Translation Notes

by David Vine

“It is only by making translation true enough, and exposition sufficiently compelling and relevant to living issues, that we can hope to win, by legitimate means independent of social or academic tradition, a stable and honoured place for the study of the Greek lan- guage and the Hellenic world in the culture of the next generation.”––Philip Vellacott [1]

The exercise of translating is among the most curious and remarkable of acts. In the forefront of the aspects that make it peculiar is the fact that language and languages are not static. Rather, they are constantly evolving, and any piece of written language is only a frame freeze in time that captures usage as it was at that particular moment in history. This alone is reason for translations of the same work to be made and remade. Then, the ephemeral nature of language duly considered, the incidental vocabularies of no two languages share a one-to-one word correspondence. The most that can be said is that there are areas, greater or lesser, of overlap in meaning. In identifying and claiming those areas lies the basic skill of translation. Overlying these fundamentals, however, is the greater truth that all language is idiom, that all language is employed idiomatically. And herein re- sides the magic of translation. For what we are translating, ultimately, is not words, but the assumptions behind the words. We translate not languages, but cultures.

For these reasons and because together we saw in this celebrated work of art, everywhere recognized as thedramatic tour de force of ancient Greek theater, things at once marvelous to contemplate and that no one else, to our knowledge, had ever before seen or at least described in the various commentaries that have appeared over the life of the play, we wanted a rendition into English that would quicken the reader’s blood as much as Sophocles’s Greek did ours. We hope that in every respect we have done just that.

Like all texts that predate the era of mass printing, the works of Sophocles underwent considerable corruption at the hands of their copyists. These may be accorded some lenience if we remember that it was only in the mid 9th century CE, when the old uncial was replaced with minuscule script, that Greek writing began to employ word-boundary spaces and rudimentary punctuation. Until then, Greek text was a continuous flow of letters without breaks between words and without anything else to indicate juncture, a state of affairs that provided plenty of room for error in comprehension and explication. The text from which we translated was that prepared and edited by Hugh Lloyd-Jones and N. G. Wilson, which was constructed from a careful comparison of the most reliable manuscripts, ancient and medieval, and published as an Oxford Classical Text in 1990. It was subsequently published as the twentieth volume of the Loeb Classical Library [2]. All line numbers given in this set of Notes refer to this version and are provided to facilitate a reader’s ability to consult the original Greek.

There are some five places in the original Greek where a single syllable is lacking from a line (ll. 281, 987, 1216, 1315, and 1350) and three instances (ll. 214, 494, and 906), notably in the speech of the Choros, where groups of syllables, potentially words, have been lost from the text. Where the odd syllable, word or short phrase is absent from the Greek, we have uniformly accepted the judgment of Hugh Lloyd-Jones in selecting from among the many solutions that have been advanced by the most renowned Sophoclean scholars over the past two and a half centuries. Where larger portions, that is entire lines of meter are missing, and where no editor has ever suggested a plausible restoration, we have, where feasible (ll. 227 and 623), left well enough alone. Elsewhere we have filled in the lacunae, once (l. 624) with a minimal conjunctive phrase and, in the second instance (l. 1135), along with our Greek editor, by interposing one of the oldest proposed scholarly reconstructions. As to the matter of those passages that are generally acknowledged to be interpolations in the play (ll. 246-251, 531, 600, 611-612, and 1278-1279), we have followed Dr. Lloyd-Jones’s lead in including them in our translation. These have not been specially marked.

As a rule, the language of the Greek epic and lyric poets and of the tragedians is more elevated than that of the comedians and iambic poets. Sophocles’s own language is wonderfully vivid, compact, and muscular, and at the same time consistently elegant. Where earlier translations of this and other ancient Greek dramas have frankly omitted from, added to, interpreted, and even “freely paraphrased” [3] the text, from the outset, our primary object was to produce an English version of the play that would be instantly understood and as direct and vital as the original while hewing unswervingly to the plain meaning of the playwright’s every line and stylistic image. Among a host of challenges we encountered in translating Tyrant Oidipous from the classical Greek were a handful of issues that stood out for a number of disparate reasons. In one case we wished to depart from a convention we felt had outlived its usefulness. Another spoke to the cultural distance of the original play from “modern” sensibilities and, lastly, a specific set of terms dogged us throughout the work as their incidence in the text revealed an unexpected am- bivalence in their use by Sophocles himself, as both a Greek and an author, which contrasted sharply with the received dogmas of Sophoclean scholarship. We single these matters out here for brief comment.


[1] Vellacot, Philip. Sophocles and Oedipus. London: Macmillan, 1971. Print.

[2] Sophocles I (Ajax, Electra, Oedipus Tyrannus. Ed. and trans. Hugh Lloyd- Jones. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994. Print.

[3] Fitts, Dudley and Robert Fitzgerald. Sophocles: The Oedipus Cycle. Orlando: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1949. Print. Sophocles: Oedipus the King. Trans. and adapt. Anthony Burgess. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1972. Print.

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