Robert Bagg: Poems, Greek Plays, Essays, Novels, Memoir

Bob's Blague

Response to Peter Green's review of THE COMPLETE PLAYS OF SOPHOCLES

May 3, 2012

Tags: Sophocles, THE COMPLETE PLAYS OF SOPHOCLES, Peter Green, Robert Bagg, James Scully, New York Review of Books, Oedipus the King, tragedy, performance, translation

Does this book dumb down Sophocles?
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.


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.


“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.

New Content on Bob's Blague Page: Current Reviews of THE COMPLETE PLAYS OF SOPHOCLES and THE TANDEM RIDE and Other Excursions: Poems 1955-2010