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First-Year Experience

2005 Summer Reading
The Burial at Thebes

by Prof. Michael Arnush, Classics

What do we mean by a text, and how has it come into our hands? When you first received The Burial at Thebes, did you ask yourself these questions? Does a text have a history, and did it follow a simple, linear trajectory from the author's pen to your desk? Did Sophocles, or Seamus Heaney, write with you the reader in mind? The essays contained here touch upon two aspects of these questions - the ancient tradition of creating and preserving manuscripts, and the act of translating a text from one language to another.

Works of literature from the classical Greek world - say, from the 5th century BCE - have survived because of a long tradition of preserving texts and copying them for the next generation to peruse. Rarely does anything survive from much before the 2nd century BCE, and those texts that do usually come to us as no more than fragmentary scraps of papyrus with small portions of the texts preserved. Much more common is the survival of a work of literature whose earliest copies can be traced back to the 9th or 10th centuries CE, thus leaving a gap between the earliest surviving version and the original creation of ca. 1500 years. The essay on Manuscripts provides a brief summary of the manuscript tradition of the Antigone and a few examples from the text's history.

As you read The Burial at Thebes, keep in mind that you are reading the 21st century CE Irish-born poet Seamus Heaney's English translation of the 5th century BCE Athenian poet Sophocles' original text. How does a poet like Heaney deal with differences in language, time and place? Heaney has grappled with a play that appears within a larger body of literature known as the "Classics." What is a classic, and what distinguishes it from other works of literature? The essay on Translation addresses these issues.