Essays on Homer’s Iliad





[This essay, which has been prepared by Ian Johnston of Malaspina University-College, Nanaimo, BC (now Vancouver Island University), Canada, is in the public domain and may be used by anyone, in whole or in part, without charge and without permission, provided the source is acknowledged; released August 2005. For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad. References to the text of the Iliad are to the online translation (by Ian Johnston) available here. The references in square brackets are to the Greek text. For comments and questions please contact Ian Johnston.]


JOHNSON.  ‘We must try its effect as an English poem; that is the way to judge of the merit of a translation.  Translations are, in general, for people who cannot read the original.’ . . .  BOSWELL. ‘The Truth is, it is impossible perfectly to translate poetry.  In a different language it may be the same tune, but it has not the same tone.’ (Boswell 921)


“It is a very pretty poem, Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer” (attributed to Richard Bentley).




George Chapman, the first well-known translator of the Iliad into English, had little sympathy for his critics. “Envious Windfuckers,” he called them (quoted Logue 1). In so doing, he helped to launch a lively and continuing modern tradition of fierce arguments about the merits of various translations of Homer’s great war epic. One of the most curious features of this tradition is its intensity. People tend to have very strong feelings when it comes to discussing their preferences, and even cautious scholars easily fling aside the restraint they normally display in their academic work to express their unqualified praise or dismissive contempt for this or that English version of the Iliad.(1) It’s not just a matter of academics getting aggressively superior in defense of the Greek text (which is hardly Homer’s original poem, but no matter), although that can enter into it (after all, departments of Classics justifiably see themselves as the traditional guardians of the poem, hierophants charged with protecting it from impurities) or would-be poets tossing accusations of dry pedantry at the scholarly establishment. To judge from conversations in internet chat rooms, students and first-time readers and Homerophiles generally are also eager to initiate confident and often aggressive debates about their own preferences.


Such arguments are common these days, for we have all sorts of translations to choose from, new and old. In fact, at no time in the history of Homer in English have we had so many options readily available. Not so long ago, the translations of Rieu and Lattimore ruled the English-speaking Iliad world between them for a generation, but now the field is much more crowded, with recent versions by Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Lombardo in print (among others) and even more choices in the public domain on the internet (including many of the long forgotten versions now freely available through Google Books). The most obvious reasons for this are a growing interest in Homer among Greekless readers (especially as a Great Book in Liberal Studies and Humanities curriculums) and the prospect of a tidy income from the text-book market. Faced with such a rich array of choices, a neophyte seeking the “right” translation or a teacher in search of a class room text has good reason to worry about an attack of consumer anxiety.


Presumably anyone in search of a translation has to begin by rejecting Boswell’s notion (often repeated by later students of the questions) that translation is inherently impossible. We may not be able to get the exact equivalent of Homer’s poem, whatever that means exactly (since the surviving official text is clearly not exactly the same poem Homer composed and since virtually all those dealing with the Iliad are reading it silently at home rather than listening to a professional bard singing the text at a large group feast), but with a judicious sense of the limits of the translator’s artistic license we can get close enough to it to satisfy ourselves that we are dealing with Homer or at least an acceptable form of the original.(2)


And in making a decision about the most suitable translation (especially for classroom use), we will probably have to settle for one particular favourite. Few teachers of the classics would deny that the best way to study the Iliad is to read the original Greek in conjunction with as wide a variety of different translations as possible (ancient and modern), so that one’s enjoyment of the Greek text is played off against one’s appreciation for the different interpretative talents which the translators bring to bear upon a vision of experience and a language so different from their own. Such a rewarding way of exploring the text is, alas, available only to very few readers, so we tend to wrestle with the different possibilities, settle on one, and defend that choice as best we can.


All arguments about translations, however, are inherently problematic because they are inevitably circular. One starts by setting down (implicitly or explicitly) certain criteria, applies those to various offerings, and then makes a decision based upon those criteria and (more importantly) upon the relative weight one assigns them. The outcome is thus predetermined by one’s initial preferences, which rest upon a host of personal biases about what long narratives in general and an ancient epic in particular should “feel” like (and these biases are often decisively shaped by one’s own personal experience in dealing with long traditional narratives). It may be easy enough to secure general agreement about the initial criteria involved, but everything depends upon the way these are ranked and applied.


Then, too, there is the matter of remaining faithful to the translation which first aroused a particular reader’s imagination about Homer. In my experience, this factor often plays a decisive role in a particular reader’s preference (I myself have always had a strong affection for Rieu’s Iliad and Odyssey for precisely that reason). Hence, initiating a disinterested conversation about the merits of different texts can be a difficult business.




