BMCR 2006.02.43

The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone, Introductions and Notes by Robert Bagg and Mary Bagg

Sophocles., Robert Bagg, Mary Bagg, The Oedipus plays of Sophocles : Oedipus the king, Oedipus at Kolonos, and Antigone. Amherst and Boston: University of Massachusetts Press, 2004. xii, 269 pages ; 26 cm. ISBN 1558494537 $19.95.

It is widely accepted that translators of Greek drama, more than others, are depressingly circumscribed by the fact that any rendition of the ancient plays in a modern language is bound to fall short of the remarkably delicate shades of meaning that the original Greek effortlessly conveys in crisp and densely-packed sentences. In addition there are the complexities of the sung portions, the lyrical feel and rhythmic presence of the choral pieces, and the endless train of associations lying within every grammatical or syntactical convolution of the original language. It has been convincingly argued that, not unlike a passenger in a foundering ocean liner, a competent translator should always try to place those items that he thinks most valuable in his own lifeboat.1 Happily, of late there have been several readable and accurate translations of Greek drama in which the essentials of meaning and dramatic force have been rescued.2

Robert Bagg’s translation of Sophocles’ Theban plays is one of those felicitous renderings of Greek tragedy in which, for the most part, faithfulness to the ancient text meets poetic phrasing and meticulousness of image. The reason for this fortunate union of linguistic precision and rhetorical boldness may lie in Bagg’s (hereafter B) wide experience in poetry writing and his constant engagement in numerous productions of Greek plays over the last forty years. Apart from the translations, the attractive volume includes illuminating introductions to the plays and helpful notes on contentious points and contextual matters. There is also an interesting essay on Greek theatre in the time of Sophocles, centering on tragedy’s historical, intellectual and social background in fifth-century Athens. It should be noted that B’s wife Mary Bagg, a freelance editor and writer, contributed extensively to the introductions and notes.

It is not overbold to suggest that the remarkable increase in the number of actable and enthralling translations has been instrumental in the unprecedented revival of Greek tragedy on stages worldwide over the last fifty years.3 In light of modern eloquent translations devoid of unpleasant falsities to the original Greek, the producers’ indefatigable straining after innovative solutions to old problems has frequently resulted in gripping and insightful enactments of the plays.4 B’s brisk and spirited new renderings of Sophocles’ Theban plays not only often show a fine sense of rhythm and a keen interest in performance priorities, but also communicate the tragic tone and dramatic concentration of Sophocles’ convoluted syntax and taut sentence structure. This is no mean achievement; according to so knowledgeable a translator as Michael Ewans, “translating Sophokles frequently requires that the English syntax be much freer from that of the original Greek than Aischylos, if an actable version of the meaning is to be achieved — especially in lyrics.”5

As is fittingly acknowledged in the Textual Note (p. xiii), Richard Jebb’s monumental edition of Sophocles’ extant plays was an essential guide with regard to issues of textual corruption and interpretation. Further, in my view, B is to be applauded for consulting H. Lloyd-Jones and N. G. Wilson’s scholarship on editorial difficulties, yet not succumbing to their frequently irritating, and at times misleading excesses of emendation. On the contrary, more often than not, B maintains a clear head as regards textual problems, thereby doing justice to the ancient poet’s stylistic peculiarities and lexical scrupulosity.6 Other important linguistic and interpretative aids to the work in hand included Mark Griffith’s incisive commentary on Antigone and Ruby Blondell’s masterful, although at times inopportunely prosaic, renditions of the Theban plays.7

The task of rendering Sophocles’ Theban plays in an English idiom not unfitted for living speech becomes even more challenging, in view of numerous spare and vigorous renditions that continue to appear in the contemporary competitive market, at a pace that readers find hard to keep up with.8 Of these, one should recognize the impressive craftsmanship and extraordinary lucidity of Robert Fagles’ renderings of the three Theban tragedies. Bernard Knox’s penetrating introductions to the plays and helpful notes on the text allow the readers to focus on the far-reaching complex of themes and images.9 As a matter of fact, the same extremely useful format, combining introductory essays with notes as an indispensable guide to a more conscious understanding of the translated plays, is equally effective in B’s volume of poetic renderings. Notwithstanding the glossing notes, the handy stage directions incorporated into the text and the levelheaded analysis, this is not a scholarly translation with the sole purpose of aiding our improved comprehension of the ancient text; at its most felicitous moments it is poetry delicately filtered through a layer of philologically sound editing.

