The Iliad: text and translation

Daniel Mendelsohn wrote a review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of The Iliad in 2011. In the review, he included some background about the scholarly debates on the textual history of the epic and some comments about translating it. A couple of paragraphs on translation:

Mitchell’s stripping away takes other, subtler forms. In a translator’s note, he cites the now canonical judgment of the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, who, in an 1861 essay called “On Translating Homer,” enumerated what he saw as the four cardinal qualities of Homeric verse: rapidity, plainness of syntax and diction, plainness of thought, and nobility. Homer’s Greek is capacious enough that he can achieve all four, but English translators have generally had to choose one or two at the expense of the others. (The sole exception is probably Alexander Pope, whose Iliad, set in rhyming couplets and published between 1715 and 1720, is among the greatest translations of any work in any language.) Richmond Lattimore’s craggy 1951 translation, which imitates Homer’s expansive six-beat line and sticks faithfully to his archaisms (“Odysseus . . . laid a harsh word upon him”), has nobility but not rapidity; classicists tend to favor it. The enormously popular version by the late Princeton scholar Robert Fagles, published in 1990, has a gratifying plainness—my students have always preferred it—but doesn’t get the grandeur. Other interpreters go their own way: the stark “War Music” of Christopher Logue is more an adaptation than a translation; Stanley Lombardo’s 1997 version goes for a tight-lipped, soldierly toughness—a post-Vietnam Iliad.


But too often Mitchell’s insistence on speed forces him to sacrifice nobility. Precisely because Homer’s Greek is an old inheritance—an amalgam of many styles and periods and dialects going back many centuries (no one ever spoke the Greek you read in Homer)—it has a distinctively archaic quality that, paradoxically, never gets in the way of speed. (It likely sounded to Greek ears the way the King James Bible does to ours: old-fashioned but so much a part of the language that it never registers as stuffy.) For Mitchell, Homer’s famous epithets can obscure what he calls the “meaning”: “ ‘Flashing-helmeted Hector,’ ” he writes, “means no more than ‘Hector.’ ” But “meaning” isn’t the point. Part of the way in which the epic legitimatizes its ability to talk about so many levels of existence and so many kinds of experience is its style: an ancient authority inheres in that old-time diction, the plushly padded epithets and stately rhythms.

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5 comments

  1. I haven’t. I am actually just reading the Iliad for the first time, except for a few excerpts. Are you referring to G.S. Kirk? I just did a quick search on it.

    • Yessir, I am. I recommend reading the Willcock commentary with it. If you can, Donlan’s _The Aristocratic Ideal_ is another piece that must be gone through. I prefer reading Lombardo and Fagles together. Fagles is often beautiful, but sometimes he indulges.

      I’ve written a few pieces on the Iliad and Homer, if you’re interested in looking. They’re not at the level of Kirk or Donlan. http://intotheclarities.com/tag/the-iliad/

  2. Thanks for the references. I will check out your posts and keep those commentaries in mind. I have assigned the Lombardo translation in my Western Civ class — Hackett has The Essential Homer with about half of each epic. We’re reading the Iliad this semester, and then in the summer or fall I’ll do the Odyssey.

    I would like to read the Lattimore translation sometime since it seems to follow the Greek pretty closely. But Fagles seems to get a lot of plaudits as well.

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