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Oedipus the Tyrant and Oedipus the King: A Problem in Translation

Frank Nisetich

University of Massachusetts, Boston

The play that has come down to us in the manuscript tradition as Oidipous tyrannos is best known in English as Oedipus the King, a translation of the Latin Oedipus Rex.  In one respect, Rex is a reasonable translation:  the idea of “king” was anathema for centuries in the Roman Republic, but tyrannos has resonances in Greek that rex in Latin and “tyrant” in English lack.  Rendering it as “king” instead of “tyrant” obscures a crucial dramatic development which is clear in Greek but not translatable into English without the help of notes.

Oedipus is called or referred to as a “tyrant” four times in the play, first by Tiresias (408), again by Creon (514), and twice by the Messenger from Corinth (925, 939).  The five translators cited in my bibliography agree in rendering the four occurrences of tyrannos as if it were basileus.  The reason for this is the pejorative connotation that “tyrant” always has in English.  It is different in Greek:  the messenger wouldn’t ask after “Oedipus the tyrant” (925) and Oedipus himself wouldn’t apply the same word to his predecessor (799, 1043; cf. 128) if it were exclusively pejorative.

Rendering tyrannos as “king” diminishes the impact of lines 1202/03, the one place in the play where Oedipus is called basileus.  The bestowal of the title by the Chorus here occurs immediately after he has discovered who he is—no longer the tyrannos who arrived in Thebes and gained the throne, but the son of the dead king, his rightful heir.  So Theseus is basileus of Athens as son of Aegeus, who reigned before him (OC 67-69).   The movement from one to the other is lost on readers of the play in English if they have experienced Oedipus as a king all along.

There is only one other occurrence of basileus in the play, at line 257, where Oedipus himself applies it to his predecessor, Laius.  Everywhere else in the play, Laius receives other appellations.  Creon calls him “a leader” (hegemon, 103).  Oedipus describes his reign as a tyrannis (128) and calls him a tyrannos at lines799 and 1043.  When questioning Jocasta about his appearance, he asks her whether he travelled alone or with an escort—not “like a king” but “like one in authority” (archegetes, 751).  The avoidance of basileus is, again, deliberate.  Sophocles has only Oedipus call Laius a king, and only once, just as he has Oedipus himself addressed as a king only once.

Both uses of basileus occur in the context of Oedipus’ recognition:  the second (1202/03) immediately after it; the first (255-68) in the lines where Oedipus anticipates it, imagining himself as having children by the woman his predecessor would have had them by, had he not been killed first.  Knox, who noticed the psychological implications here (1979 [1954], 89), did not stress that this is the only other time the word appears in the play.  In other words, he missed the dramatic implications.

Once Oedipus has become the basileus he is by birth, he is not called tyrannos again.  Nor is he called basileus again, because (as Tiresias had predicted) the moment of his recognition is also the moment of his destruction (438).  When the Chorus Leader, speaking to the ruined Oedipus, announces the return of Creon, he avoids both terms:  Creon is neither the king nor the tyrant but “the protector (phylax) of the country, as you once were” (1418).

Over sixty years ago, Knox showed that tyrannos and basileus cannot be considered interchangeable in this play (1979 [1954]:  87-95).  44 years later, Winnington-Ingram insisted that tyrannos “…never means anything more than king” (192, n. 42).  The careful deployment of these terms by Sophocles verifies Knox’s distinction between them and shows that Vernant and Vidal-Naquet (487) were right to complain of the “deplorable habit of translating tyrannos as ‘king’.” 

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Translating Greek Tragedy: Some Practical Suggestions (workshop)

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