translating sophoclesIntroduction

No translation is perfect, and new attempts appear as presentation styles change and new aspects of a work attract attention. Even if simply labours of love, all translations must serve some purpose or purposes, and these are commonly:

1. to make the work accessible to those who cannot read the original.

2. explore or throw into relief hitherto unexamined aspects of the work.

3. extend and refine the translator's skills in coping with conventions that are not contemporary or even European.

4. enrich a poet-translator's own work.

5. create a literary work of art worth reading on its own account.

6. fulfill a commercial contract or promote the translator's skills in the literary market place.

Translation has vexing decisions to make in four areas:

a. fidelity to the original: literal, close, paraphrase, explanatory or creative?
b. diction: how contemporary or otherwise, how colloquial or formal?
c. style: strict verse, free verse or prose?
d. stage or study: is the work to be performed or read silently by the poetry lover?

Books could be written on these matters, and for the purposes of these brief forays into Sophocles translation I'll simply try to suggest:

a. the advantages and drawbacks of three styles used in the last hundred years: unrhymed verse (pentameter and octo-syllabic), rhymed quatrains and free verse.

b. how word choice affects content and tone.

c. where fluency in the source language is essential, and where not.

I look briefly at three sections paraphrased by W.B. Yeats (one from Antigone, and two from Oedipus at Colonus), undertake the usual workshop exercises, and include renderings freely available on the Internet.

Sophocles and Antigone

Together with Aeschylus and Euripedes, Sophocles is the greatest of Athenian tragedians. Born around 496 BC, the son of a wealthy armour manufacturer, his charm and physical grace won an enduring popularity — 'contented among the living, contented among the dead', said Aristophanes. Unlike Aeschylus and Euripedes, he was not prosecuted or self-exiled, but always refused invitations to princely courts. Of his 123 plays, 96 won first prize, the rest coming second. He was still writing in his eighties and left two sons to continue the tradition. He died in 405/6.

If his plays lack the grandeur of Aeschylus and the psychological insight of Euripedes, they have a directness and density that operates on many levels. Although (according to Plutarch) Sophocles had an earlier high-flown style, and an intermediate artificial and harsh style, it is the final style that appears in the seven plays that have come down to us — dignified, natural and with a good ear for dialogue. He 'depicted people as they ought to be', remarked Aristotle, which is not idealized but intensely human. Tragedy grows out of the innate character of the dramatis personae, and the end cannot be otherwise. Sophocles substituted a self-contained plot for the Aeschylean habit of relating to current events, and introduced a third actor to make plot and characters more complex and interesting. The text is never less than formal, but can be difficult to construe, particularly in the choruses.

Tragedy probably originated in Athens in the fifth century BC. The plays were performed on a few occasions during the year, only one play being presented at the time and not repeated. Production was decide by competition. Three poets were chosen by wealthy citizens, and each poet submitted three tragedies and a satyr play. Tragedies consisted of two elements — choral song in lyrical measures and accompanied by music and dancing, and dramatic exchanges between two or three characters, who generally spoke in iambic trimeters. Both actors (who included the author in earlier productions) and chorus wore masks. Athenian tragedy gradually became less ritualistic, but still dealt with man's relationship to the gods, taking themes from mythology that were well known to the audience. A prologue was followed by a choral song; then came episodes of actor and chorus, followed by a standing chorus and the final scene.

Antigone deals with events after the Theban War, in which Eteocles and Polynices have killed each other. Creon, the new ruler and Antigone's uncle, has issued an edict forbidding the burial of Polynices. Antigone defies the edict, and, and though engaged to be married to Creon's son Haemon, is sentenced to be walled up in a tomb and left to die. Creon is unmoved by Haemon's protests, but relents when the blind prophet Tiresias reveals that the gods are angry at the decision. He buries Polynices, but Antigone has meanwhile hanged herself. Haemon breaks into the tomb, and kills himself in front of his father when he finds Antigone dead. Creon's wife Eurydice also commits suicide, leaving Creon a broken man.

