Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.03.15

David R. Slavitt, Palmer Bovie, Sophocles, 1.   Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998.  Pp. xiv, 284.  ISBN 0-8122-3445-6.  $40.00 (hb).  ISBN 0-8122-1653-9.  $16.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Dale Grote, Department of Language and Culture Studies, University of North Carolina at Charlotte (
Word count: 4260 words

All 12 volumes of the highly publicized Penn Greek Drama Series, co-edited by David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, have now come to light.1 Like its siblings, the current volume offers "fresh literary translations" by performance professionals and accomplished contemporary poets: Ajax (Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish), Women of Trachis (Brendan Galvin), Electra (Henry Taylor), Philoctetes (Armand Schwerner). On the whole, popular reaction to the series has been positive, while responses from practicing classicists has been less enthusiastic. One reason for the discomfort among classicists is the series' use of the word "translations" for these productions, when clearly they're not in any normal sense of the word. Many or most of the contributors are without Greek, relying on "many trips to the dictionary and a herd of ponies," according to Fred Chappell, who translated Alcestis for the series; Marilyn Nelson (Hecuba) confessed to knowing only two words of Greek hoi and polloi. If they had been called "versions" or "adaptations" or "simultaneous acts of inspiration" -- anything but "translations" -- much of the angst among classicists could have been avoided.

Even under the best of conditions, reviewing a translation is an imprecise task. In this case, things are made even more difficult because of the uncertainty of what these texts can claim to be and to what use they should be fairly put. Given what they are, it would be meaningless to assess them based on how faithfully they reproduce the precise features of Sophocles' Greek. But on what then? Penn has made no secret of the fact that it intends to take on the Chicago series as the standard for the classroom. Accordingly, a judgement on these translations as classroom texts is a fair part of their critical reception, particularly in a journal for classicists. So I tried to imagine using these texts in a typical survey course in Greek literature, ancient theater, or mythology, where close inspection of the language is not part of the program, and where, in all probability, these will be the only translations most of the students will ever read. To that end, I inspected the quality of the introductions more closely than one might if the object were to find a script for a theatrical production. My minimum standard for the translations themselves was that they not conceal key thematic issues or give a false impression of the general feel of Sophocles' thought and poetry.

The Introduction

The volume starts with a unengaging factual survey of Greek theater by Palmer Bovie, followed by a paragraph on Sophocles' life that ends in a sententious thud: "Such a generous public gesture [dressing in black in mourning for Euripides] well illustrates the noble character of his long-lived creative spirit" (p. x). I was expecting something with a little more zest, better appraised of contemporary thinking on ancient biographies, and a little more expressive of the general philosophy of the series; that is, fresh. Things then go from bad to worse because Bovie spends the next four pages analyzing the Oedipus plays (!), none of which is in this volume. And along the way, we get a short defense of Aristotle's Poetics as loosely applied to Oedipus Rex which is summarized this way:

"King Oedipus delineates the classical model of the tragic hero, an admirable figure who, because of some flaw in character, mistakes his aim (hamartia) and undergoes a reversal of situation (peripeteia) which causes his downfall in such a spectacular manner as to evoke the combined feelings of pity and fear in the minds of the spectators" (p. xi).
Even if we grant that Aristotle's Poetics, thus understood, can be applied to the OT, it's not clear what meaning it has for the plays in this volume, or for any of Sophocles' other plays. Bovie gives us no guidance. It would be one thing if we could simply warn students away from the introduction, but the effects of its inadequacy are felt throughout the volume. The contributors themselves are left, perhaps deliberately, to provide the basic background in their own introductions. While they give it a sporting try, they simply aren't qualified; it wasn't on the basis of any particular insight into the history of scholarship on these dramas that they were asked to participate anyway, but as theater professionals and poets. It occurs to me that a classicist, like Bovie, should have dealt with preliminaries of these plays, thus clearing the way for the contributors to comment on matters into which their particular expertise gives them greater insight. The authors' introductions could have been real contributions to scholarship on these plays. Instead, they contain an occasional insightful moment, but for the most part they are uneventful and sometimes deeply flawed.


