you groping, aghast,
For the just sentence
That you must execute on your own daughter.
O Father, you have to forgive me.
The pitiless goddess
Would not loosen her grip on your family.
I am one more trophy of her vengeance.
My crimes were execrable.
Their shame walks with me like my shadow.
But they brought me no profit —
Not one flicker of gratification.
No, my every step
Carried me deeper into evil fortune.
43. My whole life has been wretched and ends in torment.

Tony Kline

Tony Kline's rendering is clear and faithful, but the rhymes again lead the sense at times: {6}

35. What will you say, father, to that terrible sight?
I see the dread urn drop from your hands outright,
I see you searching for some new punishment,
Doomed yourself to be your own child’s torment.
Forgive me. A cruel god destroys your race.
See his vengeance in your daughter’s face.
Alas! My sad heart failed to gather the fruit
Of my dreadful crime, and shame is in pursuit.
Hounded by misery till my final breath,
43. I lay down a painful life in tormented death.

Robert Henderson

Robert Henderson's rendering is close in sense but a little declamatory, lacking the unruffled eloquence of Racine: {7}

35. O father, what will be thy words at seeing
So dire a sight? I see thee drop the urn,
Turning to seek some punishment unheard of, —
To be, thyself, mine executioner!
O spare me! For a cruel deity
Destroys thy race. O look upon my madness,
And in it see her wrath. This aching heart
Gathers no fruit of pleasure from its crime.
It is a shame which hounds me to the grave,
43. And ends a life of misery in torment.

Technicalities of the Alexandrine

Before analyzing the original, we need to understand the rules governing French classical verse. {8} Somewhat simplified, they are as follows. The alexandrine always consists of exactly twelve syllables. The only licence allowed the poet concerns the 'double vowels'. There are no diphthongs in French, and i/u/ü + vowel may be treated as two separate sylllables (diaeresis) or as one by pronouncing the double vowel as y + vowel (synaeresis). Each syllable of the alexandrine is a sounded vowel. The neutral e is not sounded when occurring at the line end, but lengthens the preceding vowel/syllable. A similar rule applies to the third person plural present tense ending of ent. Lines ending in e or ent are termed feminine. Other lines are masculine. Though they may end with the same sound, feminine and masculine lines do not rhyme. A feminine line can only rhyme with another feminine line, and a masculine line rhyme with masculine one. French classical verse is written in alternating pairs of masculine and feminine lines. If an act closes with a masculine line, the following act must open with a feminine line, and vice versa.

Hiatus is avoided in French, by running wherever possible the last consonant(s) of the preceding word or syllable into the vowel, by adding a letter (a-t-il), or by absorbing the neutral e before aient. The neutral e is not sounded in everyday speech (cette semaine is pronounced as sèt smèn) but is pronounced when occurring in the body of an alexandrine (cette semaine becomes sè te se mèn).

Unlike English, however, where words have an inherent stress pattern (body, embodiment), French is a syllabic language where the stress falls on the last syllable of any meaningful group of words. In the alexandrine, this comes at the end of the line and usually, to a lesser extent, after the sixth syllable, which is marked by a caesura. The arrangement can be varied a little, and other patterns deployed, but in general the alexandrine is securely end-stopped, making it very different from English blank verse where enjambment or run-on is expected.

Rhyme is a match in sounds (phonemes) between words of different meaning, preferably different function as well (verb with noun, etc.) but has more complicated rules in French. We are happy with high/sky, etc., but the French dislike what they call rime pauvre. Rime suffisante requires two sounds or phonemes to match: vowel + consonant or consonant + vowel (consonne d-appui). Rime riche requires an additional phoneme match, generally consonant + vowel + consonant, but is sometimes taken to include assonance earlier in the line. And whereas the English detest rime riche, reserving it for comic effects, the French admire this extra correspondence. There are also a few licences applying, which derive from earlier changes in pronunciation. Under rime normande, the terminal er is allowed to rhyme with é. A final s or t can rhyme with a 'fossilised e'. And a few words can be spelt in odd ways: pié for pied, remord for remords, croi for crois and encoue for encore.

