Bagg, Scully stress the dramatic
in translating Sophocles
The Complete Plays of Sophocles
A New Translation
Translated by Robert Bagg and James Scully
Harper Perennial. 880 pp. $16.99
Reviewed by Richard Lindsey
There is a pithy old Italian saying: traduttore, traditore - (a translator is a traitor). Sophocles, one of the three major dramatists of Athens in the fifth century B.C., certainly hasn't lacked for betrayers in the last 2,400 years.
So in addressing this new translation of Sophocles' seven surviving plays by poets Robert Bagg and James Scully, the inevitable first question is: Why another translation?
For one thing, every translation, like every betrayal, is different. Because no translation can ever be exact in every way, each one has at least the potential to show us something different about the original work.
For another thing, languages and their users change over time. As the translators point out, although Sophocles' plays "communicate in and through time, translations of them do not. Each generation . . . renders them in the style it believes best suited for tragedy."
The equally inevitable second question is: Why this translation? The answer to this question is less simple and perhaps more provocative.
Bagg and Scully argue that Sophocles has often been translated with a kind of general elevation and elegance that doesn't always reflect what is in fact a quite wide emotional and linguistic range. Although Sophocles' language can certainly be formal, dense, and allusive, some of it is simple, direct, and even blunt. The translators have made a point of trying to highlight these differences.
To translate Sophocles' breadth of expression, Bagg and Scully have required "the resources not only of idiomatic English but also of rhetorical gravitas and, on rare occasion, colloquial English as well." Consequently, they've adopted "a wide and varied palette" for vocabulary and levels of speech, striving for "a language that is spontaneous and generative as opposed to studied and bloodless."
In doing so, (more…)