translating sophoclesPoints Illustrated

1. Working from translations: paraphrasing previous renderings.

2. Importance of making sense.

3. Learning from previous attempts.

W.B. Yeats Version

The best known Greek translation by Yeats is probably the chorus from Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus (lines 668-719).

Come praise Colonus' horses, and come praise
The wine-dark of the wood's intricacies,
The nightingale that deafens daylight there,
If daylight ever visit where,
Unvisited by tempest or by sun,
Immortal ladies tread the ground
Dizzy with harmonious sound,
Semele's lad a gay companion.

And yonder in the gymnasts' garden thrives
The self-sown, self-begotten shape that gives
Athenian intellect its mastery,
Even the grey-leaved olive-tree
Miracle-bred out of the living stone;
Nor accident of peace nor war
Shall wither that old marvel, for
The great grey-eyed Athene stares thereon.

Who comes into this country, and has come
Where golden crocus and narcissus bloom,
Where the Great Mother, mourning for her daughter
And beauty-drunken by the water
Glittering among grey-leaved olive-trees,
Has plucked a flower and sung her loss;
Who finds abounding Cephisus
Has found the loveliest spectacle there is.
Because this country has a pious mind
And so remembers that when all mankind
But trod the road, or splashed about the shore,
Poseidon gave it bit and oar,
Every Colonus lad or lass discourses
Of that oar and of that bit;
Summer and winter, day and night,
Of horses and horses of the sea, white horses. {1}

This is late Yeats, rather grand and heavy with significance. The original is a simple (though beautiful) description, as the Sir Richard Jebb's rendering shows:

Stranger, in this land of fine horses you have come to earth's fairest home, the shining Colonus. Here the nightingale, a constant guest, trills her clear note under the trees of green glades, dwelling amid the wine-dark ivy and the god's inviolate foliage, rich in berries and fruit, unvisited by sun, unvexed by the wind of any storm. Here the reveller Dionysus ever walks the ground, companion of the nymphs that nursed him.

And, fed on heavenly dew, the narcissus blooms day by day with its fair clusters; it is the ancient crown of the Great Goddesses. And the crocus blooms with a golden gleam. Nor do the ever-flowing springs diminish, from which the waters of Cephisus wander, and each day with pure current it moves over the plains of the land's swelling bosom, bringing fertility. Nor have the dancing Muses shunned this place, nor Aphrodite of the golden rein.

And there is a thing such as I have not heard of on Asian ground, nor as ever yet born in the great Dorian isle of Pelops: a plant unconquered, self-renewing, causing terror to destroying enemies. It greatly flourishes in this land--the gray-leafed olive, nurturer of children. Youth cannot harm it by the ravages of his hand, nor can any who lives with old age. For the sleepless eye of Zeus Morios watches over it, and gray-eyed Athena.

And I have more praise for this city our mother, the gift of a great divinity, a glory most great: the might of horses, the might of colts, and the might of the sea. For you, son of Cronus, lord Poseidon, have set her on the throne of this pride, by establishing first in our roads the bit that cures the rage of horses. And the shapely oar, well-fitted for the sea, in flying past the land leaps to follow the hundred-footed Nereids.

And the original Greek text (transliterated) is:

