Chilling New Translation of Sophocles’ ‘Ajax’

Chilling New Translation of Sophocles’ ‘Ajax’

Chilling New Translation of Sophocles’ ‘Ajax’

A new translation of Sophocles’ Ajax derives chilling power from its infidelity to the original text.



Human civilization is premised on the idea that human beings should not kill one another. But in war, killing other people must somehow become acceptable–morally, legally and psychologically. One way to achieve this is to imagine the enemy in nonhuman terms. “They,” our opponents, must be as unlike us as possible: we can kill them if we see them as demons, foreigners, heretics, dots on the radar screen–or, most common, as animals.

But by denying the opposition any humanity, and therefore making them killable, we risk making ourselves something less than human. The Chorus in John Tipton’s haunting new version of Sophocles’ Ajax comments on the hero’s crazed attempt to massacre his own comrades in arms: “now it closes hoods the head/theft of feet that can move/to thrash for an oar/dropped from a quick ship.” The images of hooded prisoners from Abu Ghraib told us more than we wanted to know about how hard it is to look an enemy in the eye. In medieval and early modern Europe, the executioners and torturers were the ones who wore hoods; in Abu Ghraib, young American soldiers were trussing their victims up to look like the aggressors. But is some kind of blinding–of the enemy, or of oneself–necessary to enable one to kill with a clear conscience? And how do you remove the blindfold when the war is over? The hooding of the head is associated, in Tipton’s rendition of the play, with the madness of Ajax, which consists of a failure to tell the difference between animal and human, killer and victim, enemy and friend.

Ajax was composed by Sophocles probably sometime in the 440s BC–the decade before the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War. In this period, Athens was consolidating its military and economic power in the Greek world, forming new allegiances and breaking old ones. The city was also undergoing cultural and intellectual changes: the sophists (“wisdom-teachers”) were introducing new ideas about science, society, religion and morality into the public and private spheres, which seemed to some citizens to threaten their traditional values and way of life.

Sophocles’ tragedy tells of Ajax–a great hero of the Trojan War, but never the greatest, a warrior associated with old-fashioned valor and physical courage. After the Greek victory over the Trojans, the Greek generals held a contest to decide who should inherit the magical armor of Achilles, which his divine mother, Thetis, had given him. Ajax’s archenemy, Odysseus, wins the competition. In Sophocles’ play, as in Homer’s Iliad, Odysseus seems–at least at first–like the exact opposite of Ajax: he represents brains over brawn; trickery over courage; the new sophistic values of flexibility, cleverness and rhetoric over the old ideal of death before dishonor.

As the play opens, Athena, goddess of wisdom, finds Odysseus, her favorite hero, prowling round Ajax’s tent, like–in Tipton’s translation–a “bloodhound–snout to the ground!” The image introduces the central idea that killing may erase the difference between human and animal. The goddess explains that Ajax, overwhelmed by rage at not getting the prize, tried to kill all the Greek leaders in the night. But the goddess deluded him, and instead, he killed the Greek’s captive animals. The scary, Damien Hirst-like illustration on the cover of Tipton’s translation (a color photo of nearly two dozen bloody heads of decapitated horned sheep) seems to hint that killing animals might be just as brutal as killing people. But Sophocles’ play is not a call for animal rights. It is ironic, in the classic Sophoclean fashion: Ajax’s killing of animals is a mark of insanity–whereas massacring people would have been, supposedly, sane. Throughout the play, Sophocles’ focus is not on animals but on people, and on how little control we have over the consequences of our actions.

The most puzzling and memorable part of the play is the central episode (sometimes referred to as the Renunciation Speech), in which Ajax, who is known for his staunch inflexibility, suddenly speaks in a new and moving key. The defensiveness is gone, and he seems willing to submit to time and the gods:

All of everything–it never ends.
Secrets emerge and facts are buried.
Eventually nothing should surprise.
Time breaks
Our promises and our strong will.

His intention now is to carry away the sword he took from his old enemy, Hector:

I’ll go to a trackless place
and I’ll cover this ugly weapon,
bury it where no one sees.
Night and hell can have it.

The climax of the speech is a series of beautiful, ambiguous generalizations:

the stretch of worst night ends
in the white dazzle of day;
there are winds that can calm
any groaning ocean; and even sleep
in time must release its prisoners.
What else could we reasonably think?

Tipton captures something distinctively Sophoclean in his combination of the clear, almost clichéd gnomic utterance with flashes of surprising, alien imagery (such as “the white dazzle of day”): “the truth has teeth you know,” as the Chorus comments later.

The “trackless place” in which Ajax will hide the sword turns out, of course, to be his own body. Ajax has changed only so much: he retains his “strong will” for honor, even when he declares that it is lost. Critics argue about whether honest Ajax really means to deceive his wife and friends here–an action surely more worthy of Odysseus. But deception is too crude a term. This Ajax is both different and the same as he ever was, and the speech is precisely intended to show that mutability and permanence are not opposites but are mutually reinforcing. There is even a kind of bleak comfort in knowing that nothing is always the same:

No one stays by you forever.
Companions will give you false shelter.
In the end it works out.

You might think that the play ought to end as soon as Ajax’s companions discover his dead body. But it doesn’t. The suicide of Ajax comes just past the play’s midway point, and Sophocles lets things drag on into a squabble between the remaining Greek generals about whether to give a proper burial to Ajax’s corpse. The tone and even the language, as Tipton notes, “degenerates into petty insults and seemingly pointless bickering.” The pointlessness is the point. The end of Ajax shows us a world where there are no real heroes left–or, rather, where heroism and courage have to be reinvented as mental qualities rather than physical ones. In this play, the biggest reversals happen not on the battlefield but in the minds of men. Ajax tries to take on the most dangerous of enemies–Agamemnon and Odysseus–but ends up killing the weakest of creatures: a herd of sheep. Hector’s sword kills Ajax even when Hector is dead. The lesson, as Odysseus learns it, is that any one of our actions may have unforeseen results. If you begin a war, or fight in one, you never know who will die. It could be them; it could be us. In such a world, the willingness to change with the times is a virtue. The old code of paying back evil with evil may keep people stuck in a cycle of killing, even when the war is supposedly over.

Menelaus (whose “problem launched 1,000 ships,” as Tipton’s Chorus comments) and his brother, Agamemnon, insist that the Greeks ought not to bury Ajax, who wanted to kill them all. Menelaus argues that leaving Ajax unburied is the only way to discipline him for his insubordination and restore discipline in the ranks: “But what goes around comes around./He burned hot–now I do.” The final reversal of the play is that Odysseus, Ajax’s old enemy, is the one who argues that he must be given a funeral. Agamemnon asks, “So should I permit this funeral?” and Odysseus answers, “Yes. I’ll need one myself someday.”

Tipton, who is highly conscious of the resonances of Sophocles’ play with the current conflict in Iraq, includes a number of anachronisms, which anchor the play firmly in the present. For instance, his Ajax kills himself with Hector’s gun, not his sword (a distracting mistake is that this Ajax also claims to be killed with “my own weapon,” rather than simply “self-killed”); the Chorus compares Ajax to “a fast aircraft” and meditates on “the statistics of missiles.” There are more obscenities than the conventions of Greek tragedy would have allowed: when Ajax realizes that he has “murdered farm animals” instead of soldiers, he shouts “Fuck. FUCK!” These details make it clear that we are to see these soldiers as modern combatants, struggling with the physical realities of modern warfare.

Tipton’s language is spare yet dense, colloquial yet somehow foreign. His rendering of Sophocles is often very loose, perhaps not always deliberately (for instance, I could see no particular purpose in Ajax’s woman, Tecmessa, saying, “You took my father from me,” when the Greek means, “You deprived me of my father-land”–patris, not pater). Yet Tipton’s play is intended to be not a crib but a re-imagination of Sophocles for our age. It corresponds line for line to the original and uses a strange metrical form, what Tipton calls “a counted line,” one which uses one English word for every metrical foot in the Greek. Except for the choral passages and lyric interludes, every line in the play has six words. One might think this system would not sound or scan like poetry in English, but it is surprisingly effective and works as an equivalent for Greek meter (which is based on syllable length).

At his best, Tipton is able to break down the Greek text and rewrite it as if from scratch–digging up and reconstructing the force behind abstractions and alien idioms. His renderings of the Greek term tuche–a very common word meaning “fate,” “luck” or “chance”–are a case in point. Tipton never uses the heavily archaic English word “fate.” Instead, he unpacks the thought behind the line. When Tecmessa appeals to Ajax to accept what has happened, a pedestrian version of the Greek would go something like this: “O Ajax, my master, there is no greater evil for human beings than necessary fate.” In Tipton, this becomes:

Ajax, there’s nothing you can do.
There’s never anything anyone can do.

Tipton’s Greeks inhabit a world where the gods are almost entirely absent, and where there are no powers or abstract forces that explain the course of events. When somebody asks, “Why did this have to happen?” Tipton’s Chorus replies, “it just did.”

Sometimes, conversely, Tipton creates abstractions where there are none in the Greek. Odysseus pities Ajax in his madness and generalizes about his vision of human beings: “I see that we–all the people who are alive–are nothing but images or an empty shadow.” In Tipton, the object of the verb in the first phrase is not “we” but “life”:

If you stare hard at life
you see we’re nothing but shadows.

Tipton’s version has a chilling power that derives partly from its infidelity to Sophocles. His Odysseus creates a strange, alienating distance between the observer (not himself, but that impersonal “you”) and the observed–shadowy human life. Similarly, Tipton’s choral odes are deliberately “disembodied”–as he explains in the afterword, he eliminated all uses of the first person in order to turn the Chorus into the “disturbed unconscious to the play itself.” The words of Tipton’s Chorus bear almost no relation to the literal meaning of the Greek, but they contain some of his most arresting passages. Tipton picks up Sophocles’ images and entirely ignores his syntax, producing a Surrealist, dreamlike effect:

the night now shot
dawn astounds from tomorrow
while crazy horses wander
the meadows kill Greeks
root and branch

The technique is similar to Ezra Pound’s mistranslations in “Homage to Sextus Propertius.” Pound’s poem includes a number of apparent philological errors (such as translating “canes,” which comes from the verb cano, “to sing,” as if it came from canis, “dog”). One early reader of Pound commented, “If Mr. Pound were a professor of Latin, there would be nothing left for him but suicide.” But Pound was a poet, not a professor, and he rejoined that “there was never any question of translation, let alone literal translation. My job was to bring a dead man to life, to present a living figure.” Tipton, too, is a poet, and he succeeds brilliantly at creating a living, contemporary Sophocles. His version is a chilling mirror.

Even outside the choral passages, Tipton makes his characters far more alienated from one another than they are in Sophocles, and far more directly aggressive. Tipton does not capture much of Sophocles’ tragic irony, which often depends on a frustrated desire for communication and an idea that language says more than we can hear. For instance, when Athena asks Ajax about what he thinks he has done, when he is still under the delusion that the victims he has killed were his human companions, she says, in the Greek, tethnasin andres? (The men are dead?). Ajax thinks that Athena is emphasizing the first word–“they are dead”–and answers, thanontes (dead). But of course, the audience realizes that the goddess is also asking whether Ajax still believes that those dead were men. In Tipton, the goddess’s question becomes merely sarcastic, not ironic: “So I gather you killed them?” This goddess obviously knows better than dumb, crazy Ajax and has no time to drop oracular hints.

The human characters in Tipton’s version yell accusations and imperatives at each other but almost never ask for help. Tecmessa, Ajax’s concubine and baby-mother, becomes much ruder and more assertive than she is in Sophocles. An expression of pity becomes “You’re pathetic,” and when Tecmessa pleads for advice–oimoi, ti draso, teknon? (Alas, child, what shall I do?)–Tipton eliminates the hint of vulnerability: “No, I won’t just sit here,” she asserts. Tipton also gets rid of the complexity of Tecmessa’s relationship with her master by presenting her as a wife, not a slave: when she says, simply and directly, “Now I am a slave,” he translates, “Now you hold title to me.” Sophocles’ evocation of shifting allegiances and dependencies, friendships and enmities and complex social networks, is turned into a more brutal, simpler vision: it’s a dog-eat-dog world.

But these characters’ resistance to gentleness and frailty still honors something of the shock value in Sophocles’ play. It allows, above all, for a riveting, goose-bumps-inducing presentation of Ajax–as the ultra-tough guy, the Marine, who tells Tecmessa, “Here, quick, take this kid away./Seal up the house. No crying./Stop being so damn sentimental, woman.” We are reminded that the notion of death before dishonor is hardly confined to the ancient world. With such an attitude, after any kind of humiliating mistake, how can you ever act like Odysseus: give up, bury the dead and let the troops go home?

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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