Before going onto to explore some of the major criteria in greater detail, perhaps we should reflect for a moment on the general challenge facing the translator of an ancient text. In a sense, his task is to mediate between the strangeness in the language and vision of the original (which are not a product of the modern world) and the contemporary sensibility of his readers. Since the successful experience of reading an ancient poem necessarily requires these two to interact, the translator is, in effect, something of a broker, shaping something foreign and, at times, difficult, so that it fits contemporary taste (which includes contemporary taste in dealing with traditional poems). This task is more delicate than it sounds (or should be), because if the translation is to work effectively it must be accessible to the imagination of the reader—it must, as it were, speak a language she understands—and yet it must also not completely forfeit the strangeness, because the value of an old poem (and especially of the Iliad) emerges in no small measure from the way it can force the reader’s imagination to explore something different, something uncomfortable, something that challenges the reader’s most complacent assumptions about the world. It’s easy enough to forget this dialectical tension at the heart of the enterprise, either by keeping the translation so strange it makes no intimate imaginative connection with the reader or by making it so contemporary it ceases to challenge with its strangeness.


Few translators, for example, strive to produce an English text which “fits” exactly the Homeric method of recitation according to ancient patterns of sound or to produce recordings of such translated recitations. Whatever the reason one might have for attempting such a treatment of the Iliad, the results would almost certainly be counterproductive because the modern reader simply cannot access the poem in this manner (dealing with art, after all, requires a familiarity with the conventions it uses, and producing something intelligible to readers requires some attention to the conventions familiar to them). To some extent Lattimore’s idiosyncratic attempt faithfully to adhere to the original lineation and rhythms of the original (by no means the first attempt to translate Homer in this manner) makes the poem far too awkward and strange for many modern readers (myself included). Whatever language he is using, it is not written in a fluent and easily recognizable form of English (in fairness to Lattimore, one should observe that the enduring popularity of his translations would seem to indicate that for many readers he is clearly doing something right, although I suspect that a good deal of that popularity has to do with the text book choices made by scholars, who tend to value what they feel is the alleged “Greekness” of the original far more than they do the imaginative accessibility of the English text, especially one written in verse). That comment applies also to Hammond’s translation, which is written in such an execrable English style I can think of no other reason why it is still on the market.


Similarly, attempts to modernize Homer, to appeal more directly and obviously to the language of the contemporary reader, can have deleterious effects on the central tension I refer to. Lombardo, for example, is not above injecting contemporary colloquialisms here and there, a habit which instantly collapses my imaginative assent to the fiction. Yes, it’s my language, but something in me strongly resists accepting it as Homer’s. Of course, different people have different opinions about just how contemporary Homer’s poetic diction should sound and different levels of tolerance for a modern colloquial style. However, most would agree, I think, that for them there is a limit of some kind and that, for example, a gangsta rap style would be unacceptably titling the balance in favour of modern sensibilities. I suspect that few people who take some sort of faithfulness into account would consider Eickhoff’s recent rendition of the Odyssey a “translation,” given the extreme liberties he takes with Homer’s text and the way in which he freely inserts into Homer all sorts of details, major and minor, which are not in the original in order to give the story the flavour of a modern television drama series.
I mention these points here not in an attempt to discuss thoroughly some complex issues (more about them later) but simply to make the general point that a translation of Homer (and any evaluation of a particular translation) needs to take into account the present world of the reader and the past world of the poem and that the success of a translation depends more than anything else upon the translator’s ability successfully to answer the sometimes competing claims of past and present.




Homer’s original audience had no sense of a written form for a work to which they were listening—and that’s true whether we believe it was an oral composition or not—any more than we have any idea about the written appearance of the lyrics of a new popular song we are listening to. Given that the words were organized into regularly repeating rhythmic units or lines, when a written form did appear, it was organized as poetry (since that sense of a repetitive rhythmic pattern has been, up until modern times, the single most important characteristic separating what we call prose from what we call poetry). Hence, the major tradition in translating the Iliad in English has, for the most part, been committed to the production of verse translations, although there have been those, like Thomas Carlyle, who would reject a poetical style as irrelevant: “We want what the ancients thought and said, and none of your silly poetry” (Carlyle, qu. in Preface to W. C. Green’s translation of the Iliad. In fairness to Carlyle we should be aware that his comment may well be prompted by the quality of English translations of classical literature produced by his contemporaries, rather than by any inherent dismissal of poetry generally).


That, in itself, would be no sufficient reason for declaring that a modern English version of the Iliad must be offered to us as poetry rather than as prose. After all, a modern audience is much more familiar with long narrative epics in prose than in any other style, and many prose translations have an enduring popularity (Butler or Rieu, for instance). Still, one has to wonder about which form is more appropriate for modern times, given that the overwhelming majority of Homer’s “audience” now consists of silent readers rather than rapt listeners.


