On Translating Homer

1861....and still a mix of problems....2005



This was written in the year 2000, now in 2008 I find myself going over some of the same thoughts but with a few different ideas. A new essay Reading Translations of Homer discusses the question people are always asking me, "What is the best translation to read?" Who you are, what kind of level translation do your want, what do you expect from a translation, and finally what is the original Homer text really like for a translator to work on? These are new questions in the new article.

People are always asking for an opinion on what is the best translation of Homer, forgetting that in each generations tastes have a way of changing with the result that the previous "best" Homer may not be the best one for the present time. As a case in point, when Lattimore translated a few odes of Pindar in l939, that seemed an incomparably fine piece of work; but half a century later those same poems seem to many stiff and overly formal, almost brocaded in their style. We should remember that any translation is an approximation at best, perhaps something like a small black and white reproduction of a Renaissance painting in a textbook when compared with the original. A string quartet version of a Beethoven symphony may be an interesting piece to hear, but it is a thin conversion of the symphonic orchestral sound, even if it traces out the melody lines. Think of Translation as a conversion to another medium, perhaps useful as a first viewing of an original work for those who have no time to learn the language of the original.

This is not a place for a crit. on translations of Homer currently in print, which range from prose-plain commonplace in verse format, to versions which simulate the tone of modern poetry. For someone interested in Homer I would say: There is no serious approach other than learning the Greek. But even in this approach there are problems, because traditional Greek study has always placed translation into English as the purpose of reading the Greek, and each classroom session will usually involve each student reading a passage into English, word by words and often with grammatical parsing. Of course this is not real "reading" of a foreign language, one would never want to read French or Italian this way, but the classical field set up this mode of access years ago as a the proper way to read a foreign tongue, and has not changed its methods in a rapidly changing academic and linguistic world. This "school translation" is not something we will be talking about here.

Everyone who is serious about translating Homer or deciding what kind of a translation is best to read has sooner or later gone back to Matthew Arnold"s book "On Translating Homer " in 1861 and followed by "Last Words..." a few years later. For years this was required reading for a classical education, now it seems out of date and strangely unrelated to where the art of Poetry stands in this age. Arnold was in that first generation after the Wolf and the "discovery" of Homer the Bard in a world which was still essentially Vergilian, devoted to inner meanings and hidden resonances in every line. Rhymed couplets were still in fashion, the Iliad was book of stories rather than a guide to what Schliemann was to unwrap a few decades later, and nobody suspected that Homer was an oral poet, a Bard in some curious ways parallel to the guslaric tradition of Serbia. Just as England was about to change from the mannerismed mode of Jane Austen"s world into a full-blown Industrial Society, so poetry was waiting to be liberated from the Writing of Verse into a full art which would deal in psychology, with mysterious hints couched in hidden language, suitable fare for a world which was progressing in fast stages through Cubism, Futurism, Dada and Dali and on.....

When Ezra Pound put Homer on the first page of his Cantos, he wasn"t experimenting with translation so much as recreating the feel of what he sensed Homer was like. Appealing to Beowulf with alliterative lines here and there, throwing in odd and curious bits of wording to make you pause and listen, giving us a verbal overlay which when lifted off would leave the Greek of Homer"s words clearer and fresher to the eye ---- this was the sort of thing Pound was after. After all these years that page still gives the feel of something Homeric, although nobody has gone in that direction as a key to Homeric translation. There is too much Pound in there and not enough the authentic Homer, that is the problem; but like a signpost on the road, it gives us a direction if not an exact route.

What are the requirements for the New Translation for the new age? What can be done to suture together the torn edges of the ancient Epic with the fabric modern poets are weaving on the warp of the English language? I find I must peel away the crust of our intellectual academic poetry, which is based on ideas and thoughts , things as distant to the poet of the Iliad as the fourth buried level of Minoan Ilion. Poetry has become a way for personal expression, quite rightly for a world which is tripping on its psychology every time it wants to take a step. What we want is "words and deeds" in the Homeric mode. Homer is anonymous, you could just as well erase his name and write in Epicus Anonymus without creating a ripple in the flow of the Iliad. Demodokos in the Odyssey is nothing more than a prop for telling a good scandalous story; you can see how silly he is holding his lyre while inappropriately reciting dactylic hexameters.

