"What is the best translation?"

I get this message regularly from people who have perused my pages for the Classics and I am always finding it hard to give a concrete answer. But this gets me thinking and I realize there is more to say about finding a good Homeric translation, so I will try to work out my thoughts here. I see already that there will be no simple answer, because hard questions never have one word answers, but if you are serious, bear with me and see if I shed any light on the situation. Some of the points in this paper are covered in a previous article from the year 2000 On Translating Homer , but as usual passing time brings new considerations.

There are several questions which come up before considering a choice. Who wannts the translation and what is it to be used for?

First, is it someone who is learning Greek and wants a close translation or "trot" to give him words here and there rather than search the dictionary? Or is a college student who has a choice of translations at the bookstore and wonders which would be best for his assigned readings, which would be clearer for the quizzes? Or is it an older person who did a little Greek and want to pick it up again, this time watching the flavor of the wording and the sense of the Homeric style? Or does he want to reconsider the old versions from Chapman to Pope and for an intermission read Arnold's essay On Translating Homer before testing out the Victorian versions in rhymed couplets? And what about the elegantly worded prose translation of Lawrence of Arabia and Samuel Butler and Harvard's John Finley for the Odyssey, not to forget the linguist Rouse's quirky versions which cut back to the exact word meanings, not unlike Homer himself?

These questions all demand different answers, and I will try to pass by the literary critic who gives a few paragraphs of easy wording on each and says it all up to you anyway. There are hard things to be discussed, but before we go on, I have to ask the basic questions, which is:

The Greek of Homer like?

Exactly what is this book which we are trying to translate, what is his Greek poem like as it stands handed down for 2500 centuries to our new foreign world? Until we get a clear sense of some samples of the Greek text in mind, we won't know what kind of translation we will be wanting. There will be differences for our personal purposes, but that will be secondary, and I will come back to that in a later section.

The Odyssey is clearly a poem but very different from the body of later Greek lyric and choral writing. It is written in lines of about 19 to 21 syllables, a rather long line which ambles smoothly along with long syllables beating time against shorter ones. The bard reads the long syllables as long not loud, he intones them as we would read a music score, and he has pitches in mind which like Chinese intonations are associated with the words automatically. He chants the lines, as he states in Iliad I 1 with the word "aeide" meaning sing or chant, his poem is not to be read in flat news-reporter prose.

In the Hellenistic period. the Greek academicians did an analysis of Homeric verse, laying out a system of "feet" as either DA da da or DA DA with occasional variations. The first one is called dactylic, an odd terms for feet with three dactyloi or fingers, while the DA DA points to the formality of a libation or sponde. Teachers then and now generally start students out with "scanning" lines, trying to mark out the long and shorts over the text, writing out the pattern and then gawkishly reading out a line from that as from a score. No wonder few students ever learn to read Homer's Greek fluently, many teachers are not better in fact.

There is are no problems with the long vowels which are marked out for -e- and -o- , the other three -a- -i- and -u- have to be inferred by two following consonants which lenthen a vowel, or guessed by the way the line flows out. This sounds hard but it no problem if you attend to the whole rhythmic shape and sound of the line, which starts with DA da da or an occasional DA DA, and usually ends with a series DA da da + DA DA. This close to the Homeric line DA da da DA DA is so completely Homeric that Plato when writing elegant art prose makes a point of avoiding it at the end of a sentence lest he sound "Homeric".

If you set set you mind to put the details of scansion and caesaura aside, how do you proceed to a direct reading of a Homeric line.? Watching the longs, guessing some unmarked ones, holding on to lengths and avoid voice stress or loudness, you can go reading the words straight ahead until you come to the end of a line, when you will find the metrics appearing automatically from your aloud reading That is the way the pre-academic Greeks read their Homer in the age of Plato, and I mantain that is the way to do it now.

