Translation consists of bringing the words of one language across a no-man's-land, as it were, in the translator's mind into those of another. It cannot be accomplished without the translator's having the necessary background knowledge and some notion about what the original is saying, as the apocryphal translation machine illustrates. Instructed to bring into Latin the English: "The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak," the machine, lacking a context for human courage facing its own frailness, set the statement in a dietary context by taking "spirit" as alcoholic "spirits." It was then forced to take "flesh" as "meat," and came up with: Vinum valebat sed caro mitigata est (the wine was strong, but the meat was tender). The machine also shows that translation is not a process of substitution. The simplest words, thyra/door, as well as the pregnant ones, phronein/to think/be minded/have understanding, do not have identical connotations much less identical meanings. Moreover, Greek and English have different structures, different ways of integrating words into sentences. Whereas English usually depends upon word order and less upon changing the shapes and sounds of words, such alterations or inflections are the rule in Greek and enable the order of the words itself to convey far more meanings and nuances than the basic order in English of subject-verb-object. Sophocles, for instance, places the adverb eti of line 3 in such a position as to modify either the verb ("Zeus is yet to fulfill") or the participle ("for us two yet living"), thus gaining two meanings from the single adverb. The translator, however, must choose between one or the other, limiting the text to one meaning, or duplicate the adverb, as we have done.
To the extent that multiplicity is lost or distortion introduced, the translator
mistranslates the text, the inevitable sacrifice to the goal of reading Antigone in
From the first line, the translator confronts the abyss separating Sophocles' Greek
from English. Our translation, "O common one of the same womb, dear head of
Ismene" uses eleven words for five of the original. An endearment like "dear
heart, Ismene" would be more readily understood than "head of Ismene" but
with a false familiarity: the Greeks spoke of the head, not the heart, as the center of
love and affection. Richard Jebb's translation, "Ismene, my sister, mine own dear
sister," forfeits the slight delay in discovering the identity of the addressee and
dilutes the hyperbolic expression of kinship.(2)
Elizabeth Wyckoff's "My sister, my Ismene" and Dudley Fitts and Robert
Fitzgerald's "Ismene, a dear sister" further diminish the urgency perceptible in
the words of kinship. Kinship is emphasized in Andrew Brown's "Sisters, closest of
kindred, Ismene's self " and in Richard Emil Braun's "Ismene? Let me see your
face," although "Ismene's self " is no more English idiom than the literal
"head of Ismene," and looking upon Ismene's face is not in the Greek. Robert
Fagles' "My own flesh and blood--dear sister, dear Ismene" highlights the
physicality of the kinship Antigone asserts with Ismene at the price of abandoning the
Greek. "Ismene, my dear sister whose father was my father" (Grene) stresses the
notion of the sisters' kinship shared through the father, an emphasis on father that not
only is not in the Greek but imports father into words that denote kinship through the
womb. Each version of line 1 promises a faithful translation, but they are not the same
English, since the translator cannot escape imposing his or her layer of meaning upon Antigone
of the written page.
Every translator responds to the author's plea, "Translate my meaning, not my
words," by holding that meaning in the highest. But translators differ in how they
articulate meaning, because their aims for their translation and their interpretations of
the original differ. Condensation (Wyckoff, Fitts and Fitzgerald), paraphrasing (Braun,
Fagles), and inserting interpretative glosses (Grene) familiarize the sense of things but
easily slip into anachronism and inaccuracy. A translation produced by a scholarly poet
(Braun) that strives for a text to be savored on its own merits serves well an audience
that knows the original and can appreciate how the poet has refashioned its lines. For an
audience that is ignorant of or not interested in the original, such a translation appears
as the creation of a Sophocles fully at home in English. But Antigone is not a
modern text and was not composed with a modern audience in mind. Whenever possible, we
have used the same English word or phrase for the Greek so that verbal patterns and
reminiscences may be traced throughout the play. We have on occasion departed from
idiomatic English by beginning the sentence with a direct object of the verb or otherwise
postponing full recognition of meaning. In line 557, for example, "Nobly you seemed
to some, and I to others, to think," captures the pith of the Greek sentence in its
first and last words. This allows the translation, at the cost of some ease of reading, to
approach more closely the word order of the Greek and its unfolding impact upon Sophocles'
Language can communicate thoughts, in part, because its speakers share the same
context. No word can be so clear as to lack any element of doubt. Ambiguities and multiple
meanings are the very marrow of Greek tragedy, and the medium capitalizes on the
dependence of language on context for communication.(3) The translator must choose from a word's semantic range
to fit the context, but some words are more crucial than others. For Antigone, one
such word is kakos, used as a noun and adjective and translated usually as
"evils" or "evil." In each instance, the reader may substitute a more
specific evil, for example, "exposure of corpses," for the evils in line 10.
