I have just finished reading four different translations of Sophocles' classic tragedy Antigone, which was chronologically the first of his three greaI have just finished reading four different translations of Sophocles' classic tragedy Antigone, which was chronologically the first of his three great 'Theban Plays.' The other two, in the order written, include, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. Antigone is thought to have been written around 441 BCE. I thought it might be interesting to briefly compare and contrast the four very different translations that I read. As is to be expected, each had strengths and weaknesses. At least you'll get a sense of what the various translations are like; and if you are a high school English teacher this might even be a helpful review.
First though, it is probably worth just giving a thumbnail sketch of the plot of the play. Antigone, Ismene, Polyneices, and Eteocles are the adult children of the accidentally incestuous marriage of Oedipus and his mother Jocasta. The story of Oedipus and Jocasta is told in Sophocles' other two 'Theban' plays (mentioned above). Also, if you have never read Antigone, and are worried about 'Spoilers,' you may just want to scroll down to the bottom and look at the comparisons between the four versions, and skip the next five paragraphs (i.e., those between the ***).
In Antigone, we find the two sisters, Antigone and Ismene, together in the Greek city of Thebes where a great battle has just concluded, and both of their brothers have been killed. In fact, Polyneices and Eteocles have killed each other in single combat; with Polyneices fighting on the side of the Argive army attacking Thebes and its defenders, including his brother Eteocles. The new king of Thebes, Creon, is their uncle (their mother, Jocasta's brother). While Creon orders full military honors and funeral rites for the slain Eteocles, he issues an edict that the sisters' brother's body, Polyneices, be left to rot and be eaten by scavengers. This harsh order profoundly offends Antigone's sense of family honor, and it completely runs afoul of the wishes of the gods that all dead are treated with respect and buried with appropriate honor and dignity. Creon further adds that if anyone attempts to bury the dead man that they will be immediately executed.
Antigone asks her sister to go out on the battlefield and give their slain brother's body its proper funeral rites. Ismene, however, is afraid of violating Creon's orders and refuses to help. Antigone is appalled at her sister's weakness, and goes out by herself. She finds her brother's body, purifies it, and covers it with earth to protect it from the scavengers--all done in direct defiance of Creon's edict. The covered body is discovered by Creon's sentries, and is re-exposed to the elements. The disobedience is reported to Creon as well, who is enraged that someone would disobey his direct orders. Of course, Antigone is then caught attempting to rebury her brother's body, and is brought before the king.
The dialog between Antigone, Creon, and the Chorus is truly amazing and quite powerful. It is the classic example of someone standing up and doing the morally correct thing, and knowing full well that what they do may cost them their life. This represents the power of the individual against that of the State. In fact, early on in the play in an example of imperial hubris, Creon utters a statement that we seem to hear from our political leaders time and time again--"And he who cherishes an individual beyond his homeland,/he, I say, is nothing." Antigone stands up to Creon by simply stating that her honor, and the honor of her family, compelled her to do what she had done, and that it was also the law of the gods. Creon says that she must pay the ultimate price for her "treachery" as he puts it. He sentences her to death, and that she must be walled up inside of a tomb.
At this point the Chorus, comprised of Theban elders begins to doubt the wisdom of Creon's actions against Antigone. On top of that, Haemon, Creon's son comes in and begs his father not to kill Antigone. Haemon loves her and wishes to marry her. More importantly, Haemon also believes that what Antigone has done for her slain brother is only right and proper. He tells his father that even the citizens of Thebes believe that Antigone has simply upheld her family honor, and has committed no crime and should be spared. Creon cares not for the opinions of the citizens and does not relent. He orders Antigone to be taken away.
Later the blind 'seer,' Tiresias comes and chastises Creon for his hubris and arrogance, and ultimately convinces Creon that his edict was wrong-headed. Creon accepts this verdict and orders the release of Antigone. But it is too late! When Creon and his guards arrive at the tomb, they find that Antigone has hanged herself, and that Creon's son, Haemon is in the process of committing suicide to be with her in the Land of the Dead. Unfortunately, it only gets worse for Creon. Upon returning to his palace in Thebes, he finds that his wife, Eurydice, has killed herself over the suicide of her son, as well as the death of her older son in the recent battle--both deaths she lays at the feet of her husband, Creon. The Chorus has the last word--
"The mighty words of the proud are paid in full with mighty blows of fate, and at long last those blows will teach us wisdom."
Okay, here are the four different translations that I read. I have to say that they are all quite good; and while the plot is obviously the same, there are subtle differences in meter, lyricism, tempo, and use of contemporary language.
1. The first version I read was in an edition entitled Sophocles I from the University of Chicago Press (1991), and the translation was authored by David Grene. This was very solidly done and quite poetic. It also comes with the other two "Theban" plays, referenced above.
2. The second version I read was from the "The Greek Tragedy in New Translations" series entitled, Antigone, from the Oxford University Press. This 1973 translation was prepared by Richard Emil Braun, and was also very well done. Like Grene's translation (No. 1), seemed to emphasize an adherence to a classical interpretation and felt rather scholarly.
3. The most modern and intriguing rendition was the one prepared by the Irish poet, Seamus Heaney in 2004. Heaney's version is entitled The Burial at Thebes. I found this to be a fresh, fast-paced, and a very poetic and lyrical modern translation. Heaney also incorporated an interesting structure in the poem, and uses a meter of three-beats per line for the dialogs of Antigone and Ismene, four-beat lines for the Chorus (similar to the old Anglo-Saxon of his Beowulf translation), and then iambic pentameter for Creon. Cool, huh?
4. My favorite translation of Antigone was that of Robert Fagles in the Penguin Classics edition entitled, The Three Theban Plays (1984). This edition includes the two 'Oedipus' plays and the Antigone, and was nominated for a National Book Award. I really enjoy Mr. Fagles' translations, as they truly seem to feel classical, but are very understandable. I truly enjoyed his translations of The Iliad (my review is on GR too) and The Oresteia; and this translation of Antigone is just as majestic and lyrical. I highly recommend the Fagles' translations of any of these enduring classics.
So, there you are--a quick review of four different versions of Sophocles' Antigone. This is an important play to read and ponder. The moral message put forth in the play illustrates a dilemma that just about each of us probably encounters at least once over the course of our lives. What the Antigone teaches us is that it is the choice of an individual to stand up and be faithful to a code of ethics, with honor, integrity and personal responsibility in the face of external pressures, sometimes forcibly applied, from others advocating a different, but immoral course of action. This is important stuff today, just as it was in Sophocles' time....more
Anne Carson has done an amazingly marvelous job with her fascinating translation of her version of 'The Oresteia.' Her 'Oresteia' is a compilation ofAnne Carson has done an amazingly marvelous job with her fascinating translation of her version of 'The Oresteia.' Her 'Oresteia' is a compilation of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Dr. Carson has utilized Aeschylus' Agamemnon, Sophocles' Elektra, and Euripides' Orestes. I have to say that it is a simply brilliant combination. This is contemporary poetry at its absolute finest!
Her interpretation is modern, lyrical, and quite powerful. Carson's Agamemnon is bleak, dark, and sinister; and one can't help be astounded with the power and rage exhibited by Klytaimestra and the penetratingly prophetic and haunting voice of Kassandra.
The second play, that of Sophocles' Elektra, is equally riveting. In this rendition, Carson's interpretation gives Elektra's language great power and emotion as she incites her brother, Orestes in their plan to murder their mother, Klytaimestra. It makes the hair on the back of your neck stand up as you read these lines, and watch the siblings enact their terrible vengeance upon their mother and her lover.
The final play is Carson's rendition of Euripides' Orestes, and deals with Orestes' deep and emotional descent into the internal hell of his guilt over his killing of his mother. The people of Argos are all too ready to condemn and execute him for his matricide. His sister, Elektra, steadfastly stays at his side, and tries to help him cope with the madness which afflicts him, i.e., the haunting of The Furies. The reader is even treated to a cameo appearance of Helen of Troy ('The Face that Launched a Thousand Ships'). Ultimately, it takes the intervention of Apollo to absolve Orestes of his matricide and restore order and justice to the Argive community.
If you have read Aeschylus' monumental masterpiece The Oresteia and any of the tragic plays of Sophocles and Euripides, I highly recommend this wonderfully contemporary treatment of the Oresteian tale by Anne Carson. Personally, I would simply love to see this version performed on the stage some time soon....more
I finished this new volume of translations of the seven existing plays by Sophocles last night. I unhesitatingly recommend this new work of the translI finished this new volume of translations of the seven existing plays by Sophocles last night. 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 lyricism and 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 "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. Bravo!
