Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2000.10.13

Herbert Golder, Richard Pevear, Sophocles: Aias. The Greek Tragedy in New Translations.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1999.  Pp. 100.  ISBN 0-19-512819-2.  

Reviewed by Emily Katz Anhalt, Trinity College, Hartford CT
Word count: 2628 words

Translation is an elusive art, and Sophocles' Ajax presents amost elusive target. This controversial and complex play provokes various interpretations and, consequently, disparate translations. Aias, translated by Herbert Golder and Richard Pevear enters the lists against Ajax, translated by Frederic Raphael and Kenneth McLeish,1 and both new texts aim to unseat the popular favorite, John Moore's translation in the Chicago series,2 first published nearly half a century ago. Unlike many other translators of this play, Golder and Pevear respect and admire Sophocles' characters and appreciate the even-handedness of the poet's vision. Refreshingly, this assessment of the play and its central character is neither reductive nor anachronistic. The authors succeed admirably in transmitting the play's emotional power and thematic complexity.

A brief forward by the series' editors, an introduction (by Herbert Golder) and a translator's note (by Richard Pevear) precede the translation. Spoken verses are translated in sprung rhythm with three stresses to each line. Choral verses are also rendered in sprung rhythm with one to five stresses per line. Excellent endnotes explicate thematic emphases, key terms and phrases, Homeric parallels and contrasts, and stage directions. A useful glossary of names and places follows the notes. (Moore provides neither notes nor glossary. Raphael and McLeish offer a glossary but no notes.)

Golder's fine introduction explores central thematic issues and reveals a clear-sighted appreciation for Ajax's heroic qualities. His nuanced exploration of Sophocles' adaptation of the myth and presentation of Ajax's character restores the weight and seriousness of the drama. Golder maintains that Sophocles' Ajax is not "... the archaic warrior who dies in shame -- not the hero who time has passed by, but rather the man who steps beyond time" (p. 9). (Contrast Moore's contention, in his brief introduction, that Ajax commits suicide merely out of shame [Moore, p.3]. Contrast, too, Raphael and McLeish's dismissive account of the play's "conventional features" including "a hero with a single flaw -- not so much pride as vanity -- that leads him to ruin" [Raphael and McLeish, p. 4]. Pity the generations of readers who derive nothing more from Sophocles' brilliant exploration of heroism than the conclusion that Ajax has a "fatal flaw." Pity the translator who derives no more from this play than the chorus does.) Golder appreciates, too, Sophocles' strikingly innovative presentation of Ajax as an "eloquent and deadly lucid" speaker (p. 8). In maintaining, however, that Homer's Ajax lacks such intellectual gifts, Golder fails to mention the controversiality of this view. Arguably, Homer's portrait contains the seeds of Sophocles' perceptive, eloquent hero.3

Golder adheres closely to Bernard Knox's interpretation of the play, particularly in regard to Ajax's central speech acknowledging the forces of time and change in human existence (lines 646-692).4 Golder recognizes the fallacy of interpreting this speech as deliberate deception on the part of Ajax (pp. 12-15; cf. Moore, p. 3). In addition, he maintains that the choral ode and messenger speech following the hero's great speech serve to underscore the distance between ourselves and Ajax. Both encourage the comforting conviction that time and change are positive, constructive forces in human existence (pp. 15-16). Regarding Ajax's planted sword, Golder suggests that, in the outdoor Theater of Dionysos, early in the morning, it might have functioned as a kind of sundial, " 'Time's sword', moving even as Aias speaks." Thus, "as Time's sword moves 'against' Aias, so he moves to make Time stop" (p. 17). The suggestion is thematically appealing and dramatically compelling.

Golder does not, however, display much interest in the question of the play's political significance. He notes that Odysseus' final exchange with Agamemnon has political implications for democracy in general and Athenian democracy in particular (pp. 20-22), but his introduction does not explore further the controversial question of the play's political relevance. In recent years, the pendulum has swung far from the direction of reading Greek tragedies without reference to their social and historical context to the other extreme of ascribing to them definitive political messages. Unfortunately (or, perhaps, fortunately), the recent proliferation of disparate political interpretations of the Ajax seems self-cancelling. Thus, one claims Ajax, another Odysseus as the model of admirable political leadership. One claims that the Atreidai represent Athens, another that they represent Athens' Peloponnesian opponents.5 Recognition of the historical and political context and contributions of the Ajax need not require reducing the play to a simplistic political pronouncement. A concise, balanced assessment (or, at least, acknowledgement) of the the controversy would have enhanced Golder's otherwise excellent introduction.