With these in mind, we can now set out the lines in question showing the caesura or medial stress (|) and syllables grouped, and those grouping patterns (4 2, etc.). Feminine lines are indented: {9}

Il ss'ai me ront tou jours. | 4 2   
   Au mo ment que je par | leah mor te lle pen sée 3 3 | 4 2
   Ils bra vent la fu reur | d'u nea man tein sen sée. 3 3 | 3 3
Mal gré ce mê mee xil | qui va le sé car ter, 2 4 | 2 4
Ils font mi lle ser ments | de ne se point quit ter. 2 4 | 4 2
   Non, je ne puis sou ffri | run bon heur qui m'ou trage, 1 5 | 6
   Oe no ne. Prends pi tié| de ma ja lou se rage. 3 3 | 4 2
Il faut per dreA ri cie.| Il faut de mon é poux 2 4 | 2 4
Con treun sang od i eux | ré vei ller les cou rroux. 2 4 | 3 3
   Qu'il ne se bor ne pas | à des pei nes lé gères : 2 4 | 3 3
   Le cri me de la soeur | pa sse ce lui des frères. 2 4 | 4 2
Dans mes ja loux tran sports | je le veu xim plo rer. 4 2 | 3 3
Que fais-je ? Où ma rai| son va- t-elle s'é ga rer ? 3 3 | 2 4
   Moi ja lou seEt Thé sée | est ce lui que j'im plore ! 4 2 | 3 3
   Mo né poux est vi vant, | et moi je brû leen core ! 3 3 | 2 4
Pour qui ? Quel est le coeur | où pré ten dent mes voeux ? 2 4 | 3 3
Cha que mot sur mon front | fait dre sser mes che veux. 3 3 | 3 3
   Mes cri mes dé sor mais | ont com blé la me sure. 2 4 | 3 3
   Je re spi reà la fois | l'in ce steet l'im pos ture. 3 3 | 3 3
Me sho mi ci des mains, | prom pte sà me ven ger, 2 4 | 4 2
Dans le san gi nno cent | brû lent de se plon ger. 3 3 | 4 2
   Mi sé rab leet je vis ? | et je sou tiens la vue 3 3 | 4 2
   De ce sa cré So leil | dont je suis de scen due ? 4 2 | 3 3
J'ai pour aï eul le pè | reet ! le maî tre des Dieux ; 2 4 | 3 3
Le ciel, tout l'u ni ver |sest plein de mes aï eux. 2 4 | 2 4
   Où me ca cher ? Fu yons | dans la nui tin fer nale. 4 2 | 3 3
   Mais que dis-je ? Mon père | y tient l'ur ne fa tale ; 4 2 | 3 3
Le sort, dit-on, l'a mi |seen ses sé vè res mains : 2 4 | 4 2
Mi nos ju geau xen fers | tous les pâ les hu mains. 4 2 | 3 3
   Ah ! com bien fré mi ra | son om breé pou van tée, 3 3 | 3 3
   Lor squ'il ve rra sa fill | eà ses yeux pré sen tée, 2 4 | 3 3
Con train te d'a vou er | tant de for faits di vers, 2 4 | 4 2
Et des cri mes peut-êt| rein co nnu saux en fers ! 4 2 | 3 3
   Que di ras tu, mon pè | reà ce spe cta cleho rrible ? 4 2 | 4 2
   Je crois voir de ta main | tom ber l'ur ne te rrible, 3 3 | 2 4
Je crois te voir, cher chant | un su ppli ce nou veau, 4 2 | 3 3
Toi-mê me de ton sang | de ve nir le bou rreau. 2 4 | 3 3
   Par do nneUn Dieu cru el | a per du ta fa mille : 4 2 | 2 4
   Re co nnais sa veng ean | ceaux fu reurs de ta fille. 3 3 | 3 3
Hé las ! du cri mea ffreux | dont la hon te me suit 2 4 | 4 2
Ja mais mon tri ste coeur | n'a re cuei lli le fruit. 2 4 | 4 2
   Jus qu'a der nier sou pir, | de mal heurs pour sui vie, 3 3 | 3 3
   Je rends dans les tour ment | su ne pé ni ble vie. 2 4 | 4 2

Our Rendering

All that said, we can now try to convey Racine's power and restraint in rhymed couplets that have the energy of the speaking voice:


Time and distances can only sever
The hope they sought for.


