Closing the Gap: “The Complete Plays of Sophocles: a New Translation” for a New Audience


Harper Perennial published The Complete Plays of Sophocles: A New Translation by Robert Bagg and James Scully, on July 26, 2011. The book includes all seven extant plays by Sophocles, two of which will be included in the Norton Anthology of World Literature. The following essay was derived from Robert Bagg’s talk at the Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum in Northampton, MA.

The Complete Plays of Sophocles

How best to translate masterworks from an ancient to a modern language has been debated and prescribed ever since Florentine humanists recovered hundreds of Greek and Latin masterworks from remote libraries, where monks had stashed the luckier manuscripts for almost two millennia, just beyond the reach of devouring worms, climates, and clerical censors. What I offer in this essay is not so much a theory as a chronicle of lessons learned and prejudices developed since Jim Scully and I began translating Greek drama at the invitation of William Arrowsmith, a formidably obstreperous classicist teaching at the University of Texas.  Arrowsmith commissioned us to translate Euripides’ Hippolytos (Bagg) and Aeschylus’Prometheus Bound (Scully, in collaboration with John Herington of Yale) for his Greek Tragedies in Modern Translation series. Arrowsmith’s idea was to pair poets with Greek scholars to produce versions that were “loyal” (but not slavishly so) to the intent of the Greek, but which read and played as though they had been written originally in English. Since I’d studied Greek I wasn’t paired with a collaborator, though I got plenty of help from the Amherst mentors who had persuaded me to translate Euripides’ Cyclops during my senior year. As I worked on Hippolytos and later the Bakkhai for Arrowsmith, I realized his idea of how to translate Greek drama was seriously flawed.

I gradually discovered that the improvisations and paraphrases intended to enliven could also numb or obliterate the urgent and nuanced intent of the playwright. PaceArrowsmith, mere loyalty is never enough. I also convinced myself that one could make very accurate and very playable translations from the Athenian playwrights ifone hewed closely to what the Greek was saying and what it was doing in the rough and tumble of the action. Attention must be paid to the Greek, in all its ramifications and exactitudes. And this process, I also discovered, might take not years but decades.

Accordingly, I revised my Hippolytos and Bakkhai to bring in more of the original core meaning than did my first versions. Once they were in print both plays began to be staged around the country. (Arrowsmith, in any case, rejected my Bakkhai for the Oxford series, and I published it with UMass Press.)

After translating both Oedipus the King and Women of Trakhis on commission for university productions, it occurred to me that to do the seven surviving plays by Sophocles would be a worthy and manageable project. Some twenty years into it, having completed Antigone and Oedipus at Kolonos and just begun work onElektra, I persuaded Scully, whose 1975 collaboration with Herington produced a widely admired version of Prometheus Bound, to take on Aias and Philoketetes.

Though Scully and I give Sophocles different tonalities and rhythms, we share a determination to find natural, rather than contorted, language for every speech in every play. Many classicists resist making naturalness a priority, arguing that all Greek plays were originally written in exalted and mannered speech that had only a disdainful relation to the boisterous chatter heard on the Athenian street. The trouble with an insistence on retaining at all costs the ‘literal’ meaning of any Greek text is that it can’t be done, not even by immensely gifted Hellenists. Though patches of literalness are possible and desirable, a consistently literal translation of a Greek drama is literally impossible. The two languages are irreconcilably different in how their grammatical practice organizes sentences. And not all Greek words correspond exactly to their modern English counterparts. Many have quite different spectra of associations and nuances. Depending on context, for instance, “logos” can be and has been translated as “word,” “language,” “theory,” “reason,” “ratio,” “proportion,” “definition,” and “a saying”—as in the opening line ofWomen of Trakhis (“People have a saying that goes way back”). Of course “logos”is also the basis for the English word “logic” and the conceptualizing of biology, geology, and every other -ology. And then there’s “In the beginning was the Logos, and the Logos became flesh and dwelt among us.” How does one put that into a hermetic linguistic filing system? In life, in actual practice, neither easily nor well.