Why should this matter? Well, it does if we remember that the experience of reading poetry is (or can be) significantly different from reading prose. For one thing, the reader’s eyes move differently, and (in my case at least) reading patterns vary (with poetry I tend to linger more or review particular passages more frequently, with my sensitivity to certain tropes heightened). Then, too, the poetic text presents a different visual appearance (a ragged right hand margin with a significant amount of white space), especially if the translator chooses to add breaks here and there (for example, between narrative descriptions and speeches), and that can significantly affect the way a reader experiences the poem (in marked contrast to page after page of right-justified, proportionally spaced prose, often in relatively small print with few breaks). In addition, of course, to offer a long narrative in the form of a poem in a traditional rhythm is to remind the reader that she is not dealing with an entirely contemporary work; it is, if you like, a way of putting her into a frame of mind more receptive to an encounter with a past sensibility (especially if she already has some experience of reading traditional poetry). A prose narrative in itself tends to smooth out this difference (that may, in part, account for some of the accusations leveled at Rieu for allegedly turning the Iliad into a Victorian novel). What this amounts to one can sum up as follows: To translate the Iliad into prose is to invite the reader to read it as a novel or a historical romance; to translate the Iliad into poetry is to invite the reader to read it as one would a traditional English epic, and these two ways of reading are not necessarily the same. None of this means that a poetic text is always preferable to a prose version, but it does mean that the decision a translator or reader makes is not without consequences.


[To digress from Homer for a moment, one should note that there are a few works in which the form itself (poetry or prose) is part of the content, a feature which should make the decision I have been discussing somewhat more complex. The best example which comes to mind is Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, which is something very rare in the experience of English readers—a long poem on a philosophical and scientific subject. There has long been, it would seem, a decided preference among English translators to render Lucretius in prose, perhaps in response to what readers are used to in treatises of this kind. That is understandable enough. However, Lucretius himself repeatedly calls attention to the fact that we are dealing with a poem and indicates that a very important part of his purpose is to fuse “obscure” and “difficult” ideas with the charms of poetry (he uses the metaphor of rubbing honey around the rim of a cup containing bitter medicine). Hence, the decision to render his work in (often very wooden) prose would seem to me a major violation of the content.]


Back to Homer. Nowadays, since Lattimore’s translation (1951), the trend seems to have swung away from prose translations, and we now have a wealth of Iliads in English verse (the publication of Hammond’s prose version in 1987 came as something of a surprise to me, especially considering the result is so inferior to Rieu’s earlier prose version, also published by Penguin).  I must say I applaud the trend, although I would be hard put to offer a comprehensive justification for my preference if someone were to produce a startlingly good prose version (in these matters it is always wise to be pragmatic and judge the adequacy of one’s principles by exploring particular examples, rather than by writing such principles in stone and applying them rigorously).


Then, of course, there’s the matter of the appropriate poetic form, particularly the rhythmic pattern of the lines. Here one basic choice is between hexameters and pentameters. The former is Homer’s pattern, but it is relatively uncommon in English verse and thus makes certain extra demands on the reader. There is a long tradition of arguments among English poets, translators, and scholars about the suitability of the hexameter, some people dismissing it completely on the ground that it never will be an English meter (Lord Derby remarked on the “pestilent heresy of the English hexameter”) and others urging readers to consider how suitable it is for certain features of Greek metre.  The argument is, in my view, largely pointless (although sometimes interesting), because setting up a priori judgments about what will or will not work as a metre in English verse is irrelevant: what matters is the pragmatic test of whether or not anyone has demonstrated that the hexameter works as an English verse form suitable for translating Homer (and even if many of the attempts to render Homer in English hexameters are wretched enough, surely one can point to some modern translations which have succeeded very well).


The pentameter is, of course, the work horse of traditional English poetry and is thus immediately accessible to any reader familiar with the blank verse of Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, or any number of others. Much depends here on how one wants the translation to register with the reader. Everything else being equal, the hexameter tends to be a heavier line, taking more time to read and working against a English reader’s familiarity with traditional verse, and thus it can lend a certain weight or gravitas to the poem. Chapman, the first translator of the Iliad into English used an even longer (and heavier) line of fourteen syllables:


Achilles’ bane full wrath resound, O Goddesse, that imposd
Infinite sorrowes on the Greekes, and many brave soules losd
From breasts Heroique sent from 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.


