The poet and translator Michael Hamburger called his autobiography A Mug’s Game. Whatever one may feel about poetry, the name applies to poetry in translation. Dryden distinguished three kinds of translation: the literal, the free, and the intermediate kind. Literal translation of poetry is usually of low literary quality; free translation of it may have literary merit, but seldom makes an impression like that of the original; the intermediate kind suffers almost always from one of these deficiencies, very often from both.

While the scriptural account of the origins of man still had authority, people believed the myth of Babel; existing language approximated in some degree to the original true language, so that a text in one language might be matched by its exact equivalent in another. Translation of prose from one European language into another, seeming at first sight comparatively simple, lends color to this assumption. But even if we keep to European languages, we have only to advance a little way to find things harder; study such an elementary specimen of translation as the instructions in several languages for using the safety kit on airplanes, and you will notice marked differences of structure and of idiom.

Ancient Greek differs appreciably from modern European languages in both these respects. These languages have lost most of the inflections that they once possessed; Greek has a high degree of inflection, and so can vary its word order as they cannot. Greek makes much use of particles, serving to link sentences or to convey various shades of emphasis or other nuances, some of them expressed in other languages by underlinings or a special tone of voice. It has a marked tendency to avoid the passive; its own passive originally borrowed its forms from the middle voice, which usually implies that the subject’s action is in his own interest or otherwise related to himself. It makes subtle use of the subjunctive and optative moods; in its classical form, it retains a dual number as well as a singular and plural. A translator from or into such a language, if he is to have any real success, must recast the passage to be translated in his mind; that is why the exercise of translation into Greek, once highly valued in universities but now almost abandoned, supplies a valuable intellectual discipline.

Greek verse does not use rhyme, and Greek has no stress accent. It has a pitch accent, but the meter depends not on this but on the number of syllables, which may be long or short; Americans are taught to pronounce according to the accent, which makes it harder for them to understand the meter. The dialogue parts of Greek tragedy are in iambic or trochaic verse, these being the meters thought to be closest to the rhythm of common speech; but much of the plays, and particularly the utterance of the chorus, consists of lyric verse whose meters vary greatly. One element in the poetry of tragedy is spare and dry, as we see most notably in the formal kind of dialogue called stichomythia, in which the speakers utter one or two lines at a time, each in turn; but another element is of extreme verbal richness, recalling to an English-speaking reader the language of Elizabethan tragedy. Literal translation of this poetry will display all the absurdities faithfully presented in Housman’s famous parody (available in Dwight Macdonald’s anthology of parodies).*

Unfortunately the Elizabethans did not translate Greek tragedy into English; few of them knew Greek, and the Greek of tragedy is difficult. Latin translations were made often enough, but English ones hardly go back beyond the last half of the eighteenth century. Very naturally, Victorian poetic translations of tragedy usually employed Victorian traditionalist verse; the dialogue was most often in iambic pentameters, the lyrics usually in rhyme. In earlier ages Homer had been translated, not indeed accurately but memorably, by Chapman and by Pope; but now no major poet came forward to translate Greek tragedy, if we except Browning’s almost ludicrously literal Agamemnon; and Merope, the play Matthew Arnold wrote to show how the thing might be done, is almost as lifeless as the later attempts at the same kind of thing by Robert Bridges. Writing during the Edwardian age and later, Gilbert Murray had great success with versions of tragedy into rhyming verse in a manner essentially derived from Swinburne. But their popularity could not survive the Twenties, when the modernist revolt against Victorian romanticism began to have effect.

The chief author of that revolt was Eliot, who made a devastating attack on Murray’s versions, and in Murder in the Cathedral and The Family Reunion provided translators from the Greek with a kind of free verse that liberated them from the tyranny of rhyme and seemed to have just the flexibility they needed for their daunting task. Only a year after the appearance of Murder in the Cathedral in 1935, Louis MacNeice brought out a version of Agamemnon that not only was important for its pioneering effect, but remains an excellent specimen of the genre. Yet Eliot, like Pound, was an American, and it is in America that the characteristic mode of twentieth-century translation of Greek tragedy has most flourished. Several writers, like Robert Fitzgerald and Dudley Fitts, have produced versions with real poetic merit; but the most effective translator of Greek poetry in the English-speaking world during this period has been one of the best Greek scholars in America, who happens also to have a genuine poetic gift. Richmond Lattimore has produced renderings that scrupulously respect the sense and purpose of the originals, and yet have a poetic quality. His bent is lyrical rather than dramatic, so that his best translations are of lyric verse, and his most successful renderings of tragedy have been of such lyrical dramas as the Helen and the Iphigenia in Tauris of Euripides. He has also produced a fine Oresteia, Alcestis, Trojan Women, and Rhesus, but he has never tried his hand at Sophocles.


The modern mode of translation has now been in fashion long enough for us to have some notion of its strengths and weaknesses. It deals well with stichomythia; it is better at the element that tragedy has in common with Ivy Compton-Burnett—whom I have heard say that she was influenced by Greek tragic dialogue—than at the element it has in common with Shakespeare. Recoiling from the artificial archaisms of the Victorians, the moderns have adopted a manner that seldom, even in the lyrics, rises very far above the level of the colloquial. The same is true of the tragedies of Eliot that are the principal models of the modern mode of translation; but in Eliot the rhythm is perceptible. The words, however plain, are carefully chosen with an eye to their impact, and the total effect is very far from that of prose. The last long utterance of the chorus in The Family Reunion will serve as an example; it is too long to quote in full, but here are the final verses:

What is happening outside the circle?
And what is the meaning of hap pening?
What ambush lies beyond the heather
And behind the Standing Stones?
Beyond the Heaviside Layer
And behind the smiling moon?
And what is being done to us?
And what are we, and what are we doing?
To each and all of these questions
There is no conceivable answer.
We have suffered far more than a personal loss
We have lost our way in the dark.

The language is simple and the thought easy to follow; but the poet’s ear is unfailing, the movement of the verse slowly builds up, and the climax comes with powerful effect.

Many who have essayed the modern mode in translation have copied the surface characteristics of this kind of writing without understanding how its successful exponents have attained their excellence. They may render the original accurately, and they may avoid absurdity or tastelessness; but they lack Eliot’s ear and his ability to work up to an effect, and their free verse is too free to be easily distinguishable from prose. This has been noticed by some of the younger translators, especially those who have contributed to the series of translations edited for the Oxford University Press by William Arrowsmith. Some of these have made a laudable attempt to meet the challenge offered by the often flamboyant rhetoric and highly colored imagery of the originals. Unfortunately this has not often been successful; too often they give the impression of a desperate straining for effect.

Robert Fagles now follows his successful Oresteia with a version of three plays even harder to translate, the three plays of Sophocles which though they were written at different times and may give the same person or incident a different coloring can be arranged to give a more or less continuous story. Fagles, who is not himself a classical scholar, has had the great advantage of being assisted by Professor Bernard Knox, who has contributed introductions to each play and also explanatory notes. The reader of a Greek tragedy will need assistance in understanding a work coming from a culture and religion remote from those of his own time, and no other translation of Sophocles now available is anything like so well equipped in this respect. This by itself is enough to make a very useful book.

It is’ natural to compare the new translation with others currently available. E.F. Watling’s version in the Penguin Classics, first published in 1947, has sold many copies. We are accustomed to hearing extravagant praise of this series, which has indeed made much great literature available in translation at a low price, and which includes many admirable translations; but if the books published in it were reviewed more often, the public would be more aware that these versions vary a great deal in quality.


The biggest seller of all, E.V. Rieu’s translation of Homer, is one of the most colorless and undistinguished, turning Homer into a flat, pedestrian prose about as elegant as that of Agatha Christie. If one reads Homer simply for the plot, I suppose this will do; but no reader who had not been told so would guess that the original had been in verse at all. Still, Rieu’s is good compared with Philip Vellacott’s awful versions of Greek drama, whose dullness is even more notable than their inaccuracy. In the rather ordinary series of Penguin versions of Greek poetry, Watling’s Sophocles is by no means the worst item; but the dialogue is a little labored, and the use of rhyme in a number of the lyrics combines with other residual romantic elements to give a somewhat old-fashioned effect. This is how Watling renders a famous chorus of Oedipus the King:

I only ask to live, with pure faith keeping
In word and deed that Law which leaps the sky,
Made of no mortal mould, un
   dimmed, unsleeping
Whose living godhead does not age or die.

Anyone who has attended an English private school has sung many similar verses out of Hymns Ancient and Modern at its daily services.

