Welcome Homer!

Homer: The Iliad

translated by Robert Fagles, introduction and notes by Bernard Knox
Viking, 683 pp., $35.00

The Iliad for Speaking Steingrabenstrasse 20, 8036 Briebrunntam Ammersee, Germany)

translated by Michael Reck
Porpentine Press, 436 pp., $40.00 (available from the publisher, Porpentine Press,

The Odyssey of Homer

a new verse translation by Allen Mandelbaum
University of California Press, 526 pp., $35.00


Homer has never lacked readers, not even during the long period in which the essential unity of his poems was denied, and all the problems presented by the poems were solved in terms of conflicting theories of multiple authorship, so that finally scholars questioned even his ability to depart from a limited collection of traditional set phrases. Each new generation is bound to produce new translations and new interpretations; these are not necessarily better than the old, but must be tested against them by careful comparison. Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad (1951) and Odyssey (1965)1 were considered by many as the best available translations into modern English verse, and Robert Fitzgerald’s translations2 have also had admirers. Now here are new versions of the Iliad by Robert Fagles, who has translated the Greek lyric poet Bacchylides, the Oresteia of Aeschylus, and the Theban plays of Sophocles, and by Michael Reck, who is known as a poet and as a friend of Ezra Pound, and of the Odyssey by Allen Mandelbaum, who has translated the Aeneid and the Divine Comedy, as well as Ungaretti and Quasimodo.

Fagles’s version has the great advantage of being prefaced by an excellent introduction by Bernard Knox, which provides the general reader with a reliable account of the present state of Homeric studies. The eighteenth century, he tells us, saw two striking departures from previous attitudes to the Homeric poems. First, its strict rationality led it to discover in the poems many inconsistencies and illogicalities, which led to the belief that they could not be the productions of a single author. Secondly, the preoccupation with folk tradition and popular poetry that set in toward the middle of the century, whose most startling result was the craze for the sham Scottish folk poetry of Ossian, encouraged the notion that the Homeric poems were the creation of “the people,” an accretion of shorter poems composed by various authors and later loosely put together. The suggestion that the poems had been composed orally had been put forward as early as the first century of the common era by the Jewish historian Josephus, and now it was revived, the first systematic theory of oral composition being put forward in 1795 by the famous German classical scholar Friedrich August Wolf.3

Throughout the century that followed the debate initiated by Wolf continued. In 1832 the great scholar Gottfried Hermann, like Wolf a friend of Goethe, argued that the original nucleus of the poems continued to be amplified over a long period of time. This remained the most popular view for the remainder of the nineteenth century, though different scholars gave different accounts of how this had occurred. In 1916 another great German scholar, Ulrich von Wilamowitz-Moellendorff, argued that the nucleus of the poems had come into being not at the beginning but in the middle of the development of the tradition of heroic poetry, and for a long time this view became the most fashionable. But in England and America certain scholars defended a unitarian point of view, some of them attempting to win support for their opinion by an appeal to anti-German prejudice.

In 1928 a young Californian scholar, Milman Parry, published in French two books that in time came to transform the entire discussion. He gave substance to the case for oral composition by showing that many features of the language, style, and dialect of the poems could be explained only by the assumption that they were dictated by its needs. Continental scholars for a long time clung to their traditional ways of analyzing the poems, but in English-speaking countries Parry’s theory found wide acceptance. Parry had certainly proved that the poems belonged to a tradition that had begun by being oral, and many people assumed that they must have been composed orally.

During the last years before his untimely death in 1936, Parry was engaged in studying and recording the last phases of the Serbo-Croatian tradition of heroic poetry, the last in Europe to retain its oral character. After his death the work was continued by his assistant Albert Lord, who later became Professor of Slavic and Comparative Literature at Harvard.

Lord, in his book The Singer of Tales4 and elsewhere, continued to argue that the poems must have been composed orally. For many years he maintained that the coming of literacy meant immediate death to any oral tradition; he therefore suggested that Homer must have dictated his poems to another person. Other scholars have thought that the poems were transmitted orally over a long period before being written down. Our earliest specimens of Greek writing in the Greek alphabet date from the second half of the eighth century BC, and it has long been fashionable to suppose that it was adapted from the Phoenician syllabary at that time.

Those people, who have been referred to as “hard-core Parryites,” were led by their belief that the Homeric poems contain a very great number of frequently repeated “formulas,” convenient for improvisation, into taking a very limited view of the artistic possibilities which this left open to the poets; they held, to use the words of G.S. Kirk, that “a large number of crystallized formulas are used with an astonishing economy and lack of unnecessary variation.” 5 Lord delivered a solemn warning against what he called “the subjective interpretation and appreciation of the Homeric poems.”