Finally, I have to say that I consider myself somewhat a connoisseur associated with Sophocles' Antigone, and the 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. Bagg and Scully have given us a new version of Sophocles that is dramatic, poetic, and lyrical. 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....more
This is a superb translation and adaptation of Sophocles' great play, Antigone. Ms. Rayor has done a superb job of presenting the drama and pathos ofThis is a superb translation and adaptation of Sophocles' great play, Antigone. Ms. Rayor has done a superb job of presenting the drama and pathos of the story in a structure that is lyrical, dynamic, yet remains powerfully emotional. Of the seven different translations and adaptations of Antigone that I have on my bookshelf, Ms. Rayor's adaptation rivals that of Seamus Heaney's, The Burial at Thebes, and they are now my two favorite renditions of Antigone. I highly recommend acquiring and reading this translation, it is quite superb....more
If you plan to read Homer's The Iliad or The Odyssey, or any of the great plays of the Greek classicists, I have a suggestion for a book that will proIf you plan to read Homer's The Iliad or The Odyssey, or any of the great plays of the Greek classicists, I have a suggestion for a book that will prove to be indispensable to you on your journey through these great works of literature. Robert Graves (1895-1985), the British poet, translator and novelist, produced some 140 works. He is probably best known for his novel, I Claudius, and his historical study of poetic inspiration, The White Goddess. In the late-1950s, he also completed a two-volume compilation and analysis of Greek mythology. In this posting, I am reviewing the 1992 Penguin soft-cover edition entitled, The Greek Myths--Complete Edition. It is encyclopedic in content, organization and structure, as well as size as it is nearly 800 pages in length. It is my humble opinion that this really may be the very best desk reference on Greek mythology that is available. I did quite a lot of research, on-line and in the bookstores, before I made the decision to buy a copy of Graves' book, and I really couldn't be more satisfied.
Graves starts off, rightly so, with the early Pelasgian creation myths that tell the stories of the creation of the Universe, the Titans, Titanesses, and the first man, Pelasgus. Graves compares the early Pelasgian creation myths with the later Homeric, Orphic, and Olympian creation myths, and from there the reader is 'off to the races.' Graves takes each myth--from the Creation through Odysseus' homecoming at the end of The Odyssey--and provides a synopsis of all of the variations, includes a comprehensive set of bibliographic citations associated with the source(s) for each myth and its variations, and then follows that up with detailed set of explanatory notes and comments. Frankly, it is just this organizational structure that makes this book priceless, in my opinion. Now, does the book lend itself to sitting down and reading it straight through, cover-to-cover? No, not particularly. I did, but then I wanted to read each myth--all 171 of them--as some of them I wasn't familiar with at all. Having done that though, I can honestly say that I am completely convinced that Graves' organizational scheme in this reference book is nothing short of brilliant. I am also completely comfortable navigating my way around the book, starting from either the table of contents or index, reading the actual myth(s), the source citations, and then exploring Graves' notes and comments. In summation, I'd say that Graves has taken a scholarly approach in his presentation of the myths, documenting sources, and with his explanatory notes and commentary. Having said that though, I also maintain that this is still an enjoyable and eminently readable book, and one that you could pick up and open to any page and start reading and just lose yourself for an hour or two.
There's another fascinating aspect of this work that I want to highlight. While Graves, in this volume, has collected and compiled the myths and stories of the ancient Greeks, he is obviously very interested in the genesis and spread of these myths through time and across cultural boundaries. Consequently, Graves spends a lot of time and commentary on an etymological analysis of words (no matter how arcane or archaic) in establishing relationships between, for example, some of the creation myths emanating from Sumer (e.g., the Epic of Gilgamesh), or the variations of similar myths found in Celtic regions of western Europe. This makes sense to me too; as peoples, with their customs, beliefs and ideas, were surely moving about and interacting with one another. Now, whether one buys into all of the notions put forth by Graves in his commentaries, I'll leave that up to each reader to make up his or her mind, but I think he's on to something here--like I said, it just seems to make sense.
I think that the myths of ancient Greece are important, and will continue to be. They are some of the foundational building blocks of much of the great literature, art, and music that we all love and appreciate today; and, as such, they are an important part of our cultural and spiritual heritage as human beings. They continue to provide artistic and philosophical inspiration to us in our lives, from the likes of John Keats' great poems Endymion and Lamia, or the Daphnis et Chloe ballet musical score by Maurice Ravel, to graphical renditions of Agamemnon's murder at the hands of his wife Clytemnestra, such as that by the Pre-Raphaelite painter John Collier. Graves' The Greek Myths--Complete Edition will help you make sense of these daily encounters with Greek mythology, and I hope will leave you looking for more. I highly recommend having a copy of Graves' book on your bookshelf, right next to your dictionary, thesaurus, style guides, and poetry anthologies. Its a keeper! As the inveterate bibliophile that I am, I am now on the lookout for a hardbound copy of this wonderful book in two volumes, as it was originally published....more
I enjoyed Meinick's translation and staging of The Oresteia. Having said that though, I still think that my favorite presentation of the trilogy of plI enjoyed Meinick's translation and staging of The Oresteia. Having said that though, I still think that my favorite presentation of the trilogy of plays is that done by the late Robert Fagles. I will, however, keep my eye peeled for the opportunity to see a performance of the Meinick translation/adaptation in the theater. Well worth reading....more