What is required first in the English recreation of the Epic poems? First of all, there must be conciseness and a directness of words which fly like arrows from one speaker to his target. Half of the Iliad is in the form of quoted speeches. The Iliad is not your typical narrative poem, but a story outlined as if from a cinematic third-eye or a fly on the ramparts, interspersed with an acoustic track of spoken voices. There are short flights back in time to give background and reasons, but these are almost footnotes to the action which moves inexorably along past these momentary stops. Directness and explicitness are the marks of Homer"s writing, quite the opposite of the innerness and implicitness which we find in Vergil who knew well that his world was in-volved and internal. Poeschl made this so clear half a century ago that the lesson need not be repeated here.

We might think that being explicit is near to being brutal. But Homer"s explicitness is different, it is a function of a tightly mannered and aristocratic society. The world of Beowulf was equally formal. We may think of eighth century Anglo warriors as looking like bearded and unwashed Hell"s Angels, but their thoughts were sharp and compact and their code was as formal as that of a traditional Samurai fighter. So were the warriors at Troy always formal, they knew how to put anger into words which would hit the mark, they knew how to argue a point with effect or switch in a flash from words to hands on spears. You can"t make an abridgement of the Iliad, there are no lines you can remove without creating a gap, and the lines which later smart-ass scribes thought they could insert as text, stand out like burls on an ancient maple. Nothing is wasted, nothing in excess, tens of thousands of lines where every words is exactly in place like a giant verbal mosaic. This must not be forgotten when you raise your pencil to start out with a new translation.

The verse form cannot be preserved or imitated, but it must be dealt with in some way in the new translation. Homer is not a writer of prose; Samuel Butler and T. E. Lawrence did a good thing translating in plain-Jane prose, which at least is devoid of ungainly ornaments and cleaves to the line of Homer"s plainness. But in fact Homer is anything but plain. His world is clothed in shining armor and a tapestry of events which being all brought together in a great march of incessant hexameters, it is like the details in the Unicorn Tapestries hanging in the New Work Cloisters, or the turns and mirrorings in an woven Persian rug. You look at one part but have to sense the whole display or you miss completely what it is saying. And at the base level it is the dactylic line out of which the Epic tapestry is woven, which deserves great attention.

Let us imagine that we are creating the start of a new translation, and our first problem will be with the Line. The long--short-- short cadence is at the heart of Greek epic poetry, but it is a metre which is not at all at home in the English language. Robert Service"s songs of the Yukon in the early years of the last century used English dactyls for the sound of a frontier balladry in the world of Chaplin"s Goldrush, but the sound is forced and ballad genre specific in English usage. Ignoring the Greek metrics loses a great deal of the sound and thrust of a Homeric line. If we start a line with a strong sounding word, we get the impact of each line right, and even if we revert to a mix with our familiar English iambs after it, we will have the line starting off strongly and authentically.

IRE you shall sing, Lady Muse, of Peleus' son Achilles

The start is good, nice thrust of the first strong word with sound and meaning, but there is little we can do with "Peleus-son" which we will have to speak as three short sounds. We must look more closely at the line-endings, and see what we can do with a closing cadence as formal and regular as long-short-short. I must do something with Peleus; having tried everything I am going to excise it and fill in with something simple: "son of a hero, Achilles". Maybe I would do better to write "anger of noble Achilles" for a specific reason. Each dactylic line ends with "long -- short-short" followed by a telling and final "long---long/short" (the final doubtful syllable). But each line stands separate, it is a sung or rather chanted as a six beat phrase with a clear pause or musical "rest" before the next line can begin with its emphatic strong syllable.

In fact the Greeks of the Hellenic world pronounced the "long" syllable as actually double length, later this was changed to a length-stress syllable, and in modern usage we have (unfortunately) become accustomed to using a Stress emphasis instead of the duration. It is advisable for student learning Greek to learn lengths rather than stresses, but old habits die hard. The "accents" marked above vowels on the other hand are musical Pitches, and can be read easily as musical intervals of near a fifth, but again few moderns will be reading their Homer in anything like a reconstructed authentic manner. For the future this is certainly something important to be desired!