It is time now to look more closely at B’s programmatic statement that his goal in these translations “has been to achieve maximum playability with the least sacrifice of accuracy” (p. ix). The sheer force and grandeur of lines 599-603 in Sophocles’ Antigone have always intrigued me on account of their almost untranslatable juxtaposition of images and complex set of meanings. Here the Theban elders bewail Antigone’s disastrous fate, in view of her imminent death. As they witness Antigone and Ismene being led inside the palace and Creon savagely glorying in their capture, they come to the sad realization that the hereditary doom incessantly weaving through the generations of the House of Labdacus is about to strike down the last ray of hope spread over the family of Oedipus. It is apparent to me that B renders the extraordinary thematic density of the stanza without overindulgent verbiage and distasteful mannerism. His rendition is fitting for stage delivery and, more significantly, respects Sophocles’ admirable linguistic capacity for fusing ostensibly incongruous images into one harmonious whole:

Now the hope that brightened/ over the last rootstock/ alive in the house/ of Oedipus, in its turn/ is struck down —/ by the blood-drenched dust/ the death-gods demand, by reckless talk, by Furies in the mind.

When I first perused the volume of B’s new translations, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Jortin’s unfortunate emendation of κόνις (“dust”) into the lamentably unimaginative κοπίς (“cleaver”) was rightly dropped in favour of the transmitted text, thus achieving a more poetical and thematically challenging English rendition.10 Felicitous instances like this one abound in B’s rhetorically powerful renderings of Sophocles’ copious layers of formulated symbolism and pictorial magnificence.

As I have already suggested, however much experienced translators of Greek plays strive after accuracy, in translation there is always a dimension of the source text that escapes. This is not to say, of course, that B should be held responsible for failing to attain the impossible. There are, nonetheless, cases in which a slight change in the phrasing would make all the difference. B catches the flavour of lines 1074-1084 in Sophocles’ Oedipus at Colonus, but at one instance does not convey the full implication of the Greek. This is an important omission, since the motif of mantic enthusiasm informing the ode is hereby seriously weakened, especially for the non-Greek-reading public. The passage goes as follows:

Are they in action yet,/ or do they hold back?/ My heart gives me/ hope that the girls,/ harshly tested,/ brutally abused/ at the hands of their uncle,/ will soon see us, face to face./ Zeus will decide who wins./ He will end it today. I sense/ the combat will go well./ Were I a dove right now, the storm’s/ thrust lifting my strong wings,/ I might soar through a cloud,/ the battle raging below me.

In their mantic transport, the chorus of old men envisions the cavalry battle between Theseus’ followers and the Theban abductors as taking place close to the Attic borders. In this fine specimen of ‘escape lyrics’, Sophocles throws strong emphasis on the chorus’ clairvoyant penetration through recurrent confident predictions of Athenian victory. At 1080 the visionary fervour of the Colonan elders reaches a climax; they declare themselves to be “prophet” of the imminent Athenian triumph over the Theban aggressors. In light of the diffuse translation of the Greek key word μάντις and the unnecessary running over of the sentence into the next line, the English rendition, “I sense/ the combat will go well”, comes as an anti-climax in an ode-long pattern of persistent fine shades of mantic preoccupation.