Lord was not a professional Greek scholar, but others who were went still further in this direction. “For subtlety of soul, complexity of character, true portrayal of personality,” wrote Sir Denys Page, at that time Regius Professor of Greek at Cambridge, “for these we must wait until the practice of the art of writing affords the poet the necessary leisure and necessary means for reflexion for planning the future in some detail and for correcting the past.” “Intricacy of design and subtleties of soul,” he added later, “wholly alien to the oral technique of composition have been sought (and found) in him.” These words imply that they were not there; but the pronouncement runs counter to the collective judgment of Homer’s readers throughout the centuries.

Parry had proved that the Homeric poems belonged to a tradition that had originally been oral; but had he proved that they had been composed without the aid of writing? Sir Maurice Bowra in his book Heroic Poetry,6 which discussed not only Serbo-Croatian heroic poetry but the heroic poetry of many different peoples, argued that they had not; and the detailed studies of many different heroic traditions which, largely as a result of Parry’s work, have been carried out in recent years offer powerful support to this opinion. Ruth Finnegan in her book Oral Poetry7 has drawn attention to early English and modern Bantu poems that have many features associated with oral techniques, but are known to have been composed with the aid of writing. Both the Iliad and the Odyssey contain elaborate links between their different parts, which seem very unlikely to have been produced by oral composition; and it has been shown that many of the inconsistencies and awkwardnesses alleged to provide evidence for multiple authorship can be explained by anyone who is willing to study the technique of heroic poetry patiently and to distinguish it from the techniques proper to other poetic genres, such as that of tragedy.

That Homer used writing was the opinion of the distinguished Austrian scholar Albin Lesky, the author of a standard history of Greek literature, who was the first eminent German-speaking scholar to take proper account of Parry’s work. It was also the opinion of Parry’s gifted son, Adam Parry, who in 1971, the year of his lamented early death, brought out a collection of his father’s writings, translating those which had been written in French and adding an introduction which is a most important original contribution to Homeric scholarship.8 Everyone who has examined the concept of the “formula” with real care has been forced to the conclusion that it is extremely flexible and adaptable; and Parry’s “theory of economy” has been effectively criticized by David Shive.9

The basic unity of the poems and their freedom from the narrow constraints once held to have been imposed by their oral composition are upheld by the authors of three of the finest modern studies of Homer: Jasper Griffin’s Homer on Life and Death, Colin Macleod’s Homer, Iliad Book XXIV, and Uvo Hölscher, Die Odyssee: Eposzwischen Märchen und Roman10 Alfred Heubeck in the admirable introduction to the valuable commentary on the Odyssey first published in Italian by the Fondazione Lorenzo Valla and now appearing in an English translation11 gives a full-account of the whole modern discussion, with which Knox’s introduction is very much in harmony.

I have mentioned that most classical scholars believe that the Greek alphabet came into existence as late as the eighth century BC, from whose second half most of our earliest specimens of Greek writing date. They have remained strangely indifferent to the opinions expressed by certain Orientalists, who believe that this date is too late. In 1973 Joseph Naveh argued from the study of Semitic inscriptions that the Greek alphabet was invented as early as the second millenium BC; that seems to be too early a date, but a strong argument for placing it not later than the ninth century BC is put forward by P. Kyle McCarter, Jr. as long ago as 1975.12 After all, the Greek hexameter verses inscribed on the so-called cup of Nestor found at Ischia and dating from the late eighth century suggest that hexameter poetry was familiar to the society in which it came into existence.

In all probability the alphabet was devised for commercial purposes by persons engaged in trade with the Phoenicians; and when one considers the nature of the earliest writing materials, which were perishable in a high degree, it is hardly surprising that the earliest specimens should not have survived. Yet the poets must have seen how useful writing could be to them.

In later times, the two great epics were recited in their entirety by relays of speakers at the Athenian festival of the Panathenaea. They may well have been originally designed for recitation at such a festival; H.T. Wade Gery suggested in 195213 that they were recited at the festival of the Panionion, held at Mycale, on the coast of Asia Minor opposite the island of Samos. Thus the great poet, or poets—for there is much to be said for the view, held by some people even in antiquity, that the poets of the Iliad and the Odyssey were different—may well have come not at the beginning or in the middle but at the end of the tradition.

Matthew Arnold delivered his famous lectures, On Translating Homer,14 in 1860–1861, when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The recommendations he made to translators writing in his own time can be of little value to translators of today, since they were given in very different conditions; but his judgment of earlier translations and his analysis of the problems a translator has to face can still be studied with great profit.

Arnold, who had had an excellent classical education, was well aware that no rendering into any modern language can give anything more than a faint impression of the effect of this poetry on readers who know it in the original. One must know an ancient language, or at least an Oriental language, to get any idea of the radical differences that may separate ancient Greek from any modern language.

First, Greek is a fully inflected language, which means that the order of words may be varied without altering the meaning of the sentence. Thus the first line of the Iliad, in which the poet asks the Muse to sing of the anger of Achilles, begins with the word for anger; since this is the object of the verb “sing,” it is in the accusative case, and has a different ending from the nominative, menin instead of menis. The Elizabethan translator George Chapman, praised by Keats in a famous sonnet, begins “Achilles’ baneful wrath”; Pope begins “The Wrath of Peleus’ Son”; Lattimore departs from the order with “Sing, goddess, the anger,” but Robert Fitzgerald starts with “Anger be now your song,” and Fagles with “Rage—sing the rage.”

