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Sophocles & ‘The Highest Point’

In response to:

Obsessed with Scapegoats and Outcasts from the May 10, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

Peter Green’s dismissal of The Complete Plays of Sophocles [NYR, May 10], an 880-page edition of Sophocles’ seven masterpieces that includes a multi-themed essay about theater in fifth-century-BCE Athens and the translators’ theory and methods, as well as introductions and notes for each drama, which have been widely staged, praised, and anthologized, including in the current third edition of The Norton Anthology of World Literature, may well strike The New York Review’s readership as inappropriately hostile and unsupported by the argument or quotation an open-minded readership expects.

The main focus of the article—Green’s theory that Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King to warn Athens not to question the validity of oracles and the existence of the Olympian gods—has no relevance to the merits of the translations under review. His sweeping negative characterization of the book’s accuracy rests solely on a philologically faulty analysis of eight lines from a choral ode in one play.

Green’s claim, for instance, that my translations—“drunk on wealth” and “is thrown to his doom” (rather than “jumps,” which would suggest he commits suicide)—are not “in the Greek” was not shared in several respects by the modern era’s greatest Sophocles scholar, Richard Jebb, whose translation of these lines reads:

Insolence breeds the tyrant; Insolence, once vainly surfeited on wealth that is not meet, nor good for it, when it hath scaled the topmost ramparts, is hurled to a dire doom, wherein no such service of feet can serve.

The Greek word Jebb translated as “dire doom” connotes an implacable constraint, one that in the Greek worldview may only be imposed by a divinity. I translate huperplasthe as “drunk” rather than “gorged” or “sated” because “drunk” suggests why the tyrant has lost his mental and moral balance in a struggle with whatever or whoever throws him from the ramparts (not rooftops) to which he has climbed.

Green complains that Scully and I put theatrical performance of Sophocles’ plays ahead of accuracy. We see no reason a translation should not achieve both, which we try to do. The essential disagreement between Green and translators who want their versions to succeed in production has been well stated by Eric Csapo: “In antiquity dramatic poets wrote for dramatic performers, and it is an old, bad habit of traditional philology to suppose otherwise.”

Those interested in our more detailed reply to Green and/or wanting to view extended excerpts from our translations will find both at www.thecompletesophocles.com.

Robert Bagg
Worthington, Massachusetts

Peter Green replies:

The emphasis on text actually in performance, and the virtues or shortcomings of translators, Bagg among them, in this respect, was, of course, my own major theme in the concluding section of my essay. Much of what I say there Bagg ignores in his letter; let me just comment very briefly on his complaint regarding my “philologically faulty analysis” of the eight much- debated choral lines I cited from the Oedipus Tyrannus. Bagg seems to be treating Jebb (on whom he relies heavily throughout) as a kind of Vox Dei. Jebb’s additions were as speculative, even if better backed with scholarship, as the next man’s; and in any case he was not in the business, as Bagg would appear to be, of showing Sophocles how he should explain things to a modern audience, e.g., by having “drunk” rather than “gorged” to highlight the tyrant’s psychology. As for “ramparts” vs. “rooftops,” can it have escaped Professor Bagg’s notice that Sophocles in fact mentions neither? Akrótaton simply means “highest point.”

On another matter entirely, Professor Paul Cartledge gently reminds me that with a birthdate for Sophocles, of about 496 or 495, he would in fact have been some thirty years younger than Aeschylus (born circa 525), and perhaps sixteen years older than Euripides (born circa 480).

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