Reviews of the Book

The Aias of Sophocles, from the perspective of a novice

Posted October 21, 2012 by argumentativeoldgit in Culture, Drama, literature.

Greek tragedy is an area of literature that both attracts me, and, at the same time, keeps me at a distance. The reason for the attraction is obvious enough: the intense dramatic power of these works leaps across yawning chasms of time, and differences of cultural expectations, and of theatrical forms. But there remains that nagging question of how much of this can survive translation in the first place.

Of course, for any literature not written in English or in Bengali, I am beholden to translators. But I do get the impression that the dramatic verse in which Greek drama was written is particularly resistant to translation: even in the most highly regarded of translations, I find occasional lines or passages that appear bathetic, and I am sure that is not the intended effect of the original. Also, when I compare translations, I find quite often a surprising variation in what is communicated by different translators (this is particularly so in translations of Aeschylus): this gives me the impression that the original is knotty and often ambiguous, and capable of being interpreted in many different ways. No doubt those who know these works in the original will tell me of the myriad subtleties and profundities, and of effects that only register in the rhythms and sonorities of classical Greek, that are beyond the reach of even the finest of translators. That may well be so. But something, surely, must survive. When I thrill to such passages as the agony of Cassandra before the palace of Argos, where she knows she will meet her death; when I read of Philoctetes howling in physical and moral agony in his lonely exile on the island of Lemnos; when I read of Hercules awakening from his god-induced madness and becoming aware of what he has done; I know that, even in translation, I am in the presence of something immeasurably wonderful: I know that Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides have looked into the same depths that Shakespeare had looked into in the greatest of his tragedies, and with the same unblinking gaze.

Of course, I am no expert in either Shakespearean or in Greek tragedy, but with Shakespeare, I can, at least, claim to have read and re-read his works over several decades in the original language; my contact with Greek tragedy falls far short of that. So unfathomable are the depths I discern, and so superficial my acquaintance, that I had, and continue to have, great doubts about the advisability of writing anything at all on the matter. However, as long as it is understood that my comments here are no more than the rather diffident observations of a mere unknowledgeable novice, I suppose there can’t be too much harm done. So, on that understanding, let us proceed.

It was the contemplation of Shakespeare’s Coriolanus that prompted me to try again Sophocles’ Aias (Ajax). In both cases, two supremely great tragedians have turned their attention to “beef-witted lords” – insensitive, unintelligent brutes, mere fighting machines lacking not merely self-awareness, but incapable even of acquiring it. The chorus in Aeschylus’ Agamemnon had told us that knowledge comes from suffering, but to Aias, suffering leads not to any kind of knowledge at all: it leads merely to despair. He is one of the very few Greek tragic protagonists who commits suicide: even Oedipus stops short of that.

This play, certainly by the standards of modern stagecraft, is curiously structured. Aias kills himself in shame some half way through the action, and the rest of the drama focuses on a debate over his corpse on whether or not he should be buried with proper rites. Of course, we know from Antigone, or from the later books of the Iliad, how important in Greek culture was the ritual of burial; but even so, a debate, even an impassioned debate, seems something of an anti-climax after the suicidal despair of Aias that we had earlier witnessed at first hand. It seems almost like two rather different plays joined together.

It is difficult possibly impossible, for someone like myself, with so little understanding of the form of Greek drama, to come to a full understanding of this; but in some ways, it rather encourages me that even scholars learned in this area have felt the same way about this play. But the more I think about this, the more it seems that the tragic despair of Aias, while certainly an important element of the play, is not really at its centre: at the centre is the question of the significance of the character of Aias in a changing world. Aias had been the strongest and the bravest of Greek heroes: his standing, and the esteem in which he was held, owed nothing to such qualities as nobility, or of sensitivity, or even of intelligence: he provided the brute physical strength that had been needed. However, the armour of Achilles, after his death, is awarded not to the great strong hero Aias, but to the cunning Odysseus: times have changed, and it is the brains of Odysseus that are of greater value than the muscle of Aias: Aias is in danger of becoming but an obsolete reminder of the past, a superfluous being.

The opening scene of the play is startling. Athene leads Odysseus towards the tent of his great rival Aias, and exults at having driven Aias mad. Odysseus, although on the same side as Aias in the war, is also the personal enemy of Aias: indeed, had Athene not made Aias mad, Aias would have murdered Odysseus in cold blood. And so, as Athene exults in the madness of Aias, she expects Odysseus to do the same: but he doesn’t. Unlike the immortal, he, the mortal, is horrified by the depths to which his fellow mortal Aias has sunk. Compassion, it seems, is a quality possessed by humans, not by divinities.

When we first see Aias, he is still in grips of madness. He is covered in blood (as, interestingly, Coriolanus is at one point in Shakespeare’s play), but it is not, as he thinks, the blood of those who have humiliated him: it is not the blood of Agamemnon or of Menelaus, or of Odysseus: it is merely the blood of animals that he in his madness has slaughtered. The great hero is shown to us at the very start of the play at his most unheroic. Athena finds this comical, but we, like Odysseus, may think otherwise.

Once the madness dissipates, Aias is filled with shame. Here is a man who has no conception of himself other than as a great hero, a powerful warrior, and when he can no longer see himself in such terms, he cannot see himself in any terms at all. Aias’ occupation’s gone, and with it, his sense of his own identity. So great is his despair, that he takes his own life. And it is only then that the true theme of the play comes to the fore: what is the value of an Aias within a society in which his qualities, once so valued, are no longer considered so important?

