Homeric Lessons

“Should one have lived, only to read the twenty-third song of the Iliad, he could not lament of his existence,” commented G.E. Lessing.  Of course, in Lessing's day, many of the literati could have read the Iliad in Greek.

Today, the typical reader experiences the Iliad in translation, and he has over 100 translations to choose from, a number that has steadily grown over the last century.  Already by the end of the 19th century, scholars were debating the merits and faults of existing translations—those of Chapman, Cowper, Dryden, Pope, Sotheby, and Tickel—most of which were concerned more with the poetics of English than with faithfulness to Homer.

The 20th century has given rise to numerous other renderings, often emphasizing colloquial English usage, free verse, literalness, or prose.  (Homer’s formulaic Greek was not at all colloquial, but translators today make him sound chatty.)  Although these modernized retellings may serve pedagogical purposes, especially for the student learning Greek, they do not endure as poetic renditions.  Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 translation was for decades the staple of undergraduate courses.  While Lattimore is praised for his literalness, translating each line of Greek with one line of English, he is criticized for his awkwardness because of needed filler to complete his six-stress lines.

Herbert Jordan,...

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