Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2014.10.44 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2014.10.44

Peter J. Ahrensdorf, Thomas L. Pangle (trans.), Sophocles. The Theban Plays: Oedipus the Tyrant; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone. Agora editions.   Ithaca; London:  Cornell University Press, 2014.  Pp. xvii, 195.  ISBN 9780801478710.  $12.95 (pb).  

Reviewed by Michael Fontaine and Richard Fontaine, Cornell University; Center for a New American Security (;


In a field crowded with competitors it is a surprise to find a new prose version of Sophocles’ three Oedipus plays. In the first paragraph of their preface the translators explain:

[T]here does not exist, and we see a classroom and scholarly need for, a translation that … provides the most literally exact reproduction of precisely what Sophocles wrote, as it has been transmitted to us in the best manuscripts, rendered in readily comprehensible, fluent English, especially for students and teachers and scholars who do not know Greek (or do not know Greek well), but who wish and need to study Sophocles with care.

This is an inauspicious start to a curious book. It is not immediately obvious that students today do lack good translations of Sophocles, but instead of expanding on the merits of their work, the rest of the preface is given over to an arraignment of every existing English translation of these three plays. We will come back to that below, but since the bulk of the book consists of the translations (and the three short introductions that precede them), let us turn to them first.

Ahrensdorf and Pangle recast Sophocles’ verses as prose formatted to match the original line numberings. They follow the Greek manuscripts in not supplying independent stage directions. (They make exceptions at Antigone 222, 331, and 376, where they also adopt Brunck’s emendation of the MSS’ name for the character, “messenger,” to “guard,” although in the dramatis personae they still have Triclinius’ ‘Guard-Messenger’). These externals apart, how successfully do they fulfill their promise to provide the most literally exact reproduction of precisely what Sophocles wrote, as it has been transmitted to us in the best manuscripts, rendered in readily comprehensible, fluent English? Let us see some samples.

Here is the start of Oedipus the Tyrant (Oedipus speaks):

Oh children, young nurslings of ancient Cadmus,
Whatever are these seats you have thronged to take,
Wreathed, and with suppliant olive branches?
The city teems with incense, and
With paeans for health, simultaneously with lamentations.
And I, having deemed it just, children, not through messengers,
Not through others, to hear, have myself thus come:
He who is famous in name to all as Oedipus.
But do you speak, elder — since by nature it is fitting for you to
Speak on behalf of these: in what disposition do you sit here?

Others may disagree, but in our view this is not readily comprehensible, fluent English. All three translations proceed in the same fashion. Witness Oedipus at Colonus 202–6:

Oedipus: Alas, for the disaster of an unsound mind!
Chorus: Oh miserable one, now that you are at rest,
Speak! Who of mortals are you by nature?
Who is the one who is led, laboring so much? What,
May we ask, is the land of your fathers?

Here is the start of the polla ta deina ode in Antigone (332-41):

Many are the terrible things, and nothing
More terrible than man!
Across the gray
Sea with winter wind this being
Travels, under surrounding surge
Of passing waves; and of the gods,
The highest — Earth the
Imperishable — he tirelessly wears away,
With plows going back and forth, year in and year out,
Turning the soil with the offspring of horses.

The tragic flaw in their design is that fluency and ready comprehensibility in English cannot be achieved while simultaneously providing the most literal reproduction of precisely what Sophocles wrote; any shift from one language to another entails the loss of some associations and the importation of others. At any event, despite their claim of meticulous fidelity it is remarkable, and surprising, that the translators themselves sometimes shrink from reproducing what Sophocles wrote too literally. For example, they render the opening line of Antigone (ὦ κοινὸν αὐτάδελφον Ἰσμήνης κάρα) as “Oh partner Ismene — my very own dear sister!” How could the reader who does not know Greek guess that the words literally say, “O common own-sister head of Ismene”?

We can also take issue with the accuracy of their choices. For example, in the OT passage above, “seats” and “‘you have thronged to take” (2) should be “sittings” (i.e., in supplication, cf. LSJ ‘ἕδρα’, II) and either “you are thronging to take” or “you are sitting” (the majority view, cf. LSJ ‘θοάζω (Β)). Lines 4-5 should be “teems simultaneously with incense and with paeans and lamentations” and line 6 should be “deeming it just” (δικαιῶν), not “having deemed it just.”

Taken as a whole, therefore, Ahrensdorf and Pangle’s translation represents a missed opportunity. It is an effort that is, however, partially redeemed by the strength of their introductions to each of the three plays. Their incisive reflections interrogate the texts in original and thought-provoking ways, particularly in regard to their political elements. Even where we disagree with them, their ideas merit serious consideration.

