Edward Waters's Reviews > The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: Oedipus the King; Oedipus at Colonus; Antigone

The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles by Sophocles
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Aug 04, 2011

it was amazing

Most English translations of, say, the Greek New Testament are shepherded by a conviction that the original words had divine inspiration and so are best rendered verbatim wherever possible. At the same time, there generally is a concession (for good or ill) to the reality that if what results is not sufficiently lofty and reverential in tone, the faithful are unlikely to accept it. Attempts at classical Greek drama and poetry tend to be guided by rather different considerations: The translator's audience may consist of fellow scholars, reluctant undergraduate students, or an adventurous minority of the general public; and each of these groups will have particular demands. Too often work thus emerges which is precise but lifeless, or loosely interpreted to conform to the structures of 19th-century-style Anglo-American poetry, or so liberally seasoned with present-day colloquialisms as to jar the reader repeatedly out of the proper period and setting.

For the most part, Paul Roche navigates skilfully through these hazards in trying his hand at Sophocles's Oedipus trilogy, and has produced a rendition that is readable, yet preserves classical distinctiveness. Once or twice in the first play a turn of phrase does feel awkwardly modern, but such flashes are rare and soon either disappear or blend into the overall arc of the stories. That Roche is himself a poet clearly enriched the labour, and his reflections, in the Introduction, on the essence of poetry and the challenge of its transmission across lines of language, era, and culture border on the profound. '... Poetry lies somewhere between meaning and music, sense and sound ...,' he writes; and in this region he attempts to set Sophocles's work. He echoes the meter of the original without imitating it exactly, and preserves more of the Greek dramatic structure (complete with `strophes' and `antistrophes') than do many other translations available. Yet Roche remains mindful that this is also a PLAY, and manages the formalized dialogue with an eye (or ear) to the possibility of his version itself turning up on stage. He also provides an afterword outlining principles to guide such performance.

The reader of this translation whose only prior encounter with the Oedipus legend was some now-vaguely-remembered lesson in school, or perhaps Edith Hamilton's summary, may be surprised at how effectively one is drawn in. Roche, like Sophocles before him, succeeds in bringing the remote and legendary close enough to touch, while allowing it to remain sufficiently mysterious to stir the imagination.
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