Correspondingly, earlier in the same play, B shows an admirable sense of rhythm in the rendition of the lyric dialogue between Oedipus and the chorus (510-548). Nonetheless, in his effort to produce an intensely dramatic translation, he adds further pointless force and attack to his rendition. It is dangerously easy for the translator to be carried away in his reproduction of the original sentiment, especially in view of other authoritative renderings. Apparently, at this point B follows too closely Jebb’s emphasis on the chorus’ almost prurient interest in Oedipus’ crimes of parricide and incest. A telling example of this school of thought is B’ rendition of the chorus’ firm statement that Oedipus “killed” his father as a cry of revulsion, “Murderer!”, in keeping with Jebb’s unnecessarily censorious “Slayer!”. It is plain to see that the original ἔκανες (545) does not come close to being a cry of horror. This is all the more so, taking into account Oedipus’ composed acknowledgement of his father-killing in the same line ( ἔκανον).

It is regrettable that in a volume of gripping and attractive translations of prominent ancient plays, a certain carelessness is evident in the editing. In particular, Greek words, place-names and authors are consistently misspelled in their English transliteration — “didaskaloi” is frustratingly printed as “didaskoloi” no fewer than five times (pp. xi, 7 twice, 15, 101). Exasperatingly enough, the Greek part of the dedication to the authors’ friends and teachers is similarly misprinted. But this is quibbling. There are points of detail that a reviewer would find fault with, but these are few and far between. All in all, B’s eminently actable text is an ingenious effort to recapture the remarkable poetic flavour of Sophocles’ language; his unfailing loyalty to the letter and his sufficient philological expertise prevent the emphases and preoccupations of the theatrical practitioners from imposing an insurmountable barrier between ancient sensibility and modern sentiment.


1. P. Woodruff, “Justice in Translation: Rendering Ancient Greek Tragedy”, in J. Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 490. See also P. D. Arnott, An Introduction to the Greek Theatre (London & New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 180-206; P. Burian, “Tragedy Adapted for Stages and Screens: The Renaissance to the Present”, in P. E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 271-6; L. Hardwick, Translating Words, Translating Cultures (London: Duckworth, 2000), pp. 9-22; R. Garland, Surviving Greek Tragedy (London: Duckworth, 2004), pp. 138-45.

2. Above all, Hugh Lloyd-Jones’ masterful three-volume translation of Sophocles’ extant plays and fragments in the Loeb series (1994-1996); in the same series, David Kovacs offers renditions of Euripides noteworthy for accuracy and elegance (1994-2004).

3. See principally the recent important overview in P. E. Easterling, “Ancient Drama in Performance”, Didaskalia 6.1 (2004), pp. 1-5 accessible at didaskalia.

4. See especially O. Taplin, “An Academic in the Rehearsal Room”, in J. Barsby (ed.), Greek and Roman Drama: Translation and Performance (Stuttgart & Weimer: J. B. Metzler, 2002), pp. 7-22.

5. “Translation Forum”, in J. Barsby (ed.), Greek and Roman Drama: Translation and Performance (Stuttgart & Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 2002), p. 181.

6. Oddly enough, there is no reference to H. Lloyd-Jones and N. G. Wilson’s more recent collection of reconsiderations and supplements published under the suggestive title: Sophocles: Second Thoughts (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997).

7. H. Lloyd-Jones & N. G. Wilson, Sophoclea: Studies in the Text of Sophocles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); M. Griffith (ed. and comm.), Sophocles: Antigone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); R. Blondell, Sophocles: The Theban Plays Antigone, King Oidipous, Oidipous at Colonus, Translation with Notes and Introduction (Newburyport MA: Focus Information Group, 2002).

8. See (e.g.) T. Wertenbaker, Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Kolonos, Antigone, Translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker (London; Faber & Faber, 1997); D. R. Slavitt & P. Bovie (eds), Sophocles, 2: King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); P. Meineck & P. Woodruff, Sophocles: Theban Plays Translated with Introduction and Notes (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 2003). See also B. Sammons, “Translations of Classical Works into English”, Classical World 94 (2001) pp. 227-69.

9. R. Fagles, Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays, Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Introductions and Notes by Bernard Knox (Harmondsworth & New York: Penguin, 1984).

10. See also the discussion in H. Lloyd-Jones & N. G. Wilson, Sophoclea: Studies in the Text of Sophocles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 129.