We now have up and running a new website devoted to Jim Scully's and my translations of all seven of Sophocles' surviving plays. Press reviews have been sparse since the book was released in late July, but it has received some encouraging blog reviews, such as this review posted on "ProSe", 21 September 2011:
I finished this newly published (2011) volume of translations of the seven existing plays by Sophocles recently. I unhesitatingly recommend this new work of the translators, Robert Bagg and James Scully, as they really did an outstanding job of presenting these powerful dramas with extraordinary lyricism and emotional impact. For your information, I am providing a list of the plays in the collection and the primary translator—
Aias (James Scully)
Women of Trakhis (Robert Bagg)
Philoktetes (James Scully)
Elektra (Robert Bagg)
Oedipus the King (Robert Bagg)
Oedipus at Kolonos (Robert Bagg)
Antigone (Robert Bagg)
Interestingly enough, this was the first time that I had read Aias (Ajax) or the Women of Trakhis and I really, really enjoyed both of them. While I was familiar with the story of Ajax from The Iliad, I have to say that Sophocles and James Scully really made me realize the physical and psychological toll that warfare and combat has upon a soldier. One has to believe that what is described in Aias can only be classified as a classic case of "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD). We see the toll that this 'madness' takes upon the family and friends of Ajax, and it is truly heartbreaking. In the Introduction to the volume, Bagg and Scully indicate that excerpts from both Aias and Philoktetes have been performed for members of the American armed services and their families in the context of addressing and dealing with PTSD. I say, 'Bravo!'
Finally, I have to say that I consider myself somewhat a connoisseur associated with Sophocles' Antigone, and the translated version in this collection is simply superb. The dialog is spare, clipped, and drips with pathos—we emotionally respond not only to what Kreon and Antigone say in the play, but the overall intent of Sophocles in writing the play. As Antigone prepares to meet her fate she laments,
"Hades, who chills each one of us to sleep,
will guide me down to Acheron's shore.
I'll go hearing no wedding hymn
to carry me to my bridal chamber, or songs
girls sing when flowers crown a bride's hair;
I'm going to marry the River of Pain." (890-895)
That'll wrench your heart-strings. In this collection, Bagg and Scully have given us a new version of Sophocles that is dramatic, poetic, and lyrical, and incredibly relevant for our time. The language incorporated in these translations is not in the slightest degree flowery or excessive. In my opinion, not one word is wasted, the emotion is right there—in your face—and it just feels right. Read these plays and see what you think.
Review of New Version of HIPPOLYTOS at Barnard
The translation of Euripides' HIPPOLYTOS staged by the Barnard Theatre Department at 8 PM on October 23rd, 24th and 25th 2008 at the Minor Latham Playhouse was reviewed as follows in the Barnard Bulletin:
Minor Latham Madness: Hippolytos Opens The Theater Season
by Sophia Mossberg
For those lucky enough to catch October’s Hippolytos at Barnard and Columbia’s undergraduate performance space, Minor Latham Playhouse, the show offered a passionate and fitting introduction to this season of Barnard-Columbia theatre, as well as the theatre department in general. While a trend in college and regional productions is to interpret classic plays in a modern context or even produce modern text based on the original narrative, Director Sharon Fogarty, a visiting guest artist who is Co-Artistic Director of Mabou Mines Theatre Company, presented Euripides’ Greek tragedy in a classical interpretation as translated by Robert Bagg. In doing so and by allowing the power of the text to transport the viewer into ancient times with its lyrical chorus laments and poetic language, the play still does not feel dated or inaccessible. Opening with only movement backed by an original choral score recorded by members of the company, flowing and intricate costumes twirled and spun as the actors took to the stage. The cast of 14 demonstrated passionate commitment to a story fraught with the perils of lust and the injustice of the gods’ mandate. Hippolytos tells the story of the downfall of a whole community as the result of Aphrodite’s vengeance for Hippolytos, who is chaste and chooses to revere Artemis instead of her. Aphrodite causes Phaidra, his stepmother, to fall in love with her stepson, therefore compromising Phaidra’s honor and sending her into a lustful and agonizing frenzy. When one of Phaidra’s nurses tells Hippolytos of her secret love for him, Phaidra believes she is a ruined woman and hangs herself. However, upon finding her body and a note from Phaidra, it becomes clear to her husband Theseus that she unjustly blamed Hippolytos for her death. Theseus exiles his son, who is killed en route while leaving, yet not before Artemis frees him of the blame and Theseus acknowledges his vindication.
