BMCR 2008.10.07

Sophocles: Electra and Other Plays. Penguin Classics

, , , Electra and other plays. Penguin classics. London: Penguin Books, 2008. xlvi, 309 pages ; 20 cm.. ISBN 9780140449785. $12.00 (pb).

This new translation by David Raeburn replaces the dated version by E. Watling, published by Penguin in 1953. The prospective audience of the book is given (p. xli) as (I summarise) the general reader, students, and actors, and all three groups are likely to find it valuable.

The book’s Preface is followed by a helpful Chronology. The General Introduction, written by Pat Easterling, is a masterfully brief (23 pages) and stimulating piece: the sort of thing that looks easy to write until you try to do it yourself. Six pages of Further Reading follow, containing just the right amount of bibliography. Then comes a ‘Note on the Translation’ (six pages), in which Raeburn explains some of the principles behind his rendering of the four plays.

The translation of each play is preceded by a brief Preface, which follows a similar pattern: The Tradition, Synopsis, Interpretation, Staging, Casting, Dramatic Technique. Raeburn packs a great deal into these sections: he has strong views on many aspects of the dramas, and whether one agrees or disagrees they are likely to provoke thought. These Prefaces are supplemented by 43 pages of notes at the end of the volume, providing factual information and suggestions for the interpretation of the plays. Again, these are likely to prove extremely useful for Raeburn’s target audience. The volume concludes with a four-page appendix entitled ‘The Ancient Greek Theatre and the Tragic Poet’s Task’ and a ‘Glossary of Proper Names’ (pp. 304-9).

Throughout his Prefaces and notes Raeburn shows considerable interest in the staging of the plays, and is not afraid to argue for controversial views: so, for example, he argues (with Scott Scullion) against the idea that there was a change of scene in Ajax (pp. 67-8). He often sees significance in the fact that a given actor will have played more than one character (pp. 8, 66-7, 132, 198, 299 n. 53). But when characters enter and leave the stage we are not always told where they are going to (or from): this information, essential for producing the play whether in our heads as we read or on stage, ought to have been included throughout, with disputed cases signalled in the notes.

The title page says not just ‘Translated by David Raeburn’, but ‘Translated and edited by David Raeburn’: rightly, for while the text which Raeburn translates is closest to that of Lloyd-Jones and Wilson (p. xliv), he has exercised considerable independence of judgment in textual decisions throughout, rather than simply following a given edition. When Raeburn deletes a line or lines, he usually tells us in his notes that he is doing so (though not always: cf. Tr. 84, 362-3, Aj. 314, 555b, 1417), which again is a service to his readers.

The English of Raeburn’s translation is easy to read and would, I am sure, sound good in performance. Raeburn carefully steers a course between the two extremes of a literal translation which would fail to convince as English, and a free translation whose creative power would owe more to the translator than to the original author. As with any translation, there is, of course, some scope for improvement. Occasionally we see clich├ęs slipping in,1 as well as images which, while striking in themselves, do not correspond to anything in the Greek.2 Raeburn seems quite fond of curses, and introduces new ones into his translation;3 he also has a tendency to make a passage seem more lurid than it actually is.4 Sometimes even small additions can have quite an impact on our interpretation of a passage.5 But something will always be lost in translation; any rendering of Sophocles will contain its problems, and Raeburn’s has fewer than most. Overall, readers can rely on Raeburn to provide a version that is both readable and generally reliable, neither an easy task with this poet.

The lyric sections are rendered in the metres of the original: rightly, Raeburn is determined that his readers should appreciate as fully as possible the musical dimension of these plays. The result is an elegant set of lyrics which will no doubt go down as well in performance as they do on the page. I urge readers to look up their favourite odes and appreciate them anew in Raeburn’s attractive verses; I personally was particularly taken by the first stasimon of Electra (pp. 151-2). This is perhaps the most distinctive feature of this welcome volume, which marks a distinct improvement on the book that it replaces.6


1. E.g. Aj. 752 ‘by hook or crook’, El. 684-6 ‘Orestes … took | The spectators’ breath away’, 945 ‘no pain, no gain’, Phil. 375 ‘I pulled no punches’.

2. E.g. Aj. 381 ‘the army’s pile of dung’, a conspicuously untragic expression. The rendering of imagery in translation is, of course, a notoriously difficult task, but I suspect that many of Raeburn’s readers will assume that when Raeburn refers to ‘dung’, that Sophocles did so too.

3. Cf. Aj. 643 ‘Cursed as Aeacus’ sons were’, El. 511 Myrtilus ‘cursed the race of Pelops’, El. 1496 ‘The curse of Pelops’ house!’ On the Myrtilus passage Raeburn admits (pp. 284-5 n. 33) that ‘the translation refers to the curse (511) more explicitly than the Greek original’, but it might have been better to say ‘the translation refers to a curse, whereas the Greek original does not’.

4. In El. 195-6 ‘the bronze axe struck and felled him down | And the blood ran down the flagstones’ the second line is an invention; so also with Aj. 459 ‘the whole of Troy and its blood-stained plains’, where the Greek says just ‘these plains’.

5. For example, in the prologue to Philoctetes Raeburn’s Neoptolemus treats Odysseus with great deference, addressing him ‘Odysseus, sir!’ ( Phil. 26), ‘You’re right, sir’ (88), and ‘Of course, sir’ (122). But at 88 and 122 there is no vocative in the Greek, while the address at 26 is better rendered ‘Lord Odysseus’ rather than ‘Odysseus, sir’. Odysseus is the dominant figure at this stage, but Neoptolemus is not simply his subordinate: he is also a significant, albeit young, chieftain in his own right, and Odysseus has to go to some lengths to persuade him to undertake the plot against Philoctetes. Raeburn’s vocatives do not help our understanding of their relationship, and may in fact hinder it.

6. The book is attractively presented and accurately printed. I noticed one misleading misprint: on p. 73, the name ‘Teucer’ has dropped out of the list of characters, and the closing up of the resulting gap has turned the Messenger into Ajax’s half-brother.