Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.16

Seth L. Schein (trans.), Sophokles: Philoktetes.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus, 2003.  Pp. ix, 126.  ISBN 1-58510-086-2.  $8.95.  

Reviewed by Brad Levett, Carleton University (
Word count: 1445 words

Seth Schein's new translation of the Philoctetes will serve as a useful text for upper-year classical literature courses in translation. As is typical of the Focus Classical Library series, Schein's translation aims to give a faithful rendering of the Greek that is at the same time readable, if not poetic. It also situates the work in its historical context and generally provides the supplementary material required for readers new to Attic tragedy. The book consists of an Introduction (1-18), a translation with notes (19-88), an Interpretive Essay (89-117), an Appendix containing Dio Chrysostom's 52nd Discourse on three versions of the Philoctetes myth by the three major tragedians (119-122), and Suggestions for Further Reading (123-126).

In his introduction Schein discusses the fifth-century history of Athens, the context and conditions of the play's original production, the origin of tragedy, the meter and language of Attic tragedy, the Chorus, matters of staging, the life of Sophocles, the general nature of his drama, and finally his reception as a dramatist. The material is clearly presented and pertinent to Attic tragedy in general and the Philoctetes in particular. My only reservation was with what seemed, in a translation, to be a disproportionate amount of consideration given to matters of meter.1

The translation of the play is generally smooth and readable. At times I felt it had force and flow to it, for instance 1145-1151;

My winged prey, and you tribes
of wild beasts with flashing eyes
who inhabit these mountain pastures,
no longer will you rush in flight
from your lairs, for my two hands lack
my arrows' former strength;

At other times, as is inevitable in a more literal translation, I felt there was a certain awkwardness, e.g. the Chorus' "and on his eyes / may you keep spread this light that is spread now" at 830-1.

Schein at times also expands on the literal meaning of the Greek in order to bring out a fuller sense of its import. Hence at lines 4-5 he translates "I once abandoned / the son of Poias from Malis, like a new-born child", drawing out an additional connotation of ἐξέθηκ' that may be in play here. He translates the term μῦθος, used at the end of the play to describe Heracles' (divinely sanctioned) pronouncements (1417, 1447), as "authoritative word" (in contrast to the false or unreliable λόγοι of the human characters). In line 1422, part of Heracles' description of Philoctetes' fate, Schein translates "to make your life glorious after and through these labors", expanding, I think correctly, on ἐκ τῶν πόνων τῶνδ' to indicate that it refers to both the glory won by his past heroic endurance on Lemnos and the future glory he will win at Troy. One clear advantage of teaching with a more literal translation is that it allows the student to read the text with less chance of outright error due to variation in the translation of given terms into English. Schein is generally careful to translate related terms consistently. Thus, Odysseus' emphasis on the need for obedience to one's superiors is reflected in his use of the verb ὑπηρετέω (15, 990) and noun ὑπηρέτης (53), which Schein translates as "serve", "(to be a) servant" and "servant" respectively. He is also generally careful with ethical terms, although I would have liked to have seen ἀρετῆς at 669, when Philoctetes says that Neoptolemus is worthy of holding the bow because of his act of kindness in rescuing him, translated as something other than "nobility", a term which Schein tends to use for words indicating privileged birth (e.g., γενναῖος, as translated in, e.g., 51, 475). Rather, ἀρετή seems to be pointedly used in the play to suggest nobility derived from personal action, in contrast to inherited standing, as when Heracles talks of the "deathless excellence" (1420, ἀθάνατον ἀρετὴν) Philoctetes has and will establish through his labors.

I did notice one small misstep in translation, at 975 when Odysseus returns suddenly to make a last attempt to stop Neoptolemus from returning the bow to Philoctetes. The line reads οὐκ εἶ μεθεὶς τὰ τόξα ταῦτ' ἐμοὶ πάλιν; which Schein translates as "Will you not surrender this bow to me again?", when πάλιν should be taken with οὐκ εἶ ("Will you not get back, having surrendered this bow to me?"). Schein's translation suggests that Odysseus once in fact had possession of the bow.

