Sophocles taught his Antigone to a chorus of fifteen young men for the contest in tragedy. He wanted to entertain and educate his audience, for these had been the duties of poets since time immemorial. He also sought to defeat his two competitors for the prize in tragedy and be honored as best. How he fared with the judges that morning in Elaphebolion (roughly March) is not known. Never in doubt, however, has been the value that modern audiences have placed upon Antigone as a means for understanding the Athenians as well as their own experiences.(1) Many have had access to Sophocles’ Greek, but far more have read the play in translation. All of these readers are dependent upon the decisions made by the translator. For this reason, we begin with the assumptions that have guided our selection of one meaning or form of a sentence over others and the context that we have imagined for the play’s original performance. 

Translation consists of bringing the words of one language across a no-man’s-land, as it were, in the translator’s mind into those of another. It cannot be accomplished without the translator’s having the necessary background knowledge and some notion about what the original is saying, as the apocryphal translation machine illustrates. Instructed to bring into Latin the English: “The spirit was willing, but the flesh was weak,” the machine, lacking a context for human courage facing its own frailness, set the statement in a dietary context by taking “spirit” as alcoholic “spirits.” It was then forced to take “flesh” as “meat,” and came up with: Vinum valebat sed caro mitigata est (the wine was strong, but the meat was tender). The machine also shows that translation is not a process of substitution. The simplest words, thyra/door, as well as the pregnant ones, phronein/to think/be minded/have understanding, do not have identical connotations much less identical meanings. Moreover, Greek and English have different structures, different ways of integrating words into sentences. Whereas English usually depends upon word order and less upon changing the shapes and sounds of words, such alterations or inflections are the rule in Greek and enable the order of the words itself to convey far more meanings and nuances than the basic order in English of subject-verb-object. Sophocles, for instance, places the adverb eti of line 3 in such a position as to modify either the verb (“Zeus is yet to fulfill”) or the participle (“for us two yet living”), thus gaining two meanings from the single adverb. The translator, however, must choose between one or the other, limiting the text to one meaning, or duplicate the adverb, as we have done. 

To the extent that multiplicity is lost or distortion introduced, the translator mistranslates the text, the inevitable sacrifice to the goal of reading Antigone in English. 

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. 

Every translator responds to the author’s plea, “Translate my meaning, not my words,” by holding that meaning in the highest. But translators differ in how they articulate meaning, because their aims for their translation and their interpretations of the original differ. Condensation (Wyckoff, Fitts and Fitzgerald), paraphrasing (Braun, Fagles), and inserting interpretative glosses (Grene) familiarize the sense of things but easily slip into anachronism and inaccuracy. A translation produced by a scholarly poet (Braun) that strives for a text to be savored on its own merits serves well an audience that knows the original and can appreciate how the poet has refashioned its lines. For an audience that is ignorant of or not interested in the original, such a translation appears as the creation of a Sophocles fully at home in English. But Antigone is not a modern text and was not composed with a modern audience in mind. Whenever possible, we have used the same English word or phrase for the Greek so that verbal patterns and reminiscences may be traced throughout the play. We have on occasion departed from idiomatic English by beginning the sentence with a direct object of the verb or otherwise postponing full recognition of meaning. In line 557, for example, “Nobly you seemed to some, and I to others, to think,” captures the pith of the Greek sentence in its first and last words. This allows the translation, at the cost of some ease of reading, to approach more closely the word order of the Greek and its unfolding impact upon Sophocles’ audience. 

Language can communicate thoughts, in part, because its speakers share the same context. No word can be so clear as to lack any element of doubt. Ambiguities and multiple meanings are the very marrow of Greek tragedy, and the medium capitalizes on the dependence of language on context for communication.(3) The translator must choose from a word’s semantic range to fit the context, but some words are more crucial than others. For Antigone, one such word is kakos, used as a noun and adjective and translated usually as “evils” or “evil.” In each instance, the reader may substitute a more specific evil, for example, “exposure of corpses,” for the evils in line 10. Another word is the noun taphos and its related verb thaptein, respectively, “burial, funeral feast, wake, funeral rites, grave, tomb” and “to perform funeral rites, bury, inter, entomb.” Their exact meaning depends upon the context, which itself may be uncertain. Although taphos may be translated “mound” each time and thaptein “to bury,” we have had to choose which English phrase best describes what we believe has happened. This selection is complicated by the need to avoid the English word “burial” whose strong associations with complete interment tend to destroy the ambiguities of the Greek, ambiguities both inherent in the word and often, it would seem, intended by Sophocles. 

In one case, however, the Greek is so fraught with nuances for an English reader that we have chosen to naturalize rather than translate this series of words by defining and using them as if English words. The adjectives philos/philoi, respectively, the masculine singular and plural forms, and phil/philai, respectively, the feminine singular and plural forms of the noun philots, are usually translated “friendly” and “loved” and when used as substantives, as “friend” and “loved one.” For instance, David Grene has Antigone say for line 73 of the Greek: “I shall lie by his side, / loving him as he loved me;” for line 81: “But I will go to heap the earth on the grave of my loved brother;” for line 523: “My nature is to join in love, not hate.” Ismene speaks of Antigone in terms of love: “that though you are wrong to go, your friends are right to love you” (99), where “friends,” it seems, is used to avoid the equally possible “your loved ones are right to love you.” On the other hand, Creon must have his nephew Polyneices in mind in his opening address (162-90) and uses the same masculine adjectives, but philos/philoi become “friend(s)”. Since the meanings of “friend” and “loved one” are simultaneously present, translation of these key words unavoidably introduces a dichotomy in the English that is not in the Greek. More significantly, translation obfuscates the semantic substratum that joins these words as expressions of obligation in a relationship. 

Philot-s, as Emile Benveniste has shown, belongs to a vocabulary of moral terms that is “strongly permeated by values which are not personal but relational.”(4) Rather than denoting psychological states, these words refer to the relations that an individual has with members of his group who are bound to one another by reciprocal duties and obligations. In its earliest known form, philots expresses the obligations a member of a community has toward a xenos (stranger/guest). In Benveniste’s words, “the behaviour expressed by phile-n [verbal form] always has an obligatory character and always implies reciprocity; it is the accomplishment of positive actions which are implied in the pact of mutual hospitality.” This is the behavior expected of a host toward his guest, or the head of the household toward its members, particularly his wife. Such relationships readily extend beyond their institutional basis in hospitality or marriage to bonds of friendship, affection, and love, but these emotions are not essential to the bonds of philot-s. Consequently, philot-s need not indicate friendship, only an agreement concerning an action binding on its partners. When Hector and Ajax break off their duel in Iliad 7, they agree to exchange weapons and gifts. Their action constitutes a philot-s between them. “They parted, having joined in philot-s” (Iliad 7.302). They separate still enemies but now philoi, men obligated by an agreement. 

Ideally, a translation should not be annotated. Sophocles’ words spoke for themselves to his audience, most of whom knew what was needed to understand his play. But Sophocles’ audience has passed away, and readers of his words in translation may need help with proper nouns and mythological allusions. The notes provide such information as the play itself does not make clear and are intended not only to clarify, but to provoke responses to, the text. 

Ambiguity, double meanings, and the clash of connotations are all features of tragedy’s destabilizing of language as a means of communication. A second type of note offers alternative translations when Sophocles’ language opens a significant gap between what one character says and another hears. The Watchman may be saying that Antigone sees Polyneices’ “body laid bare” or “his bare body,” that is, once covered and now uncovered (426). Are the altars and braziers of Thebes filled “by the birds and dogs with food” or “with the food of birds and dogs” (1016-18)? Haemon greets his father with the answer the latter expects, “Father, I am yours,” but with a condition Creon misses: “You would guide me aright, if you have good judgments that I will follow” (635-36). The Greek optative verb, translated conditionally as “you would guide,” is the same form as the indicative “you are guiding.” Haemon, it would seem, says the verb as conditional, which entails that his participle, translated “if you have,” also be taken as conditional. But Creon responds as if he hears the word as indicative and the participle as stating the cause: “You are guiding . . . since you have.” Creon wants Haemon to be on his side no matter what he may do (634) and expects to hear a factual statement of absolute obedience. The audience is open to both meanings. We print Haemon’s meaning because this is what we think he says and append what Creon seems to hear in a note. 

Another kind of note indicates Sophocles’ allusions to what is said and done on stage. Sophocles’ audience heard the words in harmony with the voices of the actors and choristers and within the context of all the phenomenon of theater and society. More happened than what was said. Much has been lost but not all, since the script holds clues, “stage directions,” so to speak, to what transpired before the audience.(5) Stage business that the script records should not be neglected, since Sophocles had his actor point it out even though the audience could see or hear without that aid. When Creon’s slaves bring Antigone from the house (806), for example, she calls for the elders to see her. The elders would be looking at her in any case. Her lament over her lost marriage, sung before the house where, in real life, wedding processions were organized, suggests that she wants them to notice that she is wearing a wedding dress, traditionally violet in color.(6) In this case, the hair of her mask would no longer represent the loose hair of the virgin but would be bound up, and her head would be hidden by a bridal veil. The Greek bride’s moment of consent, her giving to her groom of her virginity and woman’s’ life, came when she lifted her veil. Soon afterwards, the bride replaced her veil and left her natal home, never to return as her father’s virgin daughter. Antigone’s “see me,” spoken by a woman in a wedding dress, suggest that she lifts her veil and, in the street for all to see, performs her own ceremony of the unveiling. Later (940), when Antigone calls for the elders to look at her, she lowers her veil for her procession to the house of her groom, Hades. 

Antigone was first performed in the spring of 438 B.C. at the festival of Dionysus Eleuthereus.(7) In early summer of 439, the Athenians had successfully concluded their war against rebellious allies on the island of Samos. At that time, the general Pericles reportedly brought the commanders and marines of the Samian ships, members of the island’s elite, over to the marketplace in Miletus (Plutarch, Life of Pericles 28) . There, he had them bound to boards and exposed them until they were nearly dead. He then had them clubbed to death and their bodies thrown away without benefit of funeral rites. Plutarch, who names the Samian historian and sensationalist Duris as his source, does not believe the story because other authorities do not mention it. Yet, the punishment resembles apotympanismos, crucifixion on a plank, which Athenians inflicted upon citizens guilty of heinous crimes. By all appearances, Pericles treated the Samians as disloyal citizens, and, in that light, their revolt is equivalent to stasis, factional discord among citizens, and analogous to the quarrel between Oedipus’ sons, Eteocles and Polyneices, both of whom claimed the kingship of Thebes for himself. Sophocles surely knew about these events–as would his original audience– and perhaps was inspired by them. 

In the months before the festival of Dionysus, Sophocles entered the contest for the prize in tragedy.(8)

He submitted three tragedies and a satyr play to the magistrate, perhaps by reciting several odes. In effect, Sophocles was applying to the demos of Attica to grant him one of the three choruses available for the festival. As soon as the new magistrate entered office, he chose Sophocles and assigned a wealthy man to foot the expenses of costuming the choristers and paying their salaries and those of their trainer and the flute player. This same man, called a chor-gos, was likely also responsible for paying the doryphor-mata or “spear-carriers” (silent players). Sophocles’ prestige and the chor-gos‘ own desire to win honor for performing an important public office and a religious duty would ensure that he would be generous. Afterwards, Sophocles, perhaps with an assistant, trained the chorus of young men, but he was not involved (officially, at least) in selecting the actors. The demos provided the protagonist or main actor, and the latter picked the second (deuteragonist) and third (tritagonist) actors, for every tragedian used no more than three. Although success depended upon the vocal skills of all, the protagonist alone was eligible for the prize in acting. 

The festival had long been anticipated, and finally the day arrived. The time was early in the morning of either the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth of Elaphebolion. Spring had come, and the seas were open for Athenians to leave on business and war and for others to come to Athens to see its crowning jewel, the contest for the prize in tragedy and comedy. Athenians, both young and mature men as well as women, along with foreign tax-paying residents, sat on the southern slope of the Acropolis.(9) Officials and notable foreigners–magistrates, the priest of Dionysus and other religious dignitaries, judges of the contest in tragedy, and generals–enjoyed the honor of seats of wood or stone next to the orchestra. The audience was on holiday. They were a lively and noisy lot, some 14,000 to 17,000 strong, interested in the dramas and keen to shout approval and hoot disapproval. 


1. Among the numerous studies on Sophocles and Antigone, see Bernard Knox, The Heroic Temper: Studies in Sophoclean Tragedy (Berkeley 1964); R. P. Winnington-Ingram, Sophocles: An Interpretation. (Cambridge 1980 ); Charles Segal, Tragedy and Civilization: An Interpretation of Sophocles (Cambridge, MA 1981); George Steiner, Antigones (Oxford 1984); Ruth Scodel, Sophocles (Boston 1984); Charles Segal, Sophocles’ Tragic World : Divinity, Nature, Society (Cambridge, MA 1995). 

2. The following translations have been consulted: Richard Emil Braun, Sophocles: Antigone (Oxford 1973); Andrew Brown, Sophocles: Antigone. (Warminster 1987); Robert Fagles,Antigone. In Sophocles: The Three Theban Plays (New York 1982); Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, The Oedipus Cycle: An English Version (New York c. 1949); David Grene, Antigone. In The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago 1992); Richard Jebb, Sophocles: The Plays and Fragments. III: The Antigone, 3d ed. (Cambridge 1900); Elizabeth Wyckoff, Antigone. In The Complete Greek Tragedies: Sophocles I, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (Chicago 1954). 

3. For this approach to Greek tragedy, see Simon Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1986) 1-32. 

4. Emile Benveniste, Indo-European Language and Society, tr. by Elizabeth Palmer (London 1973) 278-82. All quotations are found on page 280.

5. The approach that attempts to draw stage-directions and clues from the script as a means of imaging the play’s performance was first elaborated by Oliver Taplin, Greek Tragedy in Action (Berkeley 1978). 

6. For the rites of marriage, see John H. Oakley and Rebecca H. Sinos, The Wedding in Ancient Athens (Madison, WI 1993). 

7. For the date of the first performance of the Antigone, we have followed the argument of R.G. Lewis, “An Alternative Date for Sophocles’ Antigone,” Greek, Roman and Byzantine Studies 29 (1988) 35-50. Lewis places the date of the first performance in Elaphebolion (roughly March) of 438 B.C. For 442 B.C. as the date of Antigone, see Brown (above, note 2) 1-2, and for 441 B.C., see Jebb (above, note 2) xlii-liv. 

8. For the festival of Dionysus and the tragic contest, see Arthur Pickard-Cambridge, The Dramatic Festivals of Athens, rev. by John Gould and D.M. Lewis (Oxford 1986). For the social and political functions of tragedy, see Jean-Pierre Vernant, “Greek Tragedy: Problems of Interpretation, ” in The Structuralist Controversy: The Languages of Criticism and the Sciences of Man, ed. by Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato (Baltimore 1972) 273-95; Simon Goldhill, Reading Greek Tragedy (Cambridge 1986). 

9. For a discussion of the audience for the tragedies and comedies, see Jeffrey Henderson, “Women and the Athenian Dramatic Festivals,” Transactions of the American Philological Association121 (1991) 133-47.