Anne Carson’s new translation of Antigone is a real mess.1 She has taken one of the most moving plays of the classical world—still charged with pathos despite its remoteness in custom and dramaturgy—and updated it like a new Honda. The Greek tragedies present a problem for modern readers; and translations often don’t help, either mummifying the original, as if the ancients were best viewed in glass vitrines, or throwing the berobed actors into mufti and pretending that all the bloodletting occurred during the Jazz Age.

Carson wants to drag the drama into the page, an idea lovely in theory but loopy in practice. She has hand-lettered the translation herself, with a pen nib apparently used to pry open beer bottles. The result possesses a neurotic energy, as if the very...