Schein's useful interpretive essay is strongest in its concern to help the student understand the complex and even contradictory tensions at work in the play and to discourage the acceptance of overly simplified answers. After a discussion of the myth of Philoctetes prior to Sophocles, drawing out the important Sophoclean innovations, Schein then examines the play largely by character. He is generally critical of the Chorus, seeing them as primarily a minor character under the sway of Odysseus' political pragmatism. Schein then gives a nicely nuanced reading of Neoptolemus, offsetting the dominant narrative movement of the play which has the young man gradually move from the ethical orbit of Odysseus to that of Philoctetes, in part by means of a discussion of how the ending of the play calls to the listener's/reader's mind the later atrocities he committed at Troy. Schein discusses Odysseus in terms of late fifth-century Athenian politics, with particular reference to Thucydides' account of the changes in ethics and language that resulted from the Peloponnesian War. In doing so, he complicates the familiar picture of Odysseus as the hero of cunning and stratagems by emphasizing the character's (attempted) use of violence to obtain his objectives. Odysseus is also related closely to the teachings and language of the Sophists. In his treatment of Philoctetes, Schein notes that while the connections between Philoctetes and the Achilles of the Iliad are clear, the play also suggests connections between Philoctetes and the Odysseus of the Odyssey (specifically Odysseus' time on Calypso's island), thereby again complicating a simple opposition between Odysseus and Philoctetes. There is also a good discussion of the nature/civilization opposition in relation to Philoctetes himself. Finally, in his treatment of Heracles and the ending of the play, Schein discusses the ambiguous nature of the deus ex machina, suggesting that the ending is generally satisfying in regard to Philoctetes, at the same time as it raises disturbing questions for the audience.

One drawback to examining the play by character is that some important themes are underrepresented. Thus, while Schein is good on the violence of Odysseus, as well as his and Neoptolemus' use of persuasive and self-serving language, he never draws out for the student the opposition between violence and language that is a central theme of the play. He also tends to underemphasize the issue of the oracle of Helenus. Granted that we cannot know its true contents (p. 47 n. 59), or how the characters, in particular Philoctetes, feel about it (p. 81 n. 101), the oracle (and the piecemeal fashion in which it is revealed) is clearly crucial to the play, since it motivates the characters and thus also the action of the plot itself. Moreover, given Neoptolemus' and Odysseus' claims to be acting as the agents of the gods (839-42, 989-90; cf. also 191-200), the question of the true meaning of the oracle in turn raises the question of the gods' treatment of Philoctetes.

The book concludes with suggestions for further reading, without, however, the short descriptive notes typical of other works in the series. The only omission perhaps worth noting is Joe Park Poe's Heroism and Divine Justice in Sophocles' Philoctetes (Mnemosyne Supplement 34, Leiden, 1974), simply because it is one of the few monographs on Philoctetes in English (albeit a very short one), and because it presents one of the most negative interpretations of the play's conclusion.

Typos and misprints are rare. On p. 5 n. 8 and p. 8 n. 13, remove the brackets from "E[asterling]". Note 5 on p. 21 suggests that line 163 is spoken by Odysseus, when it is spoken by Neoptolemus. On p. 107, 5 lines from the bottom of the page, delete "the". On p. 10, 6 and 8 lines from the top, and p. 110, 19 lines from the top, "Choros" should be Chorus. On p. 114, 5 lines from the bottom, the cross-reference "(above, p. 00)" should read "(above, p. 14)". On p. 124, in the entry for Winkler, J. and F. Zeitlin (eds.), "Dionysus" should be Dionysos.

Given that it provides more contextual information and interpretive detail than the average translation, and that the translation itself strives for greater fidelity to the original, Schein's work will be most welcome in upper-year translation courses, where it will encourage students to develop a more detailed and subtle understanding of the play.


1.   Moreover, at times Schein's discussion of metrical matters seems a bit too detailed for students without knowledge of Greek (e.g. the reference on p. 25 n 12 to the distinctive use of γίγνομαι rather than εἰμί in the impersonal construction, or the reference on p. 84 n 105 to the anomaly of the lack of word-ending in the trochaic tetrameters of 1402-1408).

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