I mentioned the pitch accents which are musical intervals under a fifth. You see these marked with diacritics on the words. The ones marked "è" mean nothing, they are lowered pitches or grammatical adjusts for reading a later prose system. But the "é" will be sung a third to fifth up, like a musical quarter note, which the "&circumflex;" will be a half note going up-over-down like a very compressed melisma. Many of us are trying to restore this musical aspect to Greek verse, but it is hard to do well and not suggested for a beginner, perhaps a little dangerous to 'try to do at home'. I mention this complication here for a reason. I want to state that Greek verse is musical, and you will want a translation which has a musical sound to it, in terms of both the rhythms and also the way you are reading it, with easy lilting of your voice, perhaps even a slight Sprechstimme. A plain translation in our common style language defeats this aspect, even if it looks like verse with artistically broken up lines.

Let me come back to the length of a Homeric line with its 19-22 syllables. These lines start with a long syllable which is a good focus for a chanting voice, they end with a five syllable patter and then a break since they do not flow into the next line except for a rare starting effect, like "fools.. . . ." or "he shot. . . .". This Homeric line with its concentrated style of no words wasted and everything compactly in its place, has a smooth flow from start to end. There is however a slight lilt of a "break" which occurs near the middle, a point where the fluent reader feels a natural pause as a word ends between two metrically sensed "feet", perhaps as a suggestion that an earlier chanted line had two segments now unified. Scholars have taken great pains to identify the place and kind of these breaks but once you learn to read the line smoothly and sensitively, you will feel the break naturally. It was intended to be felt, and if not felt now, it will come out later.

The line in Homer has an identity, it has a certain separateness of stance along with internal patterns which mark its pace, and in contemplating a translation, these things must absolutely be conserved. The long six pulse Homeric line must be respected, it is the sure mark of the poet and it must be dealt with in a translation in some fashion, not by imitation and metrical devices, but by an overall feeling of that the Homeric Line looks and sound like. This overrides all other translation considerations.

But there must be no translation slavery for line length. It might seem that 20 syllables is much for a modern poetry line, but it does fit nicely in a printed page. Shakespeare's relaxed pentameter has around ten syllable more or less, it is swift and easy to read. It would seem that a Homeric translator might find 15 syllables a good compromise between the English pentameter and the Homeric line, something that can be read without strain but not sacrificing length and flow entirely.

On to the Translations

This would seem a a good place to insert the Greek so it is available for comparison with my comments:

Odyssey I.1

If you are learning Greek now with your Pharr at hand, why not have beside you the Loeb with Fairclough's plain English translation for now and the Greek to see if you are ready to read a learned passage fluently. Fairclough's translation from the 'twenties is perfectly clear, it is from a traditional Greek scholar with some of his archaisms hare edited out in the new Loeb. Practical and not expensive.

Homer has a vast vocabulary of odd and rare words, some not completely clear to us in meaning, others used once or twice in the whole book. But the usual words and phrases have a special meaning and class, it is a shame to translate and traduce them into common wording , losing style to gain readability for high school students. Yes, translations of Homer are now a big business for publishers who sell tend of thousand Homers to college for the ubiquitous Classics in Translation courses which have replaced most of the study of the classical languages.

If you want to get a real sense of what the Odyssey is like, read the first pages of Ezra Pound's "Cantos" which is the nearest thing to perfection for Homer that I have seen, with its ancient English words dusted in here and there, the triple assonances borrowed from Beowulf as a Homeric analog, and no wish to make it easy for you. If he is so great, why not translators lined up after him? Lack of talent, lack of wit, and lack of a publishing market! I will give a similar Pound passage below for comparison.

You can muse on the historical translation from the admirable Chapman, proceed through Pope and past Arnold to all sorts of old-fashioned versions, but to get down to brass tacks, we are thinking of Fagles, Fitzgerald and Lattimore, as well known and well read and all in print? Let us look at the first passage of the Odyssey as a good sample of each version's best and probably more carefully thought out passage, and I will try to crit. them as if seen the first time, just to get a free and fresh view.

We might as well start off with Fagles as now nearly twenty years old and presently much praised.

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bringing his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will sing for our time too.

