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  • Silvio Bär

Reviewing the Classics I: Richmond Lattimore’s Translations of Homer’s Epics

Aktualisiert: Jan 18

Ancient Greek literature begins with Homer’s epics. If one were to select the top ten of ancient classics, the Iliad and the Odyssey would, in all likelihood, be awarded first ranks. Both epics revolve around the Trojan War, and they both tell the story of a man who must cope with a major challenge in life. The Iliad focuses on Achilles, the principle Greek hero in the Trojan War who – after having taken revenge for the violent death of his friend Patroclus by killing his archenemy Hector – finds peace through the encounter with his enemy’s father who begs Achilles to release the corpse of his dead son. The Odyssey, in turn, centres on the homecoming of Odysseus, another Greek hero who is destined to undergo numerous trials and tribulations before he finally is reunited with his beloved wife Penelope.

The Iliad is about finding inner peace; the Odyssey is about losing and re-establishing one’s identity. Both epics are essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand the basics of human life – as well as for those who want to know the basics of ancient literature and its aftermath in Western culture (and beyond). Thus, the literary and cultural impact of Homer’s epics cannot be overestimated – and it goes without saying that translations have played a pivotal role in their dissemination and reception over the centuries.

Indeed, there are probably only few other texts that have been translated as often as the Homeric epics; and those wishing to read the Iliad and the Odyssey in English are virtually spoilt for choice. In the twentieth century, the major English translations of both epics are arguably those by Richmond Lattimore (1906–1984). A professor of Classics at Bryn Mawr College, Lattimore published his translation of the Iliad in 1951, followed by a translation of the Odyssey in 1965. By retranslating the two epics, he competed with several giants, the most towering of whom was the novelist Samuel Butler (1835–1902), whose translations of the Iliad (from 1898) and the Odyssey (from 1900) were still widely read and highly respected at that time.

Homer’s epics are written in verse, the so-called hexameter. A hexameter consists of six feet that are each made up of either two long syllables or one long syllable followed by two short ones. Yet, rendering Greek hexameter into English is difficult, and the result is often unsatisfactory, and therefore Butler (like others before and after him) chose to dispense with the verse form and instead produced a plain prose translation. Lattimore, in turn, went for a compromise and used what he called “a free six-beat line”, the goal of which was “to convey the meaning of the Greek in a speed and rhythm analogous to the speed and rhythm I find in the original” (preface from 1951, p. 55). Let us compare the first seven lines of the Iliad in three versions: a pure hexametric version by Joseph Henry Dart (1817–1887) from 1835, Butler’s prose version, and Lattimore’s compromise version (I recommend reading the excerpts aloud):

Sing, divine Muse, sing the implacable wrath of Achilles!

Heavy with death and with woe to the banded sons of Achaia!

Many the souls of the mighty, the sons of redoutable heroes,

Hurried by it prematurely to Hades. The vultures and wild-dogs

Tore their tombless limbs. Yet thus did the will of the Highest

Work to an end – from the day when strife drove madly asunder,

Atreus’ son, king of men; and the Godlike leader Achilles. (trans. Dart 1835)

Sing, O Goddess, the Anger of Achilles son of Peleus, that brought countless ills upon the Achaeans. Many a brave soul did it send hurrying down to Hades, and many a hero did it yield a prey to dogs and vultures, for so were the counsels of Jove fulfilled from the day on which the son of Atreus, king of men, and great Achilles, first fell out with one another. (trans. Butler 1898)

Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus

and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians,

hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls

of heroes, but gave their bodies to be the delicate feasting

of dogs, of all birds, and the will of Zeus was accomplished

since that time when first there stood in division of conflict

Atreus’ son the lord of men and brilliant Achilleus. (trans. Lattimore 1951)

A hexametric translation of a Homeric epic is accurate insofar as it closely imitates the original verse, but the result is often somewhat ‘clattering’ and can cause a soporific effect – an effect that does not do justice to the Greek counterpart, whose hexameters run much more smoothly, more naturally. Furthermore, the constraints of the hexametric form often require additions as well as omissions as compared to the original – in Dart’s translation of the first verse, for example, the duplication of the verb “sing” is an addition, whereas Achilles’ patronymic (“the son of Peleus”) was omitted. A prose translation, in turn, has no such side effects and therefore is, in some way, closer to the original than a verse translation ever can be. However, the downside of a prose translation is that it gives up the poetic flow of the original verse and thus comes across as more mundane than the original.

Lattimore’s free six-beat lines, on the other hand, combine the benefits of both translation practices. Lattimore’s idiom is ‘rhythmic prose’, or ‘prose in verse’ – in fact, there is so much liberty in the composition of his six-liners (which vary in length from twelve to eighteen syllabes) that one may arguably wonder whether the result can still be considered verse at all. Actually, we could say: it is prose with line breaks.

