Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2009.04.34

Anne Carson (trans.), Sophocles' Electra. With commentary by Michael Shaw. Series editors: Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro.   New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001.  Pp. 127 (pb).  ISBN 0-19-504960-8.  

Hanna M. Roisman (trans.), Sophocles. Electra. Translation with notes, introduction, interpretive essay and afterlife. Series Editors: James Clauss and Stephen Esposito. Focus Classical Library.   Newburyport, MA:  Focus Publishing, 2008.  Pp. 135.  ISBN 9781585102815.  $8.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Elke Steinmeyer, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa (
Word count: 2747 words

In view of the multitude of translations, commentaries and monographs (not to mention individual articles or chapters in books) on Sophocles' play Electra that have appeared since the beginning of the new millennium,1 one might ask what original contribution can still be made to the existing scholarship without simply repeating what others have already said. It will be the purpose of this review to consider this question and to establish where the two books under review fit in relation to other publications on the same topic.

Both works are similar in size, price and format. They are part of the respective series of Oxford University Press and Focus Publishing which aim at providing new translations of the ancient Greek tragedies (Oxford) or "the best of Classical literature" (back cover; Focus). Both provide new modern translations with notes and an introduction in the form of an interpretative essay (Shaw) or an introduction and interpretative essay as separate entities (Roisman). Given so many similarities, one might ask what makes each of them special and differentiates them from each other. In addition to their similarities, Carson / Shaw's book comprises a (general) editor's foreword, outlining the general principles of the series, a translator's foreword (Carson), and a glossary; the notes to the translation follow as endnotes in a separate chapter. Roisman uses footnotes throughout the whole book; and she adds a preface, an extremely interesting chapter on the afterlife of the play and a separate bibliography which is missing in Carson / Shaw and would have been more helpful for their readers than the individual references scattered in the footnotes of the introduction. A short but concise index concludes Roisman's book, although one might wonder whether an index is at all necessary for a work of 130 pages.

Some of these differences can probably be explained by the different target audiences at which the two series aim. The general editors of the Oxford series, Peter Burian and Alan Shapiro, elaborate in great detail on their intention in the Editor's Foreword: "The Greek Tragedy in New Translations is based on the conviction that poets like Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides can only be properly rendered by translators who are themselves poets. Scholars may, it is true, produce useful and perceptive versions. But our most urgent present need is for a re-creation of these plays--as though they had been written, freshly and greatly, by masters fully at home in the English of our own times." (v) In addition to these words by the late William Arrowsmith, the reader is informed that the volumes of this series are "products of close collaboration between poets and scholars" (ibid.) and that the translations are supposed to "convey as vividly and directly as possible the splendor of language, the complexity of image and idea, and the intensity of emotions of the originals" and demand "writing of inventiveness, clarity, musicality, and dramatic power" (ibid.). They are meant to be used by "nonspecialist readers" (ibid.) and to be actually performed on stage (vi). Roisman states in her preface that "the book is intended mainly for students and non-professionals" (1). The back cover, which also indicates James Clauss and Stephen Esposito as the series editors for Focus Classical Library, adds: "The Focus Classical Library is dedicated to publishing the best of Classical literature in contemporary translations with notes and introductions, so as to provide modern students with access to the thought and context at the roots of contemporary culture." Consequently, both books seldom use Greek font (Carson / Shaw) or avoid it all together (Roisman), but transliterate the Greek words in order to make them accessible also for those who cannot read ancient Greek. In the rest of the review I will try to establish how well each book serves its intended purpose.

Before turning to the translations themselves one needs to take a closer look at the introductions and interpretative essays in both books. Carson / Shaw is a joint undertaking, with Carson providing the translation and Shaw writing the introduction and the notes (and I presume the glossary) for Carson's translation. In his extensive introduction (3-40) Shaw guides the reader step by step through the play, touching briefly on the earlier or other treatments of the myth in Homer's Odyssey and in the plays by Aeschylus and Euripides.2 Shaw provides an interpretative reading of Sophocles' play and a well-balanced critical discussion of the major themes and problems which he supports by a good and representative selection of scholarship. Since this introduction is directed mainly at an interested lay person, relatively inexperienced in Classics and Greek tragedy, one does encounter some rather general statements such as "choruses are typically suspicious of extreme behaviour" (8) or "Sophoclean heroes often say that they 'must' do something" (9), but on the other hand Shaw also assumes that his reader is familiar with the names and content of other Sophoclean plays. I personally very much like Shaw's acute formulations and insights, such as "the lie he [Orestes] has chosen, a chariot wreck at Delphi, reflects the limited perspective of a rich teenager of his times" (7) or "Sophocles' Electra is, among other things, a thriller" (14), which capture the point in a nutshell. Shaw underpins his discussion with frequent references to or quotations from the text, often rephrasing Carson's free translation by a closer one (for example 7, 9, 13/14, 15, 23, 24/25, 27, 29, 30, 31, 32, 34, 35, 37). He clearly likes his Electra ("I personally believe in the noble Electra"; 36), but does not impose his view on the reader. His notes are sparse, but the glossary is comprehensive and helpful with its explanations of all the mythological names.