Fagles does try to keep the line flowing, he cannot go for Homer's 20 syllable line but settles down nicely for near fifteen syllable, with some variations. He seems to be trying told the line feeling. However he does not catch that hard strong sound which marks the start of each line, although the last two lines above with "launch" and "start" get that well enough. "But he could not save the" with the patter of monosyllables is very thin, Like a school student's translation.

Isn't the phrase "But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove" rather diffuse beside the literal Greek "But not thus he saved the men, though desiring" with nice Homeric compactness, no words wasted. That is important to note here here, Homer writes tens of thousands of lines but he never wastes a word, compactness is his mind and his style.

But at the first line, does Homer's "polytropos" have to be wrenched into "the man of twists and turns"? The Greek poly-tropos has two intentional messages, and something make you stop and think a bit. There is the homecoming where Odysseus makes many wrong turns, that is the point of the story. But there is a well known tradition that he was wily, his actions turned to his best interests, he was not forthright as his mind turned everything to a better course. Both are compressed into one word, nicely done, so maybe if you have to make it a little clearer to fast scanning Web readers, perhaps write it:

"Sing to me of the man of many turns, Muse, very much. . . . || Line 2: wandering"

The second line starts with his wandering or planchthe, as the dynamic first word to a line. This is a good example of Homer's intentional writing over the line, which usually stops with a slight breath. This is stylistically emphatic, a good example here, a neat parallel to show the device in Vergil's "Impulit. . . . But when he goes to "nepioi" or fools, in the same over-run style, why not just do it "fools" instead of "blind fools"? The word has in Greek a sub-meaning of children as not talking yet, not ofblindness.

"FOOLS. . . who the cattle of sun god Helios Hyperion Dined on. . . .(again a run-over emphatic, imagine that idiotic feasting.)

"Launch out on his story" might intend to tell us that the Odyssey is a marine venture, and that it is a story also, while Homer modestly notes "of some parts of these things tell, just for us", in the recitation of bard to waiting crowd. Is it necessary to fidget and say "start from where you will sing for our time too suggesting that Homer is like a modern world classic?

Fagles' lines are not all chopped up as if it were modern poetry, he does watch the Greek but not enough, he likes to "interpret" which he does by expansion, a bad idea beside Homer's tight and sparing wording. Reading Fagles page after page you will get the story with hard turns filled out to be readable, he does want to communicate and that is understandable for use as a college text volume.

But then go back and look at Pound, here at the Circe episode, and see a tough page to read, but brilliant and really close to the sea world of Odysseus and Beowulf .

And then went down to the ship,
Set keel to breakers, forth on the godly sea, and
We set up mast and sail on that swart ship,
Bore sheep aboard her, and our bodies also
Heavy with weeping, and winds from sternward
Bore us onward with bellying canvas,
Crice's this craft, the trim-coifed goddess.
Then sat we amidships, wind jamming the tiller,
Thus with stretched sail, we went over sea till day's end.
Sun to his slumber, shadows o'er all the ocean,
Came we then to the bounds of deepest water,
To the Kimmerian lands, and peopled cities
Covered with close-webbed mist, unpierced ever
With glitter of sun-rays
Nor with stars stretched, nor looking back from heaven
Swartest night stretched over wreteched men there.
The ocean flowing backward, came we then to the place
Aforesaid by Circe.


Now let us take a look a the same line from the well known but older Fitzgerald translation:

Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.

Well, now things are very different here. The idea of the smoothly flowing Homeric long line with its steady march of some twenty syllables, is gone. In its stead there are lines running about 8-10 syllables, some as short as 5-6, so the sound-sense of Homer is not to be captured. Those short line are an interruption, maybe there to make it look like a page of modern poetry? Of course this is in order to make Homer more "readable" or as they say now more accessible. With tens of thousands of college students reading the Odyssey in a Freshman required course, it does make sense to give them something they can read. Just so we have Shakespeare editions with text on the left page and a paraphrase on the right, and I think that Fitzgerald has in some cases even veered in the direction of a paraphrase. When I see the simple and effective "polytropos" as many-turning blown up into "of that man skilled in all ways of contending", I see he is trying get two meanings in here, but how wordy and un-Homeric and I don't like it.