euippou, xene, tasde chôras
hikou ta kratista gas epaula,
670 ton argêta Kolônon, enth'
ha ligeia minuretai
thamizousa malist' aêdôn
chlôrais hupo bassais,
ton oinôpon echousa kisson
675 kai tan abaton theou
phullada muriokarpon anêlion
anênemon te pantôn
cheimônôn: hin' ho bakchiôtas
aei Dionusos embateuei
680 theais amphipolôn tithênais.
hallei d' ouranias hup' achnas
ho kallibotrus kat' êmar aei
narkissos, megalain theain
archaion stephanôm', ho te
685 chrusaugês krokos: oud' aüpnoi
krênai minuthousin
Kêphisou nomades rheethrôn,
all' aien ep' êmati
ôkutokos pediôn epinissetai
690 akêratôi sun ombrôi
sternouchou chthonos: oude Mousan
choroi nin apestugêsan oud' ha
chrusanios Aphrodita.
695 estin d' hoion egô gas Asias ouk epakouô
oud' en tai megalai Dôridi nasôi Pelopos pôpote blaston
phuteum' acheirôton autopoion,
encheôn phobêma daïôn,
700 ho taide thallei megista chôrai,
glaukas paidotrophou phullon elaias:
to men tis ou nearos oude gêrai
sunnaiôn haliôsei cheri persas: ho gar aien horôn kuklos
705 leussei nin moriou Dios
cha glaukôpis Athana.
allon d' ainon echô matropolei taide kratiston
710 dôron tou megalou daimonos, eipein, chthonos auchêma megiston,
euippon, eupôlon, euthalasson.
ô pai Kronou, su gar nin eis
tod' heisas auchêm', anax Poseidan,
715 hippoisin ton akestêra chalinon
prôtaisi taisde ktisas aguiais.
ha d' euêretmos ekpagl' halia chersi paraptomena plata
thrôiskei, tôn hekatompodôn
Nêrêidôn akolouthos. {2}

Oedipus at Colonus

Oedipus at Colonus is the second play of a trilogy, between Oedipus the King and Antigone. The once mighty ruler is now an old, blind man, who has left Thebes and is wandering with Antigone. The two arrive at Colonus, where they are welcomed by King Theseus, who knows the prophecy that Oedipus will bring good fortune to those who shelter him. For the same reason, Creon and Polyneices also try to ensure military victory by capturing Oedipus, though he will go with neither. When Oedipus dies he passes on a secret to Theseus, asking the king to bury him in a special spot, which will then give the area victory in battle.

First Attempt

Yeats didn't read Greek, but worked from translations. If we adopt the same approach, and simply use the Jebb version, we must start with what we intend to produce, which is rhyming quatrains, however rough:

You come to Colonus, a land of shade,
far from tempest, stranger, far from harm:
through the wine-dark ivy of the glade
the nightingale weaves harmony from calm.

A land of horse and fruit and limestone light
where revelling Bacchus treads and all around
with nymphs attended, echoing through the night
there comes his delicate and haunting sound.

Here flows the Cephisus from fountains drawn
unceasingly, and crocuses in golden hue:
to wreathe the ancient goddess, dawn to dawn,
the white narcissus clusters, fed on dew.

How prodigally the silver waters trace
their bounty through richly bosomed plain.
And song: the muses do not shun this place,
nor Aphrodite of the golden rein.

Here the children-nurturing and self-renewing,
a source of terror to our bowmen foes;
as none in Asia, Pelop's island viewing,
Athena's grey-eyed olive thickly grows.

Holy from the hand of children, held
apart, the grey-green groves of olives lie.
Not by age undone, for firewood felled,
But under Zeus's great protecting eye.

Equally I tell of savage horses,
the son of Cronus plunging, running free,
the bit Poseidon made to steer their courses,
the god of that far-rushing, foaming sea.

For us he made the sweetly-running oars,
through long waves lifting under heavy lids.
Where the ever-hungry sea swell roars
he gave us the hundred-footed Nereids.

That's something not far from the sense in the Jebb rendering, reasonably compact (32 lines for the original 51) and with only the odd word (delicate, haunting, limestone, lids) added. The lines are mechanical, however, and the rhymes too obvious in places (renewing-viewing, horses-courses).

Fair Copy

Exactly how Yeats worked, I do not know, nor which translation(s) he employed, but his continually revised manuscripts generally show: a. use of the shorter octo-syllabic line rather than the standard pentameter, b. the placing of stress on significant words rather than observing the regularity of the metronome, c. the pruning away of literary archaisms, and d. an increased taste for colloquial language. {3}

In the Oedipus at Colonus above we see their author has:
1. rearranged the material into three sections, i.e:
a. an opening scene in shaded privacy
b. a meditation on Athenian mastery
c. an idiosyncratic paraphrase of the whole,
2. invested certain words with oracular significance (intricacy, mastery, self-begotten, horses),
3. moved a little to free verse: the lines rhyme or pararhyme, and there is a strongly-marked rhythm, but these rhythms are varied and sometimes individual to the lines, marking them off from the poem as a whole.