Roisman is the sole author of the monograph and is responsible for all parts of it, including the translation; therefore the argument throughout the book is very coherent. The introduction (3-16) is subdivided into four parts. The first, entitled "Theater and Performance", offers an essential summary of ancient Greek theatre and festival practices. The second, entitled "The Myth", discusses in a clear and concise way the various treatments of the myth before tragedy, including fragmentary works, and mentions the (popular) etymology of the name Electra (11). The third, entitled "The Three Playwrights: The Dilemma of Matricidal Revenge", compares Sophocles' interpretation of this part of the myth with those in Aeschylus' Libation Bearers and Euripides' Electra, but does not elaborate too much here on Sophocles, rather pointing to problematic issues. Roisman does not refrain from taking a strong viewpoint, for instance about Euripides' Electra: "The play's final judgment is that the matricide was a wicked act orchestrated by a headstrong and embittered woman under the misapprehension that it was the divine will" (14). The third part concludes with a useful overview of some positions scholars have adopted in the debate about Sophocles' play. The fourth part, entitled "On the Translation" will be discussed below.

In her "Interpretative Essay", Roisman presents her own reading of the play, as she announces in the preface (1). Roughly following the structure of the play she exposes the reader to the main issues and problems in Sophocles' treatment of the myth. She has a more critical attitude towards the character of Electra than Shaw ("Electra emerges as manipulative and out of touch with reality", 103; "Electra, with her unmitigated railing and reproaches, could test any mother's patience", 107), but, like Shaw, she uses a good and representative selection of scholarship in her discussion. Roisman is a highly acclaimed specialist in Greek tragedy and an experienced university teacher who has taught in this field over many years (1), all of which is reflected in her analysis of the play. I would very much have liked to see her final conclusion, but could not since this part was missing (see below).

Since I myself am working on the reception of the Electra myth, Roisman's chapter on "Afterlife" (113-125) was of particular interest to me. Each selection is naturally subjective and open to question; Roisman has chosen the following criteria for her selection of the adaptations she has included: "key adaptations and some works that apply a conception of Electra which may be traceable to Sophocles' play. A major criterion of selection was my ability to access the texts, which restricts the discussion to published works available in English." (113). She discusses five adaptations (Voltaire, Oreste; Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Elektra; Jean Paul Sartre, Les Mouches; John Barton, The Greeks; Eugene O'Neill, Mourning becomes Electra), dedicating 2-3 pages to each of them, and three more (Marilyn Hacker, For Elektra; H.D., Electra-Orestes; John Barton, Tantalus) in one sub-paragraph entitled "The Repudiation" on one page. Inserted is a short explanation of the term "Electra complex". Despite the brevity, Roisman manages to bring across in a condensed but very clear way the central issues of each adaptation and the changes each author made in relation to Sophocles' original. Her selection shows the wide range of possible approaches - historical, political, philosophical, and psychological - to the Electra myth. Barton's plays were new to me, and I am glad to have learned about them.

In her detailed "Translator's Foreword" (41-48) which precedes the actual translation, Carson outlines some of her principles and problems during the process of translating. She focuses on three main points: Electra's screams (Carson has itemized 14 different screams and keeps them untranslated or omits them); the difficulty of translating the Greek verb lupein; and "the verbal and rhythmic music of Electra" (42). Her translation has two numberings: one for the text of the translation and one for the equivalent in Sophocles' text (indicated on the top of each page). The lines of the English translation outnumber the Greek original considerably (2008 versus 1510). The overwhelming majority of sentences and lines are very short, often consisting of one or two words only, which sets a rapid pace. Carson's translation conveys the spirit and tenor of Sophocles' verses strongly, but in a shorter and more condensed way. I am not convinced that compression is the most suitable way to express the excessiveness in Sophocles' drama, in particular that of Electra, who talks in an expansive manner and in periods extending over several lines in the Greek original. Carson coins some nice phrases such as ὑλακτεῖ (299) as "howling bitch" (406) or τοὐμὲ μὴ λυπεῖν (363) as "I must not violate Electra" (495) or ὃν ἔκταν' αὐτή (408) as "her 'murder victim' " (558), but also occasionally leaves out parts of the Greek text for no obvious reason (for example: the second halves of Sophocles' lines 111 and 565 have fallen away in Carson's lines 151 and 758), or else adds some which are not in the Greek (for example: there is no equivalent in the original (230) for Carson's "as any lover" (171; I found this remark about Orestes put into Electra's mouth rather confusing). Carson regularly uses contemporary colloquial expressions such as "damn you" in line 391 (291 Sophocles), "I couldn't care less" in line 496 (364 Sophocles) and "lick their boots" in line 544 (397 Sophocles). She creates an intense and emotionally charged atmosphere, but much of Sophocles' style, vocabulary, and imagery is lost in the process. For me there is too much Carson and too little Sophocles.

Roisman's claim is less ambitious; her translation aims "to combine readability with fidelity to the Greek" (1). In her section "On the Translation" she says: "My aim was to offer an accessible translation as close as possible to the sense of the Greek. Sophocles' wonderful poetry was sacrificed in the process" (15). She then discusses the problems she encountered in this process: first, whether always to render the same Greek word by the same English word or not, using the words δόλος, κακός and ταλαῖνα as examples. She decided to settle on one main meaning, but to modify it if necessary. Second, she states that she left out most of the screams and conjunctions. The back cover of the book adds that she "gives a clear and close translation of the Greek original". In my opinion these statements characterize Roisman's translation very well. It is close enough for one to identify Sophocles' text through hers, but it is written in a clear and fluent style. The numbering of her lines equals those in the Greek original. I personally prefer to have the notes as footnotes providing all the information together below the text. In order to illustrate my comments, I offer for comparison the same passage from Sophocles (Electra's last words, lines 1483-1490) in the translations by Carson (1969-1978) and Roisman:


Don't let him speak--
by the gods! Brother--no speechmaking now!
When a human being is so steeped in evil as this one
what is gained by delaying his death?
Kill him at once.
Throw his corpse out
for scavengers to get.
Nothing less than this
can cut the knot of evils
inside me.


By the gods, don't let him say another thing,
brother, or spin out words at length.
For when mortals are in the thick of trouble,
what can one who is about to die gain with time?
No, kill him as quickly as possible, and when you've killed him,
hand him over to such grave-diggers as he deserves,
far from our sight. For this is my only release from
the pains that have plagued me for so long.

It is one of the fundamental rules in translation studies that the success of a translation should be measured in terms of whether it achieves the goals it sets itself. Therefore I will try to establish whether the two translators meet the set goals. As regards the criteria identified by the general editors of the Oxford series, Carson is, in my opinion, successful in rendering "the intensity of emotions of the original[s]", and in showing "inventiveness, clarity ... and dramatic power" (v). But I do not find much "musicality" in the translation and, as I mentioned before, I think that "the splendor of language and the complexity of image and idea" (ibid.) are compromised. I would agree with the summary on the back cover: "The translation equals the original in ferocity of expression and leaves intact the inarticulate cries of suffering and joy that fill the play." Maybe the dilemma could be resolved simply by labeling Carson's text a re-creation or "inspired by" instead of a translation of Sophocles. Roisman sticks to her own parameters and delivers what she promised: a solid down to earth translation on the literal side which does more justice to Sophocles than Carson's more poetic re-creation. One slight reservation I have with both translations is the occasional (Carson) or sparse (Roisman) use of Christian terminology,3 but this might be a personal dislike.

Before concluding I have two points of criticism. The first concerns the otherwise satisfactory selection of secondary literature used by Shaw and Roisman, respectively. Both follow a recent unfortunate trend and restrict themselves in their bibliographies almost exclusively to Anglophone scholarship; both include only one other work in another language (German) and one of these two even in the English translation and not in the German original. Although the target audience is non-specialist, English-speaking students especially should be encouraged to make use of additional readings in other major modern languages in the field of academia. The second criticism concerns the sloppy editing of Roisman's monograph. In my reviewer's copy, the last paragraph of the "Interpretative Essay" entitled "Some Words in Conclusion" (see Table of Contents) is missing and the essay stops abruptly on p. 111. In addition one subtitle (Carl Jung: The Electra Complex; see Table of Contents) is missing in the chapter "Afterlife" on p. 122. Potential buyers are cautioned to check beforehand whether they have got a complete copy of the book or not.

Roisman's book can serve as a very useful introduction for a newcomer to Classics and Greek tragedy and is well suited for a non-language student without ancient Greek. Also a beginning ancient Greek language student will find Roisman's translation helpful in many instances for working through Sophocles' original because of the faithfulness of her translation, although students should definitely consult in addition some of the more scholarly commentaries. Interested non-specialists outside Classics without a particular interest in Sophocles' original text, and probably also theatre practitioners, might find Carson's re-creation appealing. However, advanced students and scholars can still profit from both Shaw's fine insights in his Introduction as well as Roisman's chapter on Afterlife.


1.   See for example: Sophocles (edited and translated by Michael Ewans et al. 2000), Three Dramas of Old Age. London: Everyman; Sophocles (edited with introduction, translation and commentary by Jenny March 2001) Electra. Warminster: Aris & Phillips Ltd; Michael Lloyd (2005), Sophocles: Electra (London: Duckworth); P.J. Finglass (2007), Electra: Sophocles edited with introduction and commentary (Cambridge, UK, New York: Cambridge University Press).
2.   Shaw does not mention the scholarly debate about the priority problem of Sophocles' and Euripides' Electra plays at all; Roisman only in one sentence (11).
3.   Carson: for example lines 86 (holy), 111 (hell), 148 (angel), 175 (heaven), 291 (hell), 433 (unholy), 892 (Amen - not in Sophocles), 1784 (hell). Roisman: for example lines 86 (holy), 112 (holy), 968 (piety).

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