Another word is the noun taphos and its related verb thaptein, respectively,
"burial, funeral feast, wake, funeral rites, grave, tomb" and "to perform
funeral rites, bury, inter, entomb." Their exact meaning depends upon the context,
which itself may be uncertain. Although taphos may be translated "mound"
each time and thaptein "to bury," we have had to choose which English
phrase best describes what we believe has happened. This selection is complicated by the
need to avoid the English word "burial" whose strong associations with complete
interment tend to destroy the ambiguities of the Greek, ambiguities both inherent in the
word and often, it would seem, intended by Sophocles.
In one case, however, the Greek is so fraught with nuances for an English reader that
we have chosen to naturalize rather than translate this series of words by defining and
using them as if English words. The adjectives philos/philoi, respectively,
the masculine singular and plural forms, and philę/philai, respectively,
the feminine singular and plural forms of the noun philotęs, are usually
translated "friendly" and "loved" and when used as substantives, as
"friend" and "loved one." For instance, David Grene has Antigone say
for line 73 of the Greek: "I shall lie by his side, / loving him as he loved
me;" for line 81: "But I will go to heap the earth on the grave of my loved
brother;" for line 523: "My nature is to join in love, not hate." Ismene
speaks of Antigone in terms of love: "that though you are wrong to go, your friends
are right to love you" (99), where "friends," it seems, is used to avoid
the equally possible "your loved ones are right to love you." On the other hand,
Creon must have his nephew Polyneices in mind in his opening address (162-90) and uses the
same masculine adjectives, but philos/philoi become "friend(s)". Since
the meanings of "friend" and "loved one" are simultaneously present,
translation of these key words unavoidably introduces a dichotomy in the English that is
not in the Greek. More significantly, translation obfuscates the semantic substratum that
joins these words as expressions of obligation in a relationship.
Philotęs, as Emile Benveniste has shown, belongs to a vocabulary of moral terms
that is "strongly permeated by values which are not personal but relational."(4) Rather than denoting
psychological states, these words refer to the relations that an individual has with
members of his group who are bound to one another by reciprocal duties and obligations. In
its earliest known form, philotęs expresses the obligations a member of a
community has toward a xenos (stranger/guest). In Benveniste's words, "the
behaviour expressed by phileîn [verbal form] always has an obligatory character
and always implies reciprocity; it is the accomplishment of positive actions which are
implied in the pact of mutual hospitality." This is the behavior expected of a host
toward his guest, or the head of the household toward its members, particularly his wife.
Such relationships readily extend beyond their institutional basis in hospitality or
marriage to bonds of friendship, affection, and love, but these emotions are not essential
to the bonds of philotęs. Consequently, philotęs need not indicate
friendship, only an agreement concerning an action binding on its partners. When Hector
and Ajax break off their duel in Iliad 7, they agree to exchange weapons and gifts.
Their action constitutes a philotęs between them. "They parted, having joined
in philotęs" (Iliad 7.302). They separate still enemies but now philoi,
men obligated by an agreement.
Ideally, a translation should not be annotated. Sophocles' words spoke for themselves
to his audience, most of whom knew what was needed to understand his play. But Sophocles'
audience has passed away, and readers of his words in translation may need help with
proper nouns and mythological allusions. The notes provide such information as the play
itself does not make clear and are intended not only to clarify, but to provoke responses
to, the text.
Ambiguity, double meanings, and the clash of connotations are all features of tragedy's
destabilizing of language as a means of communication. A second type of note offers
alternative translations when Sophocles' language opens a significant gap between what one
character says and another hears. The Watchman may be saying that Antigone sees
Polyneices' "body laid bare" or "his bare body," that is, once covered
and now uncovered (426). Are the altars and braziers of Thebes filled "by the birds
and dogs with food" or "with the food of birds and dogs" (1016-18)? Haemon
greets his father with the answer the latter expects, "Father, I am yours," but
with a condition Creon misses: "You would guide me aright, if you have good judgments
that I will follow" (635-36). The Greek optative verb, translated conditionally as
"you would guide," is the same form as the indicative "you are
guiding." Haemon, it would seem, says the verb as conditional, which entails that his
participle, translated "if you have," also be taken as conditional. But Creon
responds as if he hears the word as indicative and the participle as stating the cause:
"You are guiding . . . since you have." Creon wants Haemon to be on his side no
matter what he may do (634) and expects to hear a factual statement of absolute obedience.