English language academicians have always maintained that a hexameter is not natural to the language, while the iambic pentameter which approaches the rhythms of prose is easy and effective to work with. Pentameter shortening of the Homeric line is a bad idea, the number of syllables in epic language runs around sixteen more or less to the line, and this gives the stateliness and stance which is needed for the epic tone. There is no reason to avoid the mixed hexameter in translating Homer, while least desirable is an unmetered line of varying length which follows the phrasing of the meaning rather than the identity of the line. Once the ear gets used to a sixteen syllable line, the ten syllable iambic pentameter so well used by Shakespeare will sound weak and thin. We must bend our ear to Homer"s Greek, not adjust the line to our familiar patterns.

We may not be able to stay with the full hexameter in every line of translation. English is a peculiarly compact language, which you see when you compare English and French operating instructions on the sheet which accompanies a new product. This is partly linguistic but also cultural, reflecting the American preference for cowboy shortness of speech, perhaps the no-bullshit John Wayne preference for abruptness. In translating for the full hexametric effect, we must always avoid padding out the line, a cardinal sin in terms of Homeric economy, so some lines will turn out short as a matter of necessity, although shortened lines with short words will have a poor look beside the original.

Now each line ends with a "long --- short---short / long --- long ?" normally, as in "brilliant Odysseus" or the "lordly Achilles". Fifty lines will end thus, but a occasional line with end with four long syllables, and this "spondaic line" will usually give a heavy portent or a solemn sound to the line, since it is followed by the regular pause and then comes in with a strong syllable to initiate the next line. However there is a special device of "over running " the line, where the first word of the following line is somehow connected in meaning with the previous line, as when Apollo "Shoots his bolt..." (long -- short -- short, in this context). These stand out as an artistic device used rarely but with special effect, and the device is so well attested that Vergil adopted it as part of his Latin epic style. After this emphatic word, the meaning stops and we assume a pause before going on. There is also often a pause before the final "dactylic -- spondee", a slight hesitation of sense and sound which again must be brought into the English translation in some way. The epic line is not a single sound-sequence, and this final five-syllable cadence is virtually a separate half line in its own right. We do not want to miss these nuances which were so obvious to the trained Greek ear.

One of the worst problems the translator from Greek must face is the matter of Word Order. Greek with its panoply of inflected forms can place words in an arbitrary order for emphasis or for sheer verbal artistry, while English which mandates Subject Verb Object word-order for its basic grammatical display has little of this kind of artistic freedom. It is true English can invert subject and object with a certain slight degree of freedom, but if used often this gives the impression of fancy archaism in an earlier writing style, which is quite the opposite of Homer"s verbal directness. Still the translator can experiment with unusual arrangements of words, which context will make understood in most cases. If not pushed beyond the elastic limit, changes in order can bring the English somewhat nearer to the Greek of epic language, and it can confer some of the archaic stiffness which we see in the genuinely ancient Homeric dialect.

Unusual wording, as in the famous Homeric descriptive epithets, presents another problem. Some are actually hard to decipher etymologically. Is the "dios" of Greek "bright, shining, brilliant" or related to the name of Zeus which has the stem "di- " in its inflection? It is true "hekebolos" means achieving one"s aims rather than far shooting, or even Hesiod"s hundred shooting, and does the translation of Apollo the "Far Darter" offer anything more than a chance for generations of schoolboys to improve the alliteration with a sly grimace? I think of "sharpshooting Apollo" as better but must steer clear of "Sharpshooter" which has too clear a military reference. How can we rightly turn an epithet which confused the Greeks into something clear (if peculiar) in English? Better to smooth over, or to omit?

