Polyeucte, by Pierre Corneille

by Paul Mathers

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Worst translation ever.

It took me about an afternoon, roughly the run time of the plays in production, to read the other plays in this volume. This one took me almost two weeks.

It’s a play about a couple in Armenia back when Christians were being persecuted under the Roman Empire. Polyeucte is married to the inexplicably named Pauline. Pauline still holds a flame for the Roman soldier Severus, but stays true to her vows. It is revealed that Polyeucte is a Christian and he is martyred. He faces his execution with such grace that Pauline and Felix, the senator, are converted by his example.

Sounds like a great play, right? Sounds like something I would be interested in, right? Sounds like the kind of thing that I would wax philosophical over far beyond the reaches of my readership’s interest, right?

All of which I suspect would be true, but the translation was unspeakably bad. It was in rhymed couplets and they were excruciatingly labored and stilted. I’ll bet I can flip to a page at random and give you an example:

“O, if thou lov’st him still, all hope forsake!

In one day can he two conversions make?

Not this the Christians’ mould: they never change;

His heart is fixed-past power of man to estrange.”

And that’s not even the worst example I could find if I wanted to poke around, but really I would feel a lot better just moving on. This served as a reminder of why I have tended not to read the translations provided in the Harvard Classics but rather have chosen to find ones more to my own liking.

The Thomas Constable translation, in case you were wondering. Now I’m moving on and, hopefully, over time, I can learn to forgive. Maybe one day even forget.

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