This is a collaboration between Kenneth McLeish and Frederic Raphael. There is no indication which of the two wrote the introduction, nor are we told whether there was a division of labor in the play -- one doing the chorus and the other the dialogue, for example. The introduction is appropriate and helpful in a general way, though a few remarks here and there will arch an eyebrow. "Ajax is almost certainly a masterpiece of Sophocles' maturity" (3). That's a safe bet, given that he probably lived to be ninety. But we're not told what that's based on, nor what importance it has. Another: "The absent Telamon's bravery in war cannot conceal his heartless inadequacy as a father. Sophocles weaves into his drama an unforgettable image of an insatiably demanding father who resents his own loss of virility and cannot make way graciously for his heirs" (6). That's quite a bit of analysis on a character who's never on the stage. They do pose one interesting question about the play's structure. Bringing the Atreidae on the stage separately instead of together, they say, could be criticized for delaying the final confrontation between Teucer and Odysseus: "What can be gained ... by breaking the back of the last act? The answer is that Sophocles gives himself the opportunity to distinguish, entertainingly and with cumulative force, between the manifestly weak-strong [weak-strong?] Menelaus -- the cuckold who always has to play the officious braggart -- and the apparently strong-strong[?] Agamemnon" (6).

Unfortunately, the translators evidently confused themselves with Sophocles, for, as if to load the evidence in favor of their adverb "entertainingly," Menelaus is made to spout sentence fragments in a shabby military caricature. For example, 1204-1223 (= 1079-1088):2

If laws are to be kept,
societies survive, we need the rule of fear.
Armies too: the chain of command.
shield and buckler: respect and fear.
Every soldier, big as you like,
has to learn: step out of line, he's done!
Fear's the ticket, respect the spur,
learn that, no trouble.
But get above yourself,
start doing as you like, what then?
Ship of state, breezing along,
calm as calm, down it goes, the bottom.
Fear's essential, keeps thing on course.
No use thinking we can do as we choose:
we pay the price for that, it hurts.
Things come and go.
How big he was, how hot he was!
Now I'm in charge. So, orders:
he's not to be buried. Try it,
and you'll lie down there beside him.

This is a betrayal of the Sophocles' language and characterization, whose Menelaus too possesses a certain nobility, grandeur, gravitas, or whatever it should be called, that emanates from his belief in principles more important than himself. This Menelaus, by contrast, is an oaf.

On the whole, I found the translation to be very uneven, at times very good, and at others very poor. There are enough instances of jangling alliteration as to be disruptive:

"Your sword's well soused" (91);
"blood-black blade" (253);
"his dazzle dimmed/his strength storm-tossed" (225-6);
"only bellowing, brave bellowing, bull-bellowing..." (340);
"flattened by Fate" (341);
"pile pain on pain" (390);
"firmly fixed" (892);
"Blood bubbling (970);
"bitter bravery (1113).
There is a feel of almost dismissive frivolity in some lines: Menelaus says to Teucer "a breeze is blowing, a storm is brewing / huff and puff all you like, it'll blow you away" (1295-6). Closer to the original is "And so it is with you and your raging speech -- perhaps a great storm, even if its blast comes from a small cloud, will extinguish your shouting." Ajax's camp is mystically located in "the back of beyond" (4). Pity prosaic old Sophocles who simply thought it was in the last row (ἔνθα τάξιν ἐσχάτην ἔχει). Ajax is called "Mister Fancy Shield" by Odysseus (19). Ajax in turn refers to Odysseus as "Mister Nothing" (484). A soldier calls Ajax "Mr. Big-Mouth" (814). Agamemnon calls Ajax "Mister Nothing" and in the same line calls Odysseus "Mister Nobody" (1369); then Agamemnon to Teucer: "This rabble of yours, this blah-blah-blah" (1394); Teucer on Agamemnon's family tree: "The slave whore's son, Mister Blah-blah-blah" (1426), "A blah-blah Phrygian" (1429), "Some Cretan twinkie / her Dad found at it with some blah-blah-blah" (1432-3).

