Friday, January 28, 2011

Beginning Homer's The Iliad

A huge winter storm has knocked out power--and access to the internet--to our home.  Right now I am spending a few minutes in a local cafe which offers wifi to its customers.  All of my neighbors are here as well, charging cell phones and blackberries or typing on their laptops.  There is quite a line just for electrical outlets.  So here I sit, typing as fast as I can to put together a quick little post for this week's Book Beginnings.

For the next several posts, I'll be talking about my reactions to Homer's The Iliad. Today, I'll share with you the first lines from a variety of translations which have appeared in English over the years. I'm fascinated with how different translations can shape our emotional and intellectual responses to a given text. Consider these examples:

1. Translation by Stanley Lombardo, 1997

RAGE: Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades' dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done.

2. Translation by Robert Fagles, 1990:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.

3. Translation by Robert Fitzgerald, 1974

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men — carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.

4. Translation by Richmond Lattimore, 1951

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished.

5. Translation by Alexander Pope, 1715

The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury'd on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the Sov'reign Doom, and such the
      Will of Jove.

6. Translation by George Chapman, 1598-1611

(note: Chapman was a contemporary of Shakespeare and King James.  This translation was immortalized in John Keats poem "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer")

Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique—sent them farre, to that invisible cave
That no light comforts; and their lims to dogs and vultures gave.
To all which Jove’s will gave effect; from whom first strife begunne
Betwixt Atrides, king of men, and Thetis’ godlike Sonne.

*  *  *

Which translation speaks to you? Why?


  1. I like the 1950's one but the variation it such a short passage is amazing ,all the best stu

  2. I think I would take the Fagles translation but replace the bit about Zeus' will with the Lombardo version. I do like the Pope version for the language but it looks a bit loose to me. I find Lattimore and Fitzgerald a bit too flat.

    Ultimately, I will always have a soft spot for the E.H. Rieu translation, which was the one we used in school:

    "Anger - sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, that accursed anger, which brought the Greeks endless sufferings and sent the mighty souls of many warriors to Hades, leaving their bodies as carrion for the dogs and a feast for the birds; and Zeus' purpose was fulfilled."

    I think this has a good balance between poetry and faithful translation (but I may be biased). I have a Loeb copy at home (Greek original and Englsih translation on facing pages). I will dig it out and see how that deals with it, although I find that the Loeb translations can be awkward as they focus on faithfulness to the original.

    I really enjoyed this post. It was fascinating to see the different versions juxtaposed like this and the Iliad is one of my all-time favorites. My father bought me children's versions of this and the Odyssey as soon as I was old enough to read them and that started my interest in mythology. Thank you.

    1. Yes! The E.H. Rieu translation was favoured in my college too and I could never really like any other translations after that. It is really quite lovely. And the prologue has just the right words.

  3. Winstonsdad: The variation really is astounding. The difference in tone between something that starts "RAGE!" and something that starts "Sing" is so intense. Thanks for your comment.

    Falaise: Thank you so much for giving the Rieu translation. Beautiful--and also a prose translation, which is not as common these days. Although I've looked at the Loeb translations of other works, I've never seen their Homer. If you find it, I would love for you to clip it here. Knowing what they say is faithful is about as close to the original as I can get. (As they say, it is Greek to me.)

  4. Thanks for posting these variants--I love reading different versions of translated works, just to see the stamp the individual author puts on them. Personally, I liked Pope's version the best, but I've always been fond of his writings anyway. The more modern translations seemed to lack a certain...verve.

    Incidentally, a man named Samuel Butler, who translated Homer in, IIRC, the late 19th century, came to the conclusion from internal evidence that "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" had to have been written by a woman. If you can find somewhere a rundown of his theory, it's surprisingly plausible.

  5. Undine: Isn't that fascinating? Many scholars seem to agree that is is possible--Bloom among them, I believe. I'll do a little more reading and see if I can put together a post, perhaps right before I start the Odyssey.