All poets worth the name have their favourite words, phrasing, rhythms and preoccupations, and there's no point in producing a pastiche of Yeats. But we can pick up some of his approaches to get away from the limp monotony of the first draft. We start by tightening the text and the rhythms:

You come to Colonus, then, stranger: land
withheld from sun and tempest, white land of calm.
With wine-dark ivy twined the great trees stand
where guest nor nightingale may come to harm.

Rich land of fruitfulness, inviolate
to Dionysus walking while around
and warm the women revelling, and night
is spilling out continually with sound.

Incessantly the snowy fountains flow
to Cephisus, and crocuses in gold
shine with white narcissus spreads and throw
a mantle on those goddesses of old.

Lazily the silver waters trace
their fecund imprint on the fruitful plain.
The muses sing and never leave the place,
nor Aphrodite with her lovers' train.

Children-nurturing, itself renewing,
though none in Pelop's isle or eastwards knows:
here the olive flourishes, imbuing
a grey-leafed terror in our bowmen foes.

Athena's eyes are ever watching. Held
from hand of children, in great Zeus's eye
here the olive lasts, is never felled:
unconquerable as gods the thick groves lie.

As horses running are the moving oars
the son of Cronus gave for bridle bits,
that not the angry sea god champs and roars
but quieting, hundred-footed Nereids.

Then we slacken the rhythms halfway to a speaking voice, aiming for a quiet strength.

Here then, stranger, is Colonus: a land
far from heat or tempest, of horses, white calm.
Dark ivy twines and while the great trees stand
no guest or nightingale will come to harm.

This is a rich land and inviolate
to Dionysus who haunts this ground.
You can hear his nymphs revelling, and night
always has a warm and close sound.

Also I must tell you that the fountains flow
incessantly to Cephisus, and gold
crocuses and white narcissus throw
a mantle on the mother goddesses of old.

And you must watch how the clear waters trace
their fecund silver on the breasted plain,
hear how the muses sing and never leave the place,
nor Aphrodite with her laughing train.

Above all there is the child-nurturing, and self-renewing,
olive tree that none on Pelops isle or east knows:
thick groves of them, grey-leafed and imbuing
a terror certainly in our foes.

In Athena's quiet grey eyes they are held,
as from hands of children: here Zeus's eye
protects them: they are never felled
but as unconquerable gods on long slopes lie.

As reigns of horses are our galley oars,
the son of Cronus devising the bridle bits,
that we should not hear him as he champs and roars,
but the hundred-footed Nereids.

Discussion: Diction

Some changes have been made between versions. The Aphrodite of the golden rein has become Aphrodite with her laughing train, which I think is an improvement, but clearly not a faithful rendering. The nymphs have come back: and warm the women revelling becomes You can hear his nymphs revelling. Yeats was aware of the problem, and wrote Immortal ladies tread the ground, which is excellent verse but otherwise a little quaint, calling up those medieval illuminated manuscripts that show figures of antiquity in contemporary dress. Women is contemporary, but too much so: our solution is to use nymphs in a colloquial sentence: one escape from archaism. As horses running are the moving oars has become As reigns of horses are our galley oars, but we are still missing the original sense, which joins sea with horses but doesn't suggest Poseidon gave Colonus the oars so that he wouldn't be heard: a rather silly conceit, the oars leading the sense into roars.