Yeat's Version

What Yeats entitled From the 'Antigone', one of eleven sections in his A Woman Young and Old, was beautiful verse:

Overcome - O bitter sweetness,
Inhabitant of the soft cheek of a girl -
The rich man and his affairs,
The fat flocks and the fields' fatness,
Mariners, rough harvesters;
Overcome Gods upon Parnassus;

Overcome the Empyrean; hurl
Heaven and Earth out of their places,
That in the same calamity
Brother and brother, friend and friend,
Family and family,
City and city may contend,
By that great glory driven wild.

Pray I will and sing I must,
And yet I weep -- Oedipus' child
Descends into the loveless dust. {1}

Here Yeats has adapted phrases from his earlier poetry (that great glory driven wild), departed from Greek restraint (hurl / Heaven and Earth out of their places) but ended with three memorable lines, even if 'pray' and 'sing' have little to do with Antigone.

Looking at the Text

Yeats' version is not a close rendering of the only passage it might have come from: the Chorus of Theban Elders (lines 780-805), as we can see from the prose version of Sir Richard Jebb (1899):

Love, the unconquered in battle, Love, you who descend upon riches, and watch the night through on a girl's soft cheek, you roam over the sea and among the homes of men in the wilds. Neither can any immortal escape you, nor any man whose life lasts for a day. He who has known you is driven to madness.

You seize the minds of just men and drag them to injustice, to their ruin. You it is who have incited this conflict of men whose flesh and blood are one. But victory belongs to radiant Desire swelling from the eyes of the sweet-bedded bride. Desire sits enthroned in power beside the mighty laws. For in all this divine Aphrodite plays her irresistible game.

But now, witnessing this, I too am carried beyond the bounds of loyalty. The power fails me to keep back my streaming tears any longer, when I see Antigone making her way to the chamber where all are laid to rest, now her bridal chamber. {2}

Clear enough. In fact, possibly too clear. There are many problems with the original, as we see by undertaking a word-for-word transcription through the immensely useful lookup facility at the Tufts University site, and adding notes (shown in brackets) from the Jebb commentary. {2}

Erôs  anikate        machan, Erôs, hos en ktêmasi          pipteis,
Love unconquered battle     Love that   on possessions you_fall

hos en malakais         pareiais        neanidos ennucheueis,
that in fresh-ploughed cheeks    girl         you_sleep_in
                                                               (keepest thy

phoitais                   d' huperpontios en    t'    agronomois aulais:
you_go_up_and_down  over_the_sea in   and   rural          to_courtyards
vigil                      )

kai  s'        out'      athanatôn phuximos                           oudeis
and you     and_not immortals  offering_chance_of_escape   and_not_one

outh'     hameriôn             se   g'             anthrôpôn. Ho d' echôn    memênen.
and_not lasting_for_a_day you at_least    man          that  holding  raged
                                     (in the case of)

su      kai  dikaiôn      adikous                      phrenas paraspais           epi   lôbai,
you   and of_customs unjust                         midriffs you_wrest_aside  with dishonour
                              (so they shall not weep) (jerk aside                   )

su    kai  tode neikos andrôn xunaimon echeis taraxas:
you  and this   strife of_men kindred    hold    trouble

nikai d'   enargês  blepharôn himeros          eulektrou
vanquish visible    eyelids     yearning_after wedded_happiness

numphas, tôn  megalôn paredros         en archais
bride       that great      sitting_beside in beginning

thesmôn.    amachos         gar empaizei          theos, Aphrodita.
established without_battle for  mock_at          god     Aphrodite
                                           (wreaks her will)

nun d' êdê      'gô  kautos thesmôn
now   already  ego myself  that_which_is_laid_down
                          (I also am moved to rebel against Creon's

exô          pheromai             tad'  horôn  ischein d'
enter_in    bear                   this   seeing to_curb
sentence) (race course limit)

ouketi     pêgas    dunamai dakru
no_more streams capable   tear

ton  pankoitên                   hoth'   horô thalamon
that where_all_must_sleep anyone see  chamber
                                                        (bridal chamber)