Next, the meter of the poem, the dactylic hexameter, cannot be adequately reproduced in English. True, some English and many German translators have rendered Homer into modern hexameters; but since Greek meter depends on the quantity of the vowels, which make up long or short syllables, while modern meter depends on stress accent, the effect cannot be the same. The first four feet of the hexameter may be dactyls (– ) or spondees (– –); the fifth is almost always a dactyl and the sixth always a spondee. This gives a long line, whose movement is not only swift but flowing. The effect of it is different from that of any meter that is iambic, and it seems to me that any translator who renders Homer into iambic verse is handicapped.

Arnold has characterized Homeric style in a famous passage which has been often quoted and whose truth has never been gainsaid. “The translator of Homer,” he wrote, “should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author:—that he is eminently plain and direct, both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and in deed; and finally that he is eminently noble.” Arnold felt that Cowper had failed duly to appreciate the first of these qualities, that Pope had failed to appreciate the second, and that Chapman had failed to appreciate the third. Modern translators find it hardest to achieve nobility, which means dignity, the sense of the heroic, the avoidance of modern colloquialism.

Arnold is surely right in remarking that the reason why Cowper fails to reproduce Homer’s rapidity is that the Miltonic blank verse, the iambic pentameter, which he employs is alien to the movement of Homeric verse. It is doubtful whether any meter that is essentially iambic can properly render what Arnold calls “the directness and flowingness of Homer.”

In recent times the iambic pentameter has been employed by Robert Fitzgerald,15 and it was not a fortunate choice; it gives too short a line, as well as too slow a movement. Reck has chosen the same meter, a ten-syllable, iambic line, which seems to him “best for rendering Homer’s metrical tautness.” Pope’s verse is taut; Homer’s is not taut, but easy, flowing, relaxed.

Fagles has adopted what he calls “a loose five- or six-beat line, but inclining more to six, and expanding at times to seven beats”; this, too, is basically an iambic meter. Lattimore, on the other hand, wrote that his aim had been “to give a rendering of the Iliad which will convey the meaning of the Greek in a speed and rhythm analogous to the speed and rhythm I find in the original”; accordingly he used for both poems “a free six-beat line.” It could hardly, he adds, be called an English hexameter, and it is not based on a quantitative theory. He has allowed anapaests for dactyls and even iambs for spondees; the line is to be read, he says, “with its natural force, not forced into any system.”

In point of meter, it seems to me, Lattimore has a distinct advantage over more recent translators. Arnold observed that there was one English book, and one only, where, as in the Iliad itself, perfect plainness of speech is allied with perfect nobleness, and that that book is the authorized version of the Bible. In consequence the language of the Bible had a powerful influence on the prose translations of the Odyssey in which the man of letters Andrew Lang collaborated with the Cambridge scholar S.H. Butcher (1899), and of the Iliad, in which Lang’s collaborators were the distinguished Homeric scholar Walter Leaf and the man of letters F.W.H. Myers (1883), which until well into the twentieth century continued to be the most popular renderings of Homer into English.

In their own assumptions, these were excellent translations; but their marked archaism was bound to provoke a reaction in the opposite direction. Samuel Butler reacted strongly against the classical and clerical schoolmasters who were his ancestors; think of his account of Ernest Pontifex’s father, Theobald, in The Way of All Flesh. His Odyssey (1900), done into colloquial English, was meant to shock. Reprinted now, it might have great success since he contended that the poem was written by a woman; but at the time it did not much impair the popularity of the Lang versions. But in the antiheroic atmosphere of the period following the First World War, Butler had many followers.

One of these was T.E. Lawrence, whose translation of the Odyssey, under the name of T.E. Shaw, appeared in 1932, causing Max Beerbohm to remark that he would rather not have written that translation than have taken Damascus. Another was W.H.D. Rouse (Odyssey, 1937; Iliad, 1938), a better scholar than Butler or Lawrence, and a lively writer, but one who nourished the strange belief that Homer had written in the colloquial language of his own day. It is hard not to notice that the language of the epics is a highly artificial poetic language, and Rouse’s version was not successful.