Finally we have line 1333 (= 1182-3), which has to be ranked among the more famously botched translations of modern times. Teucer is preparing to bury Ajax's body in defiance of the Atreidae. On the stage with him are the Chorus, Tecmessa and Eurysaces. (We're told in a stage direction that Tecmessa is accompanied by a group of attendant women.) Teucer turns to the Chorus and says, in the original, "And you [addressing the Chorus of Ajax's men], don't stand around like women instead of men, but help" (ὑμεῖς τε μὴ γυναῖκες ἀντ' ἀνδρῶν πέλας ́ παρέστατ', ἀλλ' ἀπηγέτ'). Incredibly, this is translated "Women: be men. Stand by him, guard him."

There is in fact much good in the translation. The pace is refreshingly brisk, Ajax's speeches are very well done, giving the correct impression of a hero apart, and the choral odes have the feel of lyrics that could easily be set to music. But this can't compensate for the frequent declensions into silliness.

The Women of Trachis

Galvin's preface is solid, nicely composed, and will open up important issues for a class. Some of his suggestions, however, as to how the play touches on contemporary concerns aren't especially convincing: "Parallels could be drawn between the events in this play and the aftermath of our own Cold War. When long-time military activity ceases to have an adequate outlets, it can turn on its own social fabric, as in the Oklahoma City bombing and the formation of private militias" (74); "This may be the earliest reference in literature to the moral questions surrounding assisted suicide" (75). One remark makes me think he was misled by his choice of translations: "[Deinaira's] reasonable qualities are conveyed in her speech rhythms as well, narratives delivered in long, thoughtful sentences. Heracles, on the other hand, speaks in staccato outbursts much of the time, in part because he is in great pain, but also because his nature is impulsive and aggressive" (74). I don't think this is borne out in the Greek. See Heracles' long, balanced speech at 1046-1111, for example. Perhaps a case could be made that Heracles should be made to speak in staccato outbursts, but the unadvised reader may come away with the impression that he does in Sophocles' Greek.

The preface aside, Galvin's translation is a real gem, a masterful rendering of Sophocles into the plain style -- broad, simple, and obvious -- while maintaining the formal restraint and simple dignity we admire in him. Here's a portion of Hyllus' report to this mother (744-777 = 763-796), which must be read aloud to be appreciated:

He was at peace, poor man, proud in that robe,
and offering his prayers to the gods.
Then, as the flames leaped, feeding on
pinewood sap and the sacrificial blood,
he began to sweat, and the robe clung to him
everywhere, tight as a second skin, painted
on him. Pain gnawed him to his bones,
convulsed him into spasms, as though
a vicious serpent's poison ate his flesh.
Then he cried out against poor Lichas,
blaming him for your evil act, demanding
to know what plot that robe had set afoot.
Lichas, who knew nothing, could only say
the gift was yours alone, delivered
as you had bid him. As Heracles heard,
a torment squeezed his lungs. He grabbed
Lichas by the ankle and dashed him against
a rock the sea broke over, smashing his skull,
red blood and white brain-matter
mingling in his hair. All who saw cried out,
for the dead man, and for the man engaged
with pain in his own death-struggle; but no one
would approach my screaming father, who fell
and leaped then fell again, tossing with agony
while the rocks echoed with his howling
from Locris' mountains to Euboea's cliffs.
Exhausted at last, worn out with crying
and crawling in the dust and lamenting
his execrable marriage to you, and all
he had endured to win you from Oeneus, only
to come to this, he lifted his head,
eyes rolling like a beast's, out of the smoke
that hung around him, and saw me, weeping
among the onlookers.
In his well-known review, Mendelsohn criticized the series for "providing neither the intellectual satisfaction of the original nor, it must be said, the compensatory pleasures of really distinguished English poetry" (14).3 Instead of quoting Galvin at length for counter examples, or engaging in a lengthy battle over what qualifies poetry to be called distinguished, let me summarize my own reaction: Galvin's Women of Trachis will be the first translation for students in my classes; even if there isn't another syllable worth reading in this volume, it will still be a required text in my classes because of this play; if I see a notice that the play is to be performed somewhere, I hope that Galvin's translation will be the script; upon finishing the play, I went to library for more of his poetry. I may have a theoretical quarrel with series' faith in the method of translation by triangulation, but Galvin's Women of Trachis amply demonstrates its possibilities in fact. Henry Taylor's Electra does too.


Henry Taylor's introduction is more ambitious than the others. He tries to take into account classical scholarship and helpfully annotates some troubled moments in the play, relying on Kell's authoritative commentary. But classicists will immediately note something terribly wrong. In his narrative, Taylor uses only Ann G. Batchelder (The Seal of Orestes: Self-Reference and Authority in Sophocles' Electra. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1995), and Rachel Kitzinger ("Why Mourning Becomes Elektra," Classical Antiquity 10,2 [October 1991]: 298-327). Respectable works, but not destined to become standard references of first resort. It seems that Taylor took the description of the Penn Series as "fresh" too literally, since the only thing these two works have in common is that they were the most recent ones at the time. His limited choice of reading would be only a mild disappointment if that's as far as it went, but the narrative section of the introduction is marred by misrepresentations of Batchelder's scholarship, and by an uncritical acceptance of her thesis, which is that the Electra is a deeply coded metaphor for the poet's craft. Thus we see sentences like "[Batchelder] has suggested, voice and speech, and the power of words to influence action, are central to this play" (131), and "Batchelder notes that 'Orestes' choice of the Pythian games is an anachronism'" (136). Wouldn't it appear to the unwary that these are Batchelder's discoveries instead of what they are, ideas that have been around for many decades? Worse is "Batchelder is persuasive that, despite general agreement that this anachronism is insignificant, it works subtly but powerfully to create the kind of dramatic irony for which Sophocles is particularly well-known: the Paedagogus is telling a fictional tale of Orestes' death and providing the audience, who recognize the fiction for what it is, with a true tale of Orestes' present entry into a contest of a dramatic production" (136) [my emphasis]. Taylor also evidently liked Housman's parody "Fragment of a Greek Tragedy," because he mentions it twice (135, note 6 [5], and 137, note 810 [837]), though it's to no point that I can discern.

I don't fault Taylor for these missteps. This area isn't his metier. More to blame is the wide-open editorial policy of the volume and the series, which may in fact have been no editorial policy at all. If a classicist had assisted with the introduction, the survey of critical opinion would have been more balanced, and we would have been spared the mistake on page 136 (note on line 47): "Editors disagree whether the Greek [ἄγγελλε δ' ὅρκον προστιθεὶς] indicates 'tell them, swearing to it,' or 'tell them, filling it out.'" There is no question that the Greek means the former. The question is whether this should be the Greek. Musgrave offered the emendation ὄγκον, "bulk" in place of ὅρκον. For what it's worth, I find the emendation irresistible and was very pleased indeed to see Taylor translate the line "and fill in the details as best you can." Perhaps this is a niggling detail, but if it is, it would have been easily corrected if some system of review had been in place, and it should have been, in a publication of this stature with such lofty ambitions. The final result, unfortunately, is an essay that would be sent back to an undergraduate classics student for a comprehensive rewrite.

Despite a flawed introduction, I found his translation to be truly magnificent. Taylor won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for a collection of his poetry, The Flying Charge, and his skill shows, nowhere more than in the Paedagogus' false message, from which I'll quote the final segment: 722-741 (= 741-763):

Yoke to yoke they raced, one pulling ahead
for a few strides, then the other. Up to now
Orestes had driven safely through each lap
and kept his chariot's wheel on the ground.
Then he slipped and let the left rein go slack
halfway through a turn, and hit the pillar,
cracked the axle box in two, and spilled out
over the chariot-rail, tangled in the long reins,
and his horses dragged him all over the course.
The whole crowd screamed, watching this young man
who had won so much and then had such bad luck,
bouncing over the hard ground until charioteers
reined in his charging horses and cut him loose,
so mangled that his friends would not have known him.
They made a pyre and burned him right away,
and Phocian men appointed to the task
now bring this lowly dust, once a mighty man,
in a small bronze urn for burial at home.
That was it -- horrible just to hear, but for us
who saw it, the greatest sorrow I have seen.
Briefly stated, no student would come away from Taylor's translation with a mistaken idea of Sophocles or this play.


Schwerner's introduction gets off to a promising start with direct consideration of the problems of meter, diction, and tone of the original. It was disturbing, I must admit, to see seven typographical and spelling errors in the nine lines of Greek he quoted [207, 213]. (Weren't there any classicists within ear shot who could have been asked to look at this?!) But after three and a half pages of this, we're suddenly off into a wild diatribe against modernity. Here's a sample from this deep forest:

The come-and-go Jack-in-the box acts of daily world news are the great delusive narratives cycle of the planet, hungry daily for its paparazzi-feed and entropic thrills. Televisions soap operas render the illusion of the new excitement while furnishing the security of the unchallengingly predictable in the service of the mercantile. Much present journalism -- both print and electronic -- approaches the powerful delusive conditio of soap opera. A ubiquitous Dallas, say, feeds the appetites of billions in the People's Republic of China and elsewhere around the planet; its glossily shallow inanities, redolent of American power, add to the lingua franca of the world's crypto-mythologies. What is the name of the sacred? (211)
Which of course brings us back to the Philoctetes. Schwerner displays slightly better judgement in his handling of Sophocles, but his rant underscores a lack of editorial oversight and standards, which has so far been a constant criticism of this series.

In some ways, Schwerner had an easier task before him, since the Greek in the Philoctetes is closer to ordinary speech than any of Sophocles' plays, so producing a translation which would be accessible to the audience and easy to speak aloud opens up less of a distance from the feel of the original. It's somewhat ironic, therefore, that he selected a meter and style that's punctuated by many sense stops, as in these passages:

You have to con Philoctetes. Use the language.
When he asks you about yourself, tell him
"Achilles's son." No need to lie about that. But
tell him more, that you're sailing home in anger,
having left the fleet in anger.
The Greek chiefs lied to you and betrayed you.
To take Troy they had to have you, seduced you
into leaving home, and when you joined them
they ripped you away from Achilles' weapons, your father's
weapons, that you had a right to, and gave them
to Odysseus, gave those arms to Odysseus.
When you say my name, curse me, spit on Odysseus.
That's no pain for me: if you fail, we fail
Troy will elude us, the Greeks will grieve,
we must have this man's bows (42-57 = 54-68).
Listen. A man, limping? It is here?
Here? It's getting nearer now, clear
sound of groping feet, and now still far,
but nearing, distinctly, a voice of pain.
Get ready, prince (163-7 = 201-210).
This is an interesting, even compelling style, but it doesn't make the play especially readable, which was one of the desiderata of the series. There are more serious problems with the translation. In some places, Schwerner's seems to want to help Sophocles along by adding expressions, inserting metaphors, and making up lines. Instead he creates confusion and spoils the feeling of being in Sophocles' presence. At 92-3 (= 110), Sophocles' πῶς οὖν βλέπων τις ταῦτα τολμήσει λακεῖν becomes "An adult is responsible for his face [sic] / How can he confront the world if ...?" More than a few novice readers will be reaching for their mythology handbooks when they read 5-6 (= 4-5): [Odysseus:] "Neoptolemus / you're the son of our shining father Achilles," (ὦ κρατίστου πατρὸς Ἑλλήνων τραφεὶς ́ Ἀχιλλέως παῖ Νεοπτόλεμε). Here's a list of some of the other passages I found more indicative of Schwerner' style than Sophocles':

the Chorus to Neoptolemus at 125 (= 141-2), "And the skill is yours from your father's father's fathers," (σὲ δ' τέκνον, τό δ' ἐλήλυθεν ́ πᾶν κράτος ὀγύγιον);

Philoctetes at 178 (= 221) referring to his island as one of "depression and refusals," (οὔτ' εὔορμον οὔτ' οἰκουμένην);