Lattimore received much praise for his fidelity to Homer’s original – but he was also, oddly, critized for the supposed lack of it. John Prendergast, in an in-depth analysis of several English translations of the Iliad, diagnoses Lattimore’s translation for “infidelity that causes clumsy wording”. More concretely, he states that “Lattimore in fact paraphrases Homer, line by line, in prose, choosing his own words, not Homer’s, ordering his chosen words in his own way, not Homer’s. Homer relied on the formulas of an art form with centuries of practice. Lattimore ignored the formulas and relied on his own art. It is A LACK OF FIDELITY to the original Greek caused by Lattimore choosing his own words and following his own routine that is to blame for clumsy wording” (emphasis in the original).

I have cited this substantial quote in full length because it is (in my opinion) both right and wrong at the same time. Lattimore’s translation is, of course, not literal in the actual sense of the word. Actually, a word-by-word translation of Homer’s sentences into English would probably result in unintelligible gibberish. Lattimore’s translation is, however, very close to the Greek original insofar as it captures its general tone, its poetic mode. Homeric Greek is not ordinary, spoken Greek; it is an artificial idiom, a mixture of two different Ancient Greek dialects that was never spoken by anyone. Yet the ancient Greeks were able to understand Homer’s epics. Thus, neither plain everyday speech nor an incomprehensible word-by-word rendering does Homer’s language justice. A good translation of Homer finds a middle way between these two extremes. Lattimore, who was not only a Classics scholar, but also a poet, achieves this goal by creating a slightly archaizing, yet well-readable idiom. In its own, non-literal way, Lattimore’s fidelity to the original is unequalled.

Lattimore was by no means the last to translate Homer’s epics into English – both the Iliad and the Odyssey have been retranslated many times afresh. A very recent retranslation of the Odyssey is that by the British classicist Emily Wilson, Professor of Classics at the University of Pennsylvania. Let us look at the beginning of the Odyssey in Lattimore’s translation and contrast it with Wilson’s version (again, I recommend reading aloud):

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. (trans. Lattimore 1965)

Tell me about a complicated man.

Muse, tell me how he wandered and was lost

when he had wrecked the holy town of Troy,

and where he went, and who he met, the pain

he suffered in the storms at sea, and how

he worked to save his life and bring his men

back home. He failed to keep them safe; poor fools,

they ate the Sun God’s cattle, and the god

kept them from home. Now goddess, child of Zeus,

tell the old story for our modern times.

Find the beginning. (trans. Wilson 2018)

Wilson’s version of the Odyssey received much medial attention and praise because she (allegedly) was the first woman who translated this epic into English; it has even been suggested that this translation was going to be “a new cultural landmark”. But what is so novel about it? Wilson adopts the ‘rhythmic prose with line breaks’-principle from Lattimore, but when I listened to the audio book, my auditive impression was that of pure, simple prose. Wilson’s sentences are considerably shorter than those of Lattimore – and shorter than those of Homer. There is little left of Homer’s poetic tone – something which Lattimore transfers so elegantly from Greek into English. Wilson’s idiom reads much more mundane.

One aspect reviewers pointed out repeatedly – and discussed at great length – is Wilson’s translation of the Greek adjective πολύτροπος (polýtropos), with which Odysseus is qualified in the first line of the Odyssey. Literally, polýtropos means “much-turned”, and this qualification can be understood on a literal and on a metaphoric level: Odysseus is widely travelled (viz., his journey has taken many ‘turns’), and he is also cunning and astute (viz., he is the type of man who ‘turns’ things round in his mind before he makes a decision [with one exception: when he overhastily reveals his identity to Polyphemos after having escaped from his cave – an incident that has devastating consequences]). Wilson’s attempt at bringing Odysseus’ negative sides to the fore by translating polýtropos as “complicated” is laudable, but it fails all the same because polýtropos simply does not mean “complicated”. Lattimore’s rendering, on the other hand, captures the double essence of the adjective perfectly: Odysseus is “the man of many ways” both in a concrete and in an abstract sense.

There can be no doubt that Wilson’s translation of the Odyssey has its merits (personally I enjoyed listening to the audio book much more than reading it). One merit, I dare say, may be that it can help us to appreciate an older, supposedly conservative and outdated translation afresh. Lattimore’s translations of both Homeric epics should not be forgotten; they deserve to be read because of their poetic qualities, their flow, and their fidelity to the original – a fidelity that is not literal, but that captures much of the essence of Homer’s language and mode.

References (print):

  • Butler, Samuel (trans.). 1898. The Iliad of Homer: Rendered Into English Prose for the Use of Those who Cannot Read the Original. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

  • Butler, Samuel (trans.). 1900. The Odyssey of Homer: Rendered Into English Prose for the Use of Those who Cannot Read the Original. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

  • Dart, Joseph Henry (trans.). 1865. The Iliad of Homer in English Hexameter Verse. London: Longmans, Green, and Co.

  • Lattimore, Richmond (trans.). 1951. The Iliad of Homer. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.

  • Lattimore, Richmond (trans.). 1965. The Odyssey of Homer. New York and London: Harper and Row.

  • Wilson, Emily (trans.). 2018. The Odyssey. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company.

  • Young, Philip H. 2003. The Printed Homer: A 3,000 Year Publishing and Translation History of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Jefferson, NC and London: McFarland & Company.

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Photograph taken by Silvio Bär (2020).

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