tênd' Antigonên anutousan.
this  Antigone   achieves

We can see where the prose rendering has come from, and how Jebb has made a sensible stab at meaning in some gnomic passages. I personally (not a classicist) have some difficulties with 'freshly-ploughed' being taken as a sign of habitation (Yeat's version), and calling the cheeks 'soft' as a result. I'd suspect that malakais means the cheeks of girls asleep are furrowed by Eros, and that 'goes up and down' here refers not to sentry duty but the crossing of the sea, when the waves pick up the imagery of the ploughed field. (phoitais does indeed refer to sentry duty elsewhere in Sophocles, but makes less sense here: the chorus comes after Antigone is condemned to death by Creon for placing love for her brother above the orderly running of the State: love now is imperious and unblinking, not the gentle fantasies of sleeping girls needing protection.) The line kautos thesmôn exô pheromai is difficult to construe, though pheromai refers to the turning point of chariot races: clearly some contest is being suggested, with the rules of the contest being exceeded. Whether this breach refers to Aphrodite, or Creon's edict, or both, is unclear, though I have opted for both.

On this webpage we generate a version in two verse styles: strict verse and free verse. For both we have to select and organize. Words are chosen for their meanings, associations, social registers, sound, textural properties, etc. That is inevitable, and applies even if we were making a literal prose rendering. Though how we choose depends on what we're trying to do, and what in the text appeals to us, these first choices are critical to the end-product. I suggest that starting with unrhymed pentameters will find the most useful phrases, and that these phrases can then be rearranged in free verse as they already hold together sufficiently. Translators who work entirely in free verse will probably disagree. As always, it's the end result that matters, though even here matters are anything but clear-cut. Free verse is easier to read, and possibly to act, but commonly lacks the close interweaving of word and meaning that strict verse insists on. Older readers may find this a fatal drawback to their literary enjoyment: younger readers and those who don't care for verse will probably not miss it. Leaving such issues aside, we go straight into a strict verse rendering, which puts the words on a rhythmic checkerboard for later arrangement:

Love, all conquering love, whom none resist,
you furrow cheeks of girls asleep, assault
demesnes across the sea, the rural deeps:
no god escapes you, none, and mortal man
who holds your madness passes in a day.
The wisest customs fail, and kinsmen fight,
and on the shining eyelids of the bride
that yearns for happiness you spread your power,
that even the great, sitting from the beginning,
when Aphrodite mocks them come to yield.

In spiting custom, and through streaming tears
we cannot staunch, Antigone is come
to her quiet chamber here where all may sleep.

Final Translations

We now correct the draft by attending more to the original words, to create something not far from the literal meaning:

Love, all-conquering love, you fall on house,
and furrow innocence in girls asleep:
you ride the oceans to the meanest farm.
No god escapes you, no, not one, and man
succumbs to madness with his brief day spent.
All honour fails, and custom; kinsfolk fight;
and in the shining eyelids of the bride
who yearns for happiness lies sheathed your power.
Even the great, sitting from the beginning,
when Aphrodite mocks become her sport.

To strain the ordinance, through streaming tears
we cannot staunch, we see Antigone,
take up her chamber now where all men sleep.

If we want a tetrameter rendering more in keeping with the compact nature of the original, then we simply compress:

All conquering love, you level wealth
and furrow cheeks of girls asleep.
You reach from sea to meanest farm.
No god escapes, not one, and man
succumbs to madness, his brief day spent.
Honour fails and kinsmen fight.
In eyelids of the bride who yearns
for wedded happiness is sheathed your power.
Even the great from the beginning
when Aphrodite mocks them yield.

To strain the edict, through the tears
we cannot staunch, Antigone
takes up her room where all may sleep.

Free Verse Renderings

Free verse comes in many shapes, but the defining feature is a composition by lines of no fixed length or structure, each line being held together by the individual arrangement of the words. That doesn't mean that there is no structure, but rather that each line should have its own pleasing, emotive and self-contained structure. To achieve that, we have to select words and arrange them in ways suggested by their individual properties: i.e. by paying close attention to their inherent phrasing, pace and tone, since there is no overall, poem-wide metre to fit them into.

