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The Odyssey Paperback – November 5, 1998
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“A masterpiece . . . An Odyssey worthy of the original.” ―William Arrowsmith, The Nation
“Here there is no anxious straining after mighty effects, but rather a constant readiness for what the occasion demands, a kind of Odyssean adequacy to the task in hand.” ―Seamus Heaney
About the Author
Robert Fitzgerald's versions of the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Oedipus cycle of Sophocles (with Dudley Fitts) are also classics. At his death, in 1988, he was Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard.
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As very good as Alexander's translation is, this ebook edition doesn't do it justice with regard to its textual formatting. Between indents and long-line carry-overs, the left margin unevenly zig-zags in-and-out on a Kindle screen. Just when I thought I had it figured out some double-indents appeared to add to the confusion. Sadly, downloading a sample won't reveal this; the sample will only provide pages from the Introduction, whose modern prose is quite properly and comfortably presented. It is the poetry of the ILIAD itself whose indented lines are so annoyingly erratic, and this will only be evident to those who actually purchase it and read beyond the sample. Interestingly, in the very first few screens of this ebook (which do appear in the sample), a note from the publisher appears concerning this matter, apparently recognizing it as a possible source of confusion but essentially saying (in effect) that's how it is on a small-screen device, it's the nature of the beast, and readers must try to get used to it. And so I am trying, mollified somewhat by the fact that I paid only $.99 for it -- rather than $14.99 (its original price) -- during a special sales-promotion period. But more importantly, I have since discovered the formatting is IDEAL if the text is viewed in wider-screen, landscape mode on one's Kindle device. If you are able to make that adjustment (something my Kindle Paperwhite could not do until the last upgrade), the formatting problem is virtually solved and the long lines appear comfortably normal.
I have read dozens of different translations of the ILIAD, and though I find Alexander's translation to be highly commendable, there ARE other great ones available (even one or two good FREE ones), many of them identified under FYI at the end of this review. Nevertheless, because this one is particularly well-done and desirable, you may even wish to obtain a hardcovered ($39.99) or paperback ($19.99) edition of it as a "keeper copy." (I intend to seek a less expensive used copy.)
There have been numerous translations of the ILIAD in recent years, but while I suspect in time many of them will fall by the wayside, this one may not. Caroline Alexander's stands a good chance to remain, not only because it is THE best among most recent ones, but because it is ONE of the best among ALL translations of the ILIAD. But great though it is, it will survive in the economic marketplace only if it is competitively priced with those others. Happily, its ebook price has come down from $14.99 to $12.99 and more recently to $8.99 (making it a strong contender).
Caroline Alexander is also the author of THE WAR THAT KILLED ACHILLES: THE TRUE STORY OF HOMER'S "ILIAD" AND THE TROJAN WAR (Viking Penguin, 2009). Those who enjoy her ILIAD may wish to read it.
FYI: The first translation of the ILIAD was by George Chapman (1611), a formal and majestic Elizabethan English version in verse that is of interest today mainly in connection to its role in literary history. Two, free, public domain versions by Edward George Geoffrey Smith Stanley Derby (1862) and by Theodore Alois Buckley (1873) are pretty unpleasant to read; skip them. It's probably best to also steer clear of one by William Cowper (1791). Two old translations that remain popular, are easy to obtain in public domain editions, and ARE worth reading are by Alexander Pope (1715-20, in verse) and Samuel Butler (1898, in very readable prose). A once highly regarded one by Andrew Lang, Walter Leaf, and Ernest Myers (1883) was used by the Modern Library until replaced by Ennis Rees' wonderful translation (1963), my favorite. The best ILIAD translation is arguably by Richmond Lattimore (1951) with Robert Fitzgerald's (1974) being a strong contender for second-best. A 1938 one by W.H.D. Rouse is serviceable and generally okay. Likewise, Robert Graves offers a novelized version (1959) that is very readable but not a strict translation. Three excellent newer ones are by Robert Fagles (1990), Peter Jones (a superb 2003 revision of E.V. Rieu's popular 1950 version), and this one by Caroline Alexander (2015). Peter Green's highly literate translation (2015) is technically excellent but not as readable as the three just mentioned. Several other good, recent ones are by Michael Reck (1994, but now hard-to-find), Ian Johnston (2006), and A.S. Kline (2009). Three recent ones that I don't particularly care for are by Stephen Mitchell (2011, who omits too much textual content), Stanley Lombardo (1997), and Barry B. Powell (2013). These are just SOME of the other translations available.
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.
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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