"Love follows knowledge."
"Beauty above all beauty!"
– St. Catherine of Siena

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Literature in the News: New Translation of Homer’s The Iliad

I came across a book review of a new translation of Homer’s The Iliad by Peter Green in Washington Free Beacon.  

When it comes to picking a translation of the Iliad or the Odyssey, readers of Homer sometimes feel as if they are being forced to choose between the beautiful and the good. The most popular translations of Homer are either praised for their poetry or for their accuracy, but not for both.

Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles’ translations are known for their lovely verses, but also for taking liberties with the text. Meanwhile, Richard Lattimore’s translation is known for being line-by-line accurate to the Greek, but also for being convoluted and difficult to read. However, his fidelity to the text makes him the standard translation for purists.

Now that is an interesting observation on the various translations around.  I have read both the Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles translations and think highly of them.  Now I can’t read the original Greek, so I can’t speak to their accuracy.  I have not read the Richard Lattimore translation but I have heard of it and I did not realize it was closer to the original translation.  Kate havard at the Free Beacon goes on:

In his new version of the Iliad, Peter Green, a professor emeritus of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, attempts to give us a translation that is as faithful to the Greek as the Lattimore while being easier to read, and, more important, easier to hear. Green believes that a poem “so oral in its essence … should be naturally declaimable.”

Because Green’s Iliad is written to be read aloud, the language is much simpler and less lofty than the Lattimore. Yet like Lattimore, Green insists on “preserving the strangeness” of Homer, the aspects of his poetry that strike the modern ear so oddly—the repeated formulaic phrases, the consistent use of epithets (Achilles is always “swift-footed,” even when he is merely sitting around) and the long, long, similes.

To my recollection both Fitzgerald and Fagles’ translayions keep Homer’s long winding epithets and similes.  So it’s hard to say what the distinction she is making with the Lattimore translation.  She goes on, however, to point out that the Green translation goes even further than the Lattimore’s close translation:

The virtue in Green’s translation comes from its meter. Homer’s poetry is written in dactylic hexameter, six sets of dactyls, a poetic foot consisting of one long sound and two shorts. It sounds something like this: DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi (the dactyl can also consist of two longs, a DAH-DAH). It beats forward, like the drummer keeping time for rowers on a galley ship.

This meter is very difficult to render into English: Greek poetry relies on vowel lengths, but in English, vowel sounds have no fixed quantity. For this reason, Fitzgerald and Fagles abandon the hexameter.

But throwing out Homer’s meter, Green says, robs the reader of Homer’s stately and majestic rhythms, which contribute greatly to his momentum and power. However, he adds that when a strict dactylic hexamter is rendered into English, it results in over-long lines that drag lugubriously.

Wow, so Green uses Homer’s dactylic hexameter in English.  Yes, a volume as long as The Iliad would drag the reader down over such a span.  I couldn’t imagine enjoying that read.  And neither could Green:

Green’s solution is to use a loose approximation of Homer’s meter (“a variable 6/5 stress line ranging from 12 to 17 syllables”). This meter echoes the Homeric meter without trying too hard to force the English language to take on unnatural, ancient characteristics. Green’s approach results in passages that are deceptively simple and highly musical.
For example, in this passage, Homer describes Achilles’ inability to sleep due to the grief he suffers from losing his dear friend Patroklus to his great enemy, Hektor. The last line is particularly lovely:

…sleep the all subduing
got no hold on him: he kept tossing this way and that
missing Patroklus—his manhood, his splendid strength,
all he’d been through with him, the hardships he’d suffered,
facing men in battle and the waves of the cruel sea.

The pace of this passage seems to build and build until Achilles can no longer contain his heartache:

Recalling these things he shed large tears, lying now,
Stretched out on his side, but, restless, sometimes again
on his back, or prone. Then again he’d rise to his feet
and wander, distraught, by the seashore…

The description is uncomplicated but the movement here is rapid, and the pacing is as restless and as agitated as Achilles. The symmetry in the line “stretched out on his side, restless, sometimes again,” coveys something of the obsessive, circular thoughts and shifting around that define a sleepless night.

Fascinating.  I do like the metric solution that Green employs in that passage.  There are more examples at the Free Beacon article.  It’s a translation that’s worth considering, though I already have two translations.  


  1. Victor: Oh I do like Homer. Read his books and I so love how he argues with his son Bart and his wife Marge ...

    Manny: Shut up Vic ... You're ignorant.

    Victor: Me? Ignorant? I'll have you know I know Latin. Semper Ubi Sub Ubi ...

    Manny: Homer was written in Greek you idiot!

    1. Ha, Now you're beginning to sound like the other Victor. I wonder what's happened to him. Always a pleasure to get your humor Victor.