The pentameter obviously makes it possible for the reader to move through the poem more quickly (an important element in a work which contains so many impassioned speeches). So to some extent the decision involves making a decision between the relative importance of weight and speed or between strangeness and familiarity. A comparison of Fagles’ hexameters with Fitzgerald’s pentameters makes this point clearly enough. Prima facie, the most successful and popular pentameter translations are those of the Odyssey, a poem which does not demand quite the gravitas of the Iliad, at least in the view of many readers.


Parenthetically, I must confess in the case of my own efforts at translating Homer this decision was difficult to make (particularly since I admire both Fagles’ and Fitzgerald’s translations), so I ended up using both: hexameters (or a roughly 12-syllable line) for the narrative and a pentameter (or a roughly 10-syllable line) for the speeches (where the shorter line is, in my view, much more appropriate, especially given the influence of Shakespeare on the English reader’s imaginative response to dramatic utterances). There is, I later found out, a minor precedent for such changes in the basic verse form:


It remains only to add, that the student of Homer's Odyssey will find much to assist him in the very amusing and suggestive translations which the late Dr. Maginn gave to the public many years ago; first in the pages of Fraser's Magazine, and afterwards in a collective volume. They are in every possible variety of metre; but the several metres chosen are admirably suited to their respective subjects, and those who once read them will not fail to remember them. In fact, we do not know a book better calculated than that of Dr. Maginn to inspire a clever youth with a love of the Homeric poems; and for our own part we are not sure that the most perfect plan of translating Homer would not be to employ blank verse for the narrative, and to vary the monotony of its flow by the use of various metres, like Dr. Maginn, according to the subject, in the speeches and other episodes. (The Gentleman’s Magazine, January-June 1866)



A number of translators of Homer have felt obliged to base their translation on some other traditional English verse forms (e.g., Spenserian stanzas) or on their own vision of what something like a traditional verse form might look like when adapted for Homer. These efforts, which, so far as I can tell, are rarely successful, can produce results which readers find extremely odd, none more so than the astonishing efforts of F. W. Newman, younger brother of the famous Cardinal Newman (although the continuing efforts of a modern American poet to translate the entire Iliad as one long sequence of sonnets comes close). Presumably the hope there is that the unusual verse form will put the reader’s imagination in a frame of mind better suited to dealing with a long, traditional poem. In my case, the effect is almost always the reverse—the strangeness in the basic verse form makes the poem too remote, too odd, too idiosyncratic (any reader who would like a rich sampling of the different attempts to translate Homer into English should consult the following link: Published English Translations of Homer).




In dealing with the matter of evaluating translations, Matthew Arnold introduced the useful metaphor of a financial exchange (112). From a translation we want some close attention paid to an exact reckoning, and, even if there are no posted rules, there’s a limit to what we will accept by way of tampering with the exchange rate. Christopher Logue’s War Music, for example, is a marvellously poetic modern “rendition” of Books 16 to 19 of the Iliad, and no teacher of the epic would fail to recommend the work to his students.  But the book hardly qualifies as a fair exchange for the Homeric text, and few readers, if any, except perhaps Logue himself, would consider it a translation.


Sometimes I like to think of the text as a trampoline and the translator as someone who is trying to move along it.  His task is to remain graceful and agile, while keeping his feet in frequent contact with the mesh. He is permitted the occasional leap or somersault, a captivating flourish, but should not let his desire to perform take him too far from the mesh for too long.  Decisions about the liberty he has to perform such manoeuvres are best left to the consensus of readers (who will, of course, differ among themselves).


This metaphor is useful because it reminds me that those who try to remain doggedly faithful to the text, who try, that is, to walk firmly along the mesh step by step, often (perhaps generally) tend to move in a very ungainly fashion. The best example that comes to mind is Hammond’s prose, which never departs from a dogged contact with the text and turns the experience of reading the Iliad into an ungainly plod, useful perhaps to someone seeking a convenient crib for the Greek text, but hardly a stirring rendition of a magnificent poem. There’s the constant flavour of an Anglice reddenda exercise in which the fluency of the English is consistently sacrificed for scrupulous fidelity to the Greek: “. . . his was the blood more than any that his heart pressed him to feed full to Ares . . .” and so on. The effect is bad enough in the descriptions but disastrous in the speeches, which, as a result, lack any colloquial rhythm that might convey the sense that particular (and strong) feelings are engaged: “. . . even if I should resent it and try to refuse you their sack, I can achieve nothing by resentment, as you are far the stronger”(3). And similar objections have been made about Lattimore’s desire to remain faithful to Homer: “to give a rendering of the Iliad which will convey the meaning of the Greek in a speed and rhythm analogous to the speed and rhythm I find in the original” (Lattimore 55)(4).


