Iliad in Translation

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What am I looking for when I read the Iliad this month? I’ve been wondering that, especially now that I have four translations before me. As I mentioned when I wrote about Aesop’s writers last week, a translation can make a big difference in how a story is portrayed.

I’m not against a literal translation, but does it really matter to me if what I read is exactly how Homer wrote it? At the same time, I’m not afraid of Greek literature and I want to get the most accurate, but readable, experience of the Iliad.

So, what’s the difference between these four translations? I decided to read the translator’s notes and the first few pages and determine which one(s) are worthwhile for me. Of course, I haven’t truly read any of them yet, so I can’t recommend anything.

Bear with me; this is very long.

Samuel Butler, 1898

The Iliad that I own is the Dover Thrift Edition; it cost me $2.50 a few years ago, when I was proud of myself for finding the cheapest one. It was translated by Samuel Butler in 1898 and it’s all prose.

Butler expressed his opinion that “…a translation should depart hardly at all from the modes and speech current in the translator’s own times …” Since current speech for him was turn-of-the-last-century English, I wasn’t too eager to get started. Then I read his explanation that ” [p]rose differs from verse much as singing from speaking or dancing from walking.” That prompted the question in my mind as to why he then changed poetry into prose in this very book. I don’t think he ever answered that satisfactorily.

A Quote

In the first pages, Agamemnon refuses to release Chryses’ daughter:

“Old man,” said he, “let me not find you tarrying about our ships, nor yet coming hereafter. Your scepter of the god and your wreath shall profit you nothing. I will not free her. She shall grow old in my house at Argos far from her own home, busying herself with her loom and visiting my couch; so go, and do not provoke me or it shall be the worse for you.”

Now take that quote, add a few more sentences to it, and that’s the average paragraph length in this book. It is very text heavy. I’m intimidated.

Richmond Lattimore, 1950s

Next I reviewed Richmond Lattimore’s translation, a translation recommended by a LibraryThing group of which I’m a part (Geeks Who Love the Classics). But my copy is from Harvard’s Great Books series, published by Encyclopedia Britannica, and there is no translator’s note. My copy’s text is very tiny and there are no notes of any kind. It also is published in paperback form, and that might have notes; please let me know if you have it.

Enter Wikipedia (entry for Iliad, translations in English):

Richmond Lattimore‘s version is “a free six-beat” line for line rendering that explicitly eschews “poetical dialect” for “the plain English of today”; it is more literal than older verse renderings.

So once again, the translator is trying for plain English.

A Quote

Again, Agamemnon refuses to release Chryses’ daughter:

“Never let me find you again, old sir, near our hollow
ships, neither lingering now nor coming again heareafter,
for fear your staff and the god’s ribbons help you no longer.
The girl I will not give back; sooner will old age come upon her
in my own house, in Argos, far from her own land, going
up and down by the loom and being in my bed as my companion.
So go now, do not make me angry; so you will be safer.”

Robert Fagles, 1992

The Robert Fagles translation came recommended in numerous sources; in addition to the LibraryThing group, Amazon reviewers seemed to love this one. It’s very approachable in a poetry format. It has an extensive introduction and a hundred pages of notes and other back matter. Fagles details his goals in capturing the meter and the feel of the Greek:

Not a line-for-line translation, my version of the Iliad is, I hope, neither so literal in rendering Home’s language as to cramp and distort my own – though I want to convey as much of what he says as possible – nor so literary as to brake his energy, his forward drive – though I want my work to be literate, with any luck.

A Quote

space  space space …  “Never again, old man,
let me catch sight of you by the hollow ships!
Not loitering now, not slinking back tomorrow.
The staff and the wreaths of god will never save you then.
The girl – I won’t give up the girl. Long before that,
old age will overtake her in my house, in Argos,
far from her fatherland, slaving back and forth
at the loom, forced to share my bed!
space  space space space space Now go,
don’t tempt my wrath – and you may depart alive.”

Stanley Lombardo, 1997

When I checked out Stanley Lombardo’s translation the other day, the librarian commented on the cover picture: Into the Jaws of Death on D-Day (incorrectly written on dust cover as 6 June 1994).

“Why is that on the cover?” he asked.

I couldn’t answer. Now, having read a few dozen pages of the Iliad, I can tell you: the Iliad is a war story. Lombardo’s has a modern black and white photo of war because, I think, his translation is going to feel pretty modern.

Lombardo’s explanation of his translation:

… the real work of a Homeric translator is clear: to produce a version that is responsive not only to meaning and nuance but also to overall poetic effect, a version that has a much poetry as the original text, the translator’s talent, and the current literary situation will yield. … what we love is the poet’s voice, and finding its tone, rhythm, and power is the heart of Homeric translation.

Interestingly, he began his translation “… as scripts for solo performances I began giving ten years ago.”

In other words, Lombardo’s translation is going to be poetry, and it’s going to be modern, and it’s going to be meant for performance. I think it’s also going to be pretty beautiful and relatively easy to read. He also has a lengthy introduction, though not as many notes.

A Quote

“Don’t let me ever catch you, old man, by these ships again,
Skulking around now or sneaking back later.
The god’s staff and ribbons won’t save you next time.
The girl is mine, and she’ll be an old woman in Argos
Before I let her go, working the loom in my house
And coming to my bed, far from her homeland.
Now clear out of here before you make me angry!”

