Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.07.65

Ruby Blondell (trans.), Sophocles: The Theban Plays: Antigone, King Oidipous, Oidipous at Colonus. Updated translations with introductory essay and notes. Focus Classical Library.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus, 2002.  Pp. viii, 235.  ISBN 1-58510-037-4.  $16.95 (pb).  

Peter Meineck, Paul Woodruff (trans.), Sophocles: The Theban Plays. Translated, with Introduction and Notes.   Indianapolis:  Hackett, 2003.  Pp. lxxviii, 223.  ISBN 0-87220-585-1.  $8.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Amy R. Cohen, Randolph-Macon Woman's College (
Word count: 2489 words

I don't envy the translator, who must endure the better ideas of every hack who's had a year of Greek. Blondell (B) and Meineck and Woodruff (M/W) translate under quite different philosophies, but both arrive at valuable additions to the shelf of Theban Plays in English.

B's "translations are aimed at readers, especially students and teachers, who wish to work with a version that is close to the Greek." (vii) B's translation is plain-spoken and clear. She succeeds in keeping Sophocles' ideas in the forefront even if his poetry is not as apparent. She translates consistently, that is, she uses the same English word every time a particular important Greek word appears in the original. B admits that faithfulness to the Greek may lead to awkwardness. In fact, the only times that her translation seems particularly artificial are when she's adhering to her consistency rule. One problem with consistent translation is that English has a much larger vocabulary than Greek, so we seldom repeat key ideas in exactly the same terms -- imitating the Greek patterns of word choice sounds artificially limited in English.

Another problem is that a perfectly good translation of a word may not have the right connotations for an English speaker who's not in a Greek classroom. Teachers and students of Greek are comfortable with "fine" as a translation of καλός, but that choice as the consistent translation for B's Theban Plays often strikes the wrong note. For instance, at Antigone (Ant) 72, "To me it's fine to die performing such a deed," the "fine" doesn't carry the weight of καλός , particularly combined with "it's" -- the result in modern idiom sounds like "to me it's okay to die ... " A note (n.16) glosses καλός more broadly, but even "it's a fine thing to die" would have been better. At Ant 370-72, "citiless is he whose daring makes him keep company with what is not fine" sounds, in modern American, like "what is not satisfactory" rather than "what is not noble" or even "what is not good." Ant 925, "If this is viewed among the gods as something fine..." also doesn't have the ring it should. On the other hand, the consistent use of "evil" for κακός usually works, because the range of meanings in English overlaps more fully with the range of meanings in Greek. For instance, OT 328-29: "I won't reveal my evils ever" and OC 70-72: "Yet how am I by nature evil? I who acted in return for what I suffered, so that even if I'd done it consciously, I'd not be evil even then."

The aim of consistency is admirable, but it requires the reader to interrupt the flow of the plays by constant reference to the notes to get the force of key terms (a particular problem with attention-fragile students). Nevertheless, the notes on the range of meaning of, e.g., φίλος, ἀμηχανός are excellent. As, in fact, are most of the notes: note 112, for instance, accompanying Ant 635-38, calls proper attention to the ambiguity possible in the English, but much more apparent in the Greek. Note 143, on the implications of different possible emendations, is another example of a fine commentary. The notes for OT and OC don't assume that you've read any of the other plays, a useful detail for teachers and students who may not be working with all three plays.

The Introduction hasn't prepared for text notes like n.35, p.101, which discusses editors' choices in emendation, and a teacher will have to explain why there can be controversy over what Sophocles wrote. And why bother in a text for non-scholars to tell us for OT 641 that the text may be corrupt? -- without alternative readings, the note is distracting without adding any insights.

B's translations themselves, as I've said, are good, and in some places very good. Antigone's speech that begins at Ant 450 ("It was not Zeus who made this proclamation ...") is particularly strong: her voice is confident and defiant, as it should be, and even though the translation is very close to the Greek, the English of the speech flows fluently. The style of the stichomythia Ant 508-525 is brisk and bracing. B more than approximates OC 741-52 -- she comes up with quite an impressive single sentence retaining the length and complexity of the Greek original. There are moments of translationese, of course: OT 53 's "well-omened bird" is one of the few instances that call to mind Housman parody. Inevitably I think about how the translation would play on the stage, particularly since this is a text for students, and I believe that the best way for students to understand a play is at least to give it voice, if not to act it out. B's translation, apart from the occasional clunker line and the difficulties caused by the stricture of consistency, stands up admirably under the test of reading aloud.