If we take the pentameter version above, we can open up the meaning a little:

Eros, the ever victorious,
you, who level house,
and furrow innocence of girls asleep,
can reach through oceans to the rural farm.
No god escapes you,
never one,
nor man your madness in his short day spent.
All honour turns to falsehood,
kinsmen fight,
and in the shining eyelids of the bride
who yearns for happiness
lies sheathed your power.
Even the great, sitting from the beginning, must yield
when Aphrodite mocks and makes her sport.

To strain the limit in this ordinance,
through tears and tears we cannot staunch,
we see Antigone
now come to her quiet room where all men sleep.

Other Verse Renderings

Four versions available on the Internet, with brief comments:

Wm. Blake Tyrrell and Larry J. Bennett

Eros, undefeated in battle,
Eros, who falls upon possessions,
who, in the soft cheeks of a young girl,
stays the night vigil,
who traverses over seas
and among pastoral dwellings,
you none of the immortals can escape,
none of the day-long mortals, and
he who has you is maddened.

You wrest the minds of even the just
aside to injustice, to their destruction.
You have incited this quarrel
among blood kin.
Desire radiant from the eyelids
of a well-bedded bride prevails,
companion in rule with the gods' great
ordinances. She against whom none may battle,
the goddess Aphrodite, plays her games.

Now, by this time, even I myself am carried
outside the ordinances of the gods at seeing this.
I am no longer able to stanch the streams of tears,
when I see Antigone here approaching
the bridal-chambers that give rest to all. {3}

A standard, fairly literal rendering, where the shortish lines have a bluntness suitable for the stage.

D.W. Myatt

Eros - unconquered in battle:
Eros - despoiler of wealth
Who at night keeps vigil by the soft lips
Of a young girl
And who widely roams over sea and land
To even the wildest dwellings!

No immortal can escape you
Nor any mortals while they live:
You possess them all with your frenzy.
Those who are fair become unfair
And are disgraced
As you wrest aside their reason -
You who now trouble these kinsmen with strife!
Passion is victorious - for a comely, clear-eyed, bride -
And this power is seated there beside the ancient lawgivers,
There where the goddess Aphrodite mocks us,
With no resistance.

But now, as I look there, I am carried beyond that decree
And cannot from their source block these burgeoning tears
As I see Antigone passing to that inner chamber
Wherein we will all be quiet. {4}

More literary version, quieter, with a subtler patterning.

George Theodoridas

You are beyond wars, beyond any place you fall! 
You make nests out of the soft cheeks of young girls
for your slumber;
you hover
over the oceans and distant lands
no immortal god, nor man with his measured days

And then,
you catch
and your catch becomes

You, Love!
You push the minds of the just
to do injustice

You’re the one who lit this fire of discord between two
of the same blood. Between father and son.

You, Love!
Through the lashes of a lusty bride, Passion, win the day,
Scorning the great laws which hold sway over the whole
Because Afrodite is invincible!.

So now, I, too, seeing all this
Leave the laws behind me
I cannot stop the fountain of my tears when I see
Antigone being dragged to her all eternal death-chamber. {5}

Very free version, a little bombastic, but more everyday word choice.

Classic Authors

Strophe Chor.
O Love, in every battle victor owned;
Love, now assailing wealth and lordly state,
Now on a girl`s soft cheek,
Slumbering the livelong night;
Now wandering o`er the sea,
And now in shepherd`s folds;
The Undying Ones have no escape from thee,
Nor men whose lives are measured as a day;
And who has thee is mad.

Thou makest vile the purpose of the just,
To his own fatal harm;
Thou stirrest up this fierce and deadly strife,
Of men of nearest kin;
The glowing eyes of bride beloved and fair
Reign, crowned with victory,
And dwell on high among the powers that rule,
Equal with holiest laws;
For Aphrodite, she whom none subdues,
Sports in her might divine.
I, even I, am borne
Beyond the bounds of right;
I look on this, and cannot stay
The fountain of my tears.
For, lo! I see her, see Antigone
Wind her sad, lonely way
To that dread chamber where is room for all. {6}

A pleasing rendering though now rather dated and perhaps too elevated in tone.

