BMCR 2020.10.42

Oedipus the King: a new verse translation

, Oedipus the King: a new verse translation. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 128. ISBN 9780198854845 $15.00.

[Chapter titles are listed below.]

When first produced at the City Dionysia, Sophocles’ tetralogy containing Oedipus the King came in second place to that of Philocles. Maybe the other plays of his tetralogy weren’t so good, or maybe Philocles’ plays were simply better. Whatever the case, this less-than-stellar start in life did not keep Oedipus the King from being considered a masterpiece of Greek tragedy. Aristotle in the Poetics championed it for its tight construction, and it has been among the most favored plays ever since.

David Kovacs, a leading scholar of Greek tragedy for over four decades, has a long history of being a strong textual critic, and he has demonstrated a keen ability to provide crisp and clear translations in the complete plays of Euripides, edited and translated for the Loeb Classical Texts. In this work, he takes on Sophocles’ Oedipus the King, offering a verse translation, with introduction and explanatory notes. Sophocles is the most challenging of the three tragedians to translate. He is not as straightforward in expression as Euripides, and his verbal complexity is more subtle, at times deceptively so, when compared to that of Aeschylus. Virginia Woolf, in her famous essay “On Not Knowing Greek,” offers this memorable image: “Sophocles gliding like a shoal of trout smoothly and quietly, apparently motionless, and then, with a flicker of fins, off and away.” Anyone translating him needs to be attentive to both the smooth movement and the flicker of his verse.

The introduction covers the major bases and then some: Sophocles and his age; tragic performance in the fifth century; the divine dimension; Sophocles’ manipulation of plot; the ending; aims of the translation; departures from the Lloyd-Jones and Wilson OCT; and works cited. Kovacs is concise in exposition, often admirably so. At times, however, a novice reader would benefit from fuller explanation, as in the description of fifth-century performance, where there is not a word on the fundamental dynamic of the actors’ speech and the chorus’ song-and-dance or the critical role of stage actions, although Kovacs does take up some of the latter in the notes.

The bulk of the introduction is an interpretation of the play, more particularly of the important question of Apollo’s role in Oedipus’s life and ruin. This section of the introduction (6-22) is a reworking of Kovacs’s 2010 article “On not Misunderstanding Oedipus Tyrannus,” the title alluding to and challenging E. R. Dodds’s influential 1966 article “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex.” Kovacs has laid his cards on the table in his Preface: while acknowledging that there is likely never a “perfectly right interpretation,” he states with conviction “[his] belief that there is such a thing as a mistaken interpretation, one that is wrong in some important respect and can be safely disregarded (vii).” At the time of its publication, Dodds’s essay was an important corrective to common views such as that the play shows Oedipus was “punished” or that it depicts a “tragedy of fate.” Dodds aligns himself, somewhat orthogonally, with a third view that holds that the play is not interested in displaying a theodicy but rather a gripping drama, in which the gods resemble the harsh gods of the Iliad, who dole out suffering with little regard to the justice of this suffering. At the same time, he maintains that Apollo in this play merely predicts but does not cause Oedipus’s actions and demise. And this is the source of Kovacs’s objections, since he maintains that this view flies in the face of several passages in the play where Apollo is said to be responsible for Oedipus’s suffering. This claim leads to a survey of these most relevant passages in the context of discussing human agency in a world of divine intervention. Oedipus’s decisions and actions were “free acts . . . [he is] autonomous, yet the god is the source of his trouble.” In a felicitous formulation, Kovacs observes that “[t]ragedy is inevitably a two-decker affair” (15). He makes a strong case for emphasizing Apollo’s role, and even for critics who acknowledge that mortal and god combine to cause the tragic events, there is a tendency to undervalue Apollo’s interventions. Kovacs’s forceful argument will make sure that the god receives his due, even as the reader or audience member will ponder the meaning of mortal agency in a god-infused universe.

The introduction also analyzes the “manipulation of plot,” (23-27) which allows characters to come close to but to not quite discover the truth that is, to quote from the Sphinx in a different circumstance, lying at their feet. Kovacs finds this manipulation to be of theological significance, a painful example of what Kovacs calls “Greek pessimism” (although he rightly does not actually like this phrase). As the chorus sing upon the Oedipus’s self-discovery,

With your example before me,
with your fate, yours,
O luckless Oedipus, I deem
nothing of mortals blest. (1193-96)

Kovacs holds that the ending of the play as we have it (1468ff.) is a fourth-century addition, and he explains (27-32) the significance of the likely original ending. I confess that I’m not fully persuaded of this view, but he makes the case forcefully, and it will be good for new readers to know about the uncertainty of the ending and for veterans to reconsider the general acceptance of its authenticity.

Finally, a general point about the introduction, which applies to many translations. It has never made sense to me to include in the introduction to the work an interpretation of it. Isn’t it better for the reader, once informed of the essential contextual preliminaries, to read the text and then consider an interpretation of it? One may, of course, do just that, wherever the interpretive essay is placed (and I’ve told generations of students to do so), but in a printed version, where placement still matters, I wish placing the essay afterwards were the norm.