But after the Second World War, the antiheroic trend continued. Penguin Books profited hugely from the popular success of the translations by E.V. Rieu (Odyssey, 1946; Iliad, 1947), who in the words of Adam Parry “discovered that Homer was really Trollope”; these versions, written in a prose not much more distinguished than that of the late Agatha Christie, enjoyed a commercial success almost comparable with hers. Even such a poet as Robert Graves was so much preoccupied with the antiheroic reaction that he produced a very unpoetical translation of the Iliad (1959).16

But in America some people realized that much ground lay between the biblicizing archaism of the Lang versions and the pedestrian colloquialism of the others. Richmond Lattimore (1906–1984), a younger brother of the celebrated Sinologist Owen Lattimore, graduated from Dartmouth College, took a second degree at Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, and later obtained a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he worked under W.A. Oldfather, a scholar who maintained the full rigor of the best German philological tradition. Rejecting offers from several great universities, Lattimore spent virtually his whole career as a professor at Bryn Mawr. He was a Greek scholar of great distinction, who could have achieved much in pure scholarship had he not felt it more important to provide modern readers with the best possible translations of Greek poetry. His decision was surely right. Lattimore was a genuine poet in his own right, and his poetic gifts combined with his excellent knowledge of Greek and his respect for the originals to produce translations of high quality. Besides the Iliad and the Odyssey, Lattimore translated Hesiod, Pindar, selected lyric poems, and several tragedies, and after his retirement produced a version of the New Testament17 which deserves to be better known than it is, being both more accurate and more felicitous than other modern renderings.

Though Homer used a poetic dialect, Lattimore did not translate him into one; he used “the plainest language he could find which might be adequate, and mostly this is the language of contemporary prose.” He did not consciously pursue nobility, and he tried to avoid mistranslation, which he wrote “would be caused by rating the word of my own choice ahead of the word which translates the Greek.” Still, it seems to me that he has done better with nobility, as well as with accuracy, than any other modern verse translator, as I shall presently set out to show.

Robert Fitzgerald was a poet of undeniable talent; but unlike Lattimore he chose to employ the iambic pentameter, and unlike Lattimore he often rates the word of his own choice ahead of the word that translates the Greek. Fitzgerald’s versions are sensitive and delicate productions, but he is a good deal less successful than Lattimore in making an impression like the impression made by Homer. Adam Parry after quoting a beautiful passage from Fitzgerald’s Odyssey remarks that “in the handsomest lines of the passage there is a suffusion of the exquisite, a delicate incongruity of diction, that makes poetry at the expense of the true Homeric firmness.” This is true of Fitzgerald’s translations in general, and it explains why I cannot agree with Adam Parry in thinking Fitzgerald’s Odyssey to be “the best translation of Greek poetry, not excluding Lattimore’s Iliad, to appear in many decades.” Albert Cook (Odyssey, 1967, with useful illustrative matter) is a scholar but not a poet;18 Lattimore is both, and has managed to make use of the qualities of both in making his translations.

The American reaction against pedestrian translation has fortunately not been quite without effect in England. True, England can show nothing in the way of modern verse translations. But in 1980 the Oxford University Press brought a good prose version by Walter Shewring;19 and though out of misplaced sentimentality the Penguin Classics continue to reprint Rieu’s Trollopian travesty, they have made partial atonement by bringing out in 1987 a far better prose translation, both dignified and accurate, by Martin Hammond.20 For all the excellence of Lattimore, some readers will find these books more useful than any translations into verse.


Let us now examine specimen passages of the new translations and compare them with the old. Michael Reck’s version certainly moves rapidly, though its often jerky movement is very different from the fluidity of Homer. Plainness and directness it has in full, and indeed excessive, measure; it manages to render the original more or less by line at the price of considerable simplification, innumerable nuances being missed. For nobility it gets a C, descending as it often does not merely into colloquialism but into crudity.

Here is Reck’s rendering of the speech of the lame craftsman god Hephaetus (Iliad I, 573 ff. ), made in order to put a stop to a quarrel between his parents, Zeus and Hera:

Oh my, oh my, this is simply dreadful,
you two quarreling because of mortals
and making such a fuss. Our glorious feasts
won’t be a bit nice with this contention.
I should think my mother might be wiser
and treat mighty Zeus affectionately
so he won’t scold her and ruin our feasts.
Why, what if that Lightning-Lord took a mind
to bowl us over? He very well could.
Be kindly to the Olympian, mother,
and soon he’ll be gracious again, I’m sure.

Oh my, oh my!” one cannot help echoing, “this is simply dreadful!” But this passage, with its semicomic element, does not bring out the best of Reck as translator. A better specimen of his work is offered by his rendering of the famous description (which Tennyson also memorably translated) of the Trojan watchfires at the end of the eighth book of the Iliad:

Thus, their hearts high with hope, those Trojans stayed
through the long night with many bonfires lit.
As stars are a-gleam about the bright moon
splendidly clear on some windless evening,
and everywhere appear peaks and headlands
and valleys, till the firmament bursts forth
with all its stars, and a shepherd is glad:
thus the bonfires of those Trojan warriors
glittered between the ships and Xanthus’ streams.
A thousand fires burned on the plain, by each
fifty men seated in a gleam of flame,
while their horses munched white barley and rye
and stood by the chariots, await- ing Dawn.

