Shelley’s Translation of Prometheus Bound

face of a prisoner

A surviving manuscript indicates that Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS) translated the first third of the fifth-century Athenian tragedy Prometheus Bound. Shelley made the translation about July, 1817. The manuscript is in Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s (MWS’s) handwriting. It is in a notebook apparently from the same commercial batch as one of the fair-copy Frankenstein notebooks. MWS’s journal entry for July 13, 1817 states, “S {Shelley} traslates {translates} Promethes Desmotes and I write it.”^ A scholar who studied the manuscript observed:

Since the transcriber (MWS) occasionally continues beyond the line-break and then corrects this mistake, and since the translation is a literal one lacking punctuation, it may be assumed that PBS was indeed dictating to MWS, as her journal-entry suggests. A number of spelling mistakes and unclear use of lower or upper case letters are further evidence of dictation. PBS may have been working from a rough draft to which MWS had immediate access since there are few corrections by MWS in the existing holograph and in one instance she uses S’s spelling (for “antient”).

The translation adheres closely to the original line division of the Greek text, though PBS does not slavishly follow the Greek syntax, and sometimes reverses word order to ensure good sense or correct idiom.^

Ten pages at the end of the notebook have been torn out and are missing.^

Shelley was greatly interested in Greek literature and particularly engaged with the story of Prometheus. Shelley’s translation of Prometheus Bound is more lyrical than recent leading translations.

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