As translators, Jim and I were mindful that many kinds of readers—students and the classics professors who might put our versions on their syllabi; general readers who are new to Greek drama or revisiting it; actors and directors who want to present these works to a live audience—would bring varying expertise and expectations to our versions. But we assumed all would be looking for texts that would engage rather than daunt.

When we studied Athenian theatrical history we discovered that even Sophocles’ contemporaries thought much tragic rhetoric over the top. For instance, to quote Simon Goldhill, “already in Sophocles’ Athens the ‘tragic’ had become synonymous with a certain grandeur of expression, high-flown periphrasis and even heroic posturing. Tragedy is—and was perceived to be—made up of a particular register of language: there is a style and a vocabulary proper to the genre.” Late-fifth-century actors, whose predecessors had appeared only in standard-issue robes and laced, elevated foot-ware whether playing a king or a messenger, rejected bombastic acting styles in favor of a startling and sometimes grubby realism, wearing rags, for instance, when playing a disgraced nobleman. Instead of projecting their particular tragic registers from rooted positions, they began to move naturally around the stage and speak, when appropriate, in regional dialect and class-specific accents (sociolects) suited to foreign, or lower-class characters, and even to mop the stage floor while playing a slave.

The actors, in Sophocles’ own era, and for a century thereafter, thus altered the dramatic experience in order to bring the plays more sharply into focus for successive generations of audiences in Athens and in Athens’ colonies. The old guard reacted by denouncing and even ostracizing actors whose realistic acting style offended. But star quality was as prized in ancient Athens and Italy as in our era. Celebrity actors commanded enormous fees, and they soon ruled the theatrical profession and chose what plays to produce or revive.

We as translators have no interest in, or possibility of exerting, such control. But we try to sharpen the focus of Sophocles’ vision so modern readers and audience can see and hear his speech with greater clarity. As in life, most speech cannot be fully grasped apart from its social context, so in theater, and so in the imagination of a reader: dramatic context must take words up and finish them off. Words on stage areacts in themselves. Stage speech should convey spontaneous emotions and pulsing thought as the character feels them moment-by-moment. They shouldn’t come across as studied or remote. We as translators have a responsibility not to reissue a replica of classical Greek culture but rather to recoup its living reality.

Greek, in every sense a living language, does not stand still. And a translation will not hold the attention of a contemporary audience when it needlessly steers clear of an appropriate and expected current idiom. The ancient Greeks lived with a panoply of dramatic expression, from the pungency of cut-and-thrust dialogue to exhortation, exultation, and elaborately detailed messenger narratives. Audiences expected chorus members to be capable of conveying sympathy, rebuke, irony, naïveté and wryness, outbursts of pain and mourning and, between each scene, to perform soaring, complex and often highly allusive choral songs.

To translate the rich range of expressive modes Sophocles had at his disposal, we need the resources not only of idiomatic English but also of rhetorical gravitas and, on rare occasion, colloquial English as well. Which is why we have adopted, regarding vocabulary and ‘levels of speech,’ a wide and varied palette. When Philoktetes exclaims, “You said it, boy,” he corresponds in character to a Greek father or elder expressing agreement or encouragement. On the other hand Aias’s “Long rolling waves of time …” is as elevated, without being pompous, as anything can be.

Unfortunately we’ve been taught and have learned to live with washed-out stereotypes of the life and art of ‘classical’ times—just as we have come to associate Greek sculpture with marble pallor even though the Greeks painted most, if not all, of their sculpture. (The classical historian Bettany Hughes writes in The Hemlock Cup that temples and monuments were painted or stained in Technicolor to be seen under the bright Attic sun, while Greek statues “were dressed in real clothes as if they suffered hot and cold.”) The statues’ eyes were not blanks gazing off into space. They had color: a look. To restore their flesh tones, their eye color, and the bright hues of their cloaks would now seem a desecration, but only because we’ve become accustomed to static, idealized conceptions of ancient Greek culture. A mindset that sees Greek statuary as bland marble may condition us to preserve, above all, not the reality of ancient Greek art but our own fixed conception of it—which, ironically, is inseparable from what the ravages of centuries have done to it.