Yeats cut the narcissus and crocus imagery, and made an attractive couplet with Who finds abounding Cephisus / Has found the loveliest spectacle there is. Unfortunately, to introduce his Irish preoccupations with horses of the sea, he continued with Because this country has a pious mind / And so remembers that when all mankind, which is pretty disastrous, adding a Sunday school note to the rendering. Then we have lads and lasses, which has a Shakespearean echo (and needs the unhappy discourses-horses rhyme), and not found in the original, though working towards the white horses. Yeats was attracted to the white or shining with which the chorus opens, I imagine, and, rather than relate it to the white limestone country of Greece, delved back into Irish mythology and conjured up waves breaking in sea horses. Our solution has been to simply juxtapose the two images: of horses, white calm, an approach continued in the metre, which is irregular, often throwing two stresses together: east knows, gods on long slopes lie. I'm not saying that this is necessarily better than Yeats's solutions, or knowingly devised, only that we need a way of making the verse both Greek and contemporary. Yeats doesn't quite achieve that. I've long admired the poem, but must confess that much seems unsatisfactory now I come to analyze it for this exercise. The wine-dark of the wood's intricacies conjures up the interplay of dark and light in the woods' depths very well, but The nightingale that deafens daylight there is an astonishing image that unfortunately produces the opposite effect of what's needed, which is a sense of quietness and safety. There are also problems with And beauty-drunken by the water / Glittering among grey-leaved olive-trees, obvious once we ask if beauty-drunken can stand for reflections on the water.

In our version I do not like Dark ivy twines and while the great trees stand / no guest or nightingale will come to harm, which muddles the original visiting nightingale. The phrase and night always has a warm and close sound is pure invention, and if we have to pick up the ground rhyme, then we might add the fruits and berries previously dropped. In short, we need some major surgery, when the revised piece goes something like this:

Here then, stranger, is Colonus: a land
far from heat or tempest, of horses, white calm
over glades, deep ivy and the trees which stand
to keep our guests, the nightingales, from harm.

This is a rich land and inviolate
to Dionysus who haunts this ground.
You can hear his nymphs revel at night
and see fruits and berries lie thick around.

Also I must tell you that the fountains flow
incessantly to Cephisus, and gold
crocuses and white narcissus throw
a mantle on the mother goddesses of old.

Daily clear waters spill over and trace
their fecund silver on the fertile plain,
and the muses dance and never leave the place,
nor Aphrodite with her laughing train.

Above all there is the child-nurturing, and self-renewing,
olive tree that none on Pelops' isle or east knows:
thick groves of them, grey-leafed and imbuing
a terror certainly in our foes.

In Athena's quiet grey eyes they are held,
as from hands of children: here Zeus's eye
protects them: they are never felled
but as unconquerable gods on long slopes lie.

We praise the sea and horses, the god in all.
The son of Cronus fashioned the curbing bits,
and the shaped oars that leap and fall
after the hundred-footed Nereids.

Or, with an abba rhyme scheme:

You come to Colonus, a land of peace,
white haze and horses and of windless shade:
in glades of wine-dark ivy, unafraid,
the songs of nightingales can never cease.

Inviolate is the foliage: to this ground
so rich with berries and with fruiting things,
the nymphs of Dionysus come, with revellings
to nurse their master with a haunting sound.

Here flows the Cephisus, from fountains drawn
unceasingly: and crocuses throw down
their gold with dewed narcissi, white, that crown
the ancient goddesses from dawn to dawn.

Thus blessed, the river through our swelling plain
pours water daily in its tidal race.
Nor do the laughing Muses shun this place,
nor Aphrodite with her golden train.

Here more than islands off or Asia knows
we have our hills of grey-leafed olive trees:
for youth a livelihood, for age an ease,
a rich profusion that confounds our foes.

They're watched forever in great Zeus's eye,
and in the grey eyes of Athena held:
they nurture children and are never felled
but as unconquered gods on high slopes lie.

But most we praise our mother city, writ
in glory of our god, the son of Cronus,
who for our mastery of roads has shown us
the rage of horses reigned with iron bit.

More prodigal, he's given us to meet
the dash of sea waves and their angry thrall
a clean-limbed oar to crest them, leap and fall
after the Nereids' myriad feet.

Are these adequate? As stand-alone poems, possibly, in parts. As something for the stage, no. The stanza shape is enclosing, and doesn't have that dramatic quality that reaches out for the audience's attention. There is nothing to stop us writing in this way, producing attractive poems on Greek themes, but the approach will not, I suspect, produce effective stage scripts.