Building on their academic backgrounds as professors of political science and appealing to Ahrensdorf’s 2009 interpretative study of Sophocles (reviewed in BMCR 2010.05.22 and by Edith Hall), the translators situate Oedipus the Tyrant in its political context and ask probing questions about the nature of tyranny, guilt, and knowingness. Sophocles labels Oedipus a tyrant, but why?1 As the introduction points out, Oedipus acts “tyrannically” toward neither Creon nor Tiresias. He does not rule violently; in fact, he is praised as an effective ruler devoted to the commonweal. For the translators, Oedipus is tyrannical because he violates a particular set of obligations — the laws, handed down from the gods, which forbid parricide and incest. They find another deeper and still more intriguing meaning in Oedipus’ “tyranny” by arguing that in ceasing to credit oracles and prophets, Oedipus rules by reason and not by the gods.2 Though, they reject the implication that tyrannical rule, guided only by reason, calls down the vengeance of the gods, they go on to suggest that it’s Oedipus’ abandonment of his rationalism that leads to his downfall (p. 11).

The introductions to Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone are similarly rich in ideas. Alternately considering matters of justice, allegiance and political legitimacy, Ahrensdorf and Pangle mine themes of timeless interest and application. In Antigone, they question Creon’s injunction to obey — son to father, young to old, ruled to ruler — and his admonition that “there is no greater evil than anarchy.” In these two principles, one finds the root of arguments, both ancient and contemporary, over the nature of political legitimacy and stability.

In emphasizing filial piety and duty to elders and rulers, for example, they help us see parallels with Confucian values, according to which social harmony stems from the correct fulfillment of one’s individual duty within a familial and political hierarchy. In emphasizing the second principle they prefigure Thomas Hobbes, for whom man’s nasty, brutish and short life in a state of nature — in anarchy — justified the leviathan’s imposition of order.

How far should that imposition extend? Debates are everywhere raging about the nature of political legitimacy in the world. Despite past premonitions, there has been no general triumph of democratic politics worldwide, of either the radical Athenian or the modern liberal variety. Revolutions ranging from Europe in 1848 to the Arab Spring in 2011 raised many expectations but neither material nor intellectual history suggests a coming democratic denouement. Not least in the corridors of American government (and of the think tanks to whom they hearken), policymakers remain uneven in promoting values abroad that most of their citizens hold to be universal. The Theban plays suggest that Athenian thinkers were engulfed in similar debates more than two millennia ago, and no closer to final answers than are our own thinkers today.

We applaud the introductions to each play. We take a different view of the preface, however, and regret that it is the first thing that readers will encounter upon opening the volume. Rather than rest content with offering their work up to the marketplace of ideas, the translators chose to charge their predecessors — all of them, “the existing translations” — with straying from the true faith. The ardent pages that follow read like a caricature of the Inquisition, an impression strengthened by the claim that their effort provides access to the “authentic original historical context” and “profoundly thought-provoking Sophoclean challenges and puzzles. . .” Theirs is “a meticulously faithful rendition of his words, in all their pregnant ambiguities and astounding twists and turns.”

To judge from the samples they select from other translations, some criticisms of “infidelity” are on the mark. Others, however, are cast in impassioned language atypical of scholarship that seems designed to engage readers’ emotions. For example, they ask rhetorically (p. xi, emphasis original):

But do the contemporary English poetic reinterpretations capture even the authentic spirit or mood (leaving aside for a moment the precise meaning) of Sophocles — above all, of his choral odes? How well do rhyming couplets convey the baroque grandeur and anguished piety of the tragic choruses?

They single out recent or popular translations for special scorn. They accuse Berg and Clay (2011) of “creating a kind of extreme ee cummings out of old Sophocles” and conveying a “breathlessness verging on hysteria.” They find Mulroy (2011) and other poetic translations “uneasily reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan.” They “indict” other versions for assorted infidelities, but many of the “infidelities” amount to what is less fervidly called “scholarship” or “philology” — the transposition or reassignment of lines, textual emendations, or raising the possibility that LSJ is wrong about the meaning of a word. What is worse, earlier translators are said to have misconstrued Greek at key points (some “botch,” others “vastly exaggerate, without warrant in the Greek”) or vary their renderings of “words with weighty significance.” “The most deleterious two failings” of existing translations are “the misleading ways in which key religious and political terminology is rendered.” One translation “drastically obscures” while another engages in “unwarranted introduction and substitution” and “pervasive false colorings.” Still others “erase, mute, or distort.” And so on.

In emphasizing the political elements of the plays, Professors Ahrensdorf and Pangle spur their readers — our students — to engage deeply with Sophocles’ masterpieces. Unfortunately, in prioritizing literalism and “fidelity” over fluency and comprehension, the stiff and self-conscious translations themselves will impede that engagement. Which is a shame. If some unmentioned reason explains this result, we can only reply Davus sumus, non Oedipus — the mystery escapes us.


1.   The translators’ insistence on the significance of the title of OT (“The Greek title of the play is Oedipus the Tyrant,” p. 2) should be qualified. The original title was Oedipus. The longer title, first attested in the late 4th century, was used to distinguish it from the much later Oedipus at Colonus. Aristotle always cites the play as Oedipus.
2.   There is no real basis for this claim in the text of the play. It is not supported by the passages cited in the Introduction (p. 10).

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