An engaged and appropriately enthusiastic or lamenting chorus was joined by the charming and evil goddesses Aphrodite and Artemis, each played by three women: Cecilia Watt, SEAS’12, Eloise Eonnet, BC’11, and Tatiana Hullender, CC’10, as Aphrodite, and Khadeejah Anne Gray, BC’12, Judy Butterfield, BC’12, and Amanda Rodhe BC’10 as Artemis. Emerald Mitchell, BC’12, and Natalie Glick, BC’09, were strong as Phaidra’s nurses, and often provided comic relief to scenes bursting with fervor and emotion. Much of this fervor and frenzied emotion lay in Lily Feinn’s, BC’10, portrayal of Phaidra. Feinn’s eloquent handle on language and expressive range was among the show’s best aspects, as she physically contorted her body and gave passages with fiery delivery. Jacob Lasser , CC’12, who played Hippolytos with conviction, and Thadeus Harvey, GS, as a comic and commanding Theseus rounded out the leads. Lighting by Lucrecia Briceno was complementary of a simple and beautiful set designed by Meganne George, and provided smooth transitions that supported the shows’ relatively quick pacing. Audience member Natasha Gordon, BC’12, appreciated the use of “chanting, dance, and classic narration to bring the play to life.”
The theatre department characterizes the work its students do as a creative process that “develops in a dialogue with critical inquiry into the literature, history, culture, and theory of western and nonwestern performance, typically combining coursework in Theatre with study in other fields, such as anthropology, architecture, art history, classics, dance, film, languages, literature, music, and philosophy,” therefore indicating its combinatory nature to be incredibly versatile for a major that is thought to be so specialized. The department’s multifaceted nature rejects the notion that it is an intensely specialized major, opening it to students of all disciplines. The Barnard-Columbia theatre department has a repertoire of historically important and profound plays, and this year is no exception. Past productions include Twelfth Night and Proof, in addition to works by Gertrude Stein and Tennessee Williams. After this production, the season will continue with the staging of the Advanced Directing Class Final Scenes. These scenes will showcase Barnard and Columbia undergraduate individual works. They open at Minor Latham Playhouse on December 8 at 8 p.m., free of charge, and present the opportunity to see student directed work. Also upcoming at Minor Latham Playhouse is Spanish poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca’s As Five Years Pass, a surrealist piece about love and loss. The show will play from November 20-22 at 8pm.
Most students know of the staged productions that are featured during the year, and yet there is much more happening behind the scenes as creative students engage with other aspects of the department. In addition to performance, students participate in a multitude of theatre-related activities such as playwriting, directing, the study of drama, and theatre history. For the visually inclined, the department offers courses focusing on costume and mask design; these topics are just a few of many that are relative to other disciplines. . Though there are only about 15 thesis majors this year, around 500 hundred students are involved with the theater department annually. Luckily, if you are interested, there is ample time this spring and next fall to participate in theatre productions. There are plenty of ways to get involved in theatre at Barnard, even if your knees shake just speaking in class or if your schedule cannot possibly include another course elective: join the technical crew, or simply become an usher and take in the night’s show. Classes for the spring are up on the catalogue, and auditions for next year’s season will begin in the fall.
Reviews of a WOMEN of TRAKHIS Production
From The Amherst Student
Review of 1992 Production at University of Massachusetts
Directed by Keith Oliver
"Sophocles' play centers on the cruelty of fate in the lives of people who have always had strong control over their lives. ... Heracles' fall from grace and its consequences for all the people of Trachis, as detailed in the play, convey the intense tragic dimensions of this drama. ... Bagg's new translation does justice to this tragic theme, and, in addition, it incorporates a new topic into the drama. He adds emphasis to the plight of Deianira and her emotional collapse, thus softening the misogyny present in the ancient version and giving the play a 90's sense of feminism."