The second half of the play is taken up with an impassioned debate over Aias’ lifeless body. His half-brother, Teukros, demands the burial and the funeral of a great hero; Agamemnon and Menelaus, on the other hand, aware that their authority has been flouted, and aware also of Aias’ intention of killing them, refuse. The issue is resolved only when Odysseus, now very much the Man of the Moment, demands that Aias be buried with full honours. He doesn’t debate the issue: he merely demands it. And against Odysseus’ demand, not even Agamemnon and Menelaus can prevail: a person such as Aias may no longer be required, but a person such as Odysseus is.

Odysseus provides the resolution to the play, and the memory of Aias is honoured; but it is clear that we are but honouring a relic of the past. We may be honouring this relic as a remembrance of the service he had once given; we may be honouring him for reasons of sentiment. But the very unsentimental truth is that the beef-witted lord Aias, now that his purpose has been served, is surplus to requirements: he is superfluous. And that, as I see it, is the essence of his tragedy, and of this curious play which, despite two very different halves, does, I think, hold together thematically.


A note on the translation:
The translation I read was by James Scully, in a recently published volume containing all the existing plays of Sophocles translated by James Scully and by Robert Bagg. In the introduction, the translators tell us that the impression we have of Greek tragedy as that of unrelieved lofty grandeur is erroneous, and that the plays contain a wide range of tone and of mode of expression. This does come over admirably in the translation, although there were occasions on which it seemed to me to descend into bathos: but since this is a fault with just about every translation I have come across, I won’t count this as too black a mark. Generally, it did read very fluently, and I think it would sound very well if spoken on stage.

There were, inevitably, a few liberties taken: in translating verse – especially from so different a culture – one cannot always be ideally true both to the letter and to the spirit of the original, and if forced into a choice, it seems to me preferable to err on the side of the spirit. For instance, Aias refers to Odysseus at one point as a “fox”, but that doesn’t convey the level of disgust and contempt in which the Greeks held foxes; so Scully lets Aias refer to Odysseus as a “foxfucker”. I personally have no objection to this, and rather enjoy the alliterative vituperation, but other readers may, I suppose, react differently. Certainly, I have enjoyed this translation sufficiently to make me want to read the others in this volume; but of course, I am in no position to say how close or otherwise this is either to the spirit or to the letter of the original.

To read responses to this post please visit "The Argumentative Old Git" Blog


Obsessed with Scapegoats and Outcasts

Excerpts from the New York Review of Books, reviewed by Peter Green, MAY 10, 2012


Vigorous, rational, energetic, daring, and brusquely patriotic, Sophocles’ Oedipus is the very embodiment of the popular image of a fifth-century polis leader. He prides himself on having solved the Sphinx’s riddle (something the seer Teiresias failed to do) by native wit. He is quick to suspect treasonous conspiracies. His inquiry is described in the language of the Athenian law courts, and he conducts his interrogation of witnesses in proper judicial form. His virtues and faults are, as Knox says, those of the Athenian democracy. “The audience which watched Oedipus in the theater of Dionysus was watching itself,” and what it saw reflected was a disbelief in oracles, a contempt for divine law, and a hubristic pride, all ultimately brought low by inexorable fate and the will of heaven. Hubris engenders a tyrannos, the Chorus declares. How far, the play’s spectators must have asked themselves, was Athens, too, proving to be its own tyrannos?


For all these reasons, but above all because it is a well-constructed play written by a subtle, brilliant, and difficult poet, the Oedipus Tyrannus has never lacked for critics or translators: the first group seldom agreeing among themselves, the second rarely, if ever, producing a version that accounts for Sophocles’ literary reputation. As H.D.F. Kitto, musician as well as scholar, modestly but correctly declared in the preamble to his own attempt in his Greek Tragedy, “Sophocles’ style is so supple, with such constant and dramatic variation of diction, rhythm, pace, and tension that no translator dare pitch his hopes very high.” Perhaps as a result even the best ones, such as David Grene’s, tend to have a slightly anodyne quality: their blank verse narrative is careful but unremarkable, their choruses conduct their vers libre reflections in the general style of the poet H.D. and the early Eliot. Watching the Greek with care, keeping line-equivalence, and avoiding embarrassing literalisms, they are acceptable, even actable, and about as near to the general pattern of their original as anyone had previously come. The trouble is, they’re just not as exciting as the Greek, and this many would regard as inevitable anyway.

Thus those setting out to compete in what by now is a crowded, if not over-distinguished, field need to have a very clear idea of just how they think they can improve on their predecessors. In the translations of Robert Bagg, James Scully, and David Mulroy, the most pressing need felt seems to be to radically simplify the original. Bagg, who translates the Oedipus Tyrannus, uses a plain, clipped style for both choral passages and speeches, ironing out the ambiguities, favoring colloquialisms, and occasionally inserting a brief explanatory word.

The result is printed as verse but reads more like chopped-up conversational prose. Here and there a blank verse line surfaces in the speeches; Bagg’s choruses, even more staccato, work at unraveling Sophocles’ complex choruses in a way apparently deemed acceptable to (that is, understandable by) a modern theater audience, but one of a pretty low intellectual level. On the other hand this version, purged as it is of Sophocles’ subtleties, does suggest, when read aloud, that it could play well on stage. Depth has been traded for dramatic impact. You win some, you lose some.

Perhaps the best way to illustrate the competing methods, virtues, and drawbacks of these translations is to compare their versions of a difficult but fairly familiar choral passage: that on the dangers of hubris (lines 873–881). First, then, the literal prose version of Hugh Lloyd-Jones:

Insolence has a child who is a tyrant; insolence, if vainly satiated with profusion that is not right or fitting, mounts to the topmost cornice and is forced to leap from a steep pinnacle into sheer constraint where its feet can do it no service. But I pray the god never to undo the wrestler’s throw that brought good to the city.

