On Some Translations: Homer

Tony Sig

A while ago I wrote up a post to recommend a few Greek and Latin resources for working through Homer and Virgil. I also said that I was going to make some recommendations on translations, on which I never followed through. I was going to do so soon but was given another reason just today. A friend informed me of the news that the great translator Allen Mandelbaum died today. Though famous for a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, he also happens to be my favorite translator of the Aeneid. I pay homage by recommending his text.

For both The Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, I will briefly describe the translations of three major modern poets and explain where my preferences lie and why. Knowing the languages gives my opinion a certain bias. Those who know original languages notoriously are either endlessly critical of any translation, or naively unfeigned in their abundant praise. I read these classics for two reasons and it’s my desire to be greedy and demand both be sated by any translation I use. The first is for sheer pleasure. I’ve found that I am quite fond of epic poetry. Something there is in it that moves my soul. Especially Homer. The second  is for my academic interests. These poems have formed the cultural context and imagination of grand swaths of Western history, including late-antiquity. I need to be able to check my own primary language work against a reliable translation. This tends to make me lean toward ‘conservative’ translations. I understand basic translation theories, why people prefer dynamic equivalence or ‘literal’ or whatever, but whereas at one time I enjoyed these with no concern for ‘accuracy’ – since I didn’t know the languages – I now need more than simple aesthetics.

There are four (and now apparently a fifth) major modern translators of Homer. I pass over Stanley Lombardo for two reasons. One, I’m not familiar with his translation, and two, his is written specifically for oral performance. It is thus slightly less a piece of ‘literature’ as we conceive it generally today. It would be a great experience, though, to see a performance. Luckily, my preferred translation can be read aloud with pleasure, and indeed, I believe one should try and do at least some portions aloud.

  • Robert Fagles is probably the most widely read contemporary translator of all three of these poems. They’ve been my required translations in mythology and even in my Latin Aeneid course. (No doubt in large part because one of our major profs had him as doctor father.) One of the reasons he’s so widely read is his work was adopted by major publishers, including Penguin. Another is that his style is contemporary, informal, lively, and punchy. Indeed, I’ve often wondered if I should use him to read to my girls when they come of an appropriate age. Nevertheless, of the three here mentioned, he is far and away the most loose in relation to the ‘literal’ sense of the Latin and Greek. He was of almost no help whatsoever in translating. Most damning, in my opinion, is that this looseness leads to his work being, as was said of Alexander Pope so long ago, more the work of the poet Fagles than the poet Homer or Virgil. Homer is plucky, plain, and repetitive. He will very often repeat whole lines and otherwise follows strict formulas to fit his work into dactylic hexameter. Sometimes entire paragraphs are repeated verbatim. Of this repetition and style, arguably most the most important, and certainly among the most enjoyable aspects of his style, are the repetitive epithets and name-adjective formations. “god-like Odysseus,” grey-eyed Athene,” strong-greaved Achaians,” et. al. These are nearly never repeated and very often entirely skipped in Fagles work. Virgil on the other hand is stilted, formal, and full of pathos. He fares better here if only because Virgil can’t very often follow a pattern in his work because he’s making up his tradition as he goes along. (Homer was an oral poet and part of a tradition of oral poetry. Virgil was a writer and his was the first such epic dactylic hexametered poem in Latin.) Yet even here, as I noted, he is not close enough to help with translation. The ready availability, including a lovely boxed set, make Fagles a tempting offer, but only if your interest is more for the enjoyment of reading and don’t need it to get a feel for the original.
  • Robert Fitzgerald too has translated all three major epics, and his work has been chosen by the ever-handsome Everyman’s Library series. Though it’s probably a rather unfair way of putting things, I often think of Fitzgerald as a medium between Fagles and Lattimore. His style is much closer to the original than Fagles, though this is muted by the his format of rather short lines of poetry. He is still not quite as formulaic as Lattimore (or thus Homer), but – on the Latin side – before I had a copy of Mandelbaum, he was much more helpful for translating Virgil than Fagles. Importantly, more so than the other two, Fitzgerald is concerned for his poem to also be a work of English literature. He keeps in plenty of English archaisms (as did the writers themselves keep archaisms) yet the pace still keeps up. Interestingly, he gives significant praise to Lattimore for his translation. Here it really depends more on personal opinion. I enjoyed reading Fitzgerald and, given the lovely editions, I see no reason not to recommend him for either Homer or Virgil.
  • Richmond Lattimore is, though, far and away my favorite translator. But, he did not translate the Aeneid. He was a Greek man through and through. He did, however, co-edit with Greene and sometimes translate a University of Chicago Press edition of the complete Greek tragedies. Unfortunately, as is the case (till recently) with Lattimore’s work, for reasons I’m not entirely aware of, these went out of print and, though they can often be found in used bookstores, they can cost you a pretty penny for the later editions. If you can get your hands on them, I strongly advise you do and skip the Penguins. I will comment more on editions in a second, for now I’ll talk about his translations. Lattimore somehow worked a feat of magic. His style feels homeric. He, more than any other English translation I’ve read, keeps in the repetitive phrases and epithets. Thus it is only in his work that this crucial feature of homeric style is preserved. He’s not quite systematic about it, but he’s pretty damned close! Moreover, while it is standard fare in a translation for there to be two sets of numbers, one for the original lines of text, and one for the English lines, somehow Lattimore is able to translate to the line, so that the lines of his poem are the same as those of the Greek. This means that for both reference and translating, his is unequaled. Yet not only is his work not then awkward and nonsensical, it is outright enjoyable in the manner of Homer’s simple, high-formal, and descriptive style. With no hesitation do I recommend his work, especially to those most likely reading this blog. A significant problem with Lattimore, though, is the poor quality of currently available editions. I myself have an old U of Chicago Press set in stately hardcover, and it is not hard to find other older editions, but publishers just haven’t kept up with him. I mean, Penguin and Everyman’s are to go-to series for classics and so it’s understandable that since he’s been neglected for these, he won’t be easily found. This Haper Perennial Modern Classics edition of the Odyssey is the only modern one I know of, and it’s pretty trashy. The paper is flimsy, the text is small, not very strongly printed, and it’s poorly edited for reference. I did not enjoy using this for class. Yet there is good news! U of Chicago Press has just this year put out a fresh edition of the Iliad, with substantial introduction, helps, and thoroughly up to date bibliography, in both soft and hardcover. I can’t testify to the physical quality of these, but I can at least assume that the hardcover, though quite expensive, is pretty nice and likely the soft will be as well. I do not know if there are plans to also rerelease a thus updated Odyssey, but one can hope. In addition, both the Odyssey and the Iliad have companions keyed to his translation that act as intermediate running English commentaries.


  1. Lattimore is also my favorite, although I found his I found his Odyssey by chance, in a used bookstore. I’ve perused other translations, but after Lattimore, it’s hard to get past the first page. They just don’t sound right.

    It’s Richmond, by the way, not Richard (humanities slam!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s