The translation itself, reflecting the quality of the authors' lucid and learned understanding of the play, combines literalness with comprehensibility and permits Sophocles' characters and themes to emerge in English without anachronistic interpretive distortion. Immediately signalling their approach, Golder and Pevear make the bold but, in retrospect, obvious decision to retain 'Aias' for the title of the play and the name of its central character. This inevitably restores sense and dramatic power to Ajax's numerous impassioned oubursts of "ai ai" and particularly to his cry at 430-433:

αἰαῖ· τίς ἄν ποτ' ᾤεθ' ὧδ' ἐπώνυμον
τοὐμὸν ξυνοίσειν ὄνομα τοῖς ἐμοῖς κακοῖς;
νῦν γὰρ πάρεστι καὶ δὶς αἰάζειν ἐμοὶ
καὶ τρίς· τοιούτοις γὰρ κακοῖς ἐντυγχάνω·6

Golder and Pevear translate:

"Aiai! My name is a lament!
Who would have thought it would fit
so well with my misfortunes!
Now truly I can cry out -- aiai! --
two and three times in my agony."
(Golder and Pevear 468-472)

For a character named "Ajax", the passage yields sense less readily in English. Moore avoids the emotive syllables altogether, and his Ajax explains the philological connection:

"Agony. Who would have thought my name and fortune
Could square so well together! My name is Ajax:
Agony is its meaning. And my fortunes
Are cause indeed for an agony of wailing,
Cause and enough twice over."
(Moore 430-435)

In contrast, Raphael and McLeish transliterate the cries, giving Ajax the somewhat confusing and almost comical exclamation:

"Aiee, Ajax! My name says what I feel;
who'd have believed that pain and I'd be one;
Aiee, Ajax! I say it twice,
and then again, aiee, for what is happening."
(Raphael and McLeish 468-471)

The linguistic connection between "Aiee" and "Ajax" will not be readily apparent to a Greekless audience. By retaining "Aias", Golder and Pevear preserve the sense and implications of "Aiai."

In the same spirit, Golder and Pevear selectively incorporate Greek cries of "io moi moi" and "aiai" and occasionally substitute these for other untranslatable exclamations. Thus, for example, οἴ 'γώ (Oxford 803) and οἴμοι (Oxford 1002) become "ai" In contrast, Raphael and McLeish awkwardly (and inconsistently) transliterate, providing the baffling, even silly nonsense syllables "oee goh" (e.g. R & M 871 for οἴ 'γώ at Oxford 803), "oee moee" (e.g. R & M 1111 for οἴμοι at Oxford 1002), "Eeoh moee moee" (R & M 1015) and "Eoh moee moee" (R & M 1018) for ιώ μοί μοί (Oxford 937 and 939) and "feoo talass" (e.g. R & M 1081 for φεῦ τάλος at Oxford 983), even inserting "feoo feoo" when it is not present in the Greek (e.g. R & M 1044). Moore substitutes English words of lamentation such as "Alas" or "Ah me!" Although these do convey more or less the idea, they are antiquated and undoubtedly distancing for undergraduate readers. The selective transliteration of Golder and Pevear transmits the emotional tenor of the cries.

Most important, Golder and Pevear do not mislead the reader into dismissing Ajax as proud or fatally flawed. Just prior to the parodos, Athena warns Odysseus:

τοὺς δὲ σώφρονας
θεοὶ φιλοῦσι καὶ στυγοῦσι τοὺς κακούς.
(Oxford 132-133)

Golder and Pevear scrupulously render this:

"The gods favor wise restraint
in men and hate transgressors."
(Golder and Pevear 160-161)

The authors neither insert reference to a transactual relationship (cf. Raphael and McLeish: "when mortals show respect / we favor them; and if they don't, we don't" [Raphael and McLeish 130-131]) nor import the anachronistic concept of pride preceding a fall (cf. Moore's "... know that the gods / love men of steady sense and hate the proud" [Moore 132-133]). Because they do not mistake this statement for the moral of the play, Golder and Pevear carefully avoid such thematic distortion.

Concern for thematic accuracy prevails throughout the translation. Golder and Pevear retain, for example, Sophocles' emphasis on Ajax's Athenian connections, an element crucial to understanding the play's significance for its original Athenian audience. When Tecmessa refers to the chorus of Salaminian sailors as γενεᾶς χθονίων ἀπ' Ἐρεχθειδῶν (Oxford 202), both Moore and Raphael and McLeish elide 'Erechtheus' and the latter omit entirely any reference to Athens ("Friends/ Lord Ajax's friends/ his crewmen ..." [Raphael and McLeish 216ff.]). The effort to avoid burdening readers results in handicapping their abilities to interpret the play. In contrast, Golder and Pevear translate: "Sons of the earthborn race of Erechtheus" (222). 'Erechtheus' appears in the glossary, and a note to line 222 explains the reference to Athenian autochthony. The authors translate literally without forfeiting accessibility.