In the Chicago Complete Greek Tragedies, that vulgate of the classics in translation, Oedipus the King has been well translated by David Grene. Here is his rendering of those same verses:

May destiny ever find me
pious in word and deed
prescribed by the laws that live on high:
laws begotten in the clear air of heaven,
whose only father is Olympus;
no mortal nature brought them to birth,
no forgetfulness shall lull them to sleep;
for God is great in them and grows not old.

That is an accurate rendering into good, clear English, and the user of Mr. Grene’s translation can trust it to maintain that standard; but it might just as well be written out as prose.

Stephen Berg, who with the assistance of the scholar Diskin Clay translated this play for the Oxford University Press series, has been more poetically ambitious. Here is his version of the same passage:

be here let what I say be pure
let all my acts be pure
laws forged in the huge clear fields of heaven
rove the sky
shaping my words limiting what I do
Olympos made those laws not men who live and die
nothing lulls those laws to sleep
they cannot die
and the infinite god in them never ages.

Partly because of the refusal to use punctuation, the opening sentence is obscure, even if one has the help of the original. The sentence starting in the third line contains an image that arouses a mild interest; but it stands in no significant relation to the original, and is hardly in itself so striking as to justify the renunciation of the attempt to say what the original says. The version as a whole does not lack vigor, but its taut, clipped, compressed quality is not at all like Sophocles.

This is how Fagles renders the same passage:

Destiny guide me always
Destiny find me filled with rev
pure in word and deed.
Great laws tower above us, reared on high
born for the brilliant vault of heaven
   Olympian Sky their only father,
nothing mortal, no man gave him birth,
their memory deathless, never lost in sleep:
within them lives a mighty god, the god does not grow old.

In the fourth line, I would say “in” instead of “for,” and in the sixth “them” instead of “him.” The technique is more like Grene’s than any of the others, but Fagles is somewhat more poetically ambitious, sometimes with success.

His Antigone has a clear margin of superiority over its two principal competitors. The Chicago series offers a rather stilted version by Elizabeth Wyckoff; Richard Emil Braun in the OUP series has some good moments, as when he renders line 88 by “this ardor of yours is spent on ashes,” but usually he falls right into the pit between poetry and scholarship; in the ode starting at line 583, I find “the house quaked by the gods,” “the months, as undwindling as gods” (inaccurate as well as absurd), “the twinkle…of Olympos,” “the illustrious dictum.” In these places Fagles has “once the gods have rocked a house to its foundations,” “the tireless months of heaven,” “the dazzling crystal mansions of Olympus,” “the famous saying.”

The OUP series has not yet reached the Oedipus at Colonus, but the Chicago version is from no less a hand than that of Robert Fitzgerald. It is manifestly the work of a real poet, but of a poet very different from Sophocles; its quality is lyric rather than dramatic, and its smooth elegance gives little notion of the uncanny capacity of the original to suggest the mysterious operation of divine agencies. Fagles’s rendering is in less accomplished verse, but he is readier to follow the wording of the original. This is how Fagles renders the first stanza of the famous chorus containing the praise of Colonus (lines 668ff):

Here, stranger,
here in the land where horses are a glory
you have reached the noblest home on earth
Colonus glistening, brilliant in the sun
   where the nightingale sings on,
her dying music rising clear,
hovering always, never leaving
down the shadows deepening green she haunts the glades, the wine-dark ivy,
dense and dark the sacred wood of god, untrodden
rich with laurel and olives never touched by the sun
untouched by storms that blast from every quarter
   where the Reveler Dionysus strides the earth forever where the wild nymphs are dancing round him nymphs who nursed his life.

On the whole, then, this book offers the least inadequate versions of the three plays in modern times, and Knox’s contribution lends it special value. An initial essay on “Greece and the Theater,” helpful introductions to each play, a brief sketch of the history of the text, and concise notes on particular difficulties supply the Greekless reader with exactly the kind of assistance that he will find most useful. Viking would do well to persuade Fagles to go on to the four remaining plays so that Watling’s version can be replaced, though it is even more urgent to replace the dreadful Vellacott.

But like all modern translations of Greek tragedy, including some by authors with a greater gift for writing verse than Fagles, this one leaves me feeling sad at the thought that no one who does not read this poetry in the original can have an idea of its true character. Max Beerbohm’s Duke of Dorset said, “The Hanoverian court is not much, but it is better than nothing.” That goes for even the best modern versions of Greek poetry. If you want versions of the two Oedipus plays in real poetry, you must go to Yeats; but Yeats’s renderings are very far from Sophocles.

This Issue

October 7, 1982