How to bring these odd images home to a modern audience? Here is Bagg: “A violent will/fathers the tyrant,/and violence, drunk/on wealth and power,/does him no good./He scales the heights—/until he’s thrown/down to his doom,/where quick feet are no use./But there’s another fighting spirit/I ask god never to destroy—/the kind that makes our city thrive.” And Mulroy: “Hubris breeds a tyrant. When/hubris satisfying its yen/for harmful substances ascends/the topmost beam to where it ends,/there must come next a sharp descent/that skilful feet can not prevent./God, keep the city in your grip.”

The first thing we learn from this is that (as every Herodotean is painfully aware) no two people are likely to agree on what that elusive vice hubris is. Equally in evidence is the old standby for verse translators: if you don’t like it or can’t fathom it out, either omit it, explain it, or change it to something else. Bagg identifies the improper profusion as wealth and power: he may be right, but Sophocles doesn’t say this, and neither should he (Kitto, interestingly, makes exactly the same mistake). The epithets attached to the “profusion” are gone. Violence in Sophocles’ Greek is glutted, not drunk: Why such a change, if not for a comforting cliché? It climbs, dramatically, to the rooftop: Why lose this vivid image? It also isn’t thrown down, let alone “to his doom” (not in the Greek); it jumps (even Lloyd-Jones’s “is forced to” is an arbitrary addition).

Performance here, clearly, is all: anything that hinders immediate apprehension is watered down or discarded. It’s revealing, in this context, to compare these two versions with that of David Grene: “Insolence breeds the tyrant, insolence/if it is glutted with a surfeit, unseasonable, unprofitable,/climbs to the rooftop and plunges/sheer down to the ruin that must be,/and there its feet are no service./But I pray that the god may never/abolish the eager ambition that profits the state.” All that’s been sacrificed is the wrestling metaphor (palaisma), while “unseasonable, unprofitable” is closer to what Sophocles is saying even than Lloyd-Jones’s “not right or fitting.”

Grene has gone to the trouble—by no means an easy task—of making Sophocles’ meaning crystal clear to any reasonably intelligent listener. This is not to say he can’t be improved upon. Of course he can. But neither Bagg nor Mulroy, on current showing, has done so, and for now Grene’s version is still the best bet for any Greekless student or theatergoer who wants to get some sense of Sophocles’ style. The field remains enticingly wide open.


In Response to: Obsessed with Scapegoats and Outcasts from the May 10, 2012 issue

To the Editors:
Peter Green’s dismissal of The Complete Plays of Sophocles [NYR, May 10], an 880-page edition of Sophocles’ seven masterpieces that includes a multi-themed essay about theater in fifth-century-BCE Athens and the translators’ theory and methods, as well as introductions and notes for each drama, which have been widely staged, praised, and anthologized, including in the current third edition of The Norton Anthology of World Literature, may well strike The New York Review’s readership as inappropriately hostile and unsupported by the argument or quotation an open-minded readership expects.

The main focus of the article—Green’s theory that Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King to warn Athens not to question the validity of oracles and the existence of the Olympian gods—has no relevance to the merits of the translations under review. His sweeping negative characterization of the book’s accuracy rests solely on a philologically faulty analysis of eight lines from a choral ode in one play.

Green’s claim, for instance, that my translations—“drunk on wealth” and “is thrown to his doom” (rather than “jumps,” which would suggest he commits suicide)—are not “in the Greek” was not shared in several respects by the modern era’s greatest Sophocles scholar, Richard Jebb, whose translation of these lines reads:

Insolence breeds the tyrant; Insolence, once vainly surfeited on wealth that is not meet, nor good for it, when it hath scaled the topmost ramparts, is hurled to a dire doom, wherein no such service of feet can serve.

The Greek word Jebb translated as “dire doom” connotes an implacable constraint, one that in the Greek worldview may only be imposed by a divinity. I translate huperplasthe as “drunk” rather than “gorged” or “sated” because “drunk” suggests why the tyrant has lost his mental and moral balance in a struggle with whatever or whoever throws him from the ramparts (not rooftops) to which he has climbed.

Green complains that Scully and I put theatrical performance of Sophocles’ plays ahead of accuracy. We see no reason a translation should not achieve both, which we try to do. The essential disagreement between Green and translators who want their versions to succeed in production has been well stated by Eric Csapo: “In antiquity dramatic poets wrote for dramatic performers, and it is an old, bad habit of traditional philology to suppose otherwise.”

Those interested in our more detailed reply to Green and/or wanting to view extended excerpts from our translations will find both at

Robert Bagg
Worthington, Massachusetts


Peter Green replies:

The emphasis on text actually in performance, and the virtues or shortcomings of translators, Bagg among them, in this respect, was, of course, my own major theme in the concluding section of my essay. Much of what I say there Bagg ignores in his letter; let me just comment very briefly on his complaint regarding my “philologically faulty analysis” of the eight much-debated choral lines I cited from the Oedipus Tyrannus. Bagg seems to be treating Jebb (on whom he relies heavily throughout) as a kind of Vox Dei. Jebb’s additions were as speculative, even if better backed with scholarship, as the next man’s; and in any case he was not in the business, as Bagg would appear to be, of showing Sophocles how he should explain things to a modern audience, e.g., by having “drunk” rather than “gorged” to highlight the tyrant’s psychology. As for “ramparts” vs. “rooftops,” can it have escaped Professor Bagg’s notice that Sophocles in fact mentions neither? Akrótaton simply means “highest point.”

On another matter entirely, Professor Paul Cartledge gently reminds me that with a birthdate for Sophocles, of about 496 or 495, he would in fact have been some thirty years younger than Aeschylus (born circa 525), and perhaps sixteen years older than Euripides (born circa 480).


Robert Bagg Replies to Peter Green

If a Greek scholar had vetted both Green’s article and his rebuttal, Green’s misstatements might have been caught before the NYRB had published them.

Green wonders, for instance, if I know that Akrótaton means “highest point” in Attic Greek. Well, that’s how I translated it in the hubris passage he himself quotes: my translation of the tyrant/hubris passage in question is “scales the heights.” I preserved the abstraction here to convey Sophocles’ obvious subtext: that the tyrant tries to seize—and then fails to hold—political supremacy. And when Green asks in his letter, “can it have escaped Professor Bagg’s notice that neither ramparts or rooftops are in the passage” he’s forgotten that giesa, which is in the passage, could mean either. And he seems to have forgotten as well that in his original review he actually chided me for missing a chance to include “rooftops” as a colorful detail!

In response to my citing Jebb’s version of the passage in support of my own, Green impugns Jebb’s stature and my reliance on his commentaries. Which contemporary scholars and/or translators do not “heavily” consult Jebb? We consult Jebb not because his is the Voice of God but because of his astonishing ability to locate parallel passages throughout Greek literature to buttress and elucidate his textual judgments. He’s not just another scholar. He’s remained the gold standard of Sophocles scholarship into our own era. I do, however, depart from Jebb’s text in more than a few passages in favor of persuasive modern emendations. Green’s demotion of Jebb is hardly an effective, or even an honorable, response to Jebb’s or my specifics. My only debatable choice as a translator was to prefer “drunk” to “sated” for huperplasthe—for the reasons I give in my extended commentary below. Every other criticism Green makes of my translation cannot withstand the fact that Jebb and the preponderance of other translators have interpreted the passage just as I have done.

Green’s claim that I seem to be “in the business of showing Sophocles how he should explain things to a modern audience” is desperate hyperbole. And it glibly glosses over the fact that for Sophocles to be heard in the contemporary world it must be though translations that both honor its dramatic power and immediacy and remain true to what his Greek says.

I’ve been publishing translations of Euripides and Sophocles since the early 1970s. Green is the only reviewer to have questioned their general faithfulness. Classicists who have specifically praised Scully’s and/or my accuracy include Hugh Lloyd-Jones in TLS, Linda Clader in The Carleton Miscellany, George Dimock in The Yale Review, Peter Burian in the Encyclopedia of Literary Translation into English and Andreas Markantonatos, in The Bryn Mawr Classical Review.


Robert Bagg’s Detailed Response to NYRB Review

Peter Green’s appraisal [“Obsessed with Scapegoats and Outcasts,” NYR May 10, 2012] of our volume, The Complete Plays of Sophocles, ignores the comprehensive nature of the book: its detailed explanation of our goals, assumptions, and methods as translators; introductions that give our interpretations of each play; scholarly notes that provide discussion of the very subtleties in Sophocles’ text that Green claims we suppress; and the fact that ours is the first single volume containing all seven of Sophocles’ plays by translators whose versions of Athenian drama have been staged in over 65 productions worldwide. Worse, his charges that our translations are inaccurate or indifferent to Sophocles’ complexities contain characterizations and negative judgments that are demonstrably false. (Readers can judge Green’s assessment of their poetic quality for themselves by exploring the excerpts on this site.)

Green acknowledges at the outset that our volume is part of a generational shift of emphasis from reading Athenian plays as literature toward appreciating them as drama. Although he accepts the theatrical potential of our versions, he fails to discuss the demands that translating for the theater entails. He essentially mocks and discredits our clearly stated intent, to combine accuracy and playability, by condemning our translations en bloc on the basis of an eight-line passage from a single play, Oedipus the King. In this rebuttal I defend my choices in translating that passage and respond to other issues Green raises in his article: his main focus, that of Sophocles’ supposed intention for writing Oedipus the King, and his charges that we radically simplify Sophocles, overuse colloquial English, trade depth for dramatic effect, and write in chopped-up prose printed as verse.

Excerpts from the NYRB article appear in red and link to the partial review posted on below on this page.

The Hubris Passage

Green chooses “to illustrate the competing methods, virtues, and drawbacks of these translations … a difficult but fairly familiar choral passage: that on the dangers of hubris (lines 873–881)” by quoting as his touchstone the literal prose version of Hugh Lloyd-Jones:

Insolence has a child who is a tyrant; insolence, if vainly satiated with profusion that is not right or fitting, mounts to the topmost cornice and is forced to leap from a steep pinnacle into sheer constraint where its feet can do it no service. But I pray the god never to undo the wrestler’s throw that brought good to the city.

Crucial to our explanation, but never mentioned by Green, is the following translation of these same lines by Sir Richard Jebb, whose complete edition of Sophocles’ plays remains the most authoritative, well-annotated, and rigorous one we have, and is still in print well over a hundred years after its first publication:

Insolence breeds the tyrant; Insolence, once vainly surfeited on wealth that is not meet, nor good for it, when it hath scaled the topmost ramparts, is hurled to a dire doom, wherein no such service of feet can serve.

Here is my translation of the passage:

A violent will / fathers the tyrant, / and violence, drunk / on wealth and power, / does him no good. / He scales the heights— / until he’s thrown / down to his doom, / where quick feet are no use. / But there’s another fighting spirit / I ask god never to destroy— / the kind that makes our city thrive.

In his article Green introduces a translation of these eight lines by David Grene to further his compare-and-contrast technique. By praising this passage he establishes it as the benchmark for “modern” translation.

Insolence breeds the tyrant, insolence / if it is glutted with a surfeit, unseasonable, unprofitable, / climbs to the rooftop and plunges / sheer down to the ruin that must be, / and there its feet are no service. / But I pray that the god may never / abolish the eager ambition that profits the state.

In championing David Grene’s version of the hubris passage, while in the same article acknowledging the importance of playability, Green neglects to listen to its spoken effectiveness. David Grene certainly and expertly includes most of Sophocles’ word-by-word lexical meaning, but his version would be hard for actors to say or sing, or for a composer to set. And the passage contains at least one phrase, “glutted with a surfeit,” that might mystify an audience: a surfeit of what?

To begin, I examine four word choices that differ significantly in Grene’s passage and in mine: “insolence” as a synonym for hubris (our word comes directly from the Greek transliteration); “unseasonable” for ne pikaira and “unprofitable” for sumpheronta; and “eager ambition” for palaisma.

Though Jebb and Lloyd-Jones favor “insolence,” the word suggests to a modern audience an arrogant attitude rather than a threat of physical attack. The passage requires an active rather than passive implication. I interpret hubris to mean “the will to violate” because that seems closer to our sense of hubris as used in the modern world. It allows me as well to capture the word’s connotations in 5th-century Athens, where hubris was the legal term for physical rape, and also contributed to the word “hybrid,” used in Attic farm vernacular for the offspring of a marauding wild boar and a domesticated sow. For ne pikaira, either “unsuitable” or “not helpful” seems to fit the context better, since “unseasonable” implies that there may be a fitting occasion on which to violate the state; and for mede sumpheronta, “not expedient” or “harmful” seems closer to Sophocles’ intent, which is to show that hubris results in more than an “unprofitable” investment or wager: here it harms the tyrant (i.e., gets him killed or deposed). Of course, if Sophocles has his tongue in his cheek and/or intends understatement in this passage, then Grene comes closer to getting it right. But “eager ambition” for palaisma seems wrong, since palaisma, a wrestling term, evokes a bitter and warlike physical face-off. I prefer “fighting spirit.”

Green writes that I identify "“the improper profusion as wealth and power: [Bagg] may be right, but Sophocles doesn’t say this, and neither should he.” And he accuses me of omitting the epithets attached to the “profusion” (He is wrong about the latter. These epithets—meaning unhelpful and harmful—I render collectively in the phrase “which do him no good.”)

As for Green’s criticism of “wealth and power,” note that Jebb also deduces and names the harmful excess the tyrant swallows as “wealth.” I add “power” because tyranny has a long history, even in Sophocles’ era. In that history “power” as much as “wealth” are assets indispensable to a tyrant, and the danger they represent to the tyrant himself makes clear what brings him down. To be “sated” requires something with which the tyrant fills himself, something that (in the metaphor) will do the tyrant physiological and/or mental damage sufficient to lose him his footing.

Green asserts that “violence in Sophocles’ Greek is glutted, not drunk: Why such a change, if not for a comforting cliché? It climbs, dramatically, to the rooftop: Why lose this vivid image? It also isn’t thrown down, let alone “to his doom” (not in the Greek); it jumps (even Lloyd-Jones’s “is forced to” is an arbitrary addition).”

I translate huperplasthe as “drunk” rather than “gorged” or “sated” because “drunk” makes more intelligible why the tyrant, intoxicated by the effects of wealth and power, not stuffed from overindulging at the dinner table, loses his balance (or his struggle) with whatever or whoever throws him off the battlements.

Jebb also agrees that the tyrant “is hurled” down to his “doom.” He defines in a note the Greek word so translated, anangkan, as “a constraining doom from the gods.” Green’s claim that “doom” is “not in the Greek” assumes a translator should enjoin himself from including in a translation undisputed interpretations that Greek scholars provide for readers or audiences so that they may comprehend a highly metaphorical passage.

If, as Jebb believes, the tyrant is thrown (rather than jumps), Sophocles implies that someone (or something) throws him. But who? The next sentence (in Jebb’s translation) suggests a likely answer: “But I pray that the god never quell such rivalry as benefits the State; the god will I ever hold for our protector.”

The entire stanza is “gnomic” (it uses a gnomic aorist as the main verb of its first sentence) in the sense that it’s a truism, a saying whose validity the poet expects his audience to recognize from experience.

More important, when differentiating between Peter Green’s approach to translation and the method Scully and I use, is that we address every element in the text with this question: what is it that we translate? Based on Green’s example with the hubris passage, he is preoccupied with lexical meaning. Scully and I ask what a passage does within the arc of the entire drama. The hubris passage in Oedipus the King presents a cautionary model, or a gnomon, to chasten the conduct of a city’s ruler. Though the strophe begins with an admonition—that a leader should guard against hubris, because hubris leads to excesses that will lead to his downfall—it concludes with the chorus’ hearty prayer for and endorsement of the use of force to protect the city (the image is from competitive, even Olympic, wrestling). Oedipus used such force (whether mental or physical or both) to defeat the Sphinx.

In his translation of the hubris passage David Grene leaves vague the connection between the strophe’s two sentences and thus misses the full intent and continuity of the passage. The strophe is a unified metaphorical statement from which successive ages have taken a straightforward political message. The word hubris needs to be translated so the English expression we find for it comports with what hubris is doing in the gnomic dynamic. Jebb, Lloyd-Jones, David Grene, and presumably Peter Green favor “insolence.” But the connotations of insolence as a state of mind do not, as I have argued, convey the kind of resort to aggression that the tyrannos in Sophocles’ passage commits. In 5th-century Greece it included physical aggression, which justifies my rendering of hubris as “a violent will.”

Here a further interpretive issue arises. The image Sophocles uses for the personified hubris is an attacker climbing the defensive walls of a city. Does Sophocles intend the hubris/tyrant scaling the “ramparts” (not rooftops) to be a metaphor for a tyrant who assaults and attempts to seize his own city’s governance for himself? In literary critical terms, is usurpation the tenor of Sophocles’ vehicle, if that vehicle is an illegitimate, overreaching political coup?

I believe that Sophocles did intend something approaching my interpretation. Within the arc of Oedipus the King the strophe articulates the chorus members’ collective view that a city must breed leaders able to defeat a tyrant who attempts to capture a city in order to gratify himself. The chorus may or may not think Oedipus is such a tyrant; he has heretofore been in their eyes Thebes’ savior. Here again is my translation:

“A violent will / fathers the tyrant, / and violence, drunk / on wealth and power, / does him no good. / He scales the heights— / until he’s thrown / down to his doom, / where quick feet are no use. / But there’s another fighting spirit / I ask god never to destroy— / the kind that makes our city thrive.”

Note that my translation brings the motive for god to strike down the tyrant nearer the surface. The tyrant doesn’t jump to his death; he is thrown by an act of god, one implicitly effected by another citizen who has a public-spirited motive. In the strophe’s metaphoric vehicle this citizen, possessed of a “fighting spirit,” engages the tyrant in a wrestling match on or near the ramparts, and in its metaphoric tenor engages him within the political life of the city. It seems to me important for a translation of this strophe to highlight its tenor, its ultimate purpose, which is to show how the political dynamic of a healthy city works: the pro-active good citizen, backed by a god, takes down a tyrant attempting to plunder and oppress his fellow citizens.

The image of an attacker struck down by Zeus while attacking a Theban wall appears with the mention of Capanaeus in the first choral ode in Antigone, written some years before Oedipus the King. This resemblance further strengthens the case that Sophocles intended hubris to be struck down by a god and thrown, rather than jumping to its own destruction.

Point-by-Point Responses

“Of all Sophocles’ plays, the Oedipus Tyrannus is the most quintessentially Athenian, and the fate of its overconfident protagonist can be seen as offering a stern warning to Athens’ radical and increasingly secular leaders.”

Green’s article primarily argues in support of a speculation: that Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King to warn his fellow Athenians not to question the existence of the Olympian gods or the validity of the oracles rendered by the priests at Delphi. Green’s consideration of the translations under review in this article seems an afterthought. His thesis that Oedipus the King was written to warn Athens also seems dubious. Sophocles’ Oedipus hardly seems unjustifiably overconfident. His tone as soon as the play opens to the desperate citizens petitioning him is not arrogant. It’s solicitous and reassuring. Oedipus clearly fears and respects Delphi’s oracles until they conflict with what he believes is the truth. When he does become angry in succession at Teiresias, Kreon, Jokasta, and the Herdsman he has plenty of justification. There is no simple moral, as Green would have it, to be drawn from this play.

As for Sophocles’ attitude toward Delphi’s reliability, there’s no evidence, one way or the other. In Oedipus the King Delphi’s oracles all come literally true. In real Athenian life, they did not. We do know that questioning of Delphi’s pronouncements was rampant among Sophocles’ friends and rivals. And it was an indisputable fact its oracles could be flat wrong, as was the prediction that Athens would lose its war with Persia. Why would Sophocles, of all people, write Oedipus the King, of all plays, to make so blunt and so dubious a point? And surely this play transcends in its inexhaustible illumination any such polemical interpretation. Sophocles’ view of the gods changed over his long lifetime. The Olympians he invokes in Oedipus at Kolonos, his final play, are far kinder and more straightforward than those he depicted in his earlier plays.

“In the translations of Robert Bagg [and] James Scully … the most pressing need felt seems to be to radically simplify the original.”

Does “radically simplify” mean we cut crucial information from Sophocles’ Greek text? No one who reads even part of the book could possibly agree. On the contrary, we sought to render all dramatically and interpretively crucial nuances in Sophocles’ text––and in the subtext, taking into account not only what the lines were saying, or seeming to say, but also what in dramatic and historical context they were communicating (i.e., what the lines were doing). In many instances what we couldn’t work into the text we put into a note. Green’s charge of radical simplification, predicated on a pusillanimous “seems,” is tossed off without any evidence whatever.

What Green might mean is that we use a more straightforward sentence structure than Sophocles does. Yet that is true of any English sentence when translating an inflected language like Attic Greek.

“Bagg, who translates the Oedipus Tyrannus, uses a plain, clipped style for both choral passages and speeches, ironing out the ambiguities, favoring colloquialisms, and occasionally inserting a brief explanatory word.”

Every charge Green makes—except my insertion of explanatory words, without which several passages would not be fully understandable—is demonstrably false. I use, as does Scully, a spectrum of styles and levels of language appropriate to Sophocles’ own variety, which is immense. His rapid-fire single-line exchanges are terse; so are mine. When Sophocles’ narratives and choral passages require an elevated tone and complex sentence structure, mine reflect that need. I do not “favor colloquialisms.” I use them where appropriate, but so does Sophocles. Of Sophocles’ own colloquialisms, 24 percent are assigned to lower-caste characters, in particular messengers and servants. He also gives colloquialisms to upper-caste figures, but only to reveal them as vulgar or undignified (e.g., Menelaos in Aias). Green may be conflating, and confusing, colloquial English with idiomatic English.

As for ironed-out ambiguities, since Green offers no examples, we don’t know what he has in mind. When we get down to it, Green may be acting in this review as a spokesperson for that portion of his profession that either resents and must attack all translations of ancient masterpieces by translators who are not professional Classicists, or he assumes that if a translation reads well it must be a betrayal of the original. As Eric Csapo reminds us: “In antiquity dramatic poets wrote for dramatic performers, and it is an old, bad habit of traditional philology to suppose otherwise.”

“The result is printed as verse but reads more like chopped-up conversational prose. Here and there a blank verse line surfaces in the speeches; Bagg’s choruses, even more staccato, work at unraveling Sophocles’ complex choruses in a way apparently deemed acceptable to (that is, understandable by) a modern theater audience, but one of a pretty low intellectual level. On the other hand this version, purged as it is of Sophocles’ subtleties, does suggest, when read aloud, that it could play well on stage. Depth has been traded for dramatic impact. You win some, you lose some.”

Green’s search for blank verse lines, and his disappointment that he finds so few, reveals his preference that English translations are best when done in iambic pentameter. I have plenty of continuous blank-verse passages in all my translations. But my preference is for a four-beat line that moves faster than pentameter and is closer to Sophocles’ quick-footed metric. Green’s snide (and revelatory) remark that my choruses would only find favor with audiences “of a pretty low intellectual level” (a judgment that would astonish the college audiences who’ve attended performances of these translations) assumes clarity to be a dispensable virtue.

In passing, Green remarks on the “brilliance” of Sophocles’ Philoktetes. But he has nothing to say about Scully’s version. And he ignores the fact that Scully’s Aias presents a radically original interpretation of the play, one painstakingly supported by Scully’s introduction and notes. Here Scully explains how he arrived at his interpretation:

“It was awhile before I realized the extraordinary theatrical breakthrough—beyond the realm of any reasonable expectation—Sophocles had achieved in Aias. Having set up and broken the Homeric medium, the perfectly realized tragedy of Aias, Sophocles frees the barbarian Teukros—who is grounded in 5th-century ‘democratic’ values, perceptions, and reflexes—not merely to speak through but crash through the fictive heroic setting. By a meta-theatrical coup Sophocles disoriented his audience, leaving it to deal with the bickering wreckage of heroic, ennobled myth confronted by contemporary values and realities … an unsettling situation for any audience, but especially for one expecting transport to a heroic world. Like most of us, they too had to have been classicists of a sort. We go expecting what we expect, looking to be transported in some way, not left to cope with the spoilage of sordid nobility, nor blowhard oligarchs who degrade language itself. Yet that is what Sophocles does, with one huge difference: the function of this radical breech of expectations is not to shock the audience (compared with which, epater le bourgeoisie is a trivialization) but to open it up to its own world. This is theater that doesn’t go outside its box, but simply goes ahead and breaks it. The audience itself is left to resolve the work—not with words, but in their minds and in their lives as citizens.”

James Scully, working with John Herington, a professor at Yale and highly regarded Aeschylus’ scholar, translated Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound in 1975. Peter Burian of Duke University and the co-editor of Oxford UP’s Greek Tragedies in New Translations series called it a “landmark.” Both readers and scholarly critics have praised its accuracy and readability and it received major productions in both New York City and at the University of Utah. It is surely an inexplicable dereliction that Green chose not to include Scully’s translations of Aias and Philoktetes in his review.

I hope it’s clear by now that what Green castigates as errors are in fact a translator’s legitimate choices supported by both the scholarly tradition and the need to preserve the original’s dramatic force and coherence. Sophocles wrote plays intended to be performed, plays that resonated for his contemporaries. To make these plays resonate for 21st-century audiences (on the page and on stage) is our stated goal. To tell the readers of the NYRB that we “water down” Sophocles text or “discard” his meanings is demonstrably false and unworthy of any classical scholar or the New York Review of Books.


Bagg, Scully stress the dramatic in translating Sophocles

From The Philadelphia Inquirer, reviewed by Richard Lindsey

There is a pithy old Italian saying: traduttore, traditore — (a translator is a traitor). Sophocles, one of the three major dramatists of Athens in the fifth century B.C., certainly hasn't lacked for betrayers in the last 2,400 years.

So in addressing this new translation of Sophocles' seven surviving plays by poets Robert Bagg and James Scully, the inevitable first question is: Why another translation? For one thing, every translation, like every betrayal, is different. Because no translation can ever be exact in every way, each one has at least the potential to show us something different about the original work.

For another thing, languages and their users change over time. As the translators point out, although Sophocles' plays "communicate in and through time, translations of them do not. Each generation … renders them in the style it believes best suited for tragedy."

The equally inevitable second question is: Why this translation? The answer to this question is less simple and perhaps more provocative.

Bagg and Scully argue that Sophocles has often been translated with a kind of general elevation and elegance that doesn't always reflect what is in fact a quite wide emotional and linguistic range. Although Sophocles' language can certainly be formal, dense, and allusive, some of it is simple, direct, and even blunt. The translators have made a point of trying to highlight these differences.

To translate Sophocles' breadth of expression, Bagg and Scully have required "the resources not only of idiomatic English but also of rhetorical gravitas and, on rare occasion, colloquial English as well." Consequently, they've adopted "a wide and varied palette" for vocabulary and levels of speech, striving for "a language that is spontaneous and generative as opposed to studied and bloodless."

In doing so, they've departed from literalism whenever they felt it necessary. Their objective "is not only to render the literal meaning but also to communicate the feel and impact embedded in that meaning."

Such an approach to Greek drama is by no means unprecedented. As one example, Bagg and Scully cite the valuable efforts of the eminent classicist and editor William Arrowsmith, who commissioned poet-translators to develop more natural, idiomatic, and (crucially) performable versions of ancient Greek plays. Bagg and Scully, however, take this approach further than any other Sophoclean translation I'm familiar with.

A brief but illustrative example of the translators' method appears in Aias (better known as Ajax). Teukros, Aias' half-brother, and Menelaos, the famous king of Sparta, are facing off over whether Aias, who has killed himself, is entitled to a proper burial. Menelaos, a frontline fighter, sneers at Teukros for being a mere archer.

In the original Greek, Teukros replies, ou gar banauson ten tekhnen ektesamen, something like "For it is not a [mere] mechanical skill that I possess." Scully, the translator responsible for this play, takes a much freer approach to this line, rendering it as "I'm very good at what I do."

Scully's reasoning is that the negation ("it is not X") demanded by a more literal rendering would sound defensive and perhaps weak in this dramatic moment. Teukros' intent here is not merely defensive but also aggressive: He's quietly threatening Menelaos. Although this rendering is certainly not literal, it does have the right feel and impact.

This example might make it sound as if the translators have merely paraphrased the plays — in effect, turning ancient Greek dramas into 21st-century American ones. Fortunately, they haven't done this. Their avowed goal is appropriateness of expression for the dramatic moment, not informality for its own sake and not avoidance of literalism on principle. Accordingly, when poetic language is called for, they provide it. An example is Bagg's clear and well-honed rendering of the opening lines of the famous "Ode to Man" from Antigone:

Wonders abound, but none
more astounding than man!
He crosses to the far side
of white seas, blown
by winter gales, sailing
below huge waves.
He wears Earth down —
our primal, eternal,
inexhaustible god,
his stallion-sired mules
plowing her soil
back and forth
year after year.

Sophocles' plays were not created to be read in solitary silence. They were events, performed in front of large audiences on an important religious occasion, and those audiences often responded emotionally to them. Ideally, therefore, translations of these works should not only read well but also play well. Bagg and Scully's renderings strike me as the most performable versions of Sophocles I've ever encountered, and this may be their greatest strength.

Although I'm impressed by this new translation, the approach it embodies is not the only way to achieve a powerful and faithful rendering of a classic work. As an undergraduate classicist, I had a strong preference for more literal translations from Greek and Latin, such as Richmond Lattimore's Iliad and Allen Mandelbaum's Aeneid. I felt that these somehow brought me closer to the bones and sinews of the original work — its Greekness or Latinity — and I tended to avoid other, freer translations.

Thirty-five years later, my preferences have changed. Although I still love the Lattimore Iliad and the Mandelbaum Aeneid, I've gained a far greater appreciation for the type of approach that Bagg and Scully take here.

If you're looking for the most literal possible translation of Sophocles, the Bagg-Scully version probably shouldn't be first on your list. But if you're looking for the translation that best reflects the emotional force and expressive range of the original plays, you would be hard pressed to do better.


Review posted on "ProSe", 21 September 2011

I finished this newly published (2011) volume of translations of the seven existing plays by Sophocles recently. I unhesitatingly recommend this new work of the translators, Robert Bagg and James Scully, as they really did an outstanding job of presenting these powerful dramas with extraordinary lyricism and emotional impact. For your information, I am providing a list of the plays in the collection and the primary translator—

Aias (James Scully)
Women of Trakhis (Robert Bagg)
Philoktetes (James Scully)
Elektra (Robert Bagg)
Oedipus the King (Robert Bagg)
Oedipus at Kolonos (Robert Bagg)
Antigone (Robert Bagg)

Interestingly enough, this was the first time that I had read Aias (Ajax) or the Women of Trakhis and I really, really enjoyed both of them. While I was familiar with the story of Ajax from The Iliad, I have to say that Sophocles and James Scully really made me realize the physical and psychological toll that warfare and combat has upon a soldier. One has to believe that what is described in Aias can only be classified as a classic case of "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD). We see the toll that this 'madness' takes upon the family and friends of Ajax, and it is truly heartbreaking. In the Introduction to the volume, Bagg and Scully indicate that excerpts from both Aias and Philoktetes have been performed for members of the American armed services and their families in the context of addressing and dealing with PTSD. I say, 'Bravo!'

Finally, I have to say that I consider myself somewhat a connoisseur associated with Sophocles' Antigone, and the translated version in this collection is simply superb. The dialog is spare, clipped, and drips with pathos—we emotionally respond not only to what Kreon and Antigone say in the play, but the overall intent of Sophocles in writing the play. As Antigone prepares to meet her fate she laments,

"Hades, who chills each one of us to sleep,
will guide me down to Acheron's shore.
I'll go hearing no wedding hymn
to carry me to my bridal chamber, or songs
girls sing when flowers crown a bride's hair;
I'm going to marry the River of Pain." (890-895)

That'll wrench your heart-strings. In this collection, Bagg and Scully have given us a new version of Sophocles that is dramatic, poetic, and lyrical, and incredibly relevant for our time. The language incorporated in these translations is not in the slightest degree flowery or excessive. In my opinion, not one word is wasted, the emotion is right there—in your face—and it just feels right. Read these plays and see what you think.


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