Two printed versions, with brief comments:

F. Storr


Love resistless in fight, all yield at a glance of thine eye,
Love who pillowed all night on a maiden's cheek dost lie,
Over the upland folds thou roam'st, and the trackless sea.
Love the gods captive holds. Shall mortals not yield to thee?


Mad are thy subjects all, and even the wisest heart
Straight to folly will fall, at a touch of thy poisoned dart.
Thou didst kindle the strife, this feud of kinsman with kin,
By the eyes of the winsome wife, and the yearning her heart to win.
For as her consort still, enthroned with Justice above,
Though bendest man to thy will, O all invincible Love.

Lo, I myself am borne aside,
From Justice, as I view this bride.
(O sight an eye in tears to drown)
Antigone, so young, so fair,
       Thus hurried down
Death's bower with the dead to share. {7}

Rhymed version, popular in its time but now rather dated: rhyming weakens what is pleasing elsewhere in this translation, and adds to the original text.

Robert Fagles

Love, never conquered in battle
Love the plunderer laying waste the rich!
Love standing the night-watch
                      guarding a girl's soft cheek,
you range the seas, the shepherd's' steading off in the wilds—
not even the deathless gods can flee your onset,
nothing human born for a day—
whoever feels your grip is driven mad.
you wrench the minds of the righteous into outrage,
swerve them to their ruin—you have ignited this,
this kindred strife, father and son at war
                                    and Love alone the victor—
warm glance of the bride triumphant, burning with desire!
Throned in power, side-by-side with the mighty laws!
Irresistible Aphrodite, never conquered—
Love you mock us for your sport.

But now, even I would rebel against the king,
I would break all bounds when I see this—
I fill with tears, I cannot hold them back,
not any more . . . I see Antigone make her way
to the bridal vault where all are laid to rest. {8}

A popular version: free verse: clear, somewhat regimented and exceeding the original text, but probably effective on the stage.

Paul Roche

Strophe I

Love, unquelled in battle,
Love, making nonsense of wealth,
Pillowed all night on the cheek of a girl,
You roam the seas, pervade the wilds
And in a shepherd's hut you lie.
Shadowing immortal gods
You dog ephemeral man—
Madness your possession.

Antistrophe I

Turning the wise into fools,
You twist them off their course
And now you have stung us to this strife
Of father fighting son . . . Oh, Love,
The bride has but to glance
With the lyrical light of her eyes
To win you seat in the stars
And Aphrodite laughs.

Fourth Episode

And now you turn on me
Unman my loyalty
Loose my tongue to see
You Antigone
Pass your wedding bower
Death's chamber, pass
So easily. {9}

Clear, broken into staccato phrases with marked alliteration. Departs rather widely from original text, and diction conjures up unfortunate images (Love as a dog, seat in the stars, unman my loyalty).

On the next page we take translation away from the iambic pentameter, aiming for measured speaking voice in a rhymed verse setting.

Notes and References

1. Yeats and Sophocles in Laudator Temporis Acti. Blog of Michael Gilleland. Sunday, November 27, 2005.

2. Sophocles, Antigone (ed. Sir Richard Jebb).

3. Sophocles' Antigone translated by Wm. Blake Tyrrell and Larry J. Bennett.

4. Sophocles. Antigone. A New Translation by. D.W. Myatt. 1990. NNA.

5. Sophocles' Antigone translated by George Theodoridas. 2004. NNA.

6. Antigone by Sophocles: translator unnamed. NNA.

7. Sophocles with an English Translation by F. Storr B.A. (Harvard University Press, 1912), 377.

8. Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays translated by Robert Fagels (Penguin Books, 1984), 101.

9.The Oedipus Plays of Sophocles: A Revised and Update Translation by Paul Roche (Plume, 2004), 227-8.


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