I cant find even a trace in the Greek for "he who moves all day through heaven", perhaps it might be a good footnote for a longtime reader in wintertime Alaska, or if you still adhere to the geocentric hypothesis; but why clutter up the story with notes? Isn't it clearer with the abrupt words: "He took away their homecoming", rather than took it away from their eyes, the nostos being at a great distance still.

This paper is perfectly readable and if it were presented as a piece of imaginative writing based on a classic tale, that would be acceptable. But as a translation, understanding that a translation must recreates something of the feeling of an ancient document as here, that it must have the sense of the poetic form which is key to the grasp of this particular poet, and that is must render words exactly and accurately with no fudge or fidgeting, then this is not the right way to go as I see it. On the other hand a whole generation grew up with Fitzgerald in mind when they wanted to go to the Odyssey, and they got a nice readable story in acceptable language for their money. I would prefer reading Lawrence's masterly prose Odyssey, knowing that the man who wrote the near-eastern Seven Pillars of Wisdom had no patience with wasting words, while honing his sentences with precision of intent. Just so is his masterful Homeric translation when he came back to write about the East again after the War. What is this peculiar phrase "Sing in me, Muse"? The idea of inspiration of the Muse singing in or through the poet is a much later notion, nothing the direct mind of a bard would have said even if he felt it in his inner heart. Does a translator have to improvise on a text?


And now we come to Lattimore, an older translator whose close work from the Greek started before l950 with his fine Pindaric pieces, culminating in the well known series of the Greek Drama. Always watching the Greek closely, writing in a compact and cautiously rich poetical style but without fussiness, Lattimore is more classical and must be read more thoughtfully and acoustically than the above translators. His pages are excellent for re-reading, I find they are fine for reading out loud to myself, at times I almost feel I am reading the Greek since he is so close to the Greek words and phrases which I have been involved in teaching for so many years. In short, for me Lattimore reflects Homer remarkably well, but I must note that I am not your college Freshman reader. Still for adults coming back to learning Greek, or for a well educated reader who wants to have a try at Homer again, this is a translation worth considering.

Tell me, Muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel.
Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Even so he could not save his companions, hard though
he strove to; they were destroyed by their own wild recklessness,
fools, who devoured the oxen of Helios, the sun God,
and he took away the day of their homecoming. From some point
here, goddess, daughter of Zeus, speak, and begin our story.

Now down to some details. First thing I notice is that the linrd have 14 syllables more or less, more than Shakespeare's ten but a reasonable less than Homer's twenty. Then I note that these ten lines of English correspond exactly to the ten lines of the Odyssey. I like the fact that Lattimore is so compact, like Homer with no room for overstuffing of fooling around. In all the thousand pages of Homer as printed out in the Greek, there are no unnecessary words, no padding. That is a valuable lesson for our world of advertising and writing and political hype where so many words seem to have lost their meaning. Another good book with no fluff is the Bible, good for the head whether religious or not.

Some criticasters have remarked about Lattimore's Homer that nobody these days can read an English poetic hexameter, a foolish remark which would mean nobody could read Homer in the Greek anymore. It is true that Lattimore does use some lightly dusted meters in this translation, you can mark them out with long and shorts and variations if you want, but the lines can best be read as they stand as a kind of art prose, and the interesting metrics will come out as you read, especially i f you read aloud. That is also the way I believe you should read Homer too, read right ahead, watch for the longs and read wait for the meters to appear.

Polytropos comes through here straight with "ways" as from tropos or "turn, way" with both nostos and personality meanings hinted. Lattimore came though correctly with the "fools" as the over-run emphatic word in l.8 but couldn't manage to get their feast in the same emphatic place in the next line, as this would have required too much rearrangement. " From some point here" seems odd, since the Greek says "of these things in some part at least (ge), begin "the story" which is added but quite proper for "eipe" which is saying and also telling.