Modern traditions in translation tend to emphasize fidelity to original texts (in marked contrast to translation styles in some earlier centuries when the emphasis was much more on the translator’s performance, on his ability to display his own poetical skills over and above any close adherence to the original, a prominent feature of Chapman’s Iliad). The Arrowsmith translations of Aristophanes are some of the best examples of this old tendency in modern translations of classic works. However, such frequent and sometimes sustained vaulting above the text is uncommon in recent translations of Homer. That said, many scholars have excoriated Fitzgerald for the liberties he takes with the Homer’s text (as far as I can tell, criticism of this sort is directed at his work more than at the efforts of any other modern translator of Homer), but there may well be a connection between such “betrayals” of Homer and the most outstanding quality of Fitzgerald’s translation, its nuanced lyric quality, which in many places is far superior as English poetry to any other translation available. And, of course, for most modern readers of an English text of the Iliad scrupulous fidelity is not a particularly important issue, since they bring no knowledge of Homeric Greek to the experience.


This notion of “fidelity” to Homer leads some translators to the extremely odd habit of making their translation a line-by-line affair, often with the attempt to keep the same words on the same lines (a tradition which started, as far as I can tell, with the translation by T. S. Brandeth in 1846), and, in extreme cases, offering what the translators claim is an English approximation of the Greek metre (a homometrical translation) and sometimes even a Greek “sound.”  Now, I understand why a translator might like to see if he can pull feats like these off simply as a challenge, but I’ve never understood what these demands are supposed to add to the English translation. Brandeth himself confessed that this requirement of the style had “no great merit” but claimed that it had prevented him from adding anything superfluous to the translation. There’s no great disadvantage in such a notion of fidelity, I suppose, provided it does not lead to unnecessary awkwardness in the English style. Given that it almost always does, it baffles me why anyone would seek to impose on English verse the requirements of Greek metre or sound. Since the principles of Greek metre in classical poetry are so very different from the principles of traditional metres of English poetry, such a practice simply imposes on the English a rule which virtually guarantees some very odd unidiomatic language. And this point is all the more relevant if the translator claims that this practice makes the poem much easier to recite in the appropriate manner so that we are, in effect, as one gushing reviewer put about Merrill’s Odyssey, listening to the voice of Homer.


Scholars often greet with rapture some English translation which, they claim, matches the sound or the rhythm of the Greek or both (e.g., the translations of Lattimore, Merrill, and McCrorie, for example). But if I want the sound and rhythm of the Greek, then I’ll read the Greek.  Why put up with the often deleterious effects of an attempt to “translate” those qualities into another language? And if I don’t know the Greek, why should I have to wade through an English style which sounds unnatural (often rhythmically and syntactically awkward and stuffed with unnecessary words in an odd order)? What possible merit is there is such strange attempts? Those who might wish to point to the great popularity of Lattimore’s translations as evidence that such isometric translations can succeed need to explore carefully what else Lattimore is doing in his English poetry to render Homer so vividly to so many readers, and a close inspection of Lattimore’s verse reveals quickly enough that his notion of “isometric” does not require him to follow Greek metre or sound very scrupulously.


I don’t mean to belabour this point, but given the emphasis in some recent translations on the importance of matching or attempting to match the “sound” of the Greek, a few more remarks may be in order.What do we mean by the phrase “sounding like the Greek”? Does this mean that the English should sound something like the Greek text as we teach students to recite it? Or does it mean that the English should sound something like an original recitation (complete with music), as best we can tell, would have sounded? There is no agreement about the first of these answers (since teaching methods vary), and we have no reason to suppose that, however we teach the recitation of Homer in class, the results bear any similarity to an original recitation. As to that original recitation, here again we have no sure idea what that sounded like, but we can be certain that it would have been something very much stranger than anything we are used to in English. To appreciate this point, try listening to a recent attempt to recreate a “rhapsodic” recitation of Homer in Greek, complete with musical accompaniment, and ask yourself what connection this could possibly have to anything written or recited in English (if you would like to try that now, you might wish to use the following link: Homer recital).


Or does “sounding like the Greek” really mean “sounding the way we would like Homer to sound”? Many readers bring such expectations to a long traditional poem (clearly Matthew Arnold did), and there is no agreement whatsoever among them. Many scholars like something that reminds them of the Greek; other readers prefer an Arthurian, Miltonic, or Biblical flavouring (something old, in any case). Some want “rhetorical” effects to beef up the English (like the alliteration in Fagles) or syntactical awkwardness (as in Lattimore) to bring out the fact that this is an old poem written in a foreign language; others prefer a modern colloquial prose, even with injections of contemporary slang (as in Lombardo). So in addition to the demonstrated problems which come from “sounding like the Greek” we have to deal with the fact that we don’t really agree what that means.


