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The Iliad Paperback – Deckle Edge, November 1, 1998
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So great is the impact of ancient Greek literature on Western culture that even people who have never read Homer's Iliad or The Odyssey know a lot about them. The Trojan Horse, Achilles' heel, the Sirens' call, Scylla and Charybdis--all have entered popular mythology, becoming metaphors for the less heroic situations we face in our own lives. Ever since these oral poems were committed to paper (probably in the 8th century B.C.E.), people have been translating them. The version of Iliad translated by Stanley Lombardo is a brave departure from previous translations; Lombardo attempts to adapt the text to the needs of readers rather than the listeners for whom the work was originally intended. To this end, he has streamlined the poem, removing many of the stock repetitions such as the infamous "rosy-fingered dawn," or rewriting them in ways dependent on their context. What emerges is a vivid, lively rendition of one of the world's great stories of men and war.
But classicists, beware: This Iliad has something of a '90s sensibility, from the cover art (a photograph of the D-Day Normandy landing) to Achilles' Rambo-like diction. It might well outrage the purists, but for those who remember their musty high-school reading of Homer's great epic with a barely suppressed yawn, Lombardo's energetic translation is just the version to change their minds. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
From Publishers Weekly
More than almost any other book, Homer's Iliad is meant to be spoken aloud, so it's a natural fit for audiobooks. With his fluid translation of ancient Greek into the rhythms of contemporary conversation, Lombardo has rendered the story of the final stretch of the Trojan War and its plethora of jealous, vengeful gods and warriors feasting, battling and endlessly speechifying, more boldly modern and recognizable than the remote marble tableaux conjured by most other versions. Lombardo's expert reading makes the tale's convolutions easy to follow despite its length, and though he doesn't always reach for the extremes one might expect (Achilles' crashing rage sometimes sounds like mere irritation, and soldiers faced with certain death can seem less than petrified), his voice does become mesmerizing. The interruptions between books, in which Sarandon reads synopses of the next, are jarring and unnecessary, since the synopses are printed in a handy booklet, along with a useful map and list of names and places. Similarly, while the thrumming cello and percussion theme that opens and closes each book sets the tone nicely, the electronic chords that sometimes accompany dreams, deaths or appearances of the gods are rather off-putting. Such quibbles notwithstanding, Lombardo's Iliad both sings to 21st century ears and holds true to Homer's original vision; the blind bard would be proud. Lombardo has also translated and narrated Homer's Odyssey for Parmenides.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
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Peter Green states in the introduction that he is following in the footsteps of Lattimore, to preserve as much of the poem in Greek--wording, sentence structure, meter, and so on--in English, but to also make it declaimable. It is a translation to be read aloud. Thus, it is also a challenge to Fagles's translation, among whose virtues is how well it works as an audiobook.
To review, there are several major verse modern translations of the Iliad. Lattimore's is closest to the original Greek, and for undergraduate work can substitute for the original well enough. There is the Fagles translation, in modern free verse, is wonderful to read aloud. The Fagles Odyssey was on Selected Shorts once, and for a long time after I insisted that there was no other worthwhile contemporary translation of Homer. I swore by it. Lombardo's translation is pretty common in colleges because of the price and the slangy presentation. Then there is Fitzgerald, which some swear by, but Fitzgerald's translation is loose with the Greek and mannered and fey in its English. It even translates Odysseus as "Ulysses," a sure sign that fidelity to the Greek is not worth the translator's trouble. I am missing some others, I'm sure.
So let us begin at the beginning. In the Greek, the Iliad has "μῆνιν ἄειδε θεὰ Πηληϊάδεω Ἀχιλῆος" Quite literally, "Rage! sing goddess of the son of Peleus Achilles." μῆνιν means, more or less, the anger that engenders revenge, rage, wrath, anger are all ok to some degree. (It's complicated, an entire scholarly treatise is written on the meaning of the word.) Green gives, "Wrath, goddess, sing of Achilles Peleus's son's [/ wrath]." Fagles gives "Rage--Goddess sing the rage of Peleus's son Achilles." Lattimore gives "Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus." Green and Fagles are right to put the first word first. This is poetry, after all, the order of the words matter, the first especially. The first word is the theme of the poem, the way it is directed first against Agamemnon, then toward the Trojans, and then tempered for a common moment of humanity, is the internal trajectory of the whole epic. Wrath might be best of all, since it conveys that it is anger in a sense that is unfamiliar to modern readers.