Reviews of THE BAKKHAI
From The Mass Media
May 8, 2006
By Andy Metzner
Excerpt from a review of a performance by the
UMass Boston Classics Club
Lipke Auditorium (Science Center)
What a Trip; The Bakkhai
“…There were three outstanding parts of the Classics Club’s performance: the chorus, the scenery, and the program. The program … uses a very innovative technique of denoting the cast by including a character’s quote. For instance, under the title herdsman … “what your women are doing in the hills outstrips miracles.” … The chorus … spoke all of their lines as one harmonious, synchronized group. That is teamwork. the blocking is inventive and well-suited to a small stage. … The set and lighting were innovative and interactive. …The tomb of Semele lights up (because she was killed by lightning). … Dionysos and Pentheus have a great rapport; Pentheus is a very comical actor. When he dresses up as a Maenad and sings the line, “Don’t I have great presence when I move. Tell me who I look like, my mother or my aunts?” he brings the house down with laughter.
Robert Bagg’s translation is very apropos to youths today. Ancient Greek drama has more blood and gore than most 21st-century theater, and this one has cross-dressing, too. Euripides was putting decapitated heads on stakes years before Shakespeare …”
Review of ANTIGONE
Antigone translates into classic theatre
By Susan Whitney
Deseret Times, Salt Lake City
Sept. 27–28, 2001
It says right on the program this is the premiere of a new translation of Sophocles’ Antigone. “So what?” you might think. “What difference does a translation make?”
As it turns out, translation is amazingly significant. While one can’t give total credit to the script, because the acting is also quite good, this production of “Antigone” by the University of Utah’s Classical Greek Theatre, directed by Barbara Smith, is both accessible and engaging.
Ah, Antigone! Her family was cursed from the start because her father, Oedipus, killed his father and married her his mother. Then, after Oedipus dies, Antigone’s two brothers kill each other in a fight over who will be the next king of Thebes. Soon the new king calls one of Antigone’s brothers a traitor and refuses him a decent burial.
This play is rich in conflict. Most interesting are the conflicts between opposing moralities, such as: Should one be loyal to family or to nation? Antigone chooses family. Kreon, the new king, demands loyalty to Thebes––which eventually costs him his own family.
This translation, by Massachusetts scholar Robert Bagg, highlights the secondary conflicts. In the opening scene Jennifer Clark as Antigone, and Megan Schutt as her sister, give complexity to their characters as they debate whether they should flout the king’s rule and bury their brother. Antigone wants no half measures. Is she brave or foolhardy or vindictive to scorn her sister’s tepid suggestions?
As Kreon, Lloyd Mulvey is raging and proud and prime for the part. Patricia Peterson has a brief, intense scene as his wife. John Woodhouse is a blind prophet in a big wig.
The Greek Chorus––all male––does some nice chanting and marching and pounding of sticks (choreography by Robin Wilks-Dunn). The Chorus’ tells us, for instance, that love wins all its battles, that love outwits the gods, but that lovers are always crazy.
There is no slang in this production. The language does not call attention to itself, it is merely plain. “Things don’t work out that way,” one actor says. Or “don’t try to share my death.” This production is classical in the best sense of the word––easily understood and thought-provoking.
Reviews of THE OEDIPUS PLAYS OF SOPHOCLES
from Kirkus Discoveries:
“In Bagg's capable hands, these shocking tales of lurid but unwitting acts pack the emotional force that rocked Sophoclean Athens. Bagg's supple translation, framed by illuminating commentary and notes coauthored by Mary Bagg, evokes deep sympathy for Oedipus, tragedy's most poignantly "god-crushed man," as well as members of his doomed household. Throughout, Bagg's language is spare yet unstilted, modernized but not so contemporary as to be colloquial; the stateliness of Sophocles' poetry sings out as Bagg captures the subtle nuances of acts both verbal and physical that distinguish these classic texts.”