In recent years translators have been emphasizing how their version is suitable for public recitation (and there’s a growing market for Homer on CDs or available as sound recordings over the Internet). This is an important criterion, especially given the fact that so much of Homer’s epics are speeches (often intensely passionate utterances), and one might well set down as an important initial test of any translation the question, “Does this rendition of Homer produce verse and especially dramatic speeches which sound as if they are something someone might actually say?” If it does not, if, that is, the English sounds awkward or padded or flat, then no appeals to this or that sound quality of the original Greek is much help. If the translation does not work in English, then there’s something seriously wrong with it.


Sometimes I get the sense that there is a decidedly odd group of scholarly readers out there who, when they read the English translation, wish for some reason or other to be reminded of the sound of the Greek, no matter how the efforts to please them in this matter may vitiate the imaginative vitality and often the clarity of the English verse (that this group exists seems clear enough from the following remark by Lovelace Bigge-Wither’s preface to his translation of the Odyssey in 1869: “The aim of this translation is to be literal. In many passages it is almost line for line, and even word for word with the original; so that to persons well acquainted with the Greek this version will readily suggest the very words of the divine old bard himself”).  The best response to such folk is probably the following passage from Chapman:


Custome hath made even th’ablest Agents erre
In these translations: all so much apply
Their paines and cunnings word for word to render
Their patient Authors, when they may as well
Make fish with fowle, Camels with Whales engender,
Or their tongues’ speech in other mouths compell.




The single most important decision any translator (or any reader selecting a translation) must make concerns the complex question of diction, that is, the English idiom basic to the style of the translation. People’s likes and dislikes are more clearly shaped by this aspect of a translation than by any other factor, and, not surprisingly, the issues arising from English diction generate the fiercest arguments. The best one can do, I suppose, is declare one’s preferences and wait for a response


Given that the purpose of a modern translation of the Iliad is to reach and to engage the contemporary imaginations of its readers, I have a distinct preference for a fluent modern idiom in the language of the translation. Hence, I have great difficulty in reading the efforts of those who want to offer Homer up to me in an olde worlde vocabulary:  “Ah me, my child, why reared I thee, cursed in my motherhood? Would thou hadst been left tearless and griefless amid the ships, seeing thy lot is very brief and endureth no long while; but now art thou made short-lived alike and lamentable beyond all men; in an evil hour I bore thee in our halls” (Lang, Leaf, and Myers). Does this Babylonian dialect sound like anything anyone would actually say? How is a modern reader supposed to react to this fustian? Well, one common response might be that this language encourages readers to think of the Iliad as some sort of romantic historical fantasy, a run-of-de-Mille reworking of the eternally popular Medieval adventure, exciting but quaint and harmless (a number of translators have clearly worked to create this effect by using Gothic script for the heading of the first book, something that puts the reader into an Arthurian or Biblical frame of mind).


Now, it is true that an artificially aged diction seems to strike a chord with many contemporary readers (no doubt the enduring popularity of Arthurian romance has contributed a lot to that). But one has to wonder just how much a language like this is, as it were, protecting the readers from recognizing the immediate connections between the Iliad and their own lives (a defense which, to judge from the history of treatments of the Trojan War, has always been popular). This issue is not simply a matter of style. The basic idiom of the poem also shapes its content, in this case turning it into something essentially irrelevant to the modern world. To use the language of old stories about ancient Christian chivalry (in Malory, for example), or, more commonly, to attempt (often rather lamely, as in the above example) to re-create a facsimile of such a language, is to invite the reader to see the Iliad as belonging to that tradition. It strikes me that if the use of such an artificial idiom is an attempt to remind us of the strangeness of an ancient poem, the effect is exactly the reverse. The language is not challengingly strange but consolingly quaint, a conventional way to depict historical romance.  For a poem in which a valiant monarch on a mighty steed smiteth his foe through a cuirass and lays him low in order to save the damsel is not the same as poem in which a brave leader strikes his enemy on a powerful horse through body armour and slaughters him in order to save the woman.


It may be that this habit of wanting artificially to age the Iliad with a particular idiom drawn from chivalric traditions stems, in part, from the misleading notion handed down to us from Matthew Arnold (among others) that the translator has a responsibility to remember that Homer “is also, and above all, noble,” that “the Iliad has a great master’s genuine stamp . . . the grand style” (103, 104).  But the idea that nobility through the grand style is best pursued through a quaint re-invented quasi-medieval diction is clearly misguided.  The best response to such a notion is probably Lattimore’s comment: “I do not think nobility is a quality to be directly striven for; you must write as well as you can, and then see, or let others see, whether or not the result is noble” (55). Furthermore, any historicist defense of such an idiom is misplaced, since there is no way reliably to ascertain the level of Homer’s original diction in relation to the language of his own time. Thus, as Martin Mueller has pointed out, Arnold’s criterion reflects, not a legitimate demand arising from the poem, but his own prejudices about what epics ought to sound like.


Inserting obvious reminders of a language from the past can be a tricky business, and different readers will respond in different ways. Any English translator of Homer has a number of idioms available above and beyond Malory—Spenser, Shakespeare, the King James Bible, and Milton being the most obvious—and many translators are not slow to draw from that tradition. Fagles, for example, likes to insert into his text occasional reminders of older times and earlier poets at the expense of a fluent modern idiom: “I’ll roil his body,” “a bowyer good with goat horn,” “armoured in shamelessness,” “Achaean battalions ceaseless,” and so forth. More seriously perhaps, he adopts the alliterative thump of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight,  which at times becomes so frequent and over-emphatic that one learns to anticipate it, and thus the sound begins to preempt the sense: “As a burly farmhand wielding a whetted ax,/ chopping a field-ranging bull behind the horns,/ hacks through its whole hump and the beast heaves up . . .” or “. . . belching bloody meat, but the fury, never shaken,/ builds inside their chests though their glutted bellies burst.” Here, in my case at least, the adoption of an old style suitable for dramatic recitation long ago becomes something of an impediment to the modern reader. A little more than a little of this is much too much. My antipathy to such artificial ageing led me in my own translation even to eschew almost totally the vocabulary of ancient and medieval armour and weapons (cuirass, greaves, javelin, helm, lance, targe, buckler, and so on).


One intriguing aspect of diction is the way the translator handles the names of people and places. We are, I think, long past the time when using Latin equivalents for the names of Greek gods is acceptable, and a good thing, too.  I’m never quite sure why that particular tradition lasted as long as it did. Perhaps it had something to do with an attempt to inculcate sturdy Roman virtues in public school boys or was simply continuing an old tradition of referring to pagan gods. What’s interesting here is the way in which different translators either stick with well-established forms or use alternative spellings to remind the reader of the alien Greekness of the original: Achilles, Achilleus, Akhilleus, and so on.  Fitzgerald pushes the foreignness of the names to something of an extreme (with unusual spelling and accents of various kinds), a practice which has the (to me pleasing) effect of making the names (and the people they indicate) more remote and strange.  This quality helps to offset the easier familiarity with his pentameter verse form (although I’m not sure if that’s his intention).  However, the habit does cause problems for student readers and denies them the chance to become familiar with the more common names (e.g., Ajax, Clytaemnestra, and so on).




Quite apart from the various matters discussed above, assessing different translations on the basis of the quality of the English poetry is a notoriously subjective task, bound to generate strong disagreements. And any argument on behalf of a particular text can be carried out persuasively only by a very detailed comparative look at particular examples, something beyond the scope of this essay, although, for what it’s worth, my view is that if we’re comparing modern translations only on the basis of the quality of the result as English poetry, without taking anything else into consideration, then Fitzgerald’s texts are clearly the best available, a claim which does not deny that one might still have a good reason for choosing a rival version.


Whether one agrees with that assessment or not, let me offer at least one criterion that underlies my judgment. Long narrative poems are rarely, if ever, totally even in their poetic quality. The author settles into a basic relatively uninspired style which carries the narrative and then, when inspiration strikes, launches his verse into hitherto unexplored realms of truly moving poetry for a while, before settling down again into the regular style. The greatness of a poem arises, in large part, out of the frequency and the power of these (often quite short) transcendent passages when, to use Gerard Manley Hopkins’ useful analogy, the poetry of inspiration seizes us and lifts us high above the Castalian or Parnassian plains (154). Such moments, which are quite familiar to readers of, say, Milton’s Paradise Lost or Wordsworth’s Prelude, occur in the Iliad as well, and they obviously present a particularly daunting challenge to the translator.(5) How well do his efforts convey these supercharged moments to his readers (e.g., Achilles’ speech to Lycaon, Achilles’ response to the news that Patroclus has died, the meeting of Achilles and Priam, and so on)?


Any comparative evaluation of different translations needs to consider this question, because such passages in the Iliad are the most powerful moments in the poem, the single most important reason for its continuing vitality.  One of my reasons for liking Fitzgerald’s translation so much is that his own considerable poetic gifts enable him to meet this particular challenge better than any other modern translation. Other translators (Hammond, in particular) remain as flat and uninspired in these passages as in the rest of the translation.




One final (and obvious) point, not strictly germane to the quality of a translation: modern readers, especially students, often expect (and require) some critical apparatus along with the text (an introduction perhaps, a glossary, maps, and so on).  Here the options range from the Doubleday paperback of Fitzgerald’s translation which is remarkably deficient in any such assistance to, at the other extreme, Fagles’ translation, which has an excellent introduction (by Bernard Knox), the finest short introduction to the Iliad available anywhere, six pages of maps, twelve pages of notes, a bibliography, and a useful glossary.  I can well understand someone’s selecting Fagles over other possibilities largely on the basis of this supplementary material (especially as a textbook for school use).




What all this adds up to is, I would suggest, the idea that we should more or less abandon all a priori notions of what a translation must do or of what will or will not work in an English Homer and treat evaluations pragmatically, judging them by their results. Lattimore got it right when he stated that one has to write as well as one can (following whatever principles one thinks appropriate) and then let the readers decide on the basis of the results. In this process, we might do well, too, to remember Dr. Johnson’s dictum (in the “Life of Milton”) that no precedents can justify absurdities—scholarly appeals to the characteristics of Greek metre or to the traditions of English folk songs, for example, are no defense against a wretched English style which interferes with the reader’s imaginative response to the English poetry. If we must have rules, then let’s limit ourselves to the demands that the translation should be more or less faithful to literal sense of Homer’s text and that the English poetry should have the energy, clarity, and imaginative power we demand of our own poetry. Even with those two “rules” in place, we will still leave plenty of room for energetic arguments.




(1) Take, for example, a statement like the following (made by Andre Michalopoulos): “no translation has surpassed, or ever will surpass the magnificent Victorian translation of Leaf, Lang, and Myers for the Iliad . . .” (6, emphasis added) or Fitzgerald’s comment on Lattimore: “[the translation] would survive as long as Pope’s for in its way it is quite as solidly distinguished” (“Heroic Poems” 699). [Back to Text]


(2) If we push the notion of the “impossibility” of a translation, we can soon reach the conclusion that all reading of traditional poetry (in English or otherwise) is impossible, simply because we cannot recreate in ourselves the sensitivity to a vocabulary we no longer use or an intimate emotional familiarity with the situation for which the original was produced. In a sense, all such reading is a “translation” from something old and strange into something more immediately accessible (and that’s as true of Shakespeare as it is of Homer). This general observation holds even if we have very accurate and complete factual information about that traditional vocabulary and situation. Those who read the Iliad in Greek or who recite it to themselves in Greek are not necessarily any closer to the “real” Homer (whatever that means) than the person reading an English translation. The fact that they think they are will certainly make their experience of the poem different from reading it in English and may well enhance their enjoyment of it, but they are no closer to the original experience of the ancient warrior leaders listening to a professional bard recite the Iliad than the audience at those odd productions of Shakespeare which seek to replicate his company’s stage conditions and pronunciation is to the Elizabethan audience way back when. For it’s not just a matter of the “tone” of the original, as Boswell claims; more important than that is the reader’s sensitivity, his response to tone generally, and that will be inevitably shaped by his reading habits and his contemporary culture, including the ways that contemporary culture has or has not educated him to read or recite old poems. [Back to Text]


(3) Of course, the problem here may not stem solely (or even principally) from Hammond’s scrupulous fidelity to the Greek, for his prose seems at times to indicate an acute insensitivity to modern English. One suspects that a translator who repeatedly has Homeric characters use the word “blatherskate” may well be unwilling or unable to make any concessions to the idiom of his readers. [Back to Text]


(4) One prominent reviewer of Lattimore castigated his style, not unfairly, for being full of “misprints, mistranslations, obscurities, or outrages to the English language” (Knopff 275). [Back to Text]


(5) This notion of a Parnassian style (not to be confused with the Parnassian school of poetry) punctuated by inspired moments is useful in any analysis of a long narrative (not simply in poetry).  One key notion here is that, while it is relatively easy to parody the basic style (and there is no shortage of parodies of Homer’s Parnassian), one cannot do so with the inspired parts, where the genius of the artist is fully at work. The idea is useful for reminding us that the greatness of a work does not always (or even usually) reside in the unvaryingly high quality of the style and that some works of great genius are often written, in large part, in a very bad style (the most obvious example that comes to mind of this point is Moby Dick, although many critics, including myself, would offer up Paradise Lost as an equally good example). [Back to Text]




[For the Table of Contents of the series of essays and an Introductory Comment outlining the purpose of the series, please use the following link: Essays on Homer’s Iliad.]