This is Reck at his best. Let us see how he renders another famous passage, the speech of Achilles to the aged king, Priam (Iliad, XXIV, 518 ff.), who has made his way to Achilles’ tent in order to persuade him to return the body of his son Hector, whom Achilles has lately killed in battle:

Poor man, you’ve suffered much tribulation.
How could you go among the ships alone
and face the one who has mur- dered many
fine sons of yours? Your heart is of iron!
Now take a seat on this chair and we
may forget our sorrows for a moment,
since chill lamentation is so use- less.
The gods have spun this fate for wretched men:
to live in pain, while they them- selves have none.
Two jars are on the floor of Zeus’s home,
one with gifts of evil, one with blessings.
And a man Zeus has given both kinds mixed
sometimes encounters evil, some- times good—
but a man with the bad is an out- cast
and stalks wildly over the face of earth
honoured neither by gods nor by mortals.

This is by no means bad, though in the third line “murdered” is not the right word, while in the fifth line, “Now do take a seat on this chair” has an unfortunately modern ring, and in the sixth line and also in the last line but two the translator has declined to face up to a difficulty and has put down something that is not really equivalent to what Homer says.

Now I come to Fagles’s version, which has many admirable qualities. The author has taken great care to make it easy for people unfamiliar with Greek mythology to understand the poet in places where he is presuming that his hearers or readers will possess that knowledge. His beautifully produced book is equipped with maps, glossaries, and aids to pronunciation, and as I have already said, it has a great asset in Knox’s introduction and some useful notes of his. Its value to the many professors who teach Homer in translation will be considerable.

Apart from these external advantages, it has a good many intrinsic merits. Curiously enough, Fagles is strong where Reck is strong and weak where Reck is weak; but Fagles is stronger in his good qualities than Reck is, and less weak in his bad ones. His version is undeniably rapid. It is also plain and direct; but like Reck’s, though not so much as Reck’s, both its thought and its language are sometimes too plain. Like Reck, he is deficient in nobility, though never to the same degree as Reck is deficient in passages like the speech of Hephaestus quoted above. A review in a newspaper says that Fagles is more “with it” than Lattimore; that is true, though to me this does not seem entirely a matter for congratulation.

This is how Fagles renders the speech of Hephaestus to his mother:

Oh disaster…
that’s what it is! And it will be unbearable
if the two of you must come to blows this way,
flinging the gods in chaos just for mortal men.
No more joy in the groaning, sumptuous feast
When riot rules the day.
I urge you, mother—you know that I am right
work back into his good graces, so the Father,
our beloved Father will never wheel on us again,
send our banquets crashing! The Olympian lord of lightning—
what if he would like to blast us from our seats?
He is far too strong. Go back to him, mother,
stroke the Father with soft, win- ning words—
at once the Olympian will be kind to us again.

Oh, disaster” is better than “Oh my”; but “that’s what it is,” which corresponds to nothing in the Greek strikes a distastefully modern note. “Come to blows” is too strong; the word Homer uses means “quarrel.” The word translated “chaos” means “brawling,” not quite the same thing. Where Fagles says “the groaning, sumptuous feast,” Homer says “the good feast”; where Fagles says “if riot rules the day,” Homer says “if what is worse prevails.” Hephaestus tactfully says “I advise my mother—and she herself has understanding”; but Fagles makes him say “you know that I am right,” which would be less likely to placate the goddess. “Wheel on us” translates “rebuke us,” and “send our banquets crashing” is an over-translation. This is better than Reck’s rendering of the passage, but it is not very distinguished.

Let us now turn to Fagles’s rendering of the passage about the Trojan watchfires:

And so their spirits soared
as they took positions down the passageways of battle
all night long, and the watchfires blazed among them.
Hundreds strong, as stars in the night sky glittering
round the moon’s brilliance blaze in all their glory
when the air falls to a sudden, windless calm…
all the lookout peaks stand out and the jutting cliffs
and the steep ravines and down from the high heavens bursts
the boundless bright air and all the stars shine clear
and the shepherd’s heart exults—so many fires burned
between the ships and the Xan- thus’ whirling rapids
set by the men of Troy, bright against their walls.
A thousand fires were burning there on the plain
and beside each fire sat fifty fight- ing men
poised in the leaping blaze, and champing oats
and glistening barley, stationed by their chariots,
stallions waited for Dawn to mount her glowing throne.

This is Fagles at his best. In the second line, “down the passageways of battle” well renders a difficult expression—the literal meaning is “the bridges of battle”—which Reck has simply dodged. But Fagles sometimes cannot resist trying to improve on Homer. In the eighth line “valleys” become “steep ravines,” in the ninth “boundless” is not in the Greek, and in the eleventh “streams” have become “whirling rapids.” Two lines from the end, “poised in the leaping blaze” is not without appeal, but Reck with “in a gleam of flame” renders what is in the Greek. Reck’s version may have less color, but it scores by its simplicity.