Obviously I like this version but it is not a personal view at all. I have been asking for a reasonably long line which he has, I want something without additions or improvisation on this valuable 2500 year old poem, I don't care for it to be "modern" or easy to read, since I believe the classics were all constructed to be read slowly, carefully and thoughtfully and always aloud. So for a person used to scanning pages on the web with an instantaneous grasp, Lattimore might seem demanding and not reader-friendly. If you are learning Greek and are reading Homer, you will not find him reader-friendly with his odd words, his strange constructions, his funny epithets which you can't translate. But the Classics represent another world of mind , a special world from which we should draw special impressions, and that always means slow reading.

I would prefer to read one book of the Odyssey slowly and with the greatest care, until I got the sense of how Homer was writing and how he put his notions in what order. Then I would be prepared to go to Book V and read on intoto the underworld episode, and absorb these fully before feeling that I had to rush on to read the rest of the Story in Book 24 and at the send see how it all came out. For this kind of thoughtful reading Lattimore is absolutely ideal. When I have my coffee at a small table in the morning window, I keep a copy of his Odyssey at hand and open it at random to find out what new episode I had not fully absorbed. Then I open the Greek to see if it is really that close. Reading the old and familiar pages I find they always have new twists, that is the mark of a Greek classic.


In closing I don't want to forget to mention the Homer translation of W. H. D. Rouse l863-1950. Double Firsts at Cambridge, he founded a Direct Method for teaching Greek and Latin, with various summer institutes after l911, continued at Perse School Cambridge until retired in l928. His translation of Iliad and Odyssey done in teh 'thirties are clear prose and very exact of the original meanings, but he sticks to being very precise and clear, although translating some epithets, such a "Hekebolos" to The Far Darter, or Lord Apollo Shoot-Afar. Some might think him a little quirky, but he is as clear and direct as Homer himself, but in a prose medium. With the mind of a language scholar and teacher, he is not affected by a guise of trying the be a poet, perhaps a good thing for one kind of translator. I have used his Homer for a colelge course in English with success, the books from Signet are always cheap and for a student who has to read the Iliad in two weeks, this is a good if rudimentary way into the book, and it provids me with a clear base on which to build the rest of the material about Homer's sense and style and pre-history.

THIS IS THE STORY OF A MAN, one who was never at a loss. He had traveled far in the world, after the sack of Troy, the virgin fortress; he saw many cities of men, and learned their mind; he endured many troubles and hardships in the struggle to save his own life and to bring back the men safe to their own homes. He did his best, but he could not save his companions. For they perished by their own madness, because they killed and ate the cattle of Hyperion the sun-God, and the god took care that they should never see home again.

At the time I begin all the other who had not been killed in the war were at home. . . . .

You see he is rewriting some words not really paraphrasing but putting in clearer English the words and the thrusts of the sentences. Remember that he was teaching Greek in Direct Method, which emphasizes the clearest meaning of the words in understandable sentences. No words wasted, this prose version is as short as Lattimore's verse, but he does omit the last line. Somehow he must have felt that tail invocation was out of place here having been done at the first line; it does somewhat break the story line. I like the way he changes "the god took away the day of their homecoming" because the "taking away of the day of the return" is curiously mixed verbally, as a teacher of Fresham would remark in the margin. So he keeps the "taking" motif, but does it thus: "god took care that they should never see home again" nicely retaining the taking and the home together, plain and simply. He was just uncomfortable with "apheileto". For clarity he addws "The Sun God" as Helios, just in case. In similar fashion he find "noston" more of a Greek than an English notion, so put it this way: "safe to their own homes".

Some might think Rouse too idiosyncratic for their students' use. I remind that when he makes a change there will be a reason, usually one thought out carefully if you have time to backtrack and check it out. Otherwise this is clear, cheap to own and racy for a student introduction, I still find it invigorating at times, after surfeiting on the work of the poet-translator .

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College