My Plan, Which May Change

I’ve decided I’m going to read the Fagles translation – to get a first read of the Iliad as a Greek masterpiece – and then to read Lombardo’s modern classic. I think both will be excellent; it just depends on what you are looking for: an easier-to-read modern approach (Lombardo’s translation has been called “uniquely American”) or a more literal Greek-like approach to the classic (Fagles is praised as “combining the skills of poet and scholar”). But then again, I really am not a professional: I’m just a reader like you.

I have a feeling translation is going to make a huge difference in reading this work!

Note: I’m quite embarrassed to realize that I’ve been spelling this title wrong on this site for weeks. It is “Iliad,” not “Illiad.” Oops. My spell-checker even catches it.

Reviewed on October 24, 2008

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • Thank you for all this info.  I wasn’t even planning on reading The Iliad, but this got me interested.  I think I will try Lombardo’s.  (Or I may just be at the mercy of what the library has, but at least now I’m better informed about the different translations.)

  • Rebecca, great post.  I have to admit that I’m often reluctant to read translations because it’s not the author’s words or structure, etc.  However, sometimes it’s a necessity.  I have Fagles’ translation of The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid.  I like his poetic style.  We’ll have to compare notes when we’re done!

  • I think Lombardos is the most intriguing for someone who doesn’t read classic ancient literature: one Amazon reviewer called it the “Homer Simpson” translation, meaning it to be derogatory. Rather, it makes it sound appealing to a modern audience!

    Then again, I’m sure that it’s probably not very literal or “accurate” if you’re looking for the “real thing”. I guess.

  • You’ve taken a very thoughtful approach to choosing a translation.  Definitely a smart move,  because translation can make all the difference in one’s experience of the work. I remember reading the Odyssey in high school, and hate, hate, hated reading the stilted prose translation. So in college I dreaded reading the Iliad, but instead had an eye-opening, amazing, wonderful experience. What a story! The cadence and imagery of Fagel’s translation was so much fun to read.  I think you’re in for a treat. 🙂 I hadn’t heard of the Lombardo translation… I may have to check it out!

  • This is a great post!  I love how you give the same quote from all four translations – it really gives us a feel for the writing style of each one. 

    Personally I’d go for the Fagles translation, so I’m quite interested to hear what you think of it once you read it.

  • Jessica, I was so ignorant of translations! Example being when I was in college buying the cheapest one I could find. I’ve really enjoying the Iliad thus far (I’m in book 4).

    Robin, I heard lots of recommendations of Lattimore’s translation (most accurate rendering of the “original” text), but it reminds me of the high school language you mention hating so much! I’m not in school; I’ve decided “most accurate” isn’t most important now!

    Heather J, so far so good!

  • Thank you so much for this! 🙂

    I was also going to read the Fagles and Lombardo translations, but after reading your post I think I’ll just stick with Fagles. It’s a bit much if I read multiple translations for each of the six books

  • Well I checked my library, and I have a choice between Butler and Lattimore!  Bottom two choices.  I have to admit that it is the cover of Lombardo’s that attracts me.   And I do like the Simpsons . . .

  • Tuesday, yes, I’m not sure I’m going to read multiple translations on all of my books, but I’ll try for this one.

    Chain Reader, Oh no! well, people seem to think Lattimore is the best in terms of accuracy, so may not be horrible. But then again, if you want a good experience with classic lit, a more modern translation may be in order….

  • I have read both the Fagles and Lattimore translations. I liked the Lattimore for its poetry and drive and the Fagles for its clarity. Enjoy your reading! It is a fantastic poem.

  • Stefanie, thanks for the encouragement. I’m enjoying it thus far! Lattimore seems it would be harder to read since I’m not familiar with the poem at all, but I may revisit the Lattimore at some point.

  • If you get through the poem and decide you’d like a more poetic, less literal version, I highly recommend Christopher Logue’s ‘War Music’. It’s not trying to be accurate, it is trying to be beautiful, and it succeeds.

  • Rebecca–

    I very much enjoyed your comparison/contrasting of the four different translations of The Iliad. Here’s another translation that is well thought of–that of Robert Fitzgerald (1974)–and here’s the same passage you described above–

    “Let me not find you here by the long ships
    loitering this time or returning later,
    old man; if I do,
    the staff and ribbons of the god will fail you.
    Give up the girl? I swear she will grow old
    at home in Argos, far from her own country,
    working my loom and visiting my bed.
    Leave me in peace and go, while you can, in safety.”

    (Lines 31-38)

    I have read Lattimore, Fagles, and Fitzgerald, and I’d have to say that I genuinely prefer both the Fagles and Fitzgerald translations. And based upon what you quoted above, I’d like to read the Lombardo effort too.

    I also strongly second the recommendation to read British poet, Christopher Logue’s brilliant interpretations of The Iliad (i.e., War Music, All Day Permanent Red, and Cold Calls). They are shockingly intense!

    Finally, there is also a new translation of The Iliad being released in mid-October 2011. This was done by Stephen Mitchell (of Gilgamesh fame). Apparently, he has done his translation based upon a relatively newly reworked version of the Greek text by Martin L. West. This has resulted in the removal of several hundred lines of text that West believes were added much, much later in time by god knows whom. This results in a ‘leaner and meaner’ version. I am really looking forward to seeing what Mitchell has done with this translation.

    Have a great weekend! Cheers! Chris

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