  6. It's incredible how much a translator can change the tone of a piece of work. I've read the Lattimore translation in full years ago, but out of the examples you've provided here the Lombardo one is my favorite. It sets the tone for a poem about war and reading it I feel like I could see and hear someone reciting these lines to pump people up.

    I also really like the Rieu version Falaise included. I feel like it has the same power as the Lombardo one but is more lyrical.

  7. Wow, they are all fabulous! My choice would be the first one, which seems to flow more smoothly for me....

    Here's my Beginnings/56:


  8. Red: I agree with you that the Rieu feels a lot like Lombardo but even more lyrical. I think I will have to track down a copy!

    Laurel: Lombardo is high on my list. It is my core translation for this read, although I am following along with Fagles fairly closely as well.

  9. Lombardo was my favorite but Fagles came in a close second.

    I like what you've done here. I don't read a lot of translated works, but I know the translation can make a huge difference in one's enjoyment. This was interesting to compare several different translations. Thanks for linking up with Book Beginnings!

  10. Bloom thinks the J writer of the Torah was a woman. I don't remember him saying that about Homer.

    I'm a follower of Pierre Menard - if it's interesting to read The Iliad as if it's by a woman, or a woman's collective, do it. See what happens.

    The single passage comparison is useful, but when I read these I am also thinking about the long haul. Reading Chapman all the way through must be absolutely exhausting, and I doubt Pope would be much different. Those unending, unvarying rhyming couplets would do me in.

  11. Definitely a fan of the Lombardo for its lean, muscular quality, how it lets the powerful images pop off the page. I can see how some of the shades of meaning are getting lost in what he leaves out (who Achilles' father was, for example), but to me it's worth it for the raw energy there, and the metrical cleanliness. I know a lot of folks are huge Fagles fans but he sometimes strikes me as a bit...wordy. A bit cluttered.

  12. It's so interesting to compare all these, and like Red was saying it's quite impressive how different the tones are. I like the Fagles best, but the Lombardo is a close second. I like Falaise's idea of merging the two. If only we could!

  13. I've never been as interested in Ancient history/literature as much as 19th Cent. and have kind of avoided Homer because of that, but these translations have me intrigued! There is such a great difference between them!

    I love the language in the Pope version, although it takes more work to read--in the long run it might be more tiring. I also like the Lombardo version, it feels more blunt and passionate. I might have to do a side by side reading of these guys.

  14. Sorry to hear your power is (still?) out! Our power went out for 20 hrs. but it came back last evening.

    My version of both the Iliad and the Odyssey is Fagles'--as an audiobook--which I romantically like to think captures something of the original as an oral poetic story.

    I've started the Iliad before, now's my chance to finish it.

  15. I think I prefer the Fagles, which is good because that's the one I now own (although have not yet read), but agree that the Lombardo has a raw power in its imagery. It would be interesting to see how that holds up over the long haul.

    Thank you for the post. I've thought a lot about translation this past year while contemplating which versions of Don Quixote and War and Peace to read. I love comparisons like this.

  16. Today my favorite is the Lattimore. I might pick a different one tomorrow. Part of that might have to do with reading Thomas Hobbes' translation this past month.

    Look at the first line again. Half mention Peleus, half don't. Interesting that something so basic gets different translations.

  17. Katy: I haven't read a lot of translated lit before either--but as I set out on this adventure, I'm realizing how important it is. Thanks for your comment!

    AR: I think you are right that Bloom was talking about J, not Homer. Somebody, and I've forgotten who at the moment, argues that the Odyssey was composed by a woman but the Iliad was not. (Ring any bells?) And I totally agree that either would exhausting to read in the entirity. Much for fun for just a para. I suspect Pope and Chapman may be responsible for scaring people off the classics...

    Emily: I am really enjoying Lombardo--and highly recommend his translation especially for folks new to Homer. (My 11yo son loved both Lombardo's Iliad and Odyssey.) And his muscular poetry works beautifully for everybody.

    Nymeth: Translation is becoming a more and more interesting issue to me. It would be fascinating to merge a few of the strengths of each of these translations, wouldn't it?

