on June 23, 2002
I won't try to give yet another summary of the Iliad's plot nor give my insignificant opinion on the importance of Homer to Western Culture. More important is to discuss this translation and the translation of Homer in general.
When it comes to classic works of poetry in translation, such as those of Homer, Vergil, Dante and others, the translation makes all the difference. The type of translation, whether in rhyming verse, blank verse, prose etc., whether it is a strict line by line or more liberal translation, whether the wording and idioms are old fashioned or modern, can play such a great role that one translation may be completely different than another. This fact is probably often overlooked and attributes to the neglect of these classics, since a bad or difficult translation makes the poem seem tedious or dull.
Since Chapman's first translation of Homer into English in 1611 there have been dozens of others. Chapman's translation remains a classic, though its heavy and elaborate rhyming Elizabethan style and old wording make it quite laborious to read today. The next great translation was that of the renowned Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope; his Iliad was published progressively between 1715 and 1720. Pope's translation is in rhyming verse with his heroic couplet and is eminently poetic. It is considered the greatest translation of Homer into English (Dr. Johnson called it "the noblest version of poetry which the world has ever seen") but it is not as plain and straightforward as Homer apparently is in the original. It is mostly for this reason that Pope's translation has been critized as being more the work of the poet Pope than the poet Homer.
Of the more recent verse translations a few are worth recommendation. The latest translation is usually better than its predecessors, though each one is different. That of Richmond Lattimore takes a strict approach. His verse lines are long and the syntax unfortunately seems somewhat unnatural because he is attempting to imitate the stress patterns and flow of the original Greek hexameter. His translation tries to stay as close to the original Greek as possible and retain the form of epic language. The next translation is the one here, that of Robert Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald's translation is more modern, uses a shorter verse line and a natural English syntax. His translation is much easier to read and still retains the nobility of an epic poem. Finally, there is the translation of Robert Fagles. His translation is in blank verse, modern, rapid, simple and flowing. The noble simplicity of Greek style that the art historian Winkelmann so praised should also be found in a good translation of Homer. Like Fitzgerald, Fagles strives towards this and most approaches the ideal set out by the English poet and scholar Matthew Arnold for a translation of Homer: "Homer is rapid in his movement, Homer is plain in his words and style, Homer is simple in his ideas, Homer is noble in his manner." Fagles also uses the accepted Latin form of most Greek names: rather than "Akhilleus" he uses Achilles, rather than "Kyklops" he uses Cyclops. Lattimore and Fitzgerald sometimes annoyingly use the Greek versions, for no valid reason. They should have followed Arnold's advice on this point, who called such unnatural effect "pedantry" and claimed that the insistance on using the Greek variant for well-known names makes us "rub our eyes and call out 'How exceedingly odd!'." Finally, the narrative prose translations are in my opinion the remotest from epic poetry and should be avoided, especially since there are good verse translations available.
on June 29, 2002
Robert Fagles's translation of Homer's Iliad is spiritually if not literally true to the original. Both versions repeat set speeches and descriptions in precisely the same words, and the translation exhibits a fairly regular rhythmic beat. But Homer's Greek was chanted, and the set passages were like refrains in which listeners could, if they chose, join in as a chorus. In English, the repetitions sometimes become tedious, especially when the same speech is given three times in two pages, as in the relay of Zeus's orders in Book II. Especially noteworthy is Bernard Knox's long and fascinating Introduction, a masterpiece of literary criticism and scholarship which conveys Homer's grim attitude toward war, the interplay of divine and human will, and the ancient concepts of honor, courage, and virility in the face of the stark finality of death. Knox also includes a succinct explanation of the quantitative, rather than accentual, basis of Greek (and Latin) verse. For easy readability, Fagles's translation is without rival. For elegance and poetry, however, I recommend Richmond Lattimore's older but still gripping and fluent translation.
on October 2, 2005
Fortunately, Homer is so wonderful that even fairly imaginative renderings of the text, like Fagles', can't obscure his genius.
I guess I have a bit of a problem with Fagles' translation. When I read Homer, I want to read Homer, not Robert Fagles re-writing Homer. This version reminds me of the comment made to Alexander Pope after he published his version of "The Iliad" - "a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer".
This translation is kind of a modern play on the Fitzgerald - something of an "artistic" version rendered into a kind of de rigeur semi-elliptical poetry-speak, relying on a reconfiguration of lines and sentences, replacement of Homer's own phrases, etc. If that's your bag, by all means get this.
But for me, the best translation out there is that which translates Homer as faithfully as possible consistent with comprehensible English. Fagles' cavalier handling of the source text eliminates this as the "best" translation for me.
