Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.06.50

Carl Phillips (trans.), Sophocles. Philoctetes. With introduction and notes by Diskin Clay. Greek Tragedy in New Translations.   Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 2003.  Pp. 128.  ISBN 0-19-513657-8.  $10.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Eric Dugdale, Gustavus Adolphus College (
Word count: 2373 words

As is customary in The Greek Tragedy in New Translations series, this translation with accompanying notes is the result of the pairing of a poet and a scholar, in this case Carl Phillips and Diskin Clay respectively.

This new translation of Sophocles' Philoctetes sets out to convey the force of the Greek original, its nuances, and its strangeness. It delivers on each of these counts, offering a version which is attuned to the range of tones employed by Sophocles, which comes across well in oral delivery, and which exudes raw emotion. The accompanying notes offer a sensitive treatment of key themes of the play and give important mythical background. They do not measure up to the series' aim to provide notes "to mediate the conventions of the Athenian stage," providing only minimal treatment of issues of performance. Overall, though, this edition offers a vigorous translation and helpful notes suited to the needs of the Greekless reader.

The introduction by Diskin Clay does an excellent job of situating the Philoctetes in the context of the constellation of preceding works dealing with the Trojan War. The Iliad, the Odyssey, The Epic Cycle, the lost Philoctetes plays by Aeschylus and Euripides and numerous extant and lost Sophoclean tragedies are introduced as the necessary backdrop for understanding what is distinctive about Sophocles' handling. Such background could easily read like a catalogue, but Clay avoids this by organizing his introduction thematically, interweaving references to literary predecessors as and when they are relevant. So, for example, the characterizations of Philoctetes, Neoptolemos and Odysseus are elucidated by a succession of thought-provoking comparisons. Although Philoctetes is at the periphery of the Iliad while Achilles is at its heart, they are both heroes who are characterized by their anger and notable by their absence. Philoctetes shares with Herakles the experience of extreme physical suffering and with Ajax the isolation of a warrior whose pride has been injured by a slight by Odysseus and the sons of Atreus. Just as Achilles in the Iliad rejects the embassy because of Odysseus' duplicity, so his son Neoptolemos initially refuses to participate in Odysseus' proposed embassy to Philoctetes for the same reason. When Philoctetes asks about "a worthless creature, but clever and a skilled speaker," Neoptolemos thinks of Odysseus rather than Thersites.

Two sections of the introduction distinguish themselves as particularly valuable contributions. The section on Lemnos draws attention to the long history of human habitation of this island, from the Late Bronze Age settlement of Polichni to the Athenian expeditionary group of colonists sent there in 450. It also notes the political, commercial and religious connections between Athens and Lemnos. In so doing, it makes a forceful case for the singularity of Sophocles' conception of the island as deserted, and highlights the effect it would have had on an Athenian audience, familiar from the Iliad and Aeschylus' and Euripides' Philoctetes with a populated Lemnos, to find that Philoctetes is completely alone on the island. The section entitled "Philoctetes before Philoctetes" takes stock of the little we know of the lost Philoctetes plays by Aeschylus and Euripides and contrasts our relative ignorance of their content with our ability to compare the three tragedians' treatments of the story of Orestes and Electra. Clay then introduces Dio of Prusa's assessment of the three Philoctetes plays and his characterization of Sophocles as a playwright who is "intermediate" between the extremes of Aeschylus and Euripides. He uses Dio's comment as a spring-board for his characterization of Sophocles' Philoctetes as a play that deals with extremes rather than a middle ground. Philoctetes and Odysseus embody two extremes: the former is a throwback to a vanished archaic heroism, the latter represents the sophistry current during the Peloponnesian War. Neoptolemos is caught between these two extremes, drawn to each by the conflicting forces of admiration for Philoctetes and duty towards Odysseus.