  18. Melody: Try starting with the Odyssey instead of the Iliad. I am loving a lot of the Iliad, but it is awfully gory. The Odyssey is a much easier place to start. The same folks do translations of it. I'm eager to hear what you think!

    Nancy: Power is back on here! Yippee! And yes, absolutely--listenting to the audio of both of Homer's epics sounds like a wonderful way to go. Please share what you make of the texts!

    Sylvie: I'm quite fond of Fagles and have heard many people say how much they love his translations in general. Any advice on Don Quixote? I think I'll be knocking on your door when I get to Cervantes. Hackett, publisher of the Lombardo translations, just put out a new version done by Montgomery. Have you heard anything about it?

    Dwight: Yes, what appeals to me shifts from moment to moment, depending on what else I have read or been thinking about. Reading through these again and again, I'm amazed at how much they differ.

  19. What a great post! Isn't it crazy how much the translations can differ? Whenever I buy a book in translation I always compare the first few lines of as many editions as I can find.

  20. Really interesting to see these all laid out together! I'd have to say, I like the Fagles best. I'm glad to find that, since his is the translation I have.

  21. IngridLola: Good plan! I spent time in the library and the bookstore thinking about the strengths of the different translations, but honestly found it quite difficult to decide which I liked best. They felt SO different.

    Erin: I'm looking forward to hearing what you have to say about this book. Fagles is definitely a great choice--but then again, I guess they all are in their way.

  22. I started reading The Iliad around 6 months ago but due to time restraints couldn't really sit down properly and have a good read of it. I must pull it off my shelf some time soon and continue reading it.

  23. I actually love the old, old Alexander Pope translation. I know it isn't very 'faithful', as it were, but it's the one that, to me, feels beautiful of it's own right, rather than just the closest one can come to something that's beautiful in another language. Supposedly, one of the best translations of the Iliad and ODyssey, if I recall, was the translation into Scots Gaelic - a translation which is actually older than any known English translation.

  24. I've managed to dig out my Loeb edition of the Iliad, with the A.T. Murray translation. He renders the passage:

    "The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son Achilles, the accursed wrath which brought countless sorrows upon the Achaeans, and sent down to Hades many valiant souls of warriors, and made the men themselves to be the spoil for dogs and birds of every kind; and thus the will of Zeus was brought to fulfillment."

    It's a bit clunky mostly, I suspect, because he is trying to keep as close to the original language as he could but also, as acknowledged in the Introduction, because he writes in an archaic style. You can see the literal (faithful?) nature of this in the phrase "the men themselves" which is a typical Ancient Greek construction which we don't really use any more.

    I believe it was Samuel Butler who claimed that the Odyssey was written by a woman who inserted herself in the text as Nausicaa. Here is a link to an Internet article on the issues and history of Homeric translation. I don't know the actual site so I can't vouch for its credibility:

  25. Pete Kent: I look forward to seeing what you have to say about it.

    Jason: I love what you say about a translation having to be beautiful in its own right. And how fascinating about the Gaelic translation!

    Falaise: Thank you, thank you for looking this up and typing it in! Yes, this translation certainly doesn't win for gorgeous poetry. I find the archaic style fascinating for a clip, but I suspect I would be frustrated by a whole book like that. I find it interesting how it juxtaposes the "wrath" and "sing" with no real division, suggesting that translators who make either choice have some connection to the literal.

    And I appreciate the heads up on Butler (sounds right) and for the link.

  26. I am a Fagles fan. I have only read Lattimore and Fagles, and for me the Fagles translation is the one that sings to me. Folks beat on Achilles, but I understand his angst, and Agamemnon is truly a heel (i.e., see Aeschylus' treatment of Agamemnon in "The Oresteia"). "The Iliad" may well be my most favorite book/poem in all of literature. I look forward to following you through this adventure. Cheers! Chris

  27. Christopher: Yes, your reading of the Greek classics has definitely been inspiring. I too feel like Achilles is an amazing character, and wrote about it in the post this morning. Thanks for stopping by!


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