This introduction to Sophocles’ Antigone includes an excellent discussion of the problems of translation. Here’s a paragraph on the opening line (discussed in a previous Languagehat post):

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.


  1. I’m encountering similar problems in translating Pushkin’s Motsart i Salieri. Looking at other’s translations of the play, however, I don’t feel like any of them, even Nabokov, have approached it with the kind of seriousness these folks have approached their Greek. So it could be worse.

  2. I love that little tragedy, and I hope I get a chance to read your translation. (Have you seen the filmed version?)

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