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The Odyssey (Penguin Classics) Paperback – April 29, 2003
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“[Robert Fitzgerald’s translation is] a masterpiece . . . An Odyssey worthy of the original.” –The Nation
“[Fitzgerald’s Odyssey and Iliad] open up once more the unique greatness of Homer’s art at the level above the formula; yet at the same time they do not neglect the brilliant texture of Homeric verse at the level of the line and the phrase.” –The Yale Review
“[In] Robert Fitzgerald’s translation . . . 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, and this line-by-line vigilance builds up into a completely credible imagined world.”
–from the Introduction by Seamus Heaney
About the Author
Homer was probably born around 725BC on the Coast of Asia Minor, now the coast of Turkey, but then really a part of Greece. Homer was the first Greek writer whose work survives.
He was one of a long line of bards, or poets, who worked in the oral tradition. Homer and other bards of the time could recite, or chant, long epic poems. Both works attributed to Homer – the Iliad and the Odyssey – are over ten thousand lines long in the original. Homer must have had an amazing memory but was helped by the formulaic poetry style of the time.
In the Iliad Homer sang of death and glory, of a few days in the struggle between the Greeks and the Trojans. Mortal men played out their fate under the gaze of the gods. The Odyssey is the original collection of tall traveller’s tales. Odysseus, on his way home from the Trojan War, encounters all kinds of marvels from one-eyed giants to witches and beautiful temptresses. His adventures are many and memorable before he gets back to Ithaca and his faithful wife Penelope.
We can never be certain that both these stories belonged to Homer. In fact ‘Homer’ may not be a real name but a kind of nickname meaning perhaps ‘the hostage’ or ‘the blind one’. Whatever the truth of their origin, the two stories, developed around three thousand years ago, may well still be read in three thousand years’ time.
E. V. Rieu was a celebrated translator from Latin and Greek, and editor of Penguin Classics from 1944-1964. His son, D. C. H. Rieu has revised his work.
D. C. H. Rieu is the son of E. V. Rieu, celebrated translator from Latin and Greek and Editor of Penguin Classics from 1944-1964.
Peter Jones is former lecturer in classics at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.
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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.
It comes with an incredibly helpful and interesting glossary. I also really appreciated that the names are in their Greek spelling and not latinized, which even the Fagles translation still does.
I'm going to reread it soon, it was simply so enjoyable.
I can only highly recommend this translation, I felt it was the closest I could come to experience the Iliad in the original.
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