Both the Loeb and Lattimore versions are very faithful, but I think some readers may find them fairly difficult, and then stop reading the book altogether, which would be a great shame since The Iliad is well worth reading even in the worst translation.
My two cents is that the translation out there which does the best job of combining fidelity to the original with readability is the Jones/Rieu put out by Penguin. It doesn't have the packaging of the Fagles nor the great essay by Bernard Knox in the front, but I think it does the best job at maintaining transparency, really letting Homer shine through. (But if you have the stomach for the Loeb, you could go hardcore and try that, too. But don't try this unless you're familiar with the entire story first...).
Whatever translation you get, I also recommend buying a CliffNotes to get the necessary background information. Another great resource is Malcolm Willcock's commentary, which I used while I was reading this. If you're going to take the time to read a classic, you might as well try to get everything out of it you can.
Good luck. I hope this review helped someone.
The Iliad is one of the greatest treasures of Western Civilization-and not just because a teacher told you it was. On the surface, it offers raw emotions, visceral action sequences and colorful characters you admire and hate, often at the same time. But it is much, much deeper than that. The scene where Hector bids his young wife good-bye and holds up his infant son to the gods, praying that the boy will one day be a better man than ever he himself was, has never been equaled as a statement of what it means to be a man, husband or father. The debates about honor and duty are still the same we face every day. The humanity, insight and profound philosophy are remarkable-especially for a work now 3,000 years old.
The problem? How do you convey all that power? How do you do so in a way that captures the feel of original?
Iliad translations have started to come fast and furious, as every ten years or so someone tries to tackle the monumental task of bringing the poem to modern readers. The process isn't helped by the fact that the text was already 300 years old to the classical Greeks like Aristotle, Sophocles and Euripides-making it as vaguely old-fashioned as Shakespeare is to us. Should it sound antiquated to us, too? If you really want a line by line translation, one that has some kind of meter that approaches the Greek original, the obvious choice is Lattimore's classic translation. It has the side benefit now of being somewhat dated in its English usage too. That said, for just a good ol' read of the Iliad, Lattimore isn't even my third choice. For all its accuracy, I've always felt I was reading a textbook, written by a classics scholar rather than an honest-to-goodness writer.
Lombardo, on the other hand, is my preferred translation for sitting back and reading what is still a rip-roaring adventure (with enough deep thoughts to give it extra weight). Lombardo confesses there really is no way to adequately convey the "musicality" of the original, and goes on to re-cast it in freer poetry, based on natural speech. He's built up his translation thru multiple performances of the poems, with drum accompaniment, in public places, and his Iliad is honed to a razor sharp edge. The musty old poem students rolled their eyes at becomes a terrifying, beautiful beast that grabs you by the throat and doesn't let go. It is so immediate, trilling and relevant. Lombardo's translation is an Iliad you will feel, not just respect.
Pick up the Lombardo translation and you will understand immediately why this work is still called the cornerstone of Western culture.
on February 28, 2002
I think I must have read every major translation of the Iliad by now. They all have something to recommend them. There are some to which I will never return. I think I would rate Robert Fagles translation as the best. All of which will afford some context when I say that Lombardo is a must read. Enough glowing things have been said here by other reviewers, so I will refrain from commenting over much on the translation per se.
What I will say is this. I SAW Book I of Lombardo's translation enacted on the stage in New York about a year and a half ago. If EVER one needed a reminder that the first auditors of this tale were listeners and not readers and that the Iliad was composed first and foremost FOR listeners, actually seeing Book I brought to life was it. It was magnificent. I had read Lombardo in preparation for the play. I LOVED it -- the immediacy of it, the currency, the urgency, the sheer page turning pace into which he rendered the Iliad. But actually seeing it? It is something I shall never forget. The audience was actually laughing outloud at certain points -- and we forget, don't we, that there is much humour in the Iliad? That laughter brought a sense of community. And it was actually possible, closing your eyes, to imagine yourself transported back in time, listening to a retelling of the Iliad -- so very, very long ago.
Traditionalists will no doubt have MAJOR problems with Lombardo. I consider myself to be reasonably traditional, but I fairly EMBRACED this translation. But I can imagine many will, like my father, run with horror from lines like:
"Now get this straight. I swear a formal oath:
When every last Greek desperately misses Achilles,
Your remorse won't do any good then,
When Hector the man-killer swats you down like flies.
And you will eat your heart out
Because you failed to honour the best Greek of all."
"I've never seen men like those, and never will,
The strongest men who ever lived on earth, the strongest,
And they fought with the strongest, with wild things
From the mountains, and beat the daylihts out of them.
I was their companion......"
But I LOVED it -- I found my heart pounding and my blood racing at points. Buy this book and settle down in your favorite chair for a great read -- oh, and buckle your seat-belt.
on June 14, 2007
The Iliad was meant to be heard rather than read. It's a cliche, but it's true. So an audio version of the Iliad can be a great thing; rather than just a secondary version of a published book, it can be in some ways a purer representation of the original work. This recording is an (abridged) reading by Derek Jacobi of Robert Fagles's best-selling 1990 translation. I'll deal with three different aspects of this product separately: the translation, the performance, and the abridgement.
THE TRANSLATION (5 stars):
Judging a translation is a hard thing to do, and a lot of it comes down to personal aesthetic preference. Remember, all translations are paraphrase, and each can capture different facets of an original but none can capture all of it. This is particularly true of poetry, where much of the artistic content of the original is not only in the meaning of the words, but the sound, shape, and rhythm of the words themselves in the original language. What many translations of the Iliad lose, regardless of their literal accuracy, is the feel of Homer's verse - its directness, the concreteness of its language, and above all the headlong momentum of the whole thing. Homer's hexameter verse is propulsive, pulling the hearer (note: not the reader) forward with an unstoppable 15,000-line drumbeat that leaves you breathless. (Well, it leaves me breathless, anyway -- your mileage may vary.) Fagles captures this feeling magnificently in direct, confident, robust English. True, Fagles is not always literally accurate in the translation of specific words or epithets, but he expertly recreates the vigor of the piece. Richmond Lattimore's excellent translation (The Iliad of Homer) is closer to Homer in capturing some of the subtleties of wording, and is rigorous in its fidelity to the text, but the Fagles translation is my favorite for sheer heart-pounding excitement. The warrior spirit of the Iliad comes crashing through this translation undiluted and without apology.
THE PERFORMANCE (4 and a half stars):
Jacobi gives a spirited performance, with a forceful, fiery delivery well-suited to the heroic bombast of the battle scenes and the emotionally-charged clash of strong personalities. Achilles's offended pride, Hector's valiant but headstrong dedication to duty, Agamemnon's arrogance, and Paris's weasly self-serving faux contrition all come through vividly. My only criticisms of Jacobi's performance are these: while well-suited to the larger-than-life elements of the story, Jacobi can occasionally be too bombastic in a few of the more intimate moments. In addition (and this is admittedly a bit of a nitpick), I feel that he disregards the meter a little too much. As I mentioned above, the drumbeat of Homer's verse is a key aspect of its artistic appeal. Fagles chooses a loosely iambic meter which is not intrusive, but imparts a definite rhythm; at times, Jacobi all but ignores this and might as well be reading prose. There's no need for a bouncy Dr. Seuss-style delivery, but a bit more recognition of the rhythmic flow of the English version would suit me better. (This is, of course, a matter of taste.) Ian McKellen's (unabridged!) reading of Fagles's Odyssey translation (The Odyssey by Homer) is a contrast here: McKellen unobtrusively finds the rhythm of each line in a powerful (and a bit more textured) performance. These criticisms are by no means severe -- Jacobi's performance is excellent.
THE ABRIDGEMENT (3 stars):
Yes, as others note, this reading is abridged (approximately half of the text is left out), and a lot is unfortunately lost. When originally released on cassette in the early 1990s, the producers were probably skeptical of the sales potential of a 13-hour recording of an ancient Greek poem, and so hedged their bets with an abridgement. But both the print and recorded versions of Fagles's Iliad were surprising bestsellers. Happily, the publishers did not make the same mistake with Fagles's Odyssey, released in 1996: Ian McKellen's reading of that poem is unabridged (and glorious).
In this recording of the Iliad, most of the key episodes are preserved - for example the initial disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon, Hector's return to Troy, Patroclus's death, Hector's death, and the final meeting between Achilles and Priam. Others are sadly missing. Some of the excised bits are obvious choices (the catalogue of ships in Book II is mercifully skipped over), but others are harder to bear. The biggest losses for me are Diomedes's gift of special sight on the battlefield in Book V and the funeral games for Patroclus, but most lovers of the Iliad will find some favorite moment or another gone.
But while the cuts are deep, they are fairly clean. Entire, unbroken blocks of text (ranging from dozens of lines to whole books) are removed en masse, rather than a line here and a line there; there is (thankfully) no resorting to paraphrase or condensing lines. Further, the excisions are well-marked: all words coming from Jacobi's mouth are directly from Fagles's translation; missing sections are bridged with summarizing narration read by a different narrator.
While the cuts are unfortunate, they do not generally detract from the high quality of the listening experience. For those who know the Iliad well, think of this as a terrific "greatest hits" version of the poem. Enjoy the parts that are here, and don't pine too much for the missing bits. You can always go back to the text for those.
J. Van Hoose
on December 15, 2006
Upon reading reviews of various audiobooks, I find that most reviewers comment too much upon the translation and too little upon the narration. Translation choice is certainly important but I think you have to find a narrator who makes the story exciting. After having listened to both the narration by George Guidall of the Fitzgerald translation and Derek Jacobi's narration of Robert Fagles' translation, I would say I prefer the Jacobi recording. Although both men give good performances, I think that Derek Jacobi's reading is the better of the two because his tempo and inflection more closely mirror the pitch and pause of the narrative drama. Regardless of which translator you prefer, the narration should take precedence over the choice of translation. I actually prefer Fitzgerald to Fagles as a translator and I'm not crazy about an abridged version of The Iliad in the Derek Jacobi (Fagles) audiobook. But if you're going to listen to a few hours of Homer, you'd better like the voice in the ether. I don't think you could go wrong with either of these two narrations but I would advise you to find some audio samples to compare performances before you make your purchase.
Some general thoughts....
First, there are several reasons for translating the Iliad. Obviously, it is one of the greatest pieces of literature that has as much to offer modern readers as it did those of antiquity. On the surface, it offers raw emotions, visceral action sequences and colorful characters you admire and hate, often at the same time. But it is much, much deeper than that. The scene where Hector bids his young wife good-bye and holds up his infant son to the gods, praying that the boy will one day be a better man than ever he himself was, has never been equaled as a statement of what it means to be a man, husband or father. The debates about honor and duty are still the same we face every day. The humanity, insight and profound philosophy are remarkable-especially for a work now 3,000 years old.
There are other considerations beyond aesthetics. Recent scholarship has revealed that Homer has much to tell us about real places, people, ideas, actions and politics. Gone is the great Classical scholar Finley's view that the Homeric poems are mostly fictitious and cannot tell much about the heroic Bronze Age. Therefore, there is a need for an accurate, line-to-line translation that can convey the feel of the original meter and still use the full range of words, places and objects that can often be "streamlined" in an adaptation.
This is where Lattimore's translation comes in. This still is probably the most "accurate" translation, preserving the structure of the poem, the full meaning of the Greek words and the original "tone" of the Greek. If you're wading thru the original Greek and want to have something to check against, this translation wins hands down. Also, if your interest in Troy is historical/archaeological, Lattimore is a must. And to be perfectly honest, many, many people have loved the language itself, hailing this as THE classic translation that all others must be judged against.
That said, to just sit down and read the Iliad for sheer enjoyment's sake, Lattimore isn't even my third choice. For all its accuracy, I've always felt I was reading a textbook, written by a classics scholar rather than an honest-to-goodness writer. I suspect casual readers might be put off by the (entirely appropriate) academic feel of the work, and miss the probing intelligence of the translation, the brilliant attempt to convey the peculiarities of the original language and meter into modern form.
This is a notable achievement, but for those who might be looking for a less "formal" translation might be steered toward Fagles' translation, or for a heart-pounding, visceral read, to Stanley Lombardo's vivid translation.
on January 20, 2002
Out of the various translations I've read of the Illiad (Fagles, Lattimore, Butler, Lombardi, Pope) Fitzgerald's does the best job at sucking me in and making me forget I'm reading and just flow along with the story. I also like how Fitzgerald uses what I assume are the Greek forms of the names such as Aias instead of Ajax and Akhilleus instead of Achilles. The language and layout of the poetry also adds a historical feel to it all. While this is a modern English translation that doesn't try to replicate the actual rythems of the Greek original, it makes me feel I'm reading an epic where other translations seem to be just a poem.
on March 25, 2003
I am happy to see that this translation of The Iliad of Homer has remained in print. My copy is over 25 years old and I still regard it as my favorite. Mr. Lattimore has sought to preserve the meaning of the Greek words and the didactic hexameter rhythm, including the additional phrases (such as the warlike, breaker of horses etc.) that make the Iliad poetry to be recited, not read. I like the flow of the words and their cadence, and sometimes read aloud.
Also of importance is the introduction to the Iliad by Mr. Lattimore where he provides an analysis of the poem, the Iliad in the context of the story of Troy, the unity of the poem and the figures that populate this heroic tale. This book is not only an outstanding translation but is also a resource for understanding the Iliad. Many scholars have regarded Lattimore's as the finest translation of the Iliad and I think that time has proved this to be an accurate prediction.