FYP Texts: Lost in Translation

Sophocles – by Shakko – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

This article first appeared in the Summer 2006 issue of Tidings.

THERE ARE SOME THINGS THAT JUST CANNOT BE TRANSLATED. One of the most famous works in all of literature is the dramatic tragedy by Sophocles, his Oedipus the King. This work was written “for the stage” over 2,400 years ago, but even now we have not found a way of referring to it that comes anywhere close to doing it justice. The actual Greek title of the work is Oidipous Tyrannos, and we mostly follow the ancient Latin practice of reproducing this title by the (more neutral) Oedipus Rex.

This is a circumspect translation, since it goes out of its way not to mislead its audience. There is no attempt to fix in the mind of the reader (or spectator), in advance, a sense of Oedipus’ “tyrannical” monarchy, as would certainly happen if we were confronted with the more immediate transliteration of Oedipus the Tyrant. But in saving us from any predisposition, this neutral translation, sadly, simultaneously abandons some of the drama’s essential substance. Famously, it is the poetry that gets “lost” in translation, and in this title most of all.

Certainly, in the history of Greek literature, the word “tyrant” comes to manifest all the negative characteristics which we associate with violent, oppressive, arbitrary and ruthless government; this evolution of the “tyrannical” disposition is already well underway during Sophocles’ lifetime. In Plato’s Republic, the despotic “tyrant” is taken for granted.

The tyrannos, known for his crushing, brutal imposition of will, in its original Greek sense meant nothing more than a ruler who had come to occupy the monarchy by extra-constitutional means, that is, someone who had ascended to a throne which was not his by right of birth. This is pre-eminently the case in the fateful history of Oedipus, who slays the lawful monarch on the road to Thebes and then saves the city from the savage scourge of the Sphinx. In gratitude, kingship is literally thrust upon this alien from Corinth; Oedipus himself does not grasp power, so much as have it imposed upon him. Oedipus’ rule is benevolent, we are told, since he “saved our city”. At the beginning of Sophocles’ play, the citizens of Thebes have assembled in the hope that he can do it again. In one very moving modernized translation, Oedipus is told appropriately: “You are the man!”

But now, in the immense power, subtlety and majesty that is Greek tragedy, everything will be turned on its head: in the course of the drama, Oedipus loses hold of his famed power of judgment, he allows himself to fall subject to the most arbitrary, ill-informed and dubious of opinions, and his great knowledge, which saved Thebes once, is now unable to grasp even the most elementary aspects of ordinary human existence. Oedipus, “whom all men call the Great”, doesn’t even know who he is.

One of the ways in which the spectator or reader is drawn so skillfully into the action is through Sophocles’ use of irony. In its fundamental sense irony is simply saying one thing when you mean another. In the tragedy, repeatedly, Oedipus says something confidently, which the audience understands in just its opposite sense; each statement becomes just one more glaring example of Oedipus’ total misconstruction of his title. “Oedipus” is one half of the story: it means literally swollen-footed, since this infant was abandoned on a mountainside with his tiny feet pierced by a nail. This was his father’s futile effort to hasten his son’s demise by exposure to the elements. And then tyrannos: the noble, righteous and benevolent sovereign who achieved the government of Thebes, by his own prowess rather than any right of birth. But this affirmation of Oedipus has to be balanced by the fact that he is also, truly and actually, the son of Laius, the murdered King of Thebes, and therefore his rule of Thebes is entirely constitutional. The “lame” son of Laius thinks he has a right to rule, through his prudence; true enough, but the throne was his, by right, in any case – even if the throne is vacated by unwitting patricide.

In the course of the play, Oedipus abandons his careful weighing of the facts, and it is his judgment that now becomes “lame”. This formerly benevolent monarch, who was given the throne (tyrannos), then actually confirms in his person the unhappy history of this term by way of his petulant judgment and arbitrary condemnation of others. Has a play ever been blessed with a more perfect title? If only we could translate it!

Post Script:

The late Bernard Knox has explained that embedded in Oedipus’ name is a Greek verb form (oida), which is understood to mean “I know”; this sarcastic, punning reference to Oedipus’ actual “ignorance” is deepened when we add the ambiguities continuing to circle around the second and third syllables of his name: Oi-dipous then becomes a kind of “Knowfoot”, who is able to solve the two-footed “riddle of the Sphinx”.  Yet Oidipous does so without ever investigating his own “swollen-footed” origins.  Knox [Oedipus at Thebes 1998] emphasizes that this language of scientific scrutiny (zêtein = “to search for, investigate”) is not really the language of Athenian tragedy, but nonetheless appropriate, since Oidipous is, of course, engaged in a murder “investigation”.  And then Oidipous both betrays himself and condemns himself, when he sarcastically and ironically suggests—correctly as it turns out—that the man who solved the Sphinx’s “riddle” of the feet, the man who “stopped” the Sphinx, was “I, know-nothing Oidipous” (line 397).  In apparently resorting to ridicule, inadvertently Oedipus expresses himself accurately.



FYP Texts originally appeared in Tidings magazine, published on behalf of the University of King’s College Alumni Association. View the archive.

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