Song of Ilium
c. 800 BCE
24 chapters, approx. 16,000 lines
CRITIQUE | THE TEXT | TRANSLATIONS
The continuing story of Akhilleus
Over 200 translations of the Iliad have been published at one time or another. I count six major new ones in the past decade alone.
You can find at least three older translations into English for free downloading on the Internet. The oldest (published in instalments 1598–1611) is by George Chapman, a poet and playwright known today mainly for his translations of Homer. His Iliad has been called the masterpiece of his age for its poetic majesty. Keats was inspired by it to write "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer", a poem better known now than the translation. Chapman's work is still admired but considered somewhat lacking in scholarly accuracy.
After that, the best-known of the older translations in the public domain (that is, free to copy) is the 1715 work by the poet Alexander Pope. Beautiful to read for the snappy rhyming couplets that Pope excels in. But, as Richard Bentley is quoted as saying in Johnson's Life of Pope, "It is a very pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must not call it Homer." Nonetheless, it's the version that schoolchildren were fed for a couple of centuries.
You can find a very readable translation of the Iliad into prose by novelist Samuel Butler (1898) on numerous Internet sites, as well as in newly published books.
For a more modern prose translation, which you won't get free online but which you may find smoother reading, you have a choice of two popular translations, both available from Penguin Classics. One is the 1950 version by Emil V. Rieu, which is said to have set the standard for modern translations and is easy to read. The more recent is by Martin Hammond (1987). If I couldn't stand to read another line of poetry but wanted to refresh my memory of the story, Hammond's version would be my choice.
First lines in seven English translations:
The Wrath of Peleus' Son, the direful Spring
Of all the Grecian Woes, O Goddess, sing!
That Wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy Reign
The Souls of mighty Chiefs untimely slain;
Whose Limbs unbury'd on the naked Shore
Devouring Dogs and hungry Vultures tore.
Since Great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the Sov'reign Doom, and such the Will of Jove.
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....
Sing, goddess, the anger of Achilles, son of Peleus, the accursed anger that brought uncounted anguish on the Achaians and hurled down to Hades many mighty souls of heroes, making their bodies the prey to dogs and the birds' feasting, and this was the working of Zeus' will.
Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus' son Achilles
and its devastation, which put pains thousand-fold 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....
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....
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.
The rage of Achilles—sing it now, goddess, sing through me
the deadly rage that caused the Achaeans such grief
and hurled down to Hades the souls of so many fighters,
leaving their naked flesh to be eaten by dogs
and carrion birds, as the will of Zeus was accomplished.
The acclaimed translation by Richmond Lattimore in 1965–1967 makes an admirable effort to keep the long lines of the original Greek poetry. Homer used dactyllic hexameter, which is a dum-da-da rhythm with six dums to the line, and Lattimore struggles to at least fit the six stresses into each line. He also tries to stick closely to the Greek text. The result is something that sounds more like what Homer's listeners heard. However, it makes for slower reading.
The well-known translation for World's Classics by Robert Fitzgerald in 1974 uses shorter lines and a more fluid phrasing. It's generally a faster, easier read. However, his use of the correct Greek form of characters' name (like Akhilleus for Achilles) is at first off-putting untio you get used to it.
And then there's the translation by Robert Fagles (1990) into blank verse (unrhymed iambic pentameter), which many critics consider the best of the recent lot and which is very popular, judging by the number of copies I see around. It may not be the most literally accurate translation but its intensity and power may make reading it closer to the emotional experience of those who first heard it chanted a few thousand years ago.
In 1997 Stanley Lombardo produced a very lively version, which is currently my personal favourite. Rather than try to fit ancient rhythms into a set metre, such as the hexameter of the Greeks or the pentameter of Shakespeare, he used the method favoured by modern poets of making his stresses and line lengths match the content in English. This means generally shorter lines that are broken more naturally. He devised this approach in his own attempts at performing pieces from the Iliad, and the words do fall nicely upon the ear when spoken aloud—perhaps as ancient Greeks audiences appreciated the performance of their longer-lined versions.
Lombardo's translation upset some people because its colloquialisms extended to using some language not normally associated with classic literature, such as a nasty goddess being called a "bitch". Other critics argued though that this is a close modern approximation to the insults Homer had the divinities throwing at each other.
One innovation that is less successful though is Lombardo's handling of similes. Wherever Homer goes off on a tangent describing some action of a heroic character as something like another more familiar behaviour of animals or common folk, Lombardo isolates the verse, indenting and italicizing it. His rationale is that it makes the comparison a kind of whispered aside, not disrupting the main narrative. However, while this may work in performance, in text on the page it creates a visual diversion.
The recent Iliad of Stephen Mitchell (2011) carries the colloquialisms even further, with more modern swearing and more explicit violence, describing the wounds of soldiers with detail worthy of a coroner. As a literary artist in his own right, Mitchell has had great success with other poetic translations (most notably Gilgamesh, which is a reimagining of that ancient epic). But in the well-tilled soil of the Iliad he has less scope for creativity.
Like others before him, he chooses to render the Greek six-beat lines into the more English-style five-beat lines, though with varied rhythmic patterns, leading to slightly longer lines than standard blank verse. The lines do flow more naturally than in many older translations, though at times they seem padded to fill out the stresses.
Mitchell also cuts out altogether the lines and sections considered of dubious provenance and many of Homer's repetitive phrases. Most controversially he drops the entire tenth book of the twenty-four book opus, as having been added to Homer's work. I have to admit I didn't miss it—it's not really needed. But it is part of the text that has come down to us as Homer's Iliad and it's annoying to have to look it up elsewhere.
— Eric McMillan