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Prof. Offers Unadorned Translation of Sophocles Plays

by Robert Abare '13
Peter Ahrensdorf book
The Theban Plays: Oedipus the Tyrant, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone

Although Sophocles' Oedipus Rex, or Oedipus the King, has been a fixture in literature classrooms for centuries, it seems teachers and students have been studying the ancient Greek play under misleading titles. According to Davidson College's James Sprunt Professor of Political Science Peter Ahrensdorf, Sophocles originally named Oedipus a Tyrant.

This discrepancy in translating the ancient Greek text is one of many Ahrensdorf has attempted to correct in his newest book, The Theban Plays: Oedipus the Tyrant, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone. Coauthored with Thomas Pangle, professor of political science at the University of Texas at Austin, and published by Cornell University Press in early 2014, the book provides a strictly literal translation of Sophocles' original works into easily comprehensible English.

The book also includes a preface and introductions to each of the plays, in which Ahrensdorf and Pangle employ their expertise in politics and philosophy to offer unique perspectives.

Ahrensdorf explained that many earlier translations of Sophocles plays have not been literal. "Earlier translations tend to be very interpretive, though all translations are interpretive in some sense," he remarked. "Translators tended to not translate key terms accurately, or sometimes even follow manuscripts accurately."

Translators employed this greater interpretive and creative freedom because they assumed their audience would have a basic understanding of the Greek language. Ahrensdorf explained, "I studied under one of the greatest translators of the plays, David Grene, who didn't translate so that students could study the text with accuracy. He assumed that if his students really wanted to study Oedipus or Antigone, they would read the Greek text."

Peter Ahrensdorf
Peter Ahrensdorf

Ahrensdorf added, "This isn't to say that there isn't value in other translations. Some of them have a more eloquent and poetic English language, but our translation is more accurate if you want to study the text to know exactly how Sophocles presents the characters' stories."

Ahrensdorf and Pangle's conversion of Oedipus the King into Oedipus the Tyrant provides the first example of the authors' dedication to accurate interpretation. "I think many translators were reluctant to refer to Oedipus as a tyrant because he's a sympathetic character who doesn't rule by force or violence," Ahrensdorf explained. "However, he doesn't come to power through inheritance and he is not a native of Thebes, the city he rules. Oedipus the Tyrant is an exploration of ruling outside of the law."

Given their expertise in political philosophy, Ahrensdorf and Pangle offer a unique perspective on the legal aspects of Sophocles' plays. "Oedipus is a psychologically and philosophically rich play," said Ahrensdorf. "It tells the story of a man who discovers that he has killed his father and slept with his mother. He sets out to defy his destiny only to discover that he has fulfilled it."

"Our political expertise is our entryway into exploring the problems and questions raised by the play," Ahrensdorf explained. "Our translation approaches the plays with sensitivities to the political terminology of law, nature, king and tyrant."

Ahrensdorf has previously authored three books, which include Greek Tragedy and Political Philosophy: Rationalism and Religion in Sophocles' Theban Plays (2009), Justice Among Nations: On the Moral Basis of Power and Peace, also co-authored with Thomas L. Pangle (1999), and The Death of Socrates and the Life of Philosophy: An Interpretation of Plato's Phaedo (1995). His fifth book, Homer on the Gods and Human Virtue: Creating the Foundations of Classical Civilization, will be released by Cambridge University Press later this year.

Though Ahrensdorf has published extensively, The Theban Plays was his first work of translation. "Translating The Theban Plays reminded me that it's not enough to understand the language one's translating. One also needs a true command of the English language. Translating is not a mechanical process, like plugging words into Google. You have to take each word into context and make judgments."