Translating Antigone

Sophocles’ Antigone is a story that seems to be burned into my blood. Ever since I was first introduced to the play in freshman year of high school, I have not separated myself from it. I used a monologue from Melissa Cooper’s Antigone Now to audition for a play in my sophomore year, and then directed that very show as a senior. In my first year in college, Antigone repeatedly came up as a theatrical source and a place of comfort.

But only recently did I start to consider Antigone as a work in translation. I feel that I have a strong grasp on what Antigone is at its core – or at least what I believe it should be – but this is based entirely in my understanding formed by reading translations and adaptations. For me, Antigone has reached some higher plane of existence. For this reason, I have wanted to read as many versions of Antigone as possible, to clutch at the countless understandings of the piece to perhaps find something beyond the reach of any one translation.  

Enter Antigonick, a translation by Anne Carson. A university near my hometown put on a production of the play, and my two best friends decided to go together and then report back to me. Their reviews were horrific: it was a pretentious and incomprehensible production that ruined the Antigone we knew and loved. I was highly wary of Antigonick and Anne Carson even though I had not read her work. Antigonick seemed like a weak imitation of the story I loved.

When I finally got my hands on a copy of Antigonick, I was shocked to find that it was still the Antigone story with the moments I knew and loved. It was not a subpar adaptation – it was a translation. I once again went in search of other versions of Antigone, not believing that I could have been wrong about Anne Carson’s take on the story. I discovered the more conventional Richard Emil Braun Antigone in a used bookstore and snapped it up immediately.

I compared these two translations as my final paper for a class on literary translation. In the process, I learned a lot - but I learned, most of all, that I desperately wanted to translate Antigone for myself.

No, I don't speak Greek, ancient or otherwise, which makes things much harder. Not that translating is easy to begin with.

Translation is, quite frankly, an art form. And a very underrated one at that. So much art that we consume stems from translation. Theatre is, of course, no exception: countless classic plays that make up the core of our canon were not originally English. If you've read Ibsen or Lope de Vega or Goethe or, of course, any Greek tragedy or comedy, you've read a translation.

Despite a lack of attention, translation is alive and well - not just for classic works, but for new pieces. This can quickly become political and ethical when you consider what languages are translated, who is translating, what agenda they have. Not every translation has to be the pseudo-Shakespearean text that you were forced to read in high school English.

But, at least for now, I'm translating an Ancient Greek classic. That means I have many, many predecessors...and many, many people talking about everything that Antigone means.

When beginning the process of translating Antigone, I found solace in Anne Carson's “the task of the translator of antigone.” She begins with a reference to Bertolt Brecht and his Antigone, where the titular character wore a door on her back for the entirety of the play. Then she moves through a list of references to other writers and philosophers: Hegel, Lacan, Butler, Eliot, Žižek, and Anoulih.

Carson then explains that “my problem is to get you and your problem across into English from ancient Greek.” She presents the idea of digging through all these interpretations of Antigone to find the core, something difficult when there have been countless translations and adaptations of the Greek masterpiece.

She explains how she plans to do this, taking inspiration from John Cage’s 4’33” – she will work with “many small pieces of silence.” But she also maintains that that silence is difficult to find, and so she listens for what happens when conventions and normality are taken away, saying “there never was a blank slate.”

Carson completes her essay with a stunning three lines:

“dear Antigone,

I take it as the task of the translator

to forbid that you should ever lose your screams”

Carson’s task as translator is to delve through the countless layers of interpretation placed on Antigone over the centuries, trying to find the beating heart underneath it all. She engages not just with the original text, but with the myth that surrounds it. And, in a way, I wish to do the same. So I began to translate.

The first mystery in translating Antigone appears in the protagonist's name. Richard Emil Braun translates Antigone as "born to oppose," and my, what a mighty name for this eternal protester.

Anne Carson translates the name as "against birth" or "instead of being born." Antigone becomes some strange, unnatural anomaly. Fitting for the twisted world of Antigonick.

Birth. Born. Opposition. Against. Instead.

I say "born against."

Against what? Against all odds? Against authority? Against herself?

I don't know. I don't know if i'd want an answer, if it existed.

That's the beauty of translation.

I translate now with no conscious agenda besides creating my Antigone. what that entails, subconsciously, is unclear. A feminist reading of the myth? Maybe. Emphasis on the love between sisters, and Ismene's pain at losing her family? Well, I am an older sister. Reaching past the tragedy to find hope? I would hope so.

I want to reach past the dust and death and find something living, breathing. A few months ago, if you asked me what Antigone was about, I would have said flowers and dust. hope and decay.

Like so much of my experience with Antigone, that was a construct of tangential experiences with the text. The flowers grew far from their roots. But now I have the Greek text before me.

Ask me what Antigone is about.

It is about blood.

Spilled, rushing through veins, lines, lineage, feminine, warm, congealed, flaming, red.


"Born against blood."



Here's a peek at what I've translated so far...

ANTIGONE: Oh, my same-blood sister Ismene,

Do you know how Zeus, for all Oedipus’s sins,

Still keeps us in debt?

Nothing so grave exists. There is no ruin,

Nor shame, nor dishonor, as that I see

In your suffering and mine.

And now it begins again - have you heard what the whole body of the city whispers,

This proclamation our leader has prepared and ordained?

Do you have the ears to listen to a word of it? Or - does it escape you

What horror now encroaches upon our brothers, sent from our wretched king?

(Photocredit, Wikimedia Commons)