Other Versions

Here's a rhymed version by F Storr, now very dated in diction (and more so in the dialogue: it was published 1912-3), which does have a dramatic quality:

(Str. 1)

Thou hast come to a steed-famed land for rest,
O stranger worn with toil,
To a land of all lands the goodliest
Colonus' glistening soil.

'Tis the haunt of the clear-voiced nightingale,
Who hid in her bower, among
The wine-dark ivy that wreathes the vale,
Trilleth her ceaseless song;

And she loves, where the clustering berries nod
O'er a sunless, windless glade,
The spot by no mortal footstep trod,

The pleasance kept for the Bacchic god,
Where he holds each night his revels wild
With the nymphs who fostered the lusty child.

(Ant. 1)
And fed each morn by the pearly dew
The starred narcissi shine,
And a wreath with the crocus' golden hue
For the Mother and Daughter twine.

And never the sleepless fountains cease
That feed Cephisus' stream,
But they swell earth's bosom with quick increase,
And their wave hath a crystal gleam.

And the Muses' quire will never disdain
To visit this heaven-favored plain,
Nor the Cyprian queen of the golden rein.

(Str. 2)
And here there grows, unpruned, untamed,
Terror to foemen's spear,
A tree in Asian soil unnamed,
By Pelops' Dorian isle unclaimed,

Self-nurtured year by year;
'Tis the grey-leaved olive that feeds our boys;
Nor youth nor withering age destroys
The plant that the Olive Planter tends
And the Grey-eyed Goddess herself defends.

(Ant. 2)
Yet another gift, of all gifts the most
Prized by our fatherland, we boast--
The might of the horse, the might of the sea;

Our fame, Poseidon, we owe to thee,
Son of Kronos, our king divine,
Who in these highways first didst fit
For the mouth of horses the iron bit;

Thou too hast taught us to fashion meet
For the arm of the rower the oar-blade fleet,
Swift as the Nereids' hundred feet
As they dance along the brine.

The reasons are probably: a. it follows the strophe-antistrophe structure of the original, b. lines are simple statements, emphasized by obvious rhymes, c. style is declamatory, with nothing subtle or introverted. Clearly it's not Modernist, and the verse is not over-attractive, but the rendering does keep closely to the original, in marked contrast to the Yeats and even our piece.

The solution may be not to try for too much. This is free verse with a muted word music in an almost speaking voice:

Stranger, this is Colonus, you've come to,
a land famed for horses, for green depths
rich in fruits and berries, where the nightingale
constantly visits and sings in the dark ivy.

A land unvexed by sun and storm, sacred
to the revelling Dionysus who walks
under the inviolate foliage with nymphs
who constantly attend and look after him.

Here fed on the heaven's dew, day by day
the narcissus blooms in the ancient crown
of great goddesses, and the crocus
also flowers in its soft hue.

The river Cephisus is fed incessantly
by fountains, and waters a heaped plain;
and the Muses are here dancing and
Aphrodite also of the golden rein.

Also and unknown in Asia and even
dreamt of on the great Dorian isle of Pelops:
is a plant unconquered and self-renewing
that brings terror to enemies:

the grey-leafed olive, which flourishes here,
nurturing children, protected from youth and age.
The sleepless eye of Zeus Morios watches
over it and the grey-eyed Athena as well.

More than this we praise in our mother city,
which is enthroned as the gift of a great god,
Poseidon, the son of Cronus, who has fashioned
from the tumult of sea and of horses:

first on our roads the iron bit to curb
the horse that would run with a great rage
and then an oar shaped for rising and falling
to follow the hundred-footed Nereids.

But still there are problems: inversions, and a rather formal diction. Some omissions and additions. Any sense of action is missing, and though it may be pleasant to read, it is only verse, not poetry. At least to get something for the stage, we might do better with that old fall-back of blank verse, which links together well for private reading but also allows the trained actor to phrase for sense and express forcefully:

Stranger: this is Colonus you've come to,
a land famed for horses and for shining calm.
No storms can hurt her nor the scorching sun
for here are depths of forests, ripe with fruit,
and glades with berries where the nightingale
among the wine-dark ivy comes to sing.

