September 25, 2003

Homer, Meet Homer

Deb's review of the Robert Fagles translation of The Iliad reminded me of a different translation I bought some years ago after hearing the translator interviewed on NPR. The fellow's name is Stanley Lombardo. He read selections from his translation on the air, and I was immediately hooked. His version was immediate, down to earth, and accessible, and seemed to me to capture the grumbling nature of a camp of war better than the more high-falutin translation I'd read in college (that would be the Lattimore translation, of course).

In my quest to find a copy I first bought the Fagles translation thinking it was what I had heard (I'd forgotten the translator's name), and then later the Lombardo translation, and consequently I now have them both to hand. I thought it would be interesting to post a few lines from each, just as a comparison.

Fagles begins:

Rage--Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion,
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.

Lombardo begins:

    Sing, Goddess, Achilles' rage,
Black and murderous, that cost the Greeks
Incalculable pain, pitched countless souls
Of heroes into Hades' dark,
And left their bodies to rot as feasts
For dogs and birds, as Zeus' will was done.
Begin with the clash between Agamemnon--
The Greek warlord--and godlike Achilles

Try reading both of them aloud. Compare in particular this:

...hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, / great fighters' souls...

with this:

...pitched countless souls / Of heroes into Hades' dark,...

and this:

...made their bodies carrion, / feasts for the dogs and birds...

with this:

And left their bodies to rot as feasts / For dogs and birds

Now, you tell me--which one is more vivid? Which one gets the point across more clearly?

Fagles was handicapped, of course--he was aiming for something midway between the Greek text and the expectations of today's audience: "For the more literal approach would seem to be too little English, and the more literary seems too little Greek. I have tried to find a cross between the too, a modern English Homer."

Lombardo, on the other hand, had a different goal: a performable Homer: "...what we love is the poet's voice, and finding its tone, rhythym, and power is the heart of Homeric translation." "This requires loyalty to the essential qualities of Homeric poetry--its directness, immediacy, and effortless musicality..."

I tried reading both aloud to Jane. Fagles' version limped along, and I could tell Jane wasn't following all of it. Lombardo's version flowed effortlessly from my tongue, and though I had intended to read but a few lines (those quoted above) the story held both of us for several more pages before I reluctantly put it down.

It seems to me that the modern analog to The Illiad is the Western movie. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly; The Magnificent Seven and The Seven Samurai; and war movies as well, like The Great Escape. I can just see a crowd of rowdy Greeks sitting around the fire listening to the Illiad, quaffing some fermented fluids, and nodding to each other after some particularly heroic feat, "He's one mean dude." "Yup. He bad." (Quaff.)

Lombardo has that kind of immediacy. Fagles tries, but he doesn't quite make it.

Posted by Will Duquette at September 25, 2003 07:45 PM

Phil said:

Lombardo has written a good work. My edition of the Odyessey was like Fagles'. I had to remember the age of the text. Somehow, Shakespeare doesn't have the same effect on me. With him, I go away wondering, not why he can't be modernized, but why modern material can't be more like his.

Deb said:

I hadnt seen the Lombardo edition tho I mistily recall the interview you heard. I think I heard the same one...Fagles is so much easier to read than the Lattimore edition which is what I read in college.