Kovacs is clear about his choices in producing the translation. “The principal ambition of my translation, apart from rendering the meaning correctly, is to give readers who have no Greek a sense of how Sophocles’ language would have struck its first audience.” (p. 33). With this in mind, for the play’s iambic trimeters he chooses, reasonably enough, blank verse, employing both ten-syllable and eleven-syllable lines with an “occasional ‘headless’ pentameter” (p. 34). The lyrics present a different set of challenges and Kovacs, observing that for them “there is no obvious English model to follow (p. 34),” opts to mark these passages with italics. I am sympathetic to this challenge and have taken this approach myself on occasion, hoping, as does Kovacs, that the combination of the italics and the bolder diction and word order will give the reader some approximation of the lyric register. Unfortunately, at least to my eyes, the italicized font is not so easy to read and becomes a distraction in an otherwise handsomely produced book.

Kovacs produces an attractive translation—accurate, clear, and readable. For the most part, the blank verse is effective and gives, as he hopes, some sense of the movement of Sophoclean spoken verse. The choral odes are appropriately taut and often graceful.

Inevitably, there are renderings that strike me as off in one way or another. I give a number of examples, not by way of criticism but to underscore the challenges of translating this elusive poet.

3-4: πόλις δ᾽ὁμοῦ μὲν θυμιαμάτων γέμει,
ὁμοῦ δὲ παιώνων τε καὶ στεναγμάτων·
Throughout the city clouds of incense rise,
And hymns are mixed with sounds of distress.

Both θυμιαμάτων and the phrase παιώνων τε καὶ στεναγμάτων depend on γέμει, suggesting the mixing of the incense, the paeans and the cries. Adding the image “clouds . . . rise” misses Sophocles’ blending of both smell and sound.

343: “Perfect storm of rage” for θυμοῦ δι᾽ὀργῆς ἣτις ἀγριωτάτη uses a contemporary idiom (“perfect storm”) not relevant here; there is no confluence of events precipitating this anger.

390: “bitch singer” introduces a register not found in ῥαψῳδὸς . . . κύων.

411: “nor/shall I enroll with Creon as my sponsor” nicely captures οὐ Κρέοντος προστάτου γεγράψομαι, but without an explanatory note for this legal practice, the reader will be confused.

568: “the man”: since knowledge and who has it is a leitmotif in the play, why not capture this in rendering οὗτος ὁσοφός?

723: “such is the way of mantic prophecy” suggests a general statement, but Jocasta is here making a point about the particular prophecy Laius received: τοιαῦται φῆμαι μαντικαὶ διώρισαν.

780: “suppositious son”: I’m not sure that πλαστός has such a formal tone.

781: “put out” for βαρυνθείς, describing Oedipus’s reaction to hearing the drunken accusation that he is a bastard, seems both overly colloquial and insufficiently weighty (pun intended).

822: Greek κακός is ubiquitous and multivalent, but “malefactor” is overly formal for the context.

995: “must needs” seems unnecessarily archaic for the simple χρῆναι (μιγῆναι).

1186: The choral song immediately following Oedipus’s discovery begins “ἰὼ γενεαὶ βροτῶν,” which Kovacs renders “O seed of mortal women begotten.” Absent any other considerations, the addition of “women” to the translation deserves no comment, but since the stanza concludes with the phrase βροτῶν/οὐδὲν μακαρἰζω, it reduces the force of this echo of the opening.

Throughout Kovacs provides some stage directions and an occasional note on how a line was likely delivered (e.g., “sotto voce,” “angrily,” and “to his retinue”).

Eight pages of notes follow the translation, offering help on various points. The note to line 1 describes the phenomenon of a “cancelled entrance,” and the note to line 447 explains the timing of the Oedipus’s return into the skene. A few notes explain puns (on 30, 397 and 1036, where the fuller information might have been more useful at 397). Several gloss less common geographical or mythological names. Kovacs is also interested, as in the introduction, to point out the workings of plot, coincidence, and motivation. Several times he refers to “irrational” and “unrealistic” in describing motivations and actions in order to explain the movement of the drama, which reveals, to be sure, a powerful number of coincidences and peculiar displays of ignorance within the matrix of knowledge, identity, and agency.

There is a concluding selection of “Suggestions for Further Reading.” The twenty-three items are well chosen, and Kovacs helpfully adds brief annotation to the references, both descriptive and evaluative. And these works are in addition to the forty-plus included in “Works Cited” at the end of the introduction.

Kovacs’ lively verse translation, with introduction and notes, of this seminal play, will be of value to students and lay readers alike.

Chapter titles

1. Sophocles and the great age of Athenian tragedy
a. What we know of Sophocles’ life
b. How to avoid turning Sophocles into the wrong kind of classic
2. The conditions of tragic performance in the fifth century BC
3. The divine dimension: on not understanding Oedipus the King
a. The role of Apollo in what happens before the play opens
b. Apollo at work within the play
c. Some general considerations in favour of an active Apollo
d. How much pure coincidence is there in Oedipus the King?
e. What was Apollo’s reason for ruining Oedipus?
f. Justifying the ways of god to man
4. A further source of confusion: Sophocles’ manipulation of the plot
5. The ending
a. The scene with the daughters
b. Why is Oedipus made to re-enter the palace?
6. The translation: its aims and methods
7. A note on the Greek text: departures from Lloyd-Jones and Wilson, Sophoclis Fabulae (second impression, Oxford 1992)
Works Cited
Sophocles, Oedipus the King
Notes to the translation
Suggestions for further reading