The "Homeric Ionic Dialect" itself shows dialect variations, and although everyone throughout the long era of Hellenic civilization was expected to read Homer as a first Reader if not an almost ethical Bible, the current language of educated readers was far different from Homer"s ancient and archaic writing. So the later Greeks did to a certain extent have to convert or translate Homeric speech patterns in order to understand his meaning, and there are many manuscript glosses as well a the Byzantine Homeric Dictionaries which answered to the differences resulting from the intervention of a handful of centuries. We still find the King James Version of the Bible in current use, and have learned to mentally convert archaic turns of 17th century English to modern meanings, ignoring the fact that the KJ translation was formerly current English of its time. It is just so with Homer, educated Attic dialect readers converted Homer on the fly while reading, but the knew the difference in tone, style and vocabulary as different from their linguistic practice. But nobody ever thought of converting the Iliad into a pure Attic version. So when we think of translating Homer, we shouldn"t imagine an Iliad in newspaper-readable format, or in the language of a pulp novel. He wants to be different, remote and archaic, grand in his antiquity while at the same time speaking our language in terms of the human relationships he describes.

When we think of modern poetry, we assume there will be certain phrases with a new turn of meaning or a novel catch of sound. These are not exactly figures of speech, like the well known Homeric similes, but a device to show that poetry has its own sleight of thought which is different from prose and from daily life. It is the surprise at the new turn which we enjoy, something which I would call a conscious poetism. Homer does have a small repertory of these, but expressions like "he vanished like unto the night" (actually meaning into the night I suppose) or disappearance "like a thought or a feather" are unusual, and I have always suspected that some of these are later additions when they occur at the end of a paragraph. These offer no problem in translating the words, but they stand out as something different from Homer"s usual wording and get more emphasis from their rarity than from their appearance.




How does all this work in a context of translated lines and words? Let me try to outline the problems of a new translation with the first famous lines of the Iliad, to see where the cruces and conflicts of text and translation lie. First of all: Can we solve the problem of the foreign sounding underlined patronymic in the first line as a starter?

IRE you shall sing, Lady Muse, of Peleus' son Achilles

Patronymics have all disappeared in English into the familiar Last Names, and nobody remembers that Nelson is really "Nils' Son" from an earlier time. In the 5th century Greek used a different formula, which was the name of the person followed by the genitive of his father"s name, and this is parallel to the use of "ben" and "ibn" in the Semitic languages. In this line we have little aid at our disposal. "Peleus' son..." with 3/4 syllables all short is about as emphatic as the Son of Sam which was on everybody"s lips a while back as alternate to a trisyllabic Berkowitz. It is the sound sequence which bothers me here, so I opt for excision and replacement in desperation. Thinking of the feudal title of Sir Galahad, I will try Lord for the nonce, but continue to search for the right word:

IRE you shall sing, Lady Muse, of Lord Mighty Achilles

Proceeding to the second line, I must deal first with what a traditional schoolmaster would call a "dangling participle", here a fine and strong sounding word in emphatic over-run position with great emphasis. I find "destructive" with is Latinate formation somehow unsuitable, not theshocking word I want here, so I will try for something stronger in a different line with "scorching" which suits the burning of the city, and probably reflects my own memory of IRE as "fire" in the first line. This is certainly out of the proper realm of translation, but remember that the translator is a person too and will have his own impressions and resonances to the words he is stringing together. Why should a translation be antiseptic?

IRE you shall sing, Lady Muse, of Lord Mighty Achilles

Scorching, which on the Achaeans many woes put

Now I have a problem with scorching fire and the word "flinging" which I want to retain since it is in the text exactly so, and gives a motion and thrust to the line which must be retained. So I will replace "scorching" with something else, but it must have a strong initial stress. "Obliterating" has the right meaning and the initial -o- vowel of "oulomene:n", so I will go with it although it lacks the stressed first syllable.

IRE you shall sing, Lady Muse, of Lord Mighty Achilles

Obliterating, against the Achaeans many woes it heaped

The third line is metrically ominous, it is all slow stepping spondees until the concession at the end to one penultimate and necessary dactyl. The trick here is to get the line to slow down, to measure its steps out:

Brave souls and many, to Hades hurled it down,

Heroes all, their selves for dogs made feasting

Feast for many birds. All unseen God's will working!