Neoptolemus at 279 (= 350-1), "How I lusted to see my father in his death (μάλιστα μὲν δὴ τοῦ θανόντος ἱμέρῳ ́ ὅπως ἴδοιμ' ἄθαπτον);

Philoctetes pleading with Neoptolemus at 363-4 (= 469), "by all / the household gods," (πρὸς τ' εἴ τί σοι κατ' οἶκόν ἐστι προσφιλές);

the Chorus rejoicing too early in Philoctetes' good fortune at 552-5 (= 719-20), where we see Schwerner inserting a metaphor that's not in Sophocles, "He's found a good friend now. / The music of his life deepens / through his suffering; he will rediscover a green / continuity," (νῦν δ' ἀνδρῶν ἀγαθῶν παιδὸ ὑπαντήσας ́ εὐδαίμων ἀνύσει καὶ μέγας ἐκ κείνων);

Philoctetes insulting Odysseus at 827 with the weird expression "fungus heart rot"; Philoctetes considering his fate at 901-5 (= 1101-5), "O endless, endless unhappiness, / totally wasted by unhappiness, / barely lingering, hanging on / without a single friend to accompany me to my end" (ὦ τλάμων τλάμων ἄρ' ἐγὼ ́ καὶ μόχθῳ λωβατός, ὅς ἤδη μετ' οὐδενὸς ὕστερον ́ ἀνδρῶν εἰσοπίσω τάλας ́ ναίων ἐνθάδ' ὀλοῦμαι);

Philoctetes about Odysseus at 921-2 (= 1135-7?), "a shareholder in that company of men / who have hurt me";

Philoctetes about himself, in a metaphor that's not in the Greek at 1097-9 (= 1348-9), "Oh, how I hate this life that reins me in / from the darkness, I long / to gallop into the grave," (ὦ στυγνὸς αἰών, τί μ' ἔτι δῆτ' ἔχεις ἄνω ́ βλέποντα κοὐκ ἀφῆκας εἰς Ἅιδου μολεῖν);

and in the same speech, another fabricated metaphor at 1108-10 (= 1359-61), "Don't I know by now / about all those infected minds waiting / to drown me in their pus," (οὐ γάρ με τἄλγος τῶν παρελθόντων δάκνει, ́ ἀλλ' οἷα χρὴ παθεῖν με πρὸς τούτων ἔτι ́ δοκῶ προλεύσσειν).

Suffice it to say, I don't consider Schwerner's Philoctetes at all useable as a classroom text.

Final Word

The introductory material in this volume ranges from unimportant to very bad. The translation of Ajax is wildly inconsistent, showing great care in some places and plain silliness in others. Women of Trachis is superb and will compare favorably with any translation ever done of this play. Electra is also masterful, though the introduction is fairly poor. Philoctetes is an unreliable representation of Sophocles' thought and poetry. Because of the strength of The Women of Trachis, and the Electra, both of which are excellent English verse and communicate the essential spirit of Sophocles, I fully expect to include this volume in the standard rotation of translations for my survey courses in ancient literature and mythology.


1.   The complete list can be viewed at the Chicago page on David Slavitt, available as of November 1, 1999.
2.   The translations follow their own line numbering. I list the Slavitt edition first, followed by the standard numbering.
3.   Daniel Mendelsohn, "Brush Up Your Aeschylus," New York Times Review of Books, VOL 148 July 19, 1998, 14-15, is probably the best known critical review from an academician, but there has also been Mary Lefkowitz, "Classic Drama's Haunting Power; a modern text grapples with language and myth," The Washington Times, August 8, 1999. A volume of Menander's plays was given a negative review in BMCR 99.03.08 by Wilfred E. Major. A selection of positive reviews in the popular press can be found at the Chicago site for this volume, available as of November 1, 1999. (Included in them is a truly idiotic remark taken from the New Yorker, "It may not be long before anyone who mentions that he is reading Sophocles in Greek can expect to be told, 'Oh but you simply 'must' read it in translation.'")
4.   NPR archive, available as of November 1, 1999.

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