Which is love forever!
Still I hear them, laughing, set at naught
The insane fury in the love they thwart.
What can exile do to wrench apart
A thousand vows that bind them at the heart?
How can their happiness, Oenone, assuage
The violent jealousy that fuels my rage?
Aricia must die. I'll have my spouse
Expunge the issue of that odious house.
10. There'll be no light penalties for her
Who is more flagrant than her brothers were.
Provoked, my jealousy will have her pay
For what? And how so, when my reasons stray
To ask of Theseus, my husband, as I burn
For things unlawful and the passions turn
From husband living to the son instead?
How hair in horror stands up on the head!
And not enough it seems to swell conceit
But I must breathe in incest and deceit.
20. My hands propel me and would not repent
If blood they bathed in cried out 'innocent!'
How can I venture in the sun's bright rays
Who is my ancestor, and blesses days?
He is the foremost, gave my father birth
And all my family now on the earth.
To what night of sanctuary can I turn
When Minos, my dread father, holds the urn
In which pale sinners to their lots are cast,
Inviolably so sentenced, first to last?
30. How shuddering and fearful will his presence stare
At that dark shadow of his daughter there,
And know how heniously her crimes exceed
What hell will groan at and must bleed!
For what, my father, do these horrors yearn?
35. Do I see you drop that fearsome urn?
What further punishment could you devise
For family whose blood is their demise?
Forgive me that I let a god in wild
Revenge assert her fury through the child.
40. Ever misfortunes and they persecute
Her whose sad heart did not taste the fruit,
And Phaedra, with sighs following her to death,
43. In agonies gives back her painful breath.

Verse and Meaning

Actors often modify their roles as performance helps them to understand the parts better, and no doubt passages above will need to be modified as surrounding sections are translated. But we should certainly recast the concluding lines. A literal rendering of the text:

Alas! horrible crime of which the shame follows me
Never my sad heart did collect the fruit.
Until the last sigh, of followed misfortunes,
I give back in the agonies a painful life.

shows our rendering is not far from the prose sense, but the death / breath rhyme is hackneyed, and the phrasing rather forced.

With its central caesura, the alexandrine most closely resembles the English heroic measure, but French classical verse is even more formal and exact, with only the occasional run-on across the caesura or line ending.

Hélas ! du crime affreux | dont la honte me suit ||
Jamais mon triste coeur | n'a recueilli le fruit. ||
Jusqu'au dernier soupir, | de malheurs poursuivie, |
Je rends dans les tourments | une pénible vie. ||

We should also note:

1. Assonance that supports or swells up the line:

Hélas ! du crime affreux dont la honte me suit

Je rends dans les tourments une pénible vie.

2. Alliteration or assonance that pushes the sense on:

Jamais mon triste coeur n'a recueilli le fruit.
Jusqu'au dernier soupir, de malheurs poursuivie,

3. Deep irony: suit / fruit, soupir / poursuivre

4. Pacing: the last hemistich is composed of harsh phonemes whose bleakness echoes the sense and seems to takes an eternity to read (and how necessary is the sounded 'e' in une!)

Clearly, to make something similar, we'll need to use some of these devices ourselves — which is the reason for analyzing the heroic couplet, as the exercise lets us work on levels denied the idiomatic speech of contemporary free verse:

Never the once | to what it sought for came |
This heart | but sadness only, | and to shame. ||
And Phaedra in sighs, | with which her path was rife |
In agonies gives back | a painful life. ||

Here we have expanded the expiring pain of Racine's last hemistich to the three lines preceding, which makes for a quieter finish. Our lines are generally end-stopped but a good deal more varied in pace and structure than the original, which English verse demands. The last ten lines become:

34. For what, my father, do these horrors yearn
That I see you drop that fearful urn?
What further punishments can you devise
Than butchery by which your blood-line dies?
Forgive me that I let a god in wild
Chastisement sow her fury through the child.
Never the once to what it sought for came
This heart, but sadness only, and to shame,
And Phaedra in sighs, with which her path was rife,
In agonies gives back a painful life.

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

Notes and References

1. Lytton Strachey, Landmarks in French Literature (1923), quoted in Huntington Cairns, The Limits of Art: Poetry and Prose Chosen by Ancient and Modern Critics (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951).
2. Phèdre by Jean Racine: Translated by Margaret Rawlings (Penguin Books, 1961).
3. Robert Lowell, Phaedre: Racine's Phaedre in an English version by Robert Lowell ( Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1960)
4. Richard Wilbur, Jean Racine's Phaedre: Translated into English verse by Richard Wilbur (Dramatis Play Service, Inc., 1986).
5. Ted Hughes, Jean Racine: A New Translation by Ted Hughes. (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998)
6. Racine: Phaedra. Rhymed translation by Tony Kline.
7. Robert Henderson, Phaedre Jealous, in Huntington Cairns, The Limits of Art: Poetry and Prose Chosen by Ancient and Modern Critics (Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1951).
8. Roy Lewis, On Reading French Verse: A Study of Poetic Form. (Clarendon Press, 1982).
9. A proper rendering would show the phonetics, stress patterns, and much else: see the excellent approach of Lewis, 1982.


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