Review: The Theban Plays of Sophocles translated by David R. Slavitt

Sophocle’s Theban Cycle, of course, contains three of the greatest plays ever written: Antigone, Oedipus Rex, and Oedipus at Colonus. There is little that can be said, in a short review like this one, that has not already been said about these plays. They are masterpieces of the human imagination which explore some of the perennial themes of human life: justice, death, destiny, truth, power, family, sin, redemption — to name but a few. All of these plays are essential reading for any educated person.

I heartily recommend this particular translation, by David R. Slavitt. It is devoid of notes outside of only three instances in which he informs us of his conjectural emendations to the text as it stands. This, I believe, is wonderful especially for someone approaching the text for the first time as it allows the reader to approach the text without preconceptions and to interpret it freely according to the impression that it makes upon him, rather than being guided by the impressions of another, a supposed expert.

I read this translation alongside of two older translations of the works and found it refreshing by comparison. The language is updated to resemble the speech of any intelligent, well-spoken English speaker today. It does not dumb it down to the level of a comic book as some modernized translations of ancient works tend to do, but instead offers us something very close to, I believe, what Sophocles might have written had he written in English — an educated, approachable vernacular. This allows Slavitt to get, I believe, closer to the meaning of the original (for modern readers) than do some of the more difficult renderings in a more antiquated, difficult English.

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