October 30, 2011

Review: "The Iliad" by Homer, Translated by Stephen Mitchell

Maybe Stephen Mitchell answers the question of "Why we should read the Iliad?" best in the 'Introduction' to his new translation of this epic poem--
We return to the Iliad because it is one of the monuments of our own magnificence.  Its poetry lifts even the most devastating human events into the realm of the beautiful, and it shows us how vast and serene the mind can be even when it contemplates the horrors of war.
Frankly, I'm not sure that I've ever before encountered such an eloquent or concise description of the relevance and true value of this great literary work to Humankind.

Some might say, "Do we really need another translation of the Iliad?"  I think the pertinent response to the question should be, "If the new translation advances our appreciation for Homer and deepens our understanding of the story he was attempting to tell and its impact on our lives today--then bring it on!"  This is, in my opinion, precisely what Stephen Mitchell has done with his new translation of The Iliad.

Mitchell's translation is based upon a re-working of the original Greek text by the scholar, Martin L. West.  West identified sections in the text that he classified as "probable interpolations by other rhapsodes" that were spliced into the poem over the decades and centuries after it was written down.  A "rhapsode" is the term for the classical Greek professional performer of epic poetry, i.e., kind of like a bard of the middle ages, and they were apparently common in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., and perhaps even earlier.  West and other scholars believe that what happened was that as the poem was recounted, time and time again, modifications and adaptations were made, and that some of these were ultimately transcribed and included in the Greek text that has been handed down over the ages.  That this likely occurred is not particularly surprising to me, given that the Homeric tradition really was an oral tradition.  Stories told over time and by different story-tellers are quite likely to end up being somewhat different.

So, based upon West's work, Mitchell decided to omit these interpolated sections from his translation.  This has resulted in a translation that excludes something like 1,200-1,300 lines from a poem of approximately 16,000 lines, or just under ten-percent! The most noticeable deletion is Book 10 ("The Doloneia") which recounts the night-time raid by Odysseus and Diomedes into the Trojan camp.  The great majority of scholars confidently acknowledge that Book 10 was a later addition to the poem.  About his translation, Mitchell says--
I am under no illusion that I have translated the original text of the Iliad, as written or dictated by the anonymous poet called Homer--just the most intelligent attempt we have at getting back to an original, and a text that I could use as the basis for the most intense possible poetic experience in English.
Personally, I think Mitchell has succeeded in creating a beautifully spare, but powerfully compelling poem that seems to sing to the reader as though it had been originally composed in English.

Mitchell has generally utilized an iambic five-beat line as his meter.  In contrast with the earlier translations of Lattimore (six-beat), or Fagles (six- or seven-beat lines), Mitchell's poetry seems rhythmically cleaner and more lyrical.  In many respects, I think that what Mitchell has achieved is somewhat akin to the translation of Stanley Lombardo that endeavors to restore the Iliad to its proper place in the oral tradition.  In other words, Mitchell's translation, like Lombardo's, begs to be read aloud.  I am not saying that Mitchell's translation is better than those of Fagles, Lattimore, or Fitzgerald.  No, I am simply saying that it is noticeably different, and that I believe that this will aesthetically appeal to some readers.  Toward this end, I am going to provide an example by comparing a passage from the translation by Robert Fagles (1990), and then the same passage from Mitchell's translation, and you can be the judge of which you prefer.  The section I have selected is from the latter portion of Book 24, the last book of the Iliad, and describes the return to Troy of Priam as he accompanies the body of his slain son, Hector.  First, the Fagles' translation--
"Once they reached the ford where the river runs clear,
the strong, whirling Xanthus sprung of immortal Zeus,
Hermes went his way to the steep heights of Olympus
as Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth,
and the two men, weeping, groaning, drove the team
toward Troy and the mules brought on the body.
No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman,
none before Cassandra, golden as goddess Aphrodite.
She had climbed to Pergamus heights and from that point
she saw her beloved father swaying tall in the chariot,
flanked by the herald, whose cry could rouse the city.
And Cassandra saw him too...
drawn by the mules and stretched out on his bier.
She screamed and her scream rang out through all Troy:
"Come, look down, you men of Troy, you Trojan women!
Behold Hector now--if you ever once rejoiced
to see him striding home, home alive from battle!
He was the greatest joy of Troy and all our people!"

(Fagles, Book 24, Lines 813-830)
And now the same passage from Mitchell's translation--
"And when they came to the ford of the swirling Xanthus,
Hermes left them and went to Olympus, as dawn
was spreading its saffron glow over all the earth.
With groaning and lamentation they drove the horses
on toward Troy, and the mule cart carried the body.
No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman.
But Cassandra, who was as lovely as Aphrodite,
from the top of Pergamus caught sight of her father
coming to Troy in the chariot...then the herald...
and then she saw him, on a pallet inside the mule cart.
She let out a scream and shouted to the whole city,
'Come and see Hector, you men and women of Troy,
if you ever were glad to see him return from the war,
so great a joy he was to our city and people.'"

(Mitchell, Book 24, Lines 686-699)
Personally, I think Mitchell's crafting of those lines is the more poetic--at any rate, it is poetry that has been structurally organized that very much appeals to me on an emotional and intellectual level.  For example, Fagles describes the coming dawn of the morning with--
Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth
which, while a wonderful metaphor, is perhaps a bit formal and somewhat abstract.  In contrast, Mitchell keeps it simple and natural with--
as dawn was spreading its saffron glow over all the earth.
Now that is a sunrise that I can see in my mind's eye--the 'saffron-colored' low angled light of the rising sun.  This makes me think of beautiful sunrises that I've actually seen, and then I realize that this beautiful early morning light is actually illuminating and coloring a scene of profound sadness and grief--a father bringing his dead son home.  That is the power of great poetry, in my humble opinion.

In conclusion, this was a powerful and very impressive interpretation, and one that I look forward to carefully reading again and doing more side-by-side comparisons with the other translations that I own and cherish.  For me, I guess what it comes down to is that I'm not sure that there is any such thing as a bad translation of The Iliad, it is just that some are better than others.  Stephen Mitchell's translation is one of the better ones. It gets a solid five stars from me, and I highly recommend reading it.

By the bye, I am going to attend a reading and book-signing featuring Stephen Mitchell being held at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California on November 5th.  I'm very excited to hear more about his experiences with The Iliad over the past few years.  I may even have to buy another copy just to have one signed just for me! ;-)

Bonus Feature

If you're looking for some interesting and well-written fiction to follow your reading of Homer's The Iliad, I might suggest the following--

Helen of Troy by Margaret George (Viking, 2006) tells the story of the Trojan War from the perspective of Helen of Sparta who leaves her husband, Menelaus, and runs off with Paris to Troy.  George does a wonderful job of placing her reader in the Bronze Age of the Greeks and Trojans, and an even better job of creating and exploring the personalities of the various characters involved in the war. An easy and fun read.

Perhaps an even better written and more interesting novel is Firebrand by Marion Zimmer Bradley (Simon and Schuster, 1987).  This is a decidedly intriguing and feminist perspective of the Trojan Prophetess, Kassandra (Cassandra).  Kassandra has always fascinated me, with her story in Greek mythology, and later treatment by the great dramatists, Aeschylus and Euripides.  Bradley expertly continues telling her story masterfully in Firebrand.



  1. Based on your example, I think I like the Fagles version more. It's a little more dramatic, which I like in something meant as oral entertainment.

    The Mitchell translation sounds as if it is more real/true, though of course we can never understand 'Homer' 's intent. It also seems a bit easier to follow, since it is stripped down, and has less of a western feel than the Fagles translation.

    Pros and cons. Perhaps Fitzgerald is a good mix between the two? :P

    Parenthetically, I just now put together that Cassandra was on the Trojan side and taken by Agamemenon as a spoil of war. She was a clairvoyant according to the Oresteia, and I found that interesting. I wouldn't say that I have a good feel for what type of woman she is though. Thoughts?

  2. @Eclectic Indulgence--

    I was telling a friend of mine on the train this a.m. that I think the nifty thing about the different translations of The Iliad is that they each appeal to me at different times. There are times when I love that formal classical elegance that Lattimore's translation exhibits; and at other times the rich and muscular energy of Fagles' hexameter verse just feels right. I think Mitchell's translation is for those times when one is looking to experience a 'lean-and-mean' no-frills poem. Like you, I also enjoy Fitzgerald's blank verse approach as it reads so well. In summary then, I think each Iliad I own seems to fill a specific niche in my overall reading enjoyment, and that's kinda cool! I have to say too, that Mitchell's new work is surely quite worthy of sharing the shelf with these other well-respected modern translations.

    Regarding Cassandra, you are correct, she did receive the 'gift' of foretelling from Apollo. Because she reneged on her promise to give herself to the god, Apollo then made it such that her prophecies/visions would never be believed by anyone. Hence everyone rejects her prophecies as the ravings of a madwoman and that she is simply talking nonsense. Aeschylus takes that notion and runs with it in the last third of the Agamemnon as you point out. We all know that Cassandra is telling the truth, but the Chorus (the Elders) all think she is half-baked until the doors open and Clytemnestra emerges...Oh, the horror, the horror...

    Personally, I think Cassandra is a very interesting Homeric (and mythological) character too. Marion Zimmer Bradley does a good job of creating a strong-minded and richly complex character for Cassandra in her novel, The Firebrand. Cassandra and Clytemnestra both really fascinate me, as they strike me as very powerful women in a story that is quite 'top-heavy' with male heroes and protagonists. Both of these women are much more interesting to me than Helen-of-Troy, but that's just me. You might be interested in the Canadian poet, Anne Carson's, interpretation of both women in her translation of Aeschylus' Agamemnon too. It is well worth reading!

    Thanks ever so much for your visit and your great comments and observations! Cheers! Chris

  3. What do you think is the best version for a beginner? I am familiar with the story but I think it's something I really should read.

  4. Sam--

    First, thanks for your visit!

    Regarding your question about what translation might be best for a first-time read of The Iliad. Bear in mind that this is only my opinion, but I would recommend either the translation by Robert Fagles (1990) or the new translation by Stephen Mitchell (2011), and for a modern/contemporary reader I guess I'd probably lean toward the Mitchell translation.

    I did a posting a couple of weeks ago that compared/contrasted all of the modern translation (at least the well known translations)--and here's the link to that posting http://lonebearimagesprose.blogspot.com/2011/10/iliad-redux-which-translation.html

    I hope this helps you make a decision. I envy you your first read of The Iliad! It is a most remarkable work, and something that will stay with you for the rest of your life. I plan on making the effort to reread the Iliad every year or so for the rest of my life, it really is that affecting. Sam, I'd honestly love to hear your impressions and assessment after you've read it too.

    Cheers! Chris

  5. Thanks for the detailed reply Christopher, I do appreciate it. Having looked at your other post, I do think Mitchell would be a good place for me to start. I will purchase a copy but then save it for when I have a week or so off work so I can devote some proper time to it. Thanks again for the recommendation :)

  6. One more link, if that's OK...a podcast on Rhetoric and the Iliad, with mention of a new book I had not heard of, Memorial by Alice Oswald.