The audience is open to both meanings. We print Haemon's meaning because this is what we
think he says and append what Creon seems to hear in a note.
Another kind of note indicates Sophocles' allusions to what is said and done on stage.
Sophocles' audience heard the words in harmony with the voices of the actors and
choristers and within the context of all the phenomenon of theater and society. More
happened than what was said. Much has been lost but not all, since the script holds clues,
"stage directions," so to speak, to what transpired before the audience.(5) Stage business that the script
records should not be neglected, since Sophocles had his actor point it out even though
the audience could see or hear without that aid. When Creon's slaves bring Antigone from
the house (806), for example, she calls for the elders to see her. The elders would
be looking at her in any case. Her lament over her lost marriage, sung before the house
where, in real life, wedding processions were organized, suggests that she wants them to
notice that she is wearing a wedding dress, traditionally violet in color.(6) In this case, the hair of her
mask would no longer represent the loose hair of the virgin but would be bound up, and her
head would be hidden by a bridal veil. The Greek bride's moment of consent, her giving to
her groom of her virginity and woman's' life, came when she lifted her veil. Soon
afterwards, the bride replaced her veil and left her natal home, never to return as her
father's virgin daughter. Antigone's "see me," spoken by a woman in a wedding
dress, suggest that she lifts her veil and, in the street for all to see, performs her own
ceremony of the unveiling. Later (940), when Antigone calls for the elders to look at her,
she lowers her veil for her procession to the house of her groom, Hades.
Antigone was first performed in the spring of 438 B.C. at the festival of
Dionysus Eleuthereus.(7) In
early summer of 439, the Athenians had successfully concluded their war against rebellious
allies on the island of Samos. At that time, the general Pericles reportedly brought the
commanders and marines of the Samian ships, members of the island's elite, over to the
marketplace in Miletus (Plutarch, Life of Pericles 28) . There, he had them bound
to boards and exposed them until they were nearly dead. He then had them clubbed to death
and their bodies thrown away without benefit of funeral rites. Plutarch, who names the
Samian historian and sensationalist Duris as his source, does not believe the story
because other authorities do not mention it. Yet, the punishment resembles apotympanismos,
crucifixion on a plank, which Athenians inflicted upon citizens guilty of heinous crimes.
By all appearances, Pericles treated the Samians as disloyal citizens, and, in that light,
their revolt is equivalent to stasis, factional discord among citizens, and
analogous to the quarrel between Oedipus' sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, both of whom
claimed the kingship of Thebes for himself. Sophocles surely knew about these events--as
would his original audience-- and perhaps was inspired by them.
In the months before the festival of Dionysus, Sophocles entered the contest for the prize in tragedy.(8)
He submitted three tragedies and a satyr play to the magistrate, perhaps by reciting
several odes. In effect, Sophocles was applying to the demos of Attica to grant him one of
the three choruses available for the festival. As soon as the new magistrate entered
office, he chose Sophocles and assigned a wealthy man to foot the expenses of costuming
the choristers and paying their salaries and those of their trainer and the flute player.
This same man, called a choręgos, was likely also responsible for paying the doryphoręmata
or "spear-carriers" (silent players). Sophocles' prestige and the choręgos'
own desire to win honor for performing an important public office and a religious duty
would ensure that he would be generous. Afterwards, Sophocles, perhaps with an assistant,
trained the chorus of young men, but he was not involved (officially, at least) in
selecting the actors. The demos provided the protagonist or main actor, and the latter
picked the second (deuteragonist) and third (tritagonist) actors, for every tragedian used
no more than three. Although success depended upon the vocal skills of all, the
protagonist alone was eligible for the prize in acting.
The festival had long been anticipated, and finally the day arrived. The time was early
in the morning of either the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth of Elaphebolion. Spring had
come, and the seas were open for Athenians to leave on business and war and for others to
come to Athens to see its crowning jewel, the contest for the prize in tragedy and comedy.
Athenians, both young and mature men as well as women, along with foreign tax-paying
residents, sat on the southern slope of the Acropolis.(9) Officials and notable foreigners--magistrates, the
priest of Dionysus and other religious dignitaries, judges of the contest in tragedy, and
generals--enjoyed the honor of seats of wood or stone next to the orchestra. The audience
was on holiday. They were a lively and noisy lot, some 14,000 to 17,000 strong, interested
in the dramas and keen to shout approval and hoot disapproval.