Alright, since a number of readers of this blog seem to have been directed here on account of my review of Troy
, and I've gotten a few questions on which version of the Iliad they should attempt, here's a little attempt by me to tell you!
Needless to say, ideally, the Iliad (and Homer) should be read in the original Greek, and read ALOUD. It's poetry, after all. Click here
to hear Stanley Lombardo, read the first book of the Iliad in the original Greek. That may be slightly boring to those of you who don't understand Homeric Greek (I confess mine isn't terribly good either), and you may recall that Homeric epics were meant to be sung by bards, who told the story to crowds, varying details in each performance. What did that sound like? We can't be sure, but there've been efforts to reconstruct the effect, based on folk epics and storytelling traditions that still survive. There's page about Homeric Singing
, which contains Demodokos' Song
from the Odyssey, sung to a melody based on the pitch accent of the text and accompanied by a reconstruction of the Homeric Phorminx (a sort of 4-stringed harp). The original Greek has a sort of Tummm-ta-ta rhythm that's quite hypnotic, and standard for epic poetry.
I have two criteria for judging translations. Firstly it has to be poetry, with a recognisable rhythm (the Iliad is VERY rhythmic), hence any 'free verse' nonsense is out. Secondly, and perhaps more nebulously, it has to feel like Homer. I'll quote the opening of each so you get an idea of what they're like. Here's a very basic English translation as reference (numbers in square brackets indicate line numbers in the original Greek):
The wrath sing, goddess, of Peleus' son, Achilles, that destructive wrath which brought countless woes upon the Achaeans, and sent forth to Hades many valiant souls of heroes, and made them themselves spoil for dogs and every bird; thus the plan of Zeus came to fulfillment,  from the time when first they parted in strife Atreus' son, king of men, and brilliant Achilles.
If you want a very old-fashioned English verse translation of Homer's Iliad, check out Alexander Pope's version of 1725
Achilles’ wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber’d, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl’d to Pluto’s gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
Very pretty, and very poetic, but it's not Homer - it's Pope. Still, Pope's translation is very pretty to read, even though he adds in all sorts of 1725-ish details.
Next, there are the modern versions available:
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaeans,
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.
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.
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--v The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles.
Each of the translators has made a series of choices in translating Homer into English. All of the translators are attempting to be accurate, clear, and readable, but they express these qualities in different ways.
Lattimore's translation has been often praised for its accuracy and poetic qualities. It manages to be literal without being stiff and matches Homer's phrasing closely. It also uses a number of devices to maintain the 'strangeness' of Homer: Achilleus is Achilleus (reflecting the original Greek), not Achilles; Hades is mentioned in line 4 without further explanation; and in line 7 Lattimore renders the Greek faithfully with the patronymic 'Atreus' son,' rather than substituting the name Agamemnon as the other two translators do. Lattimore, like the other translators, decided not to render Homer's dactylic hexameter in his translation into a strict English meter, such as dactylic hexameter or iambic pentameter, but instead chose a naturally stressed free verse. In Lattimore's case, he aimed at a regular six-beat stressed line, letting the natural stresses of the English words carry the rhythm along. For example, the first line can be read and stressed as follows in English (an accent ['] mark indicates which syllables are stressed):
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilleus
The meter is beautiful to the ear, especially when longer passages are read aloud in English. Finally, Lattimore's translation matches Homer's Greek line for line. For example, Lattimore's Iliad Book I is 611 lines long, the same length as Homer's. In contrast, Fagles' Iliad Book I is 745 lines long, Lombardo's 643.
Fagles and Lombardo were each trying for something different from Lattimore. Fagles tries to bridge the gap between Greek culture and our own by being more accessible: the word 'Rage' is repeated twice in line 1 to emphasize that 'rage' (μήνιν in Greek) is the first word and a major theme of the poem; in line 3 "the house of Hades" has become 'the House of Death'; 'carrion,' not in the Greek, has been added in line 4, as has 'Muse' in line 7, to help the reader understand who the Goddess is the poet addresses in line 1; and 'Agamemnon' has been substituted in line 8 for the more obscure 'Ατρείδη - Atreus' son.' Lombardo's main goal is to emphasize one characteristic of Homeric Greek above all else: its speed. Homeric Greek is supple and moves quickly, and to try to capture this aspect Lombardo writes a shorter English line and drops words and phrases from Homer. 'Peleus' son' drops out of line 1, 'Achaeans' is shortened to 'Greeks' in line 2, Homer's "strong souls" become simply "souls" in line 3, and again 'Atreus' son' has become 'Agamemnon' in line 8. Both Fagles and Lombardo also wrote their translations as poetry to be read aloud. Fagles says in his introduction that he used a flexible line of five, six, and occasionally seven beats, while Lombardo's metrics are quite free, designed to reflect the stress and rhythm of ordinary speech in the service of speed.
All three of these translations have their strengths and weaknesses. The reason that I recommend the Lattimore translation is that the majority of Classics scholars have found that it offers the accuracy, clarity, and readability that works effectively in trying to read Homer. Lattimore's translation can be more demanding than the other translations, but so far faculty and students have found that it offers an excellent means for studying the Iliad and the culture it portrays. There will undoubtedly be a time when Lattimore's translation is replaced by another one for me, since no translation, no matter how great, keeps its vitality forever, but this will only happen when it is obvious to the me that the new translation will allow new generations of readers to enter into Homer's world in a way that Lattimore's no longer can.
On the other hand, if you don't really want a feel of Homer, but want a gripping read, try Lombardo's version. Compare the two translations when Agamemnon replies to the priest of Apollo, who is asking for his daughter Chryses back:
'Don't let me ever catch you, old man, by these ships again,
Skulking around now or sneaking back later.
The god's staff and ribbons won't save you next time.
The girl is mine, and she'll be an old woman in Argos
Before I let her go, working the loom in my house
And coming to my bed, far from her homeland.
Now clear out of here before you make me angry!'
'Never let me find you again, old sir, near our hollow
ships, neither lingering now nor coming again hereafter,
for fear your staff and the god's ribbons help you no longer.
The girl I will not give back; sooner will old age come upon her
in my own house, in Argos, far from her own land, going
up and down by the loom and being in my bed as my companion.
Sso go now, do not make me angry; so you will be safer.'
I think that really sums it up. One's like something out of a novel and the other's epic.