Revisiting the Iliad

I read the Iliad during my undergraduate days at Bard College, under the tutelage of Michael Minihan. I fell in love with it immediately. I even attended a lecture series by Bernard Knox at George Washington University in the summer of ’74. He was a brilliant lecturer and solidified my love for Homer. I initially read the Iliad in the Richmond Lattimore translation and have subsequently reread it in the Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles (twice), and Stanley Lombardo versions. I have enjoyed each. Because of the time-lapse between rereadings, I am unable to identify a favorite (though I am able to exclude Lombardo from the running). I’ve never felt that it was important for me to sit down and compare the translations. I just enjoy reading the story.

It’s probably been a decade or longer since I last read the Iliad. I decided this winter that it was time to reenter the world of Trojans and Argives. And of course I had to find yet another translation. Don’t ask me why–I have no idea. A couple of years back I came across a review of a new translation by Caroline Alexander and decided I had to have it. That’s the version I am now reading. I am enjoying this version. It’s certainly comparable to the others; but in hindsight I wish I had foregone her version and instead purchased the classic translation by Alexander Pope.

Let’s do a bit of comparison. Alexander renders the very first strophe as follows:

Wrath–sing, goddess, of the ruinous wrath of Peleus’ son Achilles,
that inflicted woes without number upon the Achaeans,
hurled forth to hades many strong souls of warriors
and rendered their bodies prey for the dogs,
for all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished;
sing from when they two first stood in conflict–
Atreus’ son, lord of men, and godlike Achilles.

Now Lattimore:

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,
hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls
of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting
of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished
since that time when first there stood in division of conflict
Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus.

Fitzgerald:

Anger be now your song, immortal one,
Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous,
that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss
and crowded brave souls into the undergloom,
leaving so many dead men–carrion
for dogs and birds; and the will of Zeus was done.
Begin it when the two men first contending
broke with one another–the Lord Marshal
Agamémnon, Atreus’ son, and Prince Akhilleus.

Fagles:

Rage–Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters’ souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

And finally Lombardo:

Rage:
Sing, Goddess, Achilles’ rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades’ dark,
and left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus’ will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon–
the Greek warlord–and godlike Achilles.

I do not read ancient Greek, so I am unable to compare the translations with the original text. All I can do is pretend that Homer originally wrote in English. Pretend along with me.

Right off I am drawn to the renderings that begin with the single word “Wrath” (Alexander) and “Rage” (Fagles, Lombardo), followed by a dash or colon, immediately leading to the poet’s summons of the goddess to sing the story of Achilles. This phrasing gives the lines a rhetorical punch which the Lattimore and Fitzgerald renderings lack. And the punch is deserved. The epic is driven by the unquenchable anger of Achilles. I am having a hard deciding which word I prefer–“anger,” “wrath,” or “rage”? “Anger” inadequately describes what Achilles feels after the insult of Agamemnon. We all get angry, but Achilles’ anger is so intense he is ready to slay Agamemnon right there on the spot. Only the intervention of Athena prevents the bloodbath. “Wrath” and “rage” more effectively convey the fierceness of his emotional state. I’m going to go with “rage,” with one reservation: our culture universally disapproves of rage (think “road rage”), but not so Homer, who recognizes in the fury of Achilles a purity of concentrated self-absorption known only to the gods.

Also of interest is how each translator deals with Homer’s reference to the bodies of the slain. Alexander writes “rendered their bodies prey for the dogs, / for all birds.” Are corpses appropriately described as “prey”? Lattimore: “gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting / of dogs, of all birds.” That corpses might become a feast for animals and birds conjures up a potent image … but “delicate”? Fitzgerald: “leaving so many dead men–carrion / for dogs and birds.” “Carrion” is a strong word that speaks of decaying flesh, but I miss the image of “feasting.” Fagles: “but made their bodies carrion, / feasts for the dogs and birds.” Fagles takes the liberty of adding a phrase, enabling him to bring together both “carrion” and the act of feasting. Lombardo: “and left their bodies to rot as feasts / For dogs and birds.” Another powerful image: not only do we see the dogs and birds gorging themselves on the dead, each corpse a feast, the vultures circling overhead, but the putrid stench of decay fills our nostrils.

To my surprise, I find myself preferring Lombardo’s rendering of the strophe, with Fagles and Lattimore tied for second. When I recite out loud Lombardo’s version, I speak a bit louder and more dramatically.

Read each citation aloud. Which one do you prefer and why?

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9 Responses to Revisiting the Iliad

  1. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    I just ordered a used copy of Pope’s translation of the Iliad. I have persuaded myself that I need to read it now rather than later.

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  2. DB Hart says:

    I don’t care for any of them. Fagles and Lombardo capture some of the rough power of Homer, and Alexander scans fairly well, in a largely iambic (though sometimes sprung) meter; but they’re all too much like prose broken up into lines of poetry. Admittedly, the incantatory quality of Homer’s Greek is not easy to reproduce in English. Perhaps recited by a Homerid rhapsode, in a kind of Sprechgesang, to the accompaniment of a lyre, any of them would work well enough. I have never liked the conventions of translating certain terms, however. It is annoying to see δῖος translated as “godlike” or (worse) “brilliant” or (still worse) “prince” (presumably under the impression that this is no more than some sort of court title). It is a specifically “celestial” title. Here it is almost certainly meant literally not merely as “god-like,” but as literally “divine” (since Achilles is the son of Thetis). Moreover, it is also almost certainly a conscious echo of the Διός (Zeus) of two lines above. Small complaints, maybe. But I have to confess that, to my ear, almost all modern renderings of Homer begin to sound much the same. I commend you, however, for leaving out Stephen Mitchell’s.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Those of us who don’t read ancient Greek, David, have a real advantage enjoying the translations. We don’t have to compare them to the original. Such is the bliss of the ignorant hoi poloi. 🙂

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  3. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Of interest here is Daniel Mendelsohn’s comparison of four Iliad translations: “Englishing the Iliad.”

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    • DB Hart says:

      Mind you, Mendelssohn works with the assumption that the pronunciation he learned matches the sound of Homer’s Greek (which, of course, it doesn’t). But, vowel-values aside, he is quite right about the cadences and flow of Homer. Among modern translators, Fagles seems to me closest (though Lattimore is better for certain passages) and Mitchell furthest away.

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  4. Jeremy Suess says:

    I wet my kid’s appetite on The Black Ships Before Troy, illustrated beautifully by Alan Lee, of Lord of the Rings fame. Now he’s 16 and reading Plato’s complete works and David Bentley Hart!

    https://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/1847809952/ref=mp_s_a_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1515481088&sr=8-1&pi=AC_SX236_SY340_QL65&keywords=alan+lee+black+ships&dpPl=1&dpID=61q8ztxCkcL&ref=plSrch

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  5. Nathaniel Drake Carlson says:

    There’s a lot to like about the Fitzgerald. It always seemed the most evocative and lyrically rich of the translations.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    My copy of Alexander Pope’s translation of the Iliad arrived yesterday. I’m going to start all over. Caroline Alexander’s translation was just too much like the others I have read.

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