So we come to Fagles’s version of Achilles’ words to Priam:

Poor man, how much you’ve borne—pain to break the spirit!
What daring brought you down to the ships, all alone,
to face the glance of the man who killed your sons,
so many fine brave boys? You have a heart of iron.
Come, please sit down on this chair here…
Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts,
rake them up no more, raw as we are with mourning.
What good’s to be won from tears that chill the spirit?
So the immortals spun our lives that we, we wretched men
live on to bear such torments—the gods live free of sorrows.
There are two great jars that stand on the floor of Zeus’s halls
and hold his gifts, our miseries one, the other blessings.
When Zeus who loves the light- ning mixes gifts for a man,
now he meets with misfortune, now good times in turn.
When Zeus dispenses gifts from the jar of sorrows only,
he makes a man an outcast—bru- tal, ravenous hunger
drives him down the face of the shining earth,
stalking far and wide, cursed by gods and men.

In the fourth line, the word “boys” introduces a disagreeable sentimentality. One cannot quarrel with “Come, please sit down on this chair”; but Lattimore’s “Come then, and sit down upon this chair!” is somehow better. In the sixth line, “Let us put our griefs to rest in our own hearts” is a fine rendering of something Reck does not even try to translate, but the line that follows goes unnecessarily far from the original, which means simply “stricken as we are.” “Brutal, ravenous hunger” is another good rendering of an expression Reck does not even try to cope with. I wonder why both translators have used the word “stalks,” which is not prompted by the Greek.

Now let us take a look at the renderings of the same passages by the old master, Lattimore. The speech of Hephaestus in his version runs as follows:

This will be a disastrous matter and not endurable
if you two are to quarrel thus for the sake of mortals
and bring brawling among the gods. There will be no pleasure
in the stately feast at all, since vile things will be uppermost.
And I entreat my mother, though she herself understands it
to be ingratiating toward our fa- ther Zeus, that no longer
our father may scold her and break up the quiet of our feasting
For if the Olympian who handles the lightning should be minded
to hurl us out of our places, he is far too strong for any.
Do you therefore approach him again with word made gentle,
and at once the Olympian will be gracious again to us.

I do not see how anyone, even if not acquainted with the original, can fail to see that this is far superior to the renderings of Reck and Fagles. Without using archaism, Lattimore is dignified, indeed noble, and he keeps appreciably clearer to the meaning of the original.

Here is Lattimore’s version of the description of the Trojan watchfires:

So with hearts made high these sat night-long by the outworks
of battle, and their watchfires blazed numerous about them.
As when in the sky the stars about the moon’s shining
are seen in all their glory, when the air has fallen to stillness,
and all the high places of the hills are clear, and the shoulders out- jutting,
and the deep ravines, as endless bright air spills from the heavens
and all the stars are seen, to make glad the heart of shepherd;
such in their numbers blazed the watchfires the Trojans were burning
between the waters of Xanthos and the ships, before Ilion.
A thousand fires were burning there in the plain, and beside each
one sat fifty men in the flare of the blazing firelight.
And standing each beside his chariot, champing white barley
and oats, the horses waited for the dawn to mount to her high place.

There is little to choose between this rendering and that of Fagles, who has coped more successfully with the “bridges of war” in the first line. But the reader who knows the original will notice places where Fagles has tried to improve on the Greek without success, and will applaud the greater fidelity of Lattimore. Even the Greekless reader may observe the advantage Lattimore gets from his longer and more flowing line, and the superiority of his rhythm.

Lastly, let us look at Lattimore’s rendering of Achilles’ words to Priam:

Ah, unlucky,
surely you have had much evil to endure in your spirit.
How could you dare to come alone to the ships of the Achaians
and before my eyes, when I am one who have killed in such numbers
such brave sons of yours? The heart in you is iron. Come, then,
and sit down upon this chair, and you and I will even let
our sorrows lie still in the heart for all our grieving. There is not
any advantage to be won from grim lamentation.
Such is the way the gods spun life for unfortunate mortals,
that we live in unhappiness, but the gods themselves have no sorrows.
There are two urns that stand on the door-sill of Zeus. They are unlike
for the gifts that they bestow: an urn of evils, an urn of blessings.
If Zeus who delights in thunder mingles these and bestows them
on man, he shifts, and moves now in evil, again in good fortune.
But when Zeus bestows from the urn of sorrows, he makes a failure
of man, and the evil hunger drives him over the shining
earth, and he wanders respected neither of gods nor mortals.

Again, I think Lattimore has the advantage, though in the last two lines Fagles’s word “outcast” is better than Lattimore’s word “failure”; but the word used in the Greek is a strong word, often to be translated “mutilated.”

Allen Mandelbaum’s translation of the Odyssey offers neither introduction nor notes but appends an afterword, containing a somewhat vague and woolly discussion of the problem of unity. He has used the Lorenzo Valla commentary, and mentions the names of other scholarly works; he also offers a glossary. He would have done well to follow the example of Fagles in turning to a professional Greek scholar for an introduction.21 His book is beautifully printed and produced, but is disfigured by twelve gloomy and unsightly engravings by Marialuisa de Romanes, an artist who might suitably illustrate the works of Poe, but whose work is singularly remote from the spirit of Homeric or indeed any Greek poetry. Mandelbaum writes in iambic pentameters, competent but uninspired. Here is his translation of the speech (Odyssey, VI, 149 ff.) that Odysseus, who has been washed up naked on the coast of Phaeacia, addresses to the beautiful daughter of the king, Nausicaa, who happens to be the first person he encounters:

O Queen, I do implore: Are you divine
or mortal? If you are a goddess—one
of those who have vast heaven as their home—
then I should liken you most closely to
the daughter of great Zeus: you surely are
an Artemis in form and face and stature.
But if you are a mortal, an earth- dweller,
then both your father and your noble mother
are three times blessed, and three times blessed, your brothers
their hearts are surely always glad to see
so fair a blossom entering the dance.
But one whose heart is blessed above the rest
is he who, wooing you with comely gifts,
will lead you to his house, for I confess,
my eyes have never seen so fair a mortal—
neither a man nor a woman: as I look
at you, I am amazed. Just once, at Delos,
beside Apollo’s altar, have I seen
a tender palm-shoot rise so grace- fully
(for I have gone to Delos, too—and many
fine followers were with me on that journey,
the start of so much misery for me).
And just as, when I saw that palm, my wonder
was piercing, lasting, for no trunk has ever
grown from the earth to match that tree, so, lady,
I marvel at you, am amazed; my fear
is deep—I plead but dare not clasp your knees.

These are not bad lines, but they help to show why Arnold disapproved of the use of the iambic pentameter in translating Homer; it gives too short a line, and quite fails to suggest the flowing movement of the original. Let us contrast it with Lattimore’s rendering of the same passage:

I am at your knees, O queen. But are you mortal or goddess?
If indeed you are one of the gods who hold wide heaven,
then I must find in you the nearest likeness to Artemis
the daughter of great Zeus, for beauty, figure, and stature.
But if you are one among those mortals who live in this country,
three times blessed are your father and the lady your mother,
and three times blessed your brothers, too, and I know their spirits
are warmed forever with happi- ness at the thought of you, seeing
such a slip of beauty taking her place in the chorus of dancers;
but blessed at the heart, even be- yond these others, is that one
who, after loading you down with gifts, leads you as his bride
home. I have never with these eyes seen anything like you,
neither man nor woman. Wonder takes me as I look on you.
Yet in Delos once I saw such a thing, by Apollo’s altar.
I saw the stalk of a young palm shooting up. I had gone there
once, and with a following of a great many people,
on that journey which was to mean hard suffering for me.
And as, when I looked upon that tree, my heart admired it
long, since such a tree had never yet sprung from the earth, so
now, lady, I admire you and won- der, and am terribly
afraid to clasp you by the knees. The hard sorrow is on me.

In the first line, Lattimore’s “I am at your knees”’ is a literal translation of the word Homer uses; since Odysseus will later explain that he is afraid actually to perform this gesture of supplication, it is worthwhile to make it clear that he has already done so metaphorically. In the fifth line, Lattimore makes a rare error; the words he translates “in this country” mean “on earth.” In the eighth line, Lattimore keeps Homer’s metaphor when he says “warmed,” and in the same sentence “such a slip of beauty” perfectly brings out the impact of Homer’s word. Two lines later, the verb used of the bridegroom’s bringing gifts is accurately brought out by Lattimore’s word “loading,” though it is unfortunate that his wording seems to imply that the bride herself will have to carry the gifts away. Yet Lattimore not only keeps closer to Homer’s words than Mandelbaum, but closer to his spirit; his felicitous touches do not depart from the sense of the original.

Next let us consider Mandelbaum’s rendering of the speech made by Polyphemus, the Cyclops, after Odysseus, who has seen him devour six companions, has got him drunk and managed to put out his single eye (Odyssey, IX, 447 ff.). Odysseus has given his name as No-one, so that when the other Cyclops hear the cries of Polyphemus and ask from outside his cave what is the matter, he has replied that No-one is hurting him, and they go away. The men place themselves underneath the monster’s sheep, clinging to their fleeces, so that when he lets the sheep out of the cave they can escape, and the last of all is Odysseus, clinging to the great ram which is usually the leader of the flock. It is to this ram that Polyphemus speaks:

Dear ram, why are you the last to leave this cave?
You never lagged behind the other sheep;
you always were the very first to leave,
always the first to hurry out to feed,
to pasture on the tender grass, to leap
with long strides toward the river- side, to seek
the fold with longing when the sun had set.

But now you are the last to go. I’m sure
that you are grieving for your master’s eye;
a coward and his crew first dimmed my mind
with their damned wine. That done, they left me blind.
I don’t think death has caught that No-one yet.
Would you could think and speak and tell me where
he’s hiding from my fury! I would dash
his brains across this cave: to smash him so
would free me from this No-one pest, these woes.

This runs well until the tenth line, but the rhymed couplet that we find there is not felicitous. Mandelbaum’s habit of occasionally breaking into rhyme is unfortunate. In the next line there is a bad mistake; the words rendered by “I don’t think death has caught that No-one yet” mean “who I do not think has yet escaped from destruction.” Nor is the Cyclops quite so foolish as to think that if he can kill Odysseus he will be free from his woes; he simply says that this would give him relief from them.

Here is Lattimore’s version of the passage:

My dear old ram, why are you thus leaving the cave last of
the sheep? Never in the old days were you left behind by
the flock, but long-striding, far ahead of the rest would pasture
on the tender bloom of the grass, be first at running rivers,
and be eager always to lead the way first back to the sheepfold
at evening. Now you are last of all. Perhaps you are grieving
for your master’s eye, which a bad man with his wicked companions
put out, after he had made my brain helpless with wine, this
Nobody, who I think has not yet got clear of destruction.
If only you could think like us and only be given
a voice, to tell me where he is skulking away from my anger,
then surely he would be smashed against the floor and his brains go
spattering all over the cave to make my heart lighter
from the burden of all the evils this niddering Nobody gave me.

This is not only closer to the original; it is better and more colorful verse than that of Mandelbaum. In the second line, “in the old days” is a touch worth preserving which Mandelbaum has let go; so, in the fourth line from the end, is “think like us.” In the last line Lattimore has tried, not without success, to give a notion of a play on words which Mandelbaum has not attempted.

None of the new versions is without merit, but Lattimore still remains in possession of the field. No wonder; in our age, we do not often find a fine scholar who is also a genuine poet and who takes the greatest pains over the work of translation.

  1. 1

    The Iliad of Homer, translated by Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1951); The Odyssey of Homer, translated and with an introduction by Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1965).

  2. 2

    Robert Fitzgerald, Homer: the ‘Iliad’ (1979) and Homer: the ‘Odyssey’ (1961), both Anchor Press/Doubleday.

  3. 3

    Prolegomena ad Homerum (in Latin); an English translation by Anthony Grafton, Glenn W. Most, and James E.G. Zetzel under the title F.A. Wolf, Prolegomena to Homer, 1795 (Princeton University Press, 1985).

  4. 4

    Harvard University Press, 1960.

  5. 5

    G.S. Kirk, Homer and the Oral Tradition (Cambridge University Press, 1976), pp. 115–116.

  6. 6

    C.M. Bowra, Heroic Poetry (Oxford University Press, 1952).

  7. 7

    Oral Poetry: Its Nature, Significance and Social Context (Cambridge University Press, 1977).

  8. 8

    Milman Parry, The Making of Homeric Verse, edited by Adam Parry (Oxford University Press, 1971). Adam Parry’s introduction is reprinted in his The Language of Achilles and Other Papers (Oxford University Press, 1989).

  9. 9

    David M. Shive, Naming Achilles (Oxford University Press, 1987).

  10. 10

    Jasper Griffin, Homer on Life and Death (Oxford University Press, 1980); Colin Macleod, Iliad: Book XXIV (Cambridge University Press, 1982); Uvo Hölscher, Die Odyssee: Epos zwischen Märchen und Roman (Munich: C.D. Beck, 1988).

  11. 11

    A. Heubeck, S. West, J.B. Hainsworth, A. Hoekstra, J. Russo, M.F. Galiano, A Commentary on Homer’s Odyssey, 3 volumes (Oxford University Press, 1988–1990).

  12. 12

    P. Kyle McCarter, Jr., The Antiquity of the Greek Alphabet and the Early Phoenician Script (Harvard Semitic Monographs/Scholars Press, No. 9, 1975).

  13. 13

    The Poet of the Iliad (Cambridge University Press, 1952).

  14. 14

    They are reprinted in the first volume of R.H. Super’s fine edition of Arnold’s prose works, Matthew Arnold: On the Classical Tradition (University of Michigan Press, 1960), pp. 97–258.

  15. 15

    Reproduced as a Galaxy Book by Oxford University Press, 1956.

  16. 16

    Robert Graves, The Anger of Achilles (Doubleday, 1959).

  17. 17

    Hesiod, The Works and Days; Theogony; The Shield of Herakles (University of Michigan Press, 1959); The Odes of Pindar (University of Chicago Press, 1947; second edition, 1976); Greek Lyrics (University of Chicago Press, 1955); tragedies in The Complete Greek Tragedies, edited by David Grene and Richmond Lattimore (University of Chicago Press, 1959); and also Euripides, Iphigeneia in Tauris (Atheneum, 1971); The Four Gospels and the Revelation (1979) and The Acts and Letters of the Apostles (1982), both published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  18. 18

    Homer: The Odyssey, A New Verse Translation; Backgrounds; The Odyssey in Antiquity: Criticism (Norton, 1967, 1974).

  19. 19

    Walter Shewring, The Odyssey (Oxford University Press, 1980).

  20. 20

    Martin Hammond, The Odyssey (Penguin, 1987).

  21. 21

    Help in understanding the Odyssey “for University graduates who will, alas, be Greekless” is offered by Stephen V. Tracy, The Story of the Odyssey (Princeton University Press 1990). Tracy gives summaries, with comments, of each book of the Odyssey, and a bibliography of relevant works written in English.