The varied modern idioms into which we’ve translated Sophocles’ seven plays derive from our critical understanding of each one’s rhetorical and thematic ingredients. Each play has a distinct melodic tone and mental tenor. Oedipus the King, for instance, has an ominous drumbeat of paradox and double meaning restrained by great surface calm. The playwright inflects the dialog with the superior knowledge he shares with his audience. Aias opens with its title character torturing cows and sheep he thinks are the Greek commanders who have shown him disrespect. When it turns out the goddess Athena has confused him into believing the animals he’s savaging are the Greek high command, he’s mortally humiliated and kills himself. From that moment Sophocles unpredictably segues the play into a brilliant demonstration of the arrogance, impiety, and cowardice of Homeric (and by implication, Athenian) oligarchs when confronted by a determined common soldier, Aias’s barbarian brother Teukros. In doing so Sophocles makes a political point that was not lost on its audience, which erupted (in either approval or revulsion) during the play.

Sophocles Bust

Every Athenian play exhibits the strangeness of the Greek mind, and takes us deep into the awkward or amazing characteristics of Athenian cultural life. What James Scully wrote of Aeschylus is true of Sophocles: “His audacity and otherness should come through untamed. He is not, and should not seem to be, our contemporary. Immediately present, yes. But as himself, not quite as one of us.”

This otherness is found, for instance, in the Greek conviction that a person’s future is determined by a daimon, one’s own personal, often inscrutable divinity. Or in the pollution that seeps from a crime to poison not only the criminal’s mind, but inevitably as well his loved ones’ and his children’s lives. We may grasp these religious expectations abstractly, and even become familiar with the patterns of behavior they impose on a Greek hero, but acceptance of their rightness or naturalness is not easy to acquire, especially for a non-classicist who rarely reads or sees a Greek play. Yet translators must not only suspend our disbelief in the Greeks’ metaphysics, they must make these strange ideas matter to us. Nietzsche has summed up some other more mundane kinds of awareness we have lost:


We no longer wholly understand how ancient man experienced the most familiar and ordinary events — the day for instance, and his waking up. Because the ancients believed in dreams, waking existence had a different lustre … our “death” is an utterly different death. All events had a different sheen because a god shone in them; the same was true of all decisions and glimpses into the distant future, because ancient man had oracles and hidden signs and prophecy. “Truth” was thought of differently, when the lunatic could be considered its mouthpiece — something that makes us shudder or laugh. Injustice had a different emotional effect since people feared not merely social punishment and disgrace but divine retribution as well. (Arrowsmith’s translation)


What, then, might a reader find in our translations to close the gap between Sophocles’ time and ours? Unprincipled oligarchs possessing fabulous wealth have plagued us; we too have leaders who believe that wars are the best answer to human conflict. We have our own Antigones imprisoned or killed when they speak truth to power, and wives desperate to keep the affection of husbands bemused by more youthful rivals.

We share with Sophocles an era of social, political and personal turmoil. That he drew this turmoil into his plays has been documented by generations of scholars. And we as translators have used our own comparable turmoil to understand and translate the plays he wrote.

In Aias and Philoktetes, for instance, Sophocles was not only writing about problematic strains running through Greek social and political reality, he was intervening in that reality to shape or to change it—in real time, in front of 14,000 people who were not all of the same mind or social stratum as he was. Sophocles was quite capable of exposing the limitations of aristocrats to an audience perhaps nostalgic for Athens’ long superseded oligarchy. He was in the truest sense adidaskalos, a teacher, which is what all Greek playwrights/directors were called. In a monarchal/aristocratic tribal structure such as Athens had at the beginning of the fifth century BCE, where the lives of all depend on a heroic, bigger-than-life individual, how does a polity make the transition into an electoral republic sustained by the interdependence of all—those who are not mythic but life-sized, and yet who still strain to honor ancient heroic values? The issues are subtle and concern the maintenance of cultural integrity and continuity in the course of radical historical change. Sophocles shows us with what attitude one must meet change of this order—change that may not be revolutionary in the conventional sense—but which has just as radical an effect on the web of social relations within the city.