from The Bryn Mawr Classical Review
by Andreas Markantonatos
"It is widely accepted that translators of Greek drama, more than others, are depressingly circumscribed by the fact that any rendition of the ancient plays in a modern language is bound to fall short of the remarkably delicate shades of meaning that the original Greek effortlessly conveys in crisp and densely-packed sentences. In addition there are the complexities of the sung portions, the lyrical feel and rhythmic presence of the choral pieces, and the endless train of associations lying within every grammatical or syntactical convolution of the original language. It has been convincingly argued that, not unlike a passenger in a foundering ocean liner, a competent translator should always try to place those items that he thinks most valuable in his own lifeboat.1 Happily, of late there have been several readable and accurate translations of Greek drama in which the essentials of meaning and dramatic force have been rescued.2
Robert Bagg's translation of Sophocles' Theban plays is one of those felicitous renderings of Greek tragedy in which, for the most part, faithfulness to the ancient text meets poetic phrasing and meticulousness of image. The reason for this fortunate union of linguistic precision and rhetorical boldness may lie in Bagg's (hereafter B) wide experience in poetry writing and his constant engagement in numerous productions of Greek plays over the last forty years. Apart from the translations, the attractive volume includes illuminating introductions to the plays and helpful notes on contentious points and contextual matters. There is also an interesting essay on Greek theatre in the time of Sophocles, centering on tragedy's historical, intellectual and social background in fifth-century Athens. It should be noted that B's wife Mary Bagg, a freelance editor and writer, contributed extensively to the introductions and notes.
It is not overbold to suggest that the remarkable increase in the number of actable and enthralling translations has been instrumental in the unprecedented revival of Greek tragedy on stages worldwide over the last fifty years.3 In light of modern eloquent translations devoid of unpleasant falsities to the original Greek, the producers' indefatigable straining after innovative solutions to old problems has frequently resulted in gripping and insightful enactments of the plays.4 B's brisk and spirited new renderings of Sophocles' Theban plays not only often show a fine sense of rhythm and a keen interest in performance priorities, but also communicate the tragic tone and dramatic concentration of Sophocles' convoluted syntax and taut sentence structure. This is no mean achievement; according to so knowledgeable a translator as Michael Ewans, "translating Sophokles frequently requires that the English syntax be much freer from that of the original Greek than Aischylos, if an actable version of the meaning is to be achieved -- especially in lyrics."5
As is fittingly acknowledged in the Textual Note (p. xiii), Richard Jebb's monumental edition of Sophocles' extant plays was an essential guide with regard to issues of textual corruption and interpretation. Further, in my view, B is to be applauded for consulting H. Lloyd-Jones and N. G. Wilson's scholarship on editorial difficulties, yet not succumbing to their frequently irritating, and at times misleading excesses of emendation. On the contrary, more often than not, B maintains a clear head as regards textual problems, thereby doing justice to the ancient poet's stylistic peculiarities and lexical scrupulosity.6 Other important linguistic and interpretative aids to the work in hand included Mark Griffith's incisive commentary on Antigoneand Ruby Blondell's masterful, although at times inopportunely prosaic, renditions of the Theban plays.7
The task of rendering Sophocles' Theban plays in an English idiom not unfitted for living speech becomes even more challenging, in view of numerous spare and vigorous renditions that continue to appear in the contemporary competitive market, at a pace that readers find hard to keep up with.8 Of these, one should recognize the impressive craftsmanship and extraordinary lucidity of Robert Fagles' renderings of the three Theban tragedies. Bernard Knox's penetrating introductions to the plays and helpful notes on the text allow the readers to focus on the far-reaching complex of themes and images.9 As a matter of fact, the same extremely useful format, combining introductory essays with notes as an indispensable guide to a more conscious understanding of the translated plays, is equally effective in B's volume of poetic renderings. Notwithstanding the glossing notes, the handy stage directions incorporated into the text and the levelheaded analysis, this is not a scholarly translation with the sole purpose of aiding our improved comprehension of the ancient text; at its most felicitous moments it is poetry delicately filtered through a layer of philologically sound editing.