Of nearly as much value to the student is B's fine introduction. She quickly debunks the stereotypical presentation of Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides as a linear progression of thought and style. After an account of S's life and a brief Athenian history, she rightly reminds her readers that "the conventions of the genre were not static" (2), and although she gives the long list of innovations traditionally attributed to S, she does remind us to be suspicious of the sources. Her style is down-to-earth and clear -- she gives the facts and a frank appreciation of them. She also seems to have an understanding of the barriers that students perceive when they approach the Great Sophocles: "In some ways, this reverence has damaged the study of Sophocles, by casting an aura of sanctity or dusty respectability over his works, enshrining them as 'classical' and therefore unexciting or impervious to criticism" (5). She is aware as well of the pitfalls that even the most eager readers can fall into: "Nonetheless, we should try, in the first instance, to focus on the texts themselves and their original contexts, remaining alert to the biases introduced, whether consciously or otherwise, by our own cultural accretions" (6).

In her section on Theater and Performance, B brings alive for the student the milieu of Sophoclean drama: "Athenian dramatic performances combined the official status of a public institution (both civic and religious), the broad popularity of a Hollywood blockbuster, the emotional and competitive appeal of a major sporting event, and the artistic and cultural pre-eminence of Shakespeare" (6). She deals with the Fate question simply and brilliantly, by stressing the Greek understanding of the issue: "Destiny or 'fate,' in Greek thinking, denotes not a coercive force but the shape of the life that one happens to live out, which is known in advance by the gods but leaves us responsible for our own choices" (26). She also dismisses the shibboleth of "hubris" as O's "fatal flaw" in short order. She's quite clear on pollution as a concept distinct from guilt, which is important to get across to modern students.

B includes two maps that are quite good for the relationship among the different poleis, particularly Thebes, Delphi, and Corinth. The book concludes with an annotated bibliography, full and useful for undergraduates.

M/W allow hubris, at least, a place in our understanding of the plays. (A note on translations on lxxv distinguishes which parts of the book Woodruff wrote and which are Meineck's, but I'll lay the praise and what little blame there is on both of them.) The long introduction includes general information and essays on each of the plays. They stress that the plays are not a trilogy, although, in a wonderful expression of the things at work in the three tragedies, they say that if "these three stories have a resolution, it is in Oedipus at Colonus, but what this play resolves is far grander than the story of this family. Oedipus himself has become an enormously powerful figure in this last play: his presence throughout the action, seated on the forbidden ground he has chosen, which the gods have chosen for him, concentrates in one man great themes of the sacred and the profane, of the acceptance and denial of mystery, and of the violence that destroys peace and the violence that sustains it" (vii). For M/W, in Sophocles human actions are by choice, not by the control of the gods: "Sophocles is closest to humanism in his way of writing plays, and this humanism leads him to construct discrete dramas that link human effects directly to human causes" (vii). They take care to establish that O is a tyrant in some senses, but they don't say what the implications for the play are, except that he is "therefore prone to some forms of hubris" (l). Hubris seems to be an aspect of OT, but not, as far as M/W are concerned, the point. On the Fate question, they say that it "should not detain us here, save to point out that Greek literature from Homer through tragedy seems comfortable with the idea of double causation. A hero's life is explained equally by his choices, his strength, or his wisdom, on the one hand, and by an intervention of the gods on the other" (li). M/W seem to settle on the idea that OT is a "Tragedy of Complexity" and make reference to the ideas of Nietzsche, Vernant, Reinhardt, and Segal. They quote each scholar briefly, but they add little of their own opinions. The introduction also tends to presume unanimity of the original audience's thinking. The Athenians, for instance, "would have been shocked by the sight of a son arguing with and making threats against his father" (xxxi). We should be careful about overstating the universality of perceived cultural norms.

Professionals in the theatre, M/W rightly include the realities of production in their introduction. They favor the existence of a three-foot stage, a few feet deep, with a small set of steps in front of the ancient skene. "This low playing area allowed the principal actors to dominate the performing space and to be clearly seen and heard from all parts of the theatron" (xiii). Certainly that arrangement would allow actors in a proscenium theater to "upstage" the chorus, but as Rush Rehm has shown (in the essential Greek Tragic Theatre), the most powerful playing space in the Greek theater is the center of the orchestra. From experience of producing plays in a Greek theater, I must also disagree that "Performing in a mask does dictate a certain style of acting: the performer must face the front or make no more than a three-quarters turn, and must stand back on the raised stage while speaking" (xv). That sort of blocking ignores the enormously dynamic playing space of the orchestra and the fact that only part of an audience curved around the theatre is going to see any particular mask head-on. On the other hand, M/W's theatrical expertise leads to excellent material on props in general, and O's walking stick in particular, which "is less discernible from the text and yet vital to the play" (xvi).

M/W's are the more poetic and theatrical translations, but it seems churlish to compare theirs to B's, since B's aims are purposefully different. M/W wrote their translations for production, since S did, and "have tried to be especially faithful to the emotional power and directness of Sophocles." They succeed admirably, and I would not hesitate to teach from or to direct from these translations. One element of playability is the translation of exclamations, and I don't think I've seen a finer collection: "Oh no" for οἴμοι (Ant 40 and 82); "Damn it, man" for οἴμ' ὡς λάλημα (Ant 320); and "howl" "howl, howl" for ἰὼ, ἰὼ, ἰώ (Ant 1261 and 1284/85), and so on. "Ah Ah" doesn't work quite as well for αἰαῖ, since we hear it as "aha!" (I realize it's an indication for the actor to wail, but the "howl" is so wonderful, I was hoping for another perfect articulation.) But "Bastards" is perfect for οἱ κάκιστοι (OC 418, 1354, 1384).

Creon's first speech starts in perfect political phrasing, and Ant 194-206 shows a fine contrast in tone when he speaks about the different fates of the dead brothers. The characterization of the Watchman is also well done: "You'll just get your ass kicked" (Ant 228) appropriately startling and a good clue that it's okay to laugh at the wary, weary man. M/W also achieve some fine poetry: Ant 295-300 has effective anaphora with the word "money" that hammers on Creon's paranoia. They expand πόλλα τὰ δεῖνα (Ant 332) into "many wonders, many terrors" and then carefully bring out the negative aspects of the ode that is usually thought of as a celebration, e.g., "grinds the deathless, tireless land away" (my emphasis).

In, I think, a welcome response to the length of the play, the translated lines of OC are short. I suspect the number of English syllables would come out to about three quarters of the number of Greek. For instance, "Apollo spoke of me?" translates OC 414 καὶ ταῦτ' ἐφ' ἡμῖν Φοῖβος εἰρηκὼς κυρεῖ; It's the loosest translation of the three by M/W, but I didn't find myself regretting that. The pace matches the Greek nicely without being slavish.

M/W save textual issues for the endnotes, and use footnotes for clear and useful explanations. It's a good division -- the non-Classics reader can use the footnotes for unfamiliar allusions and not trouble herself with the endnotes. The bibliography is thorough and divided up into general and for scholars and by topic. There are some surprises, like the inclusion of Pickard-Cambridge's Dramatic Festivals of Athens for general readers, but no mention of Rehm's Greek Tragic Theatre. A convenient family tree appears on lxxvii (one always wants to see the solution to how to draw the lines to Jocasta and Oedipus).

Modern typographical conventions cause problems in each version. In M/W, I'm quite distracted by the capitalization at the beginnings of lines (which is not the case in Hackett's edition of M's Oresteia). At OT 1081, in fact, it's confusing: a reader needs to recognize Fortune as the proper name for the goddess, but since she appears at the beginning of a line, it could simply be "fortune." "But I see myself as a child of good-giving / Fortune, and I will not be demeaned. / She is my mother ..." In B, it's the footnote markers -- a superscript number for every note, of which there are at least 150 for each play. The reader's eye is pulled to the bottom of the page over and over. I prefer M/W's system which keys notes to line numbers, since that allows a reader to look if she's hoping for an explanation, but to ignore the notes if she has no questions. Students' attention spans are short enough without making concentration even more difficult.

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