Once, in my second year of taking Greek, I was told that there was no use of literal translations. Take it far enough, and you wind up with a textbook on how to read the book in the original Greek. Make it into readable English, and you wind up with a host of compromises where thousands of close translations might do. Go far enough you wind up with Girardoux's "The Trojan War Will Not Take Place," worthwhile on its own, but not really a "translation." That professor preferred Fitzgerald, but easy for her to do, she could read anything in Greek without any help. For us mortals with mostly forgotten Greek, or no Greek at all, closeness to the original in a translation should be treasured.
In the end, translating Homer is a game of compromises, How much of the strangeness of 2500 year old lines and 3200 year old motivations do you keep? Dactylic hexameter calls for lines much longer than any form of English verse, so shorter lines or not? And so on. For me, Fagles is as far to compromise with how English verse should go as I am willing to accept. For what it's worth, Lattimore's English verse is better than his critics complain of.
Starting from no knowledge of Greek, I'd choose Green. Over Lattimore because it's friendlier for the beginner and not worse as far as I can tell for a serious third reading. Over Fagles because the true-to-the-Greek line lengths convey the way the poem drives itself forward better in Green's line by line than in Fagles's free verse.
Also. The introduction includes a plot summary of the whole Trojan War, of which the Iliad only covers a small portion. I have never seen such a succinct and complete synopsis before. There is also a synopsis of the poem keyed to the poem in the back matter to help find your place, an enlightening glossary of names and concepts to help you through your first read, and footnotes to inform the reader of context that has since been lost.
Word to the wise re: Kindles. These are long verse lines. To get complete lines on a Kindle screen, you need a Kindle that allows text to display in landscape mode.Even then, complete lines only work in a very small font size. Get this in hardback for now. The hardback is stitched and bound to keep, so it is worth your money.
Faithfulness to the original language AND readability are what one seeks in any translation of the "Iliad," and the translator must strike a proper balance between the two. Greek sentences are structured differently from English sentences, and adhering too strictly to Greek word order and syntax will result in very awkward English. Throw poetic form into the equation and the result can be a very unreal English syntax. The translator has to determine what Homer said and meant (back then) in Greek and decide how BEST to communicate that to us (today) in English.
There is no particular virtue in reading a sometimes convoluted Elizabethan or Victorian rendering of the "Iliad" in iambic pentameter or heroic couplets (since Homer used neither) unless one especially enjoys reading such. In fact, foundational differences in the two languages prevent a true equivalence in English of Homer's original poetic structure in Greek; that is the reason why many translators, considering any such versification to be artificial at best and dishonest at worst, render this work in prose. But at the very least Homer's poetic form was comparatively simpler and his linguistic expression was more direct than some older translators using English poetical formats make him seem; that is why other translators now often choose free verse as being an acceptable alternative to either complex metrical forms or prose.
Of course, being readable or "understandable" is not the same as being "easy," and being too simple or too contemporary is no more of a virtue than being too difficult or too old-fashioned; rendering Homer's Greek into remedial-reader English or today's slangy vernacular is inappropriate, inaccurate and does the modern reader a disservice -- so one must choose one's "Iliad" (and one's translator of it) very carefully (a task not made any easier by countless Kindle Store editions whose blurbs fail to identify the translator, or which seem to describe one translation but actually provide another).
Below (in no particular order) are various translations (most, but not all of them, good) that I have read and can personally attest to. Several are available as ebooks; others may have to be obtained new or used in paperback or hardcover. Some adopt a poetic format; the others (which I have specifically indicated) are in prose.
(1) Robert Fagles' 1990 free verse translation from Penguin is particularly readable (and the introductory information by Bernard Knox is invaluable). Perhaps due to its having been somewhat over-hyped, academicians now seem less enthralled by it than they once were, some on the grounds that Fagles does not always strictly adhere to Homer -- but usually that claim is made when comparing Fagles' to more literal translations, ones that are more scholarly but much less readable. I find his version quite sound, and I (and many others) still like it. I think it merits serious consideration as an excellent first choice and a contender for favorite translation.
(2) E.V. Rieu's original 1950 prose version (from Penguin) was very understandable but in some specific instances treated Homer a tad too freely. This has been remedied in the present prose version, expertly updated by Peter Jones in 2003. I liked the original very much, but I like the update even better. This is also a very good first choice and a favorite of many.