The strengths of Clay's introduction are also its weaknesses. His character delineation through comparison and contrast is both refreshingly original and confusingly allusive. The introduction scatters treatment of certain key themes over a wide terrain. So, for example, the isolation of Philoctetes on Lemnos is discussed both in the section on Lemnos (pp. 7-9) and in the section entitled "Philoctetes before Philoctetes" (p. 11), Neoptolemos' moral dilemma is mentioned at the end of the "Philoctetes before Philoctetes" section (p. 12), then again under "Dramatis Personae" (pp. 13-6), but nowhere is it fully articulated what Neoptolemos' inherited phusis as the son of Achilles is and how his genealogy influences both his own decision-making and that of Philoctetes. The story of how Philoctetes received his bow from Herakles in return for the part he played in freeing Herakles from pain by lighting his funeral pyre crops up again and again in the introduction and is mentioned four times in the notes, but the reader is never told why Deianera gave Herakles the poisoned robe in the first place. Athenian sophistry is mentioned in passing on three occasions, but nowhere is it clearly laid out what sophistry actually was nor what role it played in Athenian policy-making during the Peloponnesian war. And although Sophoclean scholars understand what is meant by "the sacrament of the bow" (p. 20, 108), the expression will leave most readers bemused.

Although the coverage of the play's themes is necessarily curtailed by the scope of the series, a number of key themes that warrant inclusion are missing from the introduction and notes. The maturation of the young hero Neoptolemos is one such theme. Just as the Odyssey portrays the coming of age of Telemachos and Sophocles' Electra that of Orestes, so too in the Philoctetes Neoptolemos emerges from under the guardianship of Odysseus and the shadow of his father Achilles and becomes an adult capable of making his own decisions. The pity that Neoptolemos eventually feels for Philoctetes also deserves more than passing mention, not only because it is privileged by the playwright through verbal repetition but also because it provides such a stark contrast to the representation elsewhere of Neoptolemos as pitiless Pyrrhos and provides such an interesting pendant to Achilles' eventual pity for Priam. Discussion of the play's stagecraft is particularly sparse. There is no mention of the significance to the plot of movements towards and away from the shore, nor treatment of the sequence of aborted exits at lines 461, 533, 1179 and 1402 in the Greek text. Attention could also have been drawn to the key moments of physical contact between Neoptolemos and Philoctetes, and the rarity in Greek society of physical contact between unrelated adult men, in order to allow the reader to fully understand the bond that develops between these two new friends. In particular, the meaning and practice of the act of supplication need to be explained if the reader is to understand the moral constraints under which Neoptolemos operates once Philoctetes is his suppliant. Finally, brief consideration of the distinctive characteristics of Sophoclean dramaturgy as seen in the Philoctetes would have provided a useful overview for the student reading the play as part of a survey of ancient drama.

Carl Phillips begins his translator's note by commenting on the most salient feature of his translation, "the frequent and radical shifts in line length throughout." Phillips defends himself from accusations of self-indulgence by providing the rationale behind this variation: it reflects the vicissitudes of the moral and emotional landscape of the play as well as the harsh topographical and social realities of the play's setting. This explanation is hardly necessary, for the merits of his approach are readily apparent from the translation itself. Line breaks and line lengths have an inherent logic, as is clear from the following extract, the speech in which Philoctetes addresses his bow (1241-1253/1128-1139):

Dear bow,
wrested from hands as dear,
I'm sure if you have
any conscious feelings, you look with
pity on the wretched heir to Herakles, who won't ever
again use you, no --
instead, you'll
be handled by a schemer's hands,
witness to disgraceful deceits, and to a man
bringing about a thousand deeds of shame --
he brought as much on me.
The translation conveys the directness of Philoctetes' address, from the startling apostrophe of the bow to the shifting of voice that characterizes the bow as both agent and victim. Its style is stripped down ("a man hateful, hated") and sharpened for greater impact ("-- he brought as much on me" for the literal "which he has contrived against me"). Phillips' translation offers a variety of tones that captures the range of registers employed by Sophocles. Expressions in passages of stichomythia can be downright colloquial (e.g., "Fine then" for ἴτω at 132/120), while full justice is done to lyrical passages through elevated language and poetic turns of phrase. A particularly strength of this translation is its success in conveying the boldness of expression that is a trademark of Sophocles' art. So, for example, it retains the strangeness of the Greek in Philoctetes' words to Odysseus: "you sailed with them after being yoked by kidnapping and necessity" (1134/1025). So too, the translation often unpacks the essential, underlying meaning of a word. When reconnoitering Philoctetes' cave, Neoptolemos remarks "--And these too: some rags drying out, pus-heavy," (45/39). Phillips' expression catches the double meaning of βαρείας, describing both the weight of matter contained in the rags and its offensiveness. Where a modern reader needs a more direct indication, Phillips makes explicit an implication that is latent in the Greek. So, for example, he renders what would literally be "not if lying brings salvation" as "No -- not if lying is a means to safety" (121/109), thereby drawing attention to the expediency of Odysseus' position in which the end justifies the means.

