The Art of Translation: Oedipus the King

Translation alters perception in literature. It can demonstrate a thematic change or a tonal shift based on things as seemingly inconsequential as word choice and syntax. An in-progress translation can be affected quite significantly by external factors like the location and time period in which a piece is adapted. In the instance of Sophocles’ most famous play, Oedipus Rex, both David Greene and Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb started with the same Greek text, but seeing as the former had his published in Chicago in 1942 and the latter is an Englishman who penned his edition in the late 19th Century, they are bound to be tremendously different. It is in these nuances, these contrasting qualities, that the art of translation begins to flaunt its exciting possibilities. Additionally, it is interesting to consider whether or not the sheer weight of a name like “Sophocles” could intimidate a playwright into using what the introduction of Mr. Jebb’s adaptation refers to as “high formalism and dignity.” Regardless, to fully understand a piece of literature that was not written in one’s native language, a person must consider more than one translation and study said piece via the conglomeration of the translations read.

            Verses 498 through 502 hold within them a great deal of intriguing differences and similarities. These begin at the very first word; Greene uses “truly” and Jebb uses “nay.” “Truly” has only one possible meaning here and that is very clear: Zeus and Apollo are unquestionably wise. Jebb’s use of the rather archaic “nay” could be in place to negate the following statement, though more probably its serves to say, “and more than that.” This demonstrates the murkiness of a translation when it is read in a context much less prose-loving than that in which it was written. While Greene’s transcription labels Zeus and Apollo as “wise,” Jebb calls them “keen of thought.” The former simply feels much stronger than the latter and carries with it a greater sense of divinity, so to speak. Anyone can be sharp; few have wisdom. What is the difference between the two? Greene also writes that the gods are “in human things all-knowing,” while Jebb says that they “know the things of the earth.” Is there a difference between these excerpts? Are the things of the earth by nature human or god-made? Which of these gives the gods a greater burden? Greene refers to Tiresias as a “prophet” which has a decidedly biblical connotation to it, while Jebb refers to him as a “mortal seer,” a title that re-emphasizes his mere humanness. Interestingly, both adaptations state that “there is no distinct judgment” and that “there can be no sure test” to determine who is right in regards to the accusations upon Oedipus. The eternal uncertainty and inability to prove the “prophet” true over any other man, Oedipus included, seems to give Oedipus the loophole that his psyche needs. Though all seem to trust the seers, the Chorus also states that the seers may not always be correct. This slight chance is the King’s scapegoat.

            Verses 504 through 512 also host their share of comparisons and contrasts. Greene writes the Chorus to say that though man may “pass another in wisdom” and “surpass man in lore” (in this context meaning “knowledge gained through tradition,” further displaying the battle of knowledge versus wisdom), they can “never agree with those that find fault with the king.” Jebb’s Chorus says instead that they can never “assent when men blame Oedipus.” The former shows a more dutiful loyalty from the Chorus to the King, whereas the second feels less noble and like more of a willed refutation. It is particularly intriguing that only Sir Richard Claverhouse Jebb refers to the time during which Oedipus solved the riddle as the time during which he “bore [a] test.” This compares the test to a burden, something to be carried, and something that weighs one down; Greene does not paint this as so grave a task. That being said, it is in Greene’s version that the riddle solving was what “saved the city” as opposed to something done “in service of [the Chorus’] state.” Greene portrays Oedipus as a true savior. In doing so, the reader somehow understands the Chorus’ choice to exonerate him from guilt. Jebb’s line shows a formal appreciation with less dynamic passion. David Greene writes that Oedipus will not be “condemned by [the Chorus’] mind;” Jibb’s Chorus proclaims that “never, by the verdict of [their] heart[s], shall he be adjudged guilty of crime.” One reacts with rationality and from the mind (the bodily house of wisdom), while the other displays a great sense of feeling that has not yet been seen in the respective passage. Beyond that, Jebb’s Chorus feels that Oedipus shouldn’t be guilty. Green’s Chorus knows it. Both transcriptions indicate that, in light of the allegations against Oedipus, it becomes crucial for the Chorus and for the people of Thebes to remember that “all of [them] saw [Oedipus’] wisdom” and that “before all eyes…he was seen to be wise” in his deciphering the riddle of the Sphinx (or, as Jebb poetically puts it, the “winged maiden”). It is quite clear that wisdom was required for a solution to be found. Per Greene’s adaptation, this equates Oedipus with the gods. According to Jebbs adaptation which calls the gods “keen of thought,” it almost to depict Oedipus as better than them.

Not unlike whisper-down-the-lane, the art of translation call into question and leaves behind in mystery what the original message was. How far off—or how thrillingly close—are we to Sophocles’ text as it was written in 427 B.C. Greece? Both aforementioned translations convey a sense of formality in some lines and an earnest sense of heartfelt passion in others. Vocabulary seems somewhat inconsequential when examining one translation by itself but so pointed and thought provoking when considering several. The variations and parallels amongst Green and Jebb’s Sophoclean adaptations only reinforce the relative, personal and highly interpretive nature of art, theatre, and literature. 

Mar 16, 2012 | Comments (0)

Directing, Playwriting & Production '2013
Doylestown, PA

I like things like fire and avocados and being in parks and taking bike rides and finding cool old books in cool old bookstores and only ever thinking about reading them. I'm a Capricorn. Grilled cheese is my kryptonite. I want to work in Theater or Film and TV. I don't believe in wasting time. I like telling stories. My life is about THE PURSUIT [a web series] ( and Saladworks and Christmas.