(3) W.H.D. Rouse provided a sometimes loose but generally serviceable, 1938 prose rendering which was long available as a popular, low-priced paperback. At one time this self-proclaimed "plain language" version was widely used in many public schools because it was inexpensive and considered easier-to-understand than other (pre-1938) versions then available; with newer versions today, that ease is debatable. An ebook edition of it as a Signet Classic from Penguin is currently available in the Kindle Store.
(4) Ennis Rees' refreshing, 1963 free verse translation from Random House/Modern Library is my favorite and not too dissimilar in style from Fagles' but (perhaps) more straight-forward. At present, it may not be easy to locate a copy outside of a used book store since it seems to be out-of-print.
(5) Michael Reck's 1994 version, from HarperCollins, stresses its adherence to the oral tradition and is an honest, solid, respectful, and understandable translation. Though it seems to be lesser known, it is faithful to the Greek yet with comfortable English syntax. It also is not easy to find; an ebook edition, available when I originally wrote this in 2012, has sadly since disappeared from the Kindle Store.
(6) Alfred Hurd Chase & William G. Perry Jr., wrote a prose version in 1950 once available in paperback from Bantam and used in schools. I haven't seen this lately, but it is very readable, and I treasure my battered old copy.
(7) Richmond Lattimore's VERY accurate 1951 translation is published by the University of Chicago. It is much heralded but more scholarly and more difficult to read than other modern versions; it is widely regarded as THE very best translation. While I recognize its true greatness, it is not my favorite due to its awkward English syntax (making it, for me, a chore to read).
(8) Robert Fitzgerald's 1974 translation from Doubleday is very highly regarded, but it is not an easy read. Many names are spelled less familiarly (such that "Achilles" becomes "Akhilleus"). I have a love-hate relationship to this version. It would not be my first choice for story comprehension and ease-of-reading, but its rich visual imagery and keen word-play amply reward anyone willing to make the effort to read it and devote the time to fully savor it. As I become disenchanted by the shallow simplicity and flippancy of some newer translations, I find this one becoming ever more appealing to me. After Lattimore, this is generally regarded by many as the second-best translation.
(9) Robert Graves made an exciting novel-like, prose translation in 1959 titled "The Anger of Achilles" which is literate, generally respectful to the original, and particularly enjoyable. This lively version is great fun to read -- and an ebook edition recently appeared in the Kindle Store.
(10) Stanley Lombardo's well-received 1997 translation is one I didn't fully read, because what I did read of it didn't impress me. Both in tone and in linguistic style, I found it to be an odd and inconsistent mix of formal and informal, noble words and deeds juxtaposed with jarring colloquialisms. I am probably in the minority, but I did not like this version.
(11) Alexander Pope's classic version (1715-1720) is arguably more Pope than Homer, though some people love his heroic couplets, and it IS truly a poetic masterpiece in its own right. For many Pope fans, THIS is the one and only "Iliad," and if Homer didn't write his this way, he SHOULD have.
(12) William Cowper's 1791, blank verse version demonstrates, by comparison, just how good Pope's is. Cowper's rendering results in awkward English syntax that is not as much to be read as deciphered. When I have to mentally re-translate a translation, I seek another.
(13) Stephen Mitchell's 2011 translation demonstrates that being new and easy isn't necessarily always better. Like Lombardo, he uses too much inappropriate and sometimes jarring colloquial English, but unlike all the others, he expunges quite a few sections (and one entire book) of traditional text he feels are post-Homeric additions. (But what if he is wrong?) Given the accretive nature of this epic at virtually every stage in its development and transmission to us, this excision seems ill-advised. Being thus different in material-content from ALL the others, this ipso facto abridgment causes it to be something of a secondary or niche translation.
(14) Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers rendered the "Iliad" into late 19th century, "modern" English in their 1883 prose version. Although slightly old-fashioned in style, it is quite readable and has a reputation for accuracy. My copy is an old Modern Library Giant.
(15 & 16): Two new translations currently available in the Kindle Store, one by Ian Johnston (2006) and the other by Barry P. Powell (2013), I have only sampled. I found nothing dramatically wrong with either of them, except a colloquialism or two in Powell's that seemed incongruous to me, such as when he has Agamemnon say to his men, "So don't rub me the wrong way" (Book 1, Line 33). Both pass muster in that Homer is generally honestly and powerfully rendered, but I personally don't care for Powell's translational flippancy and style. Neither translator offers a significant qualitative improvement over other recent translations, though Johnston comes close, and I prefer him to Powell.
(17) Caroline Alexander's 2015 translation from HarperCollins DOES offer a superb and significant improvement over other recent translations, and I highly recommend it. Without a doubt the best among new ones, it is also superior to many old ones. Though solid and true to Homer, her English syntax is direct and natural, never flippant or colloquial. The ebook formatting of its long lines, necessarily divided on small-screen, Kindle-type devices, is uneven and distracting -- but that is easily remedied by switching to landscape mode.
(18) Peter Green's 2015 translation, published by the University of California Press, is rightly praised for its faithfulness to Homer's Greek (not unlike Lattimore) and its lush poetic imagery, but because of that, its English syntax is not always as smooth or direct as might be desired. Nevertheless, it is superior in many ways to other recent versions mentioned above (by Johnston, Lombardo, Mitchell, and Powell), but NOT (in my opinion) to Caroline Alexander's (which I find more readable).
(19) A.S. Kline's 2009 translation provides a version for the average, non-specialist reader and is currently bargain-priced at only $1.99, but his heavy use of commas every few words makes for choppy reading.
(20) George Chapman was the first translator of Homer, and his formal but majestic, Elizabethan verse edition of 1611 was (and by some, still is) highly regarded. Today, its interest to us is more in the realm of literary history than as a practical choice for general reading.
(21) Theodore Alois Buckley's public domain version (1873) is no better than Lord Derby's, and like it, should probably best be avoided.
(22) Samuel Butler's sturdy, 1898 prose version is worth considering (and I will say more about it below as a public domain alternative to Lord Derby's).
The above list is by no means complete, but it hints at the number and variety of translations that exist. Each of these translations (whether prose or poetry) has particular strengths and weaknesses as well as supporters and detractors, and none is perfect. That, not unexpectedly, creates some robust debate among readers of them. But, in my opinion, most of them are preferable to this public domain version by Lord Derby.
I would certainly encourage you to consider trying some or all of the above, but I might suggest (purely as a practical and inexpensive starting point) the public domain, prose translation by Samuel Butler, available for free from various online sources. No such free verson is currently offered in the Kindle Store, but several well-formatted editions are sold there for as little as $.99, and for that low price some even include Butler's translation of "The Odyssey." Although a well-known, late 19th century translator of Homer's two epics and the favorite of many readers, Samuel Butler isn't necessarily the scholar's favorite, and (like virtually every other translator of Homer) he has a few idiosyncrasies [see the NOTE below]. Therefore, he may not be considered the "best" translator from an academic perspective, but Samuel Butler's English IS straightforward, comparatively easy-to-read, and appropriately majestic but quite understandable; you will certainly be able to better appreciate and enjoy the drama and sweep of the "Iliad" in HIS version rather than struggle with the awkward English of Lord Derby's.
NOTE: One of Butler's idiosyncracies (which is by no means unique to him) is a preference for using the names of Roman deities rather than the Greek (as in "Jove" rather than "Zeus"). He did so because he felt readers of his time were more familiar with the Roman names; today, the opposite is true. I do, however, own two hardcovered editions of Butler's translation in which all the Greek names have been restored, so presumably there MAY be a similarly treated ebook available (though I haven't yet found it). Not all (nor even, most) Greek names have been so treated by Butler; "Achilles," for example, remains "Achilles" (though "Odysseus" does become "Ulysses"). But for most readers the occasional appearance of a Roman name should prove to be little more than a minor distraction from an otherwise enjoyable text. Since no translation is perfect, at least this imperfection is quite bearable.
ADDENDUM: Today the distinctions between poetry and prose treatments are fading due to the replacement of old, rigid metrical forms with new, free verse translations that are as direct, pleasant and comfortable-to-read as their prose counterparts. By going with the flow and reading the text as written, adhering to punctuation, pausing at commas and stopping at periods, but NOT slavishly and artificially stopping at the end of lines UNLESS punctuation dictates, readers should find in these free verse translations language as natural and understandable as that contained in prose versions. With so many wonderful translations currently available (whether in prose or in poetry), NOW is truly a great time to find and read an "Iliad" that's just right for you.
I deducted one star mainly because the physical layout of the book makes it a bit of a chore to consume. The font is too small, there are no line breaks between paragraphs, e.g.no white space, and the page headers do not include the Book numbers.
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