There are few elements of Phillips' translation to which to object. One is his predilection for parenthetical dashes, which is taken to an extreme and, in places, becomes otiose. Their ubiquity in the translator's note as well as in the translation proper suggests that they are a syntactical habit rather than a stylistic choice. Sometimes they prove highly effective, as when they are used to convey Philoctetes' fragmented outbursts of pain. At other times they help to convey urgency (e.g., "Don't go -- by the Zeus of prayer and curse -- I beg you," 1299/1182), express hesitation (e.g., "I heard a sound -- as of someone in great pain -- here, or -- or over there," 201-202/ 202-204) or indicate some other emotion. Coming as they do in quick succession, however, their net effect is diminished. And sometimes their presence introduces emphasis not present in the Greek (e.g., "and he commands no hand or foot or -- or anything else ..." 908-909/860). There are also places when they make it hard to follow what is being said. Here, for example, is an extract from the translator's note:

"It is my sense that the absolute maleness of the cast has everything to do with the increasing claustrophobia -- psychologically -- of this play. What is claustrophobia, finally, but intimacy at too intense a pitch -- intimacy as much with place as with people, in this case. And an intimacy with ideas or conventions -- specifically, trust and duty, on which so many of the intimacies in the play crucially and perilously depend. Again, it is through line length and syntactically inflection that I have hoped to convey the intricacies of intimacy -- itself ever shifting -- across the play."

Sometimes this overabundance of dashes merely makes a sentence disjointed or elliptical, but at other times it interferes with intelligibility. Another peculiarity of the translation is a tendency to tamper with simple negatives, producing strange effects (e.g., "far-from-good-omened cries" for δυσφημίαις14-15/10, "ask you about one who is hardly noble, but is clever and wise" for ἀναξίου μὲν φωτὸς ἐξερήσομαι, γλώσσῃ δὲ δεινοῦ καὶ σοφοῦ, 439/439-440).

It is not the aim of the Oxford series to produce a rigidly literal translation, so the reader should not expect to find a verbatim rendering of the Greek. The translation is, however, true to the original in spirit, with only a few minor infelicities. When Neoptolemos uses the impersonal construction (122/110) to ask how one will have the courage to say these things (i.e. lies) face-to-face, he is almost certainly talking about himself in reference to Philoctetes rather than referring to Odysseus' effrontery in speaking to him. The repeated use of οὖρος in line 855 (οὖρός τοι, τέκνον, οὖρος) surely communicates the idea that the wind is favorable (e.g., "there is a favorable wind, my child," vel sim.); Phillips' rendition ("a wind, child; a wind --" 905/855) is flat and misses the main point of the chorus' insistence that it is now the right moment to abandon Philoctetes. There are a few other missed opportunities or weak choices (e.g., "continues" as a translation of τέθηλε in line 259 fails to communicate Sophocles' personification of Philoctetes' sickness). These are minor wrinkles, however, in a translation that conveys the vigor and immediacy of Sophocles' play more powerfully than any other translation to date.

Of the other commonly used translations of the play, that of Kenneth McLeish (in the Cambridge Translations from Greek and Roman Authors series) is the easiest to follow, but it also diverges significantly from the original through paraphrase and extension of thought. The translation by David Grene (in the Chicago Greek Tragedies series) is clear and reliable, though stilted and archaizing in places. The comparative costliness of single-play translations that may make use of the Phillips and Clay translation unfeasible in literature in translation classes in which many texts are read (the Oxford University Press website lists the price at $10.95) also counts against the new translation by Judith Affleck (in the Cambridge Translations from Greek Drama series). What Affleck's version has over that of Phillips and Clay is a more comprehensive and readily accessible set of notes that accompany the translation on the facing page. By not marking the existence of accompanying notes in the body of the text, the Oxford text makes it unlikely that the reader will turn to the fifteen pages of notes and the glossary of names that lurk at the back. Where Phillips and Clay' rendition excels is in its suitability to oral delivery, whether through reading aloud or -- with modifications -- in performance on stage.

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