This literal and accessible approach reproduces the character of Sophocles' straightforward, direct Ajax without rendering him thoughtless or brutish. About to address his son, for example, Ajax begins:

αἶρ' αὐτόν, αἶρε δεῦρο· ταρβήσει γὰρ οὒ
νεοσφαγῆ που τόνδε προσλεύσσων φόνον,
εἴπερ δικαίως ἔστ' ἐμὸς τὰ πατρόθεν.
ἀλλ' αὐτίκ' ὠμοῖς αὐτὸν ἐν νόμοις πατρὸς
δεῖ πωλοδαμνεῖν κἀξομοιοῦσθαι φύσιν.
παῖ, γένοιο πατρὸς εὐτυχέστερος,
τὰ δ' ἄλλ' ὅμοιος· καὶ γένοι' ἂν οὐ κακός.
(Oxford 545-551)

Golder and Pevear translate:

"Lift him up to me. The sight
of fresh blood will not frighten him
if he's truly my son, The colt
must be broken early to his father's
rough ways, and so be made like him
in nature. My son, I pray
That chance will prove kinder to you
than she was to me. If you match me
in all else, you will not do badly."
(Golder and Pevear 609-617)

This pensive man is no hybristic thug. But Raphael and McLeish sacrifice thoughtfulness to forcefulness, offering an abrupt, staccato version of the lines:

"Put him in my arms. Do it. He won't be afraid.
No son of mine will cry at a little blood,
at the sight of a little blood. He has to learn.
A hard school, his father's,
any trainer tells you that ...
It's time fo him to learn. Start young,
Son, be your father in everything, save luck:
be luckier. You'll be all right.
(Raphael and McLeish 586-593)

Moore, on the other hand, conveys a more compassionate but almost stuffy Ajax:

"Lift him up, lift him to me. He won't be frightened,
Even by seeing this fresh-butchered gore,
Not if he really is my son. Break in
The colt straight off to his father's rugged ways;
Train him to have a nature like his sire.
My boy, have better luck than your father had,
Be like him in all else; and you will not be base."
(Moore 545-551)

Neither Moore nor Raphael and McLeish transmit the optative of wish (γένοιο 550). Golder and Pevear effectively convey Sophocles' combination of the warrior's authority and confidence with the father's pained powerlessness.

Golder and Pevear convey, too, both the powerful force of Ajax's character and his visionary eloquence, sacrificing neither literalness nor fluidity. Ajax's great speech (Oxford 646-692) retains its grandeur and insightful certainty. At 654-656, Ajax states:

ἀλλ' εἶμι πρός τε λουτρὰ καὶ παρακτίους
λειμῶνας, ὡς ἂν λύμαθ' ἁγνίσας ἐμὰ
μῆνιν βαρεῖαν ἐξαλύξωμαι θεᾶς·
(Oxford 654-656)

Moore's Ajax sounds like a changed man, weak and hopeful:

"But now I'm going to the bathing place
And meadows by the sea, to cleanse my stains,
In hope the goddess' wrath may pass from me."
(Moore 655-657)

Raphael and McLeish avoid the impression of weakness but disdain eloquence. Their Ajax only grunts inarticulately:

"I'm going. The beach. The sea.
I must clean myself, wash foulness off.
The goddess rages; I must dodge her heat."
(Raphael and McLeish 701-703)

But Sophocles' Ajax has not changed. He says exactly what he means, and Golder and Pevear translate faithfully:

"But I will go to a bathing place
and the salt meadows to be cleansed
of this filth, and I may still escape
the weight of the goddess's anger."
(Golder and Pevear 724-727)

Avoiding awkwardness by transposing the adjective (βαρεῖαν) to a noun ("weight"), the authors preserve the image of oppressive heaviness and successfully capture both senses of the double entendre present in the Greek.

But Golder and Pevear avoid creating the false impression that Ajax is being deliberately deceptive. If Tecmessa and the chorus misunderstand, deception is not Ajax's intention.7 Sophocles' Ajax claims:

τοιγὰρ τὸ λοιπὸν εἰσόμεσθα μὲν θεοῖς
εἴκειν, μαθησόμεσθα δ' Ἀτρείδας σέβειν.
(Oxford 666-668)

Moore's Ajax states:

"From now on this will be my rule: Give way
to Heaven, and bow before the sons of Atreus.
They are our rulers. They must be obeyed."
(Moore 667-669)

Raphael and McLeish offer:

"I've learned my lesson: give way to God,
respect the sons of Atreus.
They're kings, we must bow to them."
(Raphael and McLeish 713-715)

Only Golder and Pevear appear to recognize something that, presumably, a Greek audience would notice immediately: Ajax has swapped the verbs, using εἴκω in regard to the gods and σέβω in regard to the Atreidai. A Greek audience might expect the hero to reverence the gods (σέβω) and to yield to the sons of Atreus (εἴκω) but never the reverse.8 Golder and Pevear retain the sense of impossibility that the Greek conveys:

"And in time to come we will know
how to yield (εἴκω) to the gods and learn
to bow down before (σέβω) the Atreidai."
(Golder and Pevear 739-741)

This is not what Ajax plans to do. This is precisely what Ajax can never do.