I have some explanations to make here. The archaic English emphatic verb-subject reversal in "hurled it" may stop our attention momentarily, which is what I intended. Is it question "hurled it?" or hurled the ire rather what the ire hurled? It is precisely this verbal equivocation that we find in reading an ancient and foreign text, and I have little apology for being obscure in face of the Homeric language. ----- "Selves" clearly means the bodies of the dead men, their "real" selves as against their spiritual psychai. We might find this a strange circumlocution for somata, which the text critic Aristarchus defines as always dead bodies in Homeric diction. But there is something basic about "selves" as used here, our real Self is our body, flesh and bones as against the psychic mist which evaporates from the dead body. The word is odd in the English but I want to retain it because of its sense of physical reality, not just a corpse but the real ME.

The repetition of "feasting/ feast" seems needed for the two types of scavenging animals, those prowling the killing fields on four feet, and those swooping down to tear at the leftovers. Certainly the "all" of all the birds, refers to the crowd of vultures themselves, rather than a mixed flock of eagles, vultures, pigeons and sparrows; therefore it is taken to mean "many" logically.

The working out of Zeus' will is quite specifically indicated by the use of the Greek Imperfect Tense, which has a special meaning for a continuative action over a span of time, as against an aoristic or punctual aspect. It is this continuativeness which must be realized here, and since the verb "work" is intransitive here it can translate a middle voice of the Greek: e-telei-eto, "was proceeding to an end (telos)". Since the action of divine will is always long-reaching and largely un-observable, my "unseen" seems necessary to emphasize the action which lies behind the events of the above lines. This divine action phrase is most important, a key to the epic idea of development of human affairs, and it only needs the three words of the Greek to make its mark.

From when at first twain heroes were facing in quarrel,

Atreides the King of Men, and the Mighty Achilles.

"From when..." matches the dull thump of the Greek words as mind goes back over time to when this began. It is certainly short for "from what (time = chronou)". The Greek rarish dual of the verb ("the two stood apart") is used only in epic dialect, so needs here some token of its archaic tonality, hence "twain". But if this line is tightly archaic and stiff, the next line expands as if a glorious fanfare for the two great heroic warriors, the KING OF MEN (cf. Assyrian lugal lugalu) with his rule over an army of warriors, and then (as the line splits in two) Achilles with his epithet "dios", which etymologically connects with the Sun or Skt. dyaus, with Zeus as the original Sun God, and hence with the adjective "dios" meaning "bright, brilliant". If The Son of Atreides Agamemnon has an army of men, the single hero Achilles has an army of brilliant attributes. Agamemnon is forever dark of mind, Achilles is quite literally brilliant.




The above paragraphs are not part of a new translation project, they are here for a much simpler purpose which is to indicate the contrary tendencies which pull a translator in several directions at the same time. There is the problem of how to deal with the words of the Greek text, which will involve a detailed study of words in their epic usage, Greek matters of form and grammar, while at the same time trying to approximate the new English line to the sound and pace of the Greek original. A somewhat artificial translating dialect will have to be constructed to represent the oddities and peculiarities of Homeric Greek, but this must be done without becoming extravagantly bookish or learnedly scholarly. Above the exact word-meanings, and beyond the shape and sound of the lines, there must be a sense of what the whole vista of the War at Ilion looked like, and only part of this can be ascertained from evidence of the Greek pottery and sculpture art since eleventh century Troy is not the same as Homer"s Archaic 7th century world. If the Epic Poet was imagining scenes to be written out in words, we must do the same although from the other end of a long time sequence. Scholarship, fidelity and accuracy of wordings are of course the basic hues on the translator"s palette. But without an imaginative and creative component, the translation will end up looking like a translation, and that will be no good at all.

I cannot help looking back at this point to the start of Pound"s first Canto, where I see life and enthusiasm and a faster motion through the lines streaming over the page in a gush of epic-based innuendo. Pound has been justly criticized I suppose, his Chinese was thin and his Greek relatively weak, so he would not be a really good candidate for a Homeric translator. But he had fire for the moment, thrust in his lines, a rabid impatience for review and reconsideration, and an ability to grab enormous pages of long-drawn history and make a tapestry of interwoven meanings as the Cantos developed. If there is ever to be a surpassingly good new translation of the Iliad, it will have to be done by some such person as Ezra Pound, who will suck the spirit out of what he is reading and then throwing caution to the winds, in arachnid manner spew out a web of new contrivances which can trap the fleeting essence of an ancient memory long fossilized in the strata of time.