It is time now to look more closely at B's programmatic statement that his goal in these translations "has been to achieve maximum playability with the least sacrifice of accuracy" (p. ix). The sheer force and grandeur of lines 599-603 in Sophocles' Antigone have always intrigued me on account of their almost untranslatable juxtaposition of images and complex set of meanings. Here the Theban elders bewail Antigone's disastrous fate, in view of her imminent death. As they witness Antigone and Ismene being led inside the palace and Creon savagely glorying in their capture, they come to the sad realization that the hereditary doom incessantly weaving through the generations of the House of Labdacus is about to strike down the last ray of hope spread over the family of Oedipus. It is apparent to me that B renders the extraordinary thematic density of the stanza without overindulgent verbiage and distasteful mannerism. His rendition is fitting for stage delivery and, more significantly, respects Sophocles' admirable linguistic capacity for fusing ostensibly incongruous images into one harmonious whole:
Now the hope that brightened/ over the last rootstock/ alive in the house/ of Oedipus, in its turn/ is struck down --/ by the blood-drenched dust/ the death-gods demand, by reckless talk, by Furies in the mind.
When I first perused the volume of B's new translations, I was pleasantly surprised to see that Jortin's unfortunate emendation of konis ("dust") into the lamentably unimaginative kopis ("cleaver") was rightly dropped in favour of the transmitted text, thus achieving a more poetical and thematically challenging English rendition.10 Felicitous instances like this one abound in B's rhetorically powerful renderings of Sophocles' copious layers of formulated symbolism and pictorial magnificence.
As I have already suggested, however much experienced translators of Greek plays strive after accuracy, in translation there is always a dimension of the source text that escapes. This is not to say, of course, that B should be held responsible for failing to attain the impossible. There are, nonetheless, cases in which a slight change in the phrasing would make all the difference. B catches the flavour of lines 1074-1084 in Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus, but at one instance does not convey the full implication of the Greek. This is an important omission, since the motif of mantic enthusiasm informing the ode is hereby seriously weakened, especially for the non-Greek-reading public. The passage goes as follows:
Are they in action yet,/ or do they hold back?/ My heart gives me/ hope that the girls,/ harshly tested,/ brutally abused/ at the hands of their uncle,/ will soon see us, face to face./ Zeus will decide who wins./ He will end it today. I sense/ the combat will go well./ Were I a dove right now, the storm's/ thrust lifting my strong wings,/ I might soar through a cloud,/ the battle raging below me.
In their mantic transport, the chorus of old men envisions the cavalry battle between Theseus' followers and the Theban abductors as taking place close to the Attic borders. In this fine specimen of 'escape lyrics', Sophocles throws strong emphasis on the chorus' clairvoyant penetration through recurrent confident predictions of Athenian victory. At 1080 the visionary fervour of the Colonan elders reaches a climax; they declare themselves to be "prophet" of the imminent Athenian triumph over the Theban aggressors. In light of the diffuse translation of the Greek key word mantis and the unnecessary running over of the sentence into the next line, the English rendition, "I sense/ the combat will go well", comes as an anti-climax in an ode-long pattern of persistent fine shades of mantic preoccupation.
Correspondingly, earlier in the same play, B shows an admirable sense of rhythm in the rendition of the lyric dialogue between Oedipus and the chorus (510-548). Nonetheless, in his effort to produce an intensely dramatic translation, he adds further pointless force and attack to his rendition. It is dangerously easy for the translator to be carried away in his reproduction of the original sentiment, especially in view of other authoritative renderings. Apparently, at this point B follows too closely Jebb's emphasis on the chorus' almost prurient interest in Oedipus' crimes of parricide and incest. A telling example of this school of thought is B' rendition of the chorus' firm statement that Oedipus "killed" his father as a cry of revulsion, "Murderer!", in keeping with Jebb's unnecessarily censorious "Slayer!". It is plain to see that the original ekanes (545) does not come close to being a cry of horror. This is all the more so, taking into account Oedipus' composed acknowledgement of his father-killing in the same line (ekanon).
It is regrettable that in a volume of gripping and attractive translations of prominent ancient plays, a certain carelessness is evident in the editing. In particular, Greek words, place-names and authors are consistently misspelled in their English transliteration -- "didaskaloi" is frustratingly printed as "didaskoloi" no fewer than five times (pp. xi, 7 twice, 15, 101). Exasperatingly enough, the Greek part of the dedication to the authors' friends and teachers is similarly misprinted. But this is quibbling. There are points of detail that a reviewer would find fault with, but these are few and far between. All in all, B's eminently actable text is an ingenious effort to recapture the remarkable poetic flavour of Sophocles' language; his unfailing loyalty to the letter and his sufficient philological expertise prevent the emphases and preoccupations of the theatrical practitioners from imposing an insurmountable barrier between ancient sensibility and modern sentiment.
1. P. Woodruff, "Justice in Translation: Rendering Ancient Greek Tragedy", in J. Gregory (ed.), A Companion to Greek Tragedy (Oxford: Blackwell, 2005), p. 490. See also P. D. Arnott, An Introduction to the Greek Theatre (London & New York: Macmillan, 1961), pp. 180-206; P. Burian, "Tragedy Adapted for Stages and Screens: The Renaissance to the Present", in P. E. Easterling (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to Greek Tragedy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 271-6; L. Hardwick, Translating Words, Translating Cultures (London: Duckworth, 2000), pp. 9-22; R. Garland, Surviving Greek Tragedy (London: Duckworth, 2004), pp. 138-45.
2. Above all, Hugh Lloyd-Jones' masterful three-volume translation of Sophocles' extant plays and fragments in the Loeb series (1994-1996); in the same series, David Kovacs offers renditions of Euripides noteworthy for accuracy and elegance (1994-2004).
3. See principally the recent important overview in P. E. Easterling, "Ancient Drama in Performance", Didaskalia 6.1 (2004), pp. 1-5 accessible at didaskalia.
4. See especially O. Taplin, "An Academic in the Rehearsal Room", in J. Barsby (ed.), Greek and Roman Drama: Translation and Performance (Stuttgart & Weimer: J. B. Metzler, 2002), pp. 7-22. 5. "Translation Forum", in J. Barsby (ed.), Greek and Roman Drama: Translation and Performance (Stuttgart & Weimar: J. B. Metzler, 2002), p. 181.
6. Oddly enough, there is no reference to H. Lloyd-Jones and N. G. Wilson's more recent collection of reconsiderations and supplements published under the suggestive title: Sophocles: Second Thoughts (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997).
7. H. Lloyd-Jones & N. G. Wilson, Sophoclea: Studies in the Text of Sophocles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990); M. Griffith (ed. and comm.), Sophocles: Antigone (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); R. Blondell, Sophocles: The Theban Plays Antigone, King Oidipous, Oidipous at Colonus, Translation with Notes and Introduction (Newburyport MA: Focus Information Group, 2002). 8. See (e.g.) T. Wertenbaker, Sophocles: Oedipus Tyrannos, Oedipus at Kolonos, Antigone, Translated by Timberlake Wertenbaker (London; Faber & Faber, 1997); D. R. Slavitt & P. Bovie (eds), Sophocles, 2: King Oedipus, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1999); P. Meineck & P. Woodruff, Sophocles: Theban Plays Translated with Introduction and Notes (Indianapolis & Cambridge: Hackett, 2003). See also B. Sammons, "Translations of Classical Works into English", Classical World 94 (2001) pp. 227-69.
9. R. Fagles, Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays, Antigone, Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Introductions and Notes by Bernard Knox (Harmondsworth & New York: Penguin, 1984). 10. See also the discussion in H. Lloyd-Jones & N. G. Wilson, Sophoclea: Studies in the Text of Sophocles (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990), p. 129.
To check out more Greek play translations by Robert Bagg, plus intriductions to the plays and to the Greek Theatre in the era of Sophokles and Euripides, click here:
Selections from plays by Aeschylus and Euripides, translated
by Robert Bagg, Donald Junkins and James Scully.