In choral passages, too, Golder and Pevear artfully convey both the letter and the spirit of the Greek. The second stasimon, for example, begins:

ἔφριξ' ἔρωτι, περιχαρὴς δ' ἀνεπτόμαν.
ἰὼ ἰὼ Πὰν Πάν,
Πὰν Πὰν ἁλίπλαγκτε, Κυλλανίας χιονοκτύπου
πετραίας ἀπὸ δειράδος φάνηθ',
θεῶν χοροποί' ἄναξ, ὅπως μοι
Νύσια Κνώσι' ὀρχήματ' αὐτοδαῆ ξυνὼν ἰάψῃς·
νῦν γὰρ ἐμοὶ μέλει χορεῦσαι.
Ἰκαρίων δ' ὑπὲρ πελαγέων μολὼν ἄναξ Ἀπόλλων
Δάλιος εὔγνωστος
ἐμοὶ ξυνείη διὰ παντὸς εὔφρων.
(Oxford 693-705)

Raphael and McLeish suggest choral movement but omit the mythological references and lose the impression of melodic flow. Their chorus chants repetitively:

Skin prickles,
heart thuds,
wings of longing;
Pan, eeoh Pan,
you make Olympus dance,
cross seas for us,
dance with us, dance with us.
Apollo, lord of Delos,
cross seas for us,
dance with us, dance with us."
(Raphael and McLeish 741-750)

Conversely, Moore translates more literally but loses the feeling of movement altogether. His chorus seems to describe, rather than to enact, their transport:

"I shudder and thrill with joy,
I leap and take wings--Lord Pan!
Come to me over the sea
From your huge, snow-buffeted mountain,
From the long, harsh ridge of Cyllene.
I would dance, I am bent upon dancing!
Teach me (you are the gods' teacher
And yourself you need no teacher)
Wild, high, excited dances, Mysian, Cnosian --
I would dance, I am bent upon dancing!
And over the open sea
Come to me in the clear light,
Apollo, Lord of Delos --
Be with me in kindness always."
(Moore 693-705)

But Golder and Pevear elegantly retain both the mythological references and the lyric lightness and movement of the lines:

"Desire thrills in me, joy gives me wings!
Io Io Pan! Pan!
Sail from the snow-whipped
crags of Kyllene,
O dance-maker of the gods!
Join us, Launch me
in the impulsive
dance, the ecstatic Knosian,
the Mysian step -- now, now I want dancing!
Come, Lord Apollo,
from Delos, cross over
the Icarian sea
in splendor, your favor stay with us now!"
(Golder and Pevear 770-782)

Here, as throughout, literal translation offers vividness without distortion.

Ironically, this play about time and the changeability of all things remains powerful and provocative today. In this new, readable translation, the play reminds English-speaking audences (just as Sophocles' original must have reminded Greek audiences) that Odysseus' heroic adaptability, his enlightened self-interest and compassion complement (but do not supplant) the heroic absolutism of Ajax, the desire to be the best, the unyielding pursuit of excellence. No functioning society can afford to disdain either. Although Sophocles' more celebrated plays have, in the classroom, eclipsed the Ajax, the translation of Golder and Pevear promises to enhance this play's popularity and to enable it, like its central character, to transcend time, to continue to address the realities of human nature and the requisites of human society.


1.   In The Penn Greek Drama Series, edited by David R. Slavitt and Palmer Bovie, (Philadelphia, 1998).
2.   In Sophocles II, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago, 1957).
3.   See David J. Bradshaw, "The Ajax Myth and the Polis," in Myth and the Polis, edited by D. C. Pozzi and J. M. Wickersham (Ithaca and London, 1991), 99-125.
4.   Bernard Knox, "The Ajax of Sophocles," in The Heroic Temper (Baltimore and London, 1979), 125-160.
5.   See the cogent arguments of J. Griffin, "Sophocles and the Democratic City," in Sophocles Revisited: Essays Presented to Sir Hugh Lloyd-Jones, edited by J. Griffin (Oxford, 1999), 73-94.
6.  All quotations of the Greek text are from the Oxford edition: Sophocles Fabulae, edited by A. C. Pearson (Oxford, 1924).
7.   B. Knox, op. cit., 137-138.
8.   B. Knox, ibid, 139.

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