This may not look like our Homer at all, and it will never boast to replace the Greek Homer which we will still be reading in our cautious translators' wordings. But there should be a new vista out there somewhere which will give a true idea of the spirit of the Homeric mind, which we can use for eliciting the epic spirit, before going back to read in English the correlate words which are trying to represent the Greek.

There are so many translations of Homer that one can hardly dare to pick a favorite, a good list with a few words is in the Bulfinch website. But I still find after many years perusing that W. H. D. Rouse's translation as simple and unadorned, although often quirky prose, is better than most and somehow nearer to the Greek in spirit. Note that Rouse (l863-1950), born in Calcutta, was headmaster of the Perse School, Cambridge, England, for 26 years. Under his leadership the school became widely known for the successful teaching of Greek and Latin as spoken languages, far in advance of the Oral Poetry movement. He derived his knowledge of the Greeks not only from his wide studies of classical literature, but also by travelling extensively in Greece. He taught Sanskrit at Cambridge for thirty years and translated from East Indian literature. He was a man who knew how to read difficult texts, and this shows in his Iliad very clearly. Yes, it is prose:

Peisandros hit the other's helmet on the end of the horn just below the plume; as he came on, Menelaos met him with the point, which pierced his forehead above the base of the nose. The bone broke, and both eyes fell bleeding in the dust beside his feet. He doubled up in a heap. Menelaos set one foot on his chest and stripped off the armour, crying out in triumph:"That's the way you shall say good-bye to our ships, I think, you presumptuous Trojans!"

But with a few touches of the 'return', it comes out pretty well as verse with the very important Homeric break between lines, while raising the question of what verse is after all:

Peisandros hit the other's helmet on end of the horn below the plume.
As he came on, Menelaos met him with the point,
which pierced his forehead above the base of the nose.
The bone broke, both eyes fell bleeding in the dust beside his feet.
He doubled up in a heap, Menelaos set one foot on his chest
stripped off the armour, crying out in triumph:
"That's the way you shall say good-bye to our ships, I think,
you presumptuous Trojans!" . . . . . .

While we are here, perhaps compare the "classic" translation of a few lines of Achilles from Book I in Lattimore's translation, which is fairly close to the Greek (vide subter), quite readable but perhaps now a little stiff for students' college required reading (?):

"With my hands I will not fight for the girl's sake,
Neither with you nor any other man, since you take her away who gave her.
But of all the other things that are mine beside my fast black ship,
You shall take nothing away against my pleasure."

Compare this with Lombardo's 'modern' version which could be used in a TV script substituting the f.... word for goddamn, and sufficiently dumbed down for college use. Homer's anger is still lofty, using street talk does not make it any more biting :

"I'm not going to put up a fight on account of the girl.
You, all of you, gave her and you can all take her back.
But anything else of mine in my black sailing ship
You keep your goddamn hands off, you hear?

Now compare these two with Rouse's version, which I find acoustically strong while avoiding formal as well as slang speech. I give it as prose first, then split by lines to give the pause of Homer's dactyls:

I will never use my hand to fight for a girl, either with you or anyone --- those who gave may take away; but you shall never carry off anything else of what I have against my will. Just try and see, that these also may know: Very soon there will be red blood on the spear-point.

I will never use my hand to fight for a girl,
Either with you or anyone. Those who gave may take away
But you shall never carry off anything else of what I have
Against my will. Just try and see, that these also may know;
Very soon there will be red blood on the spear-point.

This translation of A. T. Murray goes with the old Loeb edition is from the l920's and showed its age sufficiently for Harvard to have commissioned a revised edition in print. If you find Lattimore old-fashioned, remember that tastes change and Murray's kind of translation was standard in its time.

By might of hand will I strive for the girl's sake neither with thee for with any other, seeing you do but take away what ye gave. But of all else that is mine by the swift black ship thou shall take away naught in my despite. Come, make trial that these too shall know: Forthwith shall the dark blood flow forth about my spear.

It is interesting to see what Murray said in 1923 of of his translation which aimed to have "the flowing ease and simple directness of Homer's style" along with "due regard to the emphasis attaching to the arrangement of words in the original; and to make use of a diction that, while elevated, is he trusts not stilted." When Harvard reprinted the Loeb Homer it was decided to modernize and clean up Murray's wording , mainly because the Loeb editions are used by people reading the Greek with aid of the translation for unusual vocabulary. But Homer's Greek was already archaic if not stilted when Plato read it, and nobody then objected to the curious and obsolete wording which was part and parcel of the nobility and antiquity of this ancient text. Just so many of us relish the antiquity of the King James Bible which reads with a ring far more impressive than a Reader's Bible of today. It has accumulated infinite dignity in the course of four centuries of aging, a linguistic patina which should not be polished off with a linguistic cleanser. And so with Homer, whose three millennia of patina is part of the charm of the text, and it is this which A. T. Murray wanted in his own way to catch with his formal and "stilted" English, less a mistake in translation than an experiment against the modernizing taste of the l920's.

And here is the Greek in transliteration for those who don't read Greek but want to hear the sounds, with colon for a long vowel:

chersi men ou toi ego: ge mache:somai heineka koure:s
oute soi oute to: allo:, epei m' aphelesthe ge dontes.
to:n d'allo:n ha moi esti thoe: para ne:i melaine:
to: ouk an ti pherois anelo:n aekontos emeio.
ei d' age peire:sai, hina gno:o:si kai hoide,
aipsa toi haima kelainon ero:e:sei peri douri

I cannot refrain from a inserting few compact remarks about the Greek, which is in sound and hence in spirit quite different from all of the above translations. There is a number of little untranslatable words like the series " men ou toi ego: ge " which give a brittle tone to the line, almost a stumbling of Achilles' anger over the words, and there is no way to put these into the English. That impossible word "ge" invisibly accents Achilles' disdain over an unworthy fight over a girl, and the Greek doesn't say "the girl (Briseis)" with the translations at all, but just "a girl !" which is quite different. Look at the patter of short words in the first half of second and third lines, a sputtering anger.... I added two more lines on purpose since wanted to show the masterful dactyls of the last line; when Achilles comes to the point of a threat, it sounds like a threat without question. But this is just the surface of the Greek, there is the specific word order as sound but also as emphatic points of meaning, and these are things you will never see in a translation. Enough said!






This becomes more and more illusory as we move away from the Greek text of Homer. After finishing this paper I am going to get out my Homer and read Greek for quite a while, as I try to forget the inter-stages which stand between most of our generation and the ancient texts. And when I have soaked myself sufficiently in the fountain of authentic poetry, I think I will feel sure and strong enough to make a suggestion to those of you reading this essay whose Homer comes to you through one or another of the wide range of translations, ancient and modern :

Forget the translations, let their pages fly to the winds. Forget the complex arguments about form and content, about words in sub-meanings, about metre and acoustics, scholarship and the libraries of comment on the Homeric world. Go back to something real and authentic, and let me give you one serious advice in place of extended commentary.

Go back and learn some Greek yourself !

In just the second year of study, whether in a course or on your own, you can get started reading Homeric Greek. Homer is the natural avenue into classical Greek, not only because the language is more transparent than the developed Attic dialect, but also because Homer is a master who has understood humanity well in peace and war, whose writing is endlessly fascinating. After reading some text, you can proceed to abundant commentary; then we can talk about Homer and the world of the ancient Epic in more secure terms and on a better playing field. If you go to the Greek I can forget about lamenting by way of commentary what I find is lost in translation. Look deeper and open the pages of a book which was closed before to find new thoughts, new perceptions and new vistas of human potential in these pages of the earliest writing in the Hellenic tradition. Are the Liberal Arts just a commentative scholarship on what the past has managed to achieve? Isn't a search to find something important and freshly new what the Humanities are supposed to be about after all?

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris