translating sophoclesPoints Illustrated

1. Dealing with obscurity: when familiarity with the source language doesn't help.

W.B. Yeats Version

The third Yeats translation was entitled A Man Young and Old, and comes from Oedipus at Colonus, lines 1211-1227:

Endure what life God gives and ask no longer span;
Cease to remember the delights of youth, travel-wearied aged man;
Delight becomes death-longing if all longing else be vain.
Even from that delight memory treasures so,
Death, despair, division of families, all entanglements of mankind grow,
As that old wandering beggar and these God-hated children know.
In the long echoing street the laughing dancers throng,
The bride is carried to the bridegroom's chamber through torchlight and tumultuous song;
I celebrate the silent kiss that ends short life or long.
Never to have lived is best, ancient writers say;
Never to have drawn the breath of life, never to have looked into the eye of day;
The second best's a gay goodnight and quickly turn away.

The original Greek is:

hostis tou pleonos merous chrêizei tou metriou pareis
zôein, skaiosunan phulassôn
en emoi katadêlos estai.
1215 epei polla men hai makrai hamerai katethento dê
lupas enguterô, ta terponta d' ouk an idois hopou,
hotan tis es pleon pesêi
1220 tou deontos: ho d' epikouros isotelestos,
Aïdos hote moir' anumenaios
aluros achoros anapephêne,
thanatos es teleutan.
mê phunai ton hapanta nikai logon: to d', epei phanêi,
bênai keithen hothen per hêkei,
polu deuteron, hôs tachista.

Textural Difficulties

We have generally assumed that a decent knowledge of the source language is required for translation, or at least some grammar plus a word-for-word lookup in the dictionary. Unexpectedly, neither is the case with this piece of Sophocles. If we do a word-for-word translation as before, adding Jebb's comments in brackets, we get:

hostis            tou   pleonos merous chrêizei tou   metriou             pareis
any_one_who that  more     share    want     that  within_measure let_drop_beside
(anyone who desires the amplier portion)             (not being content)

zôein, skaiosunan       phulassôn
-        lefthandedness keep_guard
         (folly)              (cleaving to)

en emoi                katadêlos  estai.
-   ego                  visible      will_be
(just in their sight)

epei         polla  men                   hai makrai hamerai    katethento dê
after_that many on_the_one_hand -    long    reclaimed  put            exactness 
                                                (the long days      )

lupas            enguterô,    ta   terponta  d' ouk an         idois hopou,
pain_of_body near           the delighting -  -     if_haply see   in_some_places
(somewhat near to grief)                         (knowing not where to find joy in my soul)

hotan      tis        es pleon   pesêi
whenever anyone  -   sailing fall_down
(when one has lapsed into excess of due limit)

tou   deontos:  ho d' epikouros isotelestos,
that is_binding -   -  assister    fulfilled_alike
(the succourer comes at the last to all alike)

Aïdos  hote   moir'    anumenaios
Hades which portion unwedded

aluros                achoros                 anapephêne,
without_the_lyre without_the_dance make_to_blaze_up
                                                    (hath suddenly appeared)

thanatos es teleutan.
death     -   completion

mê phunai   ton  hapanta    nikai    logon:             to    d', epei          phanêi,
not produce that the_whole prevail the_word         that -   after_that bring_to_light
(not to be born exceeds every possible estimate)              (when he has been born)

bênai keithen hothen        per hêkei,
walk  thence   from_whom all  have_come

polu   deuteron,         hôs tachista.
many second             -     swift
(second-best thing) {2}

Even Sanskrit is not usually as obscure as this. Sir Richard Jebb's rendering is:

Whoever craves the longer length of life, not content to desire a moderate span, him I will judge with no uncertainty: he clings to folly.

For the long years lay in deposit many things nearer to pain than joy; but as for your delights, you will find them nowhere, when someone's life has fallen beyond the fitting period. The Helper comes at last to all alike, when the fate of Hades is suddenly revealed, without marriage-song, or lyre, or dance: Death at the end.

Not to be born is, beyond all estimation, best; but when a man has seen the light of day, this is next best by far, that with utmost speed he should go back from where he came. {2}

Doubtless that's a reasonable guess, but how much more than guess I wouldn't like to say. Here is one example where learning the language is not going to benefit the translator: he will simply have to accept the consensus of scholarly opinion and translate from that. Yeats has elaborated on previous translations, indeed creating some poetry from this terse gloom (mostly by adding contrast not in the original). Another course is to make the rendering even terser:

No traveller will crave a longer span
of life that wearies him with added pain.
There is no wedding song or dance in death
but Hades' emptiness and end of breath.
Never to be born is best for man,
and next, in haste return to whence he came.

If we want something more faithful to the original, then, once again, blank verse serves well enough:

He who craves a more than moderate span
is all too certainly but lacking sense.
Beyond the fitting period, what is life
but pain that nowhere settles into joy?
The Helper comes at last to all alike:
there is no celebration at the grave
with lyre or dancing or with marriage song,
but Hades' emptiness and end of breath.
Best for man is know no natal day
but if he once is given light, the next
is speedily return to whence he came.

The author's full (and free) translation of Sophocles's Oedipus at Colonus is published in pdf format by the Ocaso Press.

Ancient Greek: Sophocles 1 . Sophocles 2 . Sophocles

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).

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


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