An example of how Sophocles dramatized the conflict between a waning oligarchy and a feisty and self-confident democratic individual dominates the final third ofAias. Teukros, Aias’ out-of-wedlock half-brother and Menelaos, co-commander of the Greek forces, are trading insults. When Menelaos says, “The archer, far from blood dust, thinks he’s something,” Teukros quietly rejoins, “I’m very good at what I do.”

Understanding the exchange between the two men requires that the reader or audience recognize the ‘class’ implications of archery. Socially and militarily, archers rank low in the pecking order. They stand to the rear of the battle-formation. Archers are archers because they can’t afford the armor one needs to be a hoplite, a frontline fighter. The point is that Teukros refuses to accept ‘his place’ in the social and military order. For a Greek audience the sheer fact of standing his ground against a commander had to have been audacious. But most modern word-by-word translations tend to make Teukros sound defensive, which in this play he is decidedly not. Examples: “Even so, tis no sordid craft that I possess,” and “I’m not the master of a menial skill.” “I’m very good at what I do” is a barely veiled threat, and supports Sophocles’ characterization of Teukros as someone who will not back down for anyone, not even a commander of the Greek army. His words are not ‘about’ something. They are an act in themselves. In a nutshell, this is a representative instance of what we’ve tried to do in translating our Complete Plays of Sophocles.

There are also moments in a play, however, in which a more literal translation captures Sophocles’ intent better than a less literal one. At the climactic moment ofOedipus the King, when Oedipus fully realizes he has killed his father and fathered children with his mother, Oedipus cries out, in Hugh Lloyd-Jones’ prose translation:“Oh, oh! All is now clear. O light, may I now look on you for the last time, I who am revealed as cursed in my birth, cursed in my marriage, cursed in my killing!” (Greek 1182–1885). When Lloyd-Jones uses and repeats the word “cursed”––a word that doesn’t appear in the Greek––he is compressing a longer Greek phrase meaning “being shown to have done what must not be done.” This compression shifts the emphasis from Oedipus’ unsuspecting human actions into the realm of the god Apollo who has acted throughout his life to “curse” him. I’ve translated the lines to keep the thought process of the original:


All! All! It has all happened!

It was all true. O light! Let this

be the last time I look on you.

You see now who I am—

the child who must not be born!

I loved where I must not love!

I killed where I must not kill!


Here Oedipus names the three acts of intrafamilial transgression that it was his good but ultimately horrific fortune to have survived, inflicted, and participated in––birth, sexual love, and murder in self defense––focusing not only on the damage each act has done but now realizing the full and terrifying consequence of each action as it happened: I did these things without feeling their horror as I do now.

To illustrate how the foregoing ideas work out in practice I conclude with a more extended passage, from Antigone. Kreon questions her to see if she grasps the seriousness of her action in burying her brother Polyneikes:



Explain something to me without elaborating.

Were you aware of my decree forbidding this?



Of course I knew. We all knew.



And still you dared to violate the law?



I did. It wasn’t Zeus who issued me

this order. And Justice—who lives below—

was not involved. They’d never condone it!

I deny that your edicts—since you, a mere man,

imposed them—have the force to trample on

the gods’ unwritten and infallible laws.

Their laws are not ephemeral—they weren’t

made yesterday. They will rule forever.

No man knows how far back in time they go.

I’d never let any man’s arrogance

bully me into breaking the gods’ laws.

I’ll die someday—how could I not know that?

I knew it without your proclamation.

If I do die young, that’s an advantage,

for doesn’t a person like me, who lives

besieged by trouble, escape by dying?

My own death isn’t going to bother me,

but I would be devastated to see

my mother’s son die and rot unburied.

I’ve no regrets for what I’ve done. And if you

consider my acts foolhardy, I say:

look at the fool charging me with folly.


I hope that Antigone’s composure––as well as her conviction––comes across here, an effect that might be obscured if her speech were rendered with any showy rhetorical flourishes. We strive to preserve the nuances, and the inner coherence or incoherence, of Sophocles’ characters, so a modern audience may see how the issues that his plays engage both resemble, and are distinct from, those of our era.


Note: Portions of this essay are adapted from the General Introduction which was coauthored by Robert Bagg and James Scully.

Closing the Gap: “The Complete Plays of Sophocles: a New Translation” for a New Audience

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