Christopher H.'s Reviews > The Iliad

The Iliad by Homer
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This review is associated with Stephen Mitchell's translation of The Iliad (Free Press, 2011)--

Maybe Stephen Mitchell answers the question of "Why we should read the Iliad?" best in the 'Introduction' to his new translation of this epic poem--
We return to the Iliad because it is one of the monuments of our own magnificence.  Its poetry lifts even the most devastating human events into the realm of the beautiful, and it shows us how vast and serene the mind can be even when it contemplates the horrors of war.
Frankly, I'm not sure that I've ever before encountered such an eloquent or concise description of the relevance and true value of this great literary work to Humankind.

Some might say, "Do we really need another translation of the Iliad?"  I think the pertinent response to the question should be, "If the new translation advances our appreciation for Homer and deepens our understanding of the story he was attempting to tell and its impact on our lives today--then bring it on!"  This is, in my opinion, precisely what Stephen Mitchell has done with his new translation of The Iliad.

Mitchell's translation is based upon a re-working of the original Greek text by the scholar, Martin L. West.  West identified sections in the text that he classified as "probable interpolations by other rhapsodes" that were spliced into the poem over the decades and centuries after it was written down.  A "rhapsode" is the term for the classical Greek professional performer of epic poetry, i.e., kind of like a bard of the middle ages, and they were apparently common in the fifth and fourth centuries B.C.E., and perhaps even earlier.  West and other scholars believe that what happened was that as the poem was recounted, time and time again, modifications and adaptations were made, and that some of these were ultimately transcribed and included in the Greek text that has been handed down over the ages.  That this likely occurred is not particularly surprising to me, given that the Homeric tradition really was an oral tradition.  Stories told over time and by different story-tellers are quite likely to end up being somewhat different.

So, based upon West's work, Mitchell decided to omit these interpolated sections from his translation.  This has resulted in a translation that excludes something like 1,200-1,300 lines from a poem of approximately 16,000 lines, or just under ten-percent! The most noticeable deletion is Book 10 ("The Doloneia") which recounts the night-time raid by Odysseus and Diomedes into the Trojan camp.  The great majority of scholars confidently acknowledge that Book 10 was a later addition to the poem.  About his translation, Mitchell says--
I am under no illusion that I have translated the original text of the Iliad, as written or dictated by the anonymous poet called Homer--just the most intelligent attempt we have at getting back to an original, and a text that I could use as the basis for the most intense possible poetic experience in English.
Personally, I think Mitchell has succeeded in creating a beautifully spare, but powerfully compelling poem that seems to sing to the reader as though it had been originally composed in English.

Mitchell has generally utilized an iambic five-beat line as his meter.  In contrast with the earlier translations of Lattimore (six-beat), or Fagles (six- or seven-beat lines), Mitchell's poetry seems rhythmically cleaner and more lyrical.  In many respects, I think that what Mitchell has achieved is somewhat akin to the translation of Stanley Lombardo that endeavors to restore the Iliad to its proper place in the oral tradition.  In other words, Mitchell's translation, like Lombardo's, begs to be read aloud.  I am not saying that Mitchell's translation is better than those of Fagles, Lattimore, or Fitzgerald.  No, I am simply saying that it is noticeably different, and that I believe that this will aesthetically appeal to some readers.  Toward this end, I am going to provide an example by comparing a passage from the translation by Robert Fagles (1990), and then the same passage from Mitchell's translation, and you can be the judge of which you prefer.  The section I have selected is from the latter portion of Book 24, the last book of the Iliad, and describes the return to Troy of Priam as he accompanies the body of his slain son, Hector.  First, the Fagles' translation--
"Once they reached the ford where the river runs clear,
the strong, whirling Xanthus sprung of immortal Zeus,
Hermes went his way to the steep heights of Olympus
as Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth,
and the two men, weeping, groaning, drove the team
toward Troy and the mules brought on the body.
No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman,
none before Cassandra, golden as goddess Aphrodite.
She had climbed to Pergamus heights and from that point
she saw her beloved father swaying tall in the chariot,
flanked by the herald, whose cry could rouse the city.
And Cassandra saw him too...
drawn by the mules and stretched out on his bier.
She screamed and her scream rang out through all Troy:
"Come, look down, you men of Troy, you Trojan women!
Behold Hector now--if you ever once rejoiced
to see him striding home, home alive from battle!
He was the greatest joy of Troy and all our people!"

(Fagles, Book 24, Lines 813-830)
And now the same passage from Mitchell's translation--
"And when they came to the ford of the swirling Xanthus,
Hermes left them and went to Olympus, as dawn
was spreading its saffron glow over all the earth.
With groaning and lamentation they drove the horses
on toward Troy, and the mule cart carried the body.
No one saw them at first, neither man nor woman.
But Cassandra, who was as lovely as Aphrodite,
from the top of Pergamus caught sight of her father
coming to Troy in the chariot...then the herald...
and then she saw him, on a pallet inside the mule cart.
She let out a scream and shouted to the whole city,
'Come and see Hector, you men and women of Troy,
if you ever were glad to see him return from the war,
so great a joy he was to our city and people.'"

(Mitchell, Book 24, Lines 686-699)
Personally, I think Mitchell's crafting of those lines is the more poetic--at any rate, it is poetry that has been structurally organized that very much appeals to me on an emotional and intellectual level.  For example, Fagles describes the coming dawn of the morning with--
Dawn flung out her golden robe across the earth
which, while a wonderful metaphor, is perhaps a bit formal and somewhat abstract.  In contrast, Mitchell keeps it simple and natural with--
as dawn was spreading its saffron glow over all the earth.
Now that is a sunrise that I can see in my mind's eye--the 'saffron-colored' low angled light of the rising sun.  This makes me think of beautiful sunrises that I've actually seen, and then I realize that this beautiful early morning light is actually illuminating and coloring a scene of profound sadness and grief--a father bringing his dead son home.  That is the power of great poetry, in my humble opinion.

In conclusion, this was a powerful and very impressive interpretation, and one that I look forward to carefully reading again and doing more side-by-side comparisons with the other translations that I own and cherish.  For me, I guess what it comes down to is that I'm not sure that there is any such thing as a bad translation of The Iliad, it is just that some are better than others.  Stephen Mitchell's translation is one of the better ones. It gets a solid five stars from me, and I highly recommend reading it.

Postscript--

My wife and I attended a reading and book signing at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena, California, on November 5, 2011. Mr. Mitchell did three readings from his translation: (1) the meeting between Hector and Andromache (in Book 6); (2) the description of the new shield that Hephaestus made for Achilles (in