October 20, 2011

"The Iliad" Redux--Which Translation?

I know, I know, you're probably getting mighty tired of my postings on The Iliad by now.  I'm almost done, I promise.  I only have one major translation left to read, and I'm not getting to it until early next week while I'm on a three-day business trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Having said that though, I thought I'd spend some time putting together a posting that compares and contrasts the translations that I have read, and also provide some suggestions for some pleasurable side reading.  This information may prove useful to readers who want to tackle Homer's epic poem, and are wondering which translation to read.  It may also be interesting to those who've read The Iliad and are considering reading a different translation at some point in time.  I am going to list the translations that I've read organized by date of translation and/or publication.

Richmond Lattimore (1951)--

This is, of the modern translations, probably the most classical, formal, and elegant rendition.  Lattimore uses what he calls a "free six-beat line" in his verse translation of Homer's dactylic hexameter verse of the original Greek.  Based upon all that I've read about these translations, Lattimore was ruthlessly faithful to the Greek spellings of places and names, and utilization of the formal epithets (e.g., "grey-eyed" for Athena, or "father of gods" for Zeus, etc.) when describing the cast-of-characters.  It is colorful and incredibly descriptive stuff to read.  If you love Homer, and specifically The Iliad, Lattimore's poetic interpretation is one that you should eventually read.  It is the 'Elder Big Brother' of modern 20th century Iliads.

Robert Fitzgerald (1974)--

Fitzgerald's translation reads easier, in my opinion, than Lattimore's.  This is a qualitative statement on my part, and is probably more a function of the kind of reader that I am these days.  Fitzgerald also doesn't include all of the repetition that the original Greek text has, as this is really a relict of The Iliad's oral tradition.  Fitzgerald chose blank verse as the meter for his translation, and it really does seem to correspond better to the dactylic hexameter of the Greek than using English hexameter or rhymed verse.  While Fitzgerald's blank verse reads very, very well, it still manages to sound traditional and is not flamboyant at all--it is simply good poetry.  I have to say that 'at the end of the day' I really enjoyed the Fitzgerald translation.

Robert Fagles (1990)--

The translation of The Iliad by Robert Fagles was the first one that I read cover-to-cover, and it really was a life-altering experience, and the beginning of my love-affair with Homer and all-things 'Iliadic'.  Fagles believed in the performance-driven aspects of The Iliad, and he did his very best to emphasize this element with his translation.  Fagles did a terrific job at translating the Greek into his lines of verse that maintain a lyrical and rhythmic five or six beats per line while maintaining a very sensible and readable text.  As I read his translation I found myself completely caught up in the beauty of the mythology, and fully able to experience the pathos, drama, and tragedy of this great story.  I have to say that by the time I was finished with this translation, my overall reading experience was something approaching the sublime.  I guess I'll probably always be partial to Fagles' translation as 'it was my first'.  Finally, I should note that the Introduction to the Fagles translation was written by Bernard Knox and is simply magnificent in its own right and a 'must-read' for any reader of Homer and The Iliad.

Stanley Lombardo (1997)--

Lombardo's translation was fun to read!  Apparently, Lombardo is very interested in restoring the oral tradition associated with people experiencing Homer and The Iliad and The Odyssey.  His translations very much lend themselves to being read aloud and hearing (and even feeling) the lyricism and rhythms of the words and verse.  In fact, it is my understanding that Lombardo does performances of various books of The Iliad on the stage for audiences (would I ever love to attend one of these!).  Frankly, Lombardo's translation begs to be read aloud and shared with others.  Trust me, it works in a similar fashion for the reader reading it alone too--it is a performance on every page!

I also really liked how Lombardo inset and italicized the similes in the poem (and there's gobs of 'em).  It makes it so much easier for the reader to relate each simile to section of the poem it applies to.  It was really quite clever (and makes it ever so much easier when reading aloud).  Lombardo is a firm believer that The Iliad is a living poem (after all, it has been translated into English approximately 150 times since the 17th century!), and that "living poetry means living speech".  I completely agree.  For new readers, or readers who might be unsure of whether they'd like The Iliad, this might be a great translation to start with.  If you're an Iliad junkie, like me, you ought to read it too.  Lombardo's translation is powerful and relevant.

Stephen Mitchell (2011)--

Stay tuned!  I do plan to provide a review of Mitchell's new translation (October 2011) some time in the next couple of weeks.  I have it sitting on the TBR shelf right now, and I plan on starting it early next week while on my business trip.  Apparently, Mitchell has utilized a relatively recent reworking of the Greek text by the scholar, Martin West.  If you're interested in this new translation by Stephen Mitchell, you can read about it in an earlier posting of mine here.  I'm pretty excited to read this and compare and contrast it with the other versions I've read.  It should be really interesting.

Bonus Material--

If you read The Iliad, any of the translations referenced above, or others, I also strongly recommend that you consider picking up the following books.  I think they'll add significantly to your overall experience with Homer and his epic poem.

The Odyssey--Obviously, if you've read The Iliad, you probably ought to go ahead and read The Odyssey.  All of the translators referenced above have translations of The Odyssey, with exception of Stephen Mitchell, and he's working on his rendition even as I write.

Ransom--This little book by Australian writer, David Malouf, is seriously one of the most gorgeous works of fiction I've ever encountered.  It focuses and expands upon events occurring in the last three or four books of The Iliad.  It is hauntingly beautiful and powerful prose that borders on poetic for much of the time.  If you're interested in Malouf's novel, you can check out my review here.

War Music, All Day Permanent Red, and Cold Calls--These little books of poetry by British poet, Christopher Logue, are his retelling of significant portions of The Iliad and are not to be missed.  Once you've read The Iliad, dip into War Music and prepare to be 'gobsmacked' up side the head!  If you're interested in Logue's poetry, have a look at my posting here.

The War That Killed Achilles--This non-fiction book by Caroline Alexander (2009) is superb, and places Homer's epic poem in historical context.  It is just over 200 pages, and is extremely well written.  I am so glad that I read this as it really shed a lot of light on the events associated with the Trojan War, as well as the psychology of the major players.

A Brief Iliadic Glossary--

Some interesting words and definitions that I've encountered during my reads:

androktasia = combat death description (these abound within The Iliad)

aristeia = display of martial prowess (e.g., Book 5 is the aristeia of Diomedes)

eris = refers to 'strife between heroes' (mortal or immortal)

teichoskopia = viewing from the walls (refers to Helen and Priam up on the walls of Troy looking down on the Greek commanders)



  1. Wow! What a great compilation of reviews on the different translations. Last year (or the year before?) I hosted a readalong of The Odyssey and was jealous of those who picked up the Fagles version. I read Fitzgerald's, which I enjoyed, but it seemed as though Fageles' translation was a bit more poetic. I haven't read The Illiad yet, but will definitely seek out Fagles'!

  2. Trish, thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment! I'm so glad that this posting may end up being helpful to you in choosing a translation of The Iliad to read. You certainly can't go wrong with the Fagles version, it is amazingly wonderful. I appreciate your visit, and have a wonderful weekend! Cheers! Chris

  3. I have the Robert Fagles translation and plan to read it (alongside The Odyssey) next year. I LOVE that you're reading all the translations. Comparing must be fun!

  4. Jillian, you will love Fagles' translation. I can't wait for you to read this next year, I may have to join you in a read-along! Have a great weekend! Cheers!

  5. Two things I would like to mention here.

    1. I have to diagree a little with one of your points in the Fitzgerald translation. He does use the traditional Greek repetition - it stood out to me when I read the work. Perhaps, we are referring to two different things, so I will explain. If Zeus would ask Hermes to relay a message, the message when stated by Hermes would be identical. Many in my book club found this annoying and I thought it was great. It showed that while flawed, the Gods still had a beyond human memory. :)

    2. I would like to know if you ranked the translations, where they would shape up. If I read the work again, I want to know where to start.

  6. Tired of the Iliad? Never. Post on.

    The only comment I'd like to add, based on my limited experience, is a recommendation to listen to an audiobook recording of any of these translations--as you mention in the Lombardo translation, it's an oral work first and foremost. I was captivated listening to it (not to mention it made my commute much more pleasant for a few weeks).

  7. @Eclectic Indulgence--Yeah, you're actually right. The epithet and verbatim repetition is there. I think maybe what I was trying to say was that with Fitzgerald's translation the language isn't so 'formal' or 'flowery' (and neither term is meant as a pejorative).

    If I had to rank the translations, I'd put it as follows: Fagles, Fitzgerald, Lattimore, and Lombardo. Stay tuned on where I place the new Mitchell translation. I just started it this a.m.

    @Dwight--First, thanks for the visit! Also, I completely agree about trying an audio presentation. I have Mitchell's new translation audio version on my Amazon wishlist. I'd love to see a performance of Lombardo's too. Cheers! Chris

  8. My pleasure. Funny how I've seen so much on Mitchell's translation today: here are some reviews and comments, if you're interested.

    Stephen Mitchell's Iliad and the college classroom

    Stephen Mitchell in conversation

    A review of Mitchell's translation

  9. Christopher, great rundown of the translations. I had my first stab at Lattimore's Iliad a year or so ago but got bogged down after a while and gave up. I did some research and bought Fagle's which I've only just started and am looking forward to.

    You don't mention the translations of E.V. Rieu. They're the most common ones you see here in the UK, I presume because they're published by Penguin Classics (I've got his version of the Odyssey). Is it not published in the US?

    Also, I've toyed with the idea of doing a sponsored reading aloud of the Iliad to raise money for charity. Have you heard of anyone doing that before? Any idea how long it would take?

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