Here the revelling Dionysus
walks beneath the sacred boughs with nymphs
and, bathed in dew, the white narcissi flower
to crown the heads of ancient goddesses,
and there are crocuses in bloom with soft gold hue.

Fed incessantly by fountains here,
the Cephisus is fertile through a plain
on which the Muses never scorn to dance,
nor Aphrodite of the golden rein.

And what's unknown in Asia, even on
the Dorian isle of Pelops here abounds
in thick profusion: the grey-leafed olive tree:
that never conquered, self-renewing thing
that foils our enemies but is to children
nourishment, protected youth to age
by Zeus who watches it with sleepless eye,
Athena also with her grey-eyed stare.

But most we glory in our mother city
with might of horses, might of sea, for here
a great divinity, the son of Cronus,
has given us the rule of roads and waves:
an iron bit to curb our raging horses
and oar so fashioned that it leap and fall
after the hundred-footed Nereids.

We are down to 30 lines, with little missed out or obscure. The rendering is less shaped than the rhymed version but has greater variety of phrasing and subtler sound patterns. Most contemporary poets dislike blank verse, but the medium can be flexible, compact and powerful, the closest we have to prose, but also capable of rising to the ringing note needed for public speech.

Proper Names

Alert readers will have spotted a serious mistake. Colonus in the above versions has a pronunciation of Co'lonus, with the stress on the first syllable. In fact the correct pronunciation is Colo'nus, which seriously wrong-foots the verse. Rather than rework the previous versions I put here the version to be found in the full (and free) translation of Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus published in pdf format by the Ocaso Press. After much experimenting, I found the quatrain gave the best results for the chorus sections of the play, preserving the original line numberings and dovetailing with the rhymed pentameter lines of the non-chorus sections. The chorus runs:


Colonus, stranger, come to calm
in limestone white and woven shade:
a land of horses, thick with tales
of loveliness that none dispute.
Far from sun's or tempest's harm,
in wine-dark ivy through the glade,
our constant guests, the nightingales,
pour out their sweet and joyful sound.
Sacred too is each leafed thing
endowed with berries and with fruit
as, nymphs attending, revelling,
Dionysus walks this ground.


Here are crocuses in gold,
and over them the white narcissus
nods on Goddesses of old
from dewed awakening, dawn to dawn.
Here also flows the Cephisus
unendingly, from fountains drawn:
its stainless waters daily trace
their fecundations on the plain,
so blessing it with quick increase.
The Muses are not shy of face
nor can Aphrodite cease
to visit us with golden rein.


There is a gift more versatile
than famed in Asian countries grows
or on the Dorian Pelop's isle:
I speak of grey-leafed olive trees
those self-renewing nourishers
of children, giving age its ease,
but terror to our spearmen foes.
Our youths are not its ravagers
nor may the aged with their hand
destroy this bounty of our land.
They stand impregnable, are never felled
but in Athena's eye's are held
sleepless in her grey-eyed stare,
as too in Morian Zeus's care.


Another praise I have to tell
is for our mother city, writ
in glory of the son of Cronus,
with might of horses, might of sea,
the god Poseidon, such is he
who to master horse has shown us
how to keep with iron bit
their powerful anger in our thrall.
More prodigal to us as well
he's given us the oar to meet
the hand that hauls us over seas,
giving it a wondrous ease
to follow on the rise and fall
of the Nereids' myriad feet.

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. Jon Stallworthy, Between the Lines: W.B. Yeat's Poetry in the Making, 1963, cited in Paul L. Wiley and Harold Orel, British Poetry 1880-1920: Edwardian Voices (Appleton-Century Crofts, 1969), 277.
4. Oedipus at Colonus By Sophocles. Translated by F. Storr. 1912-3.

The author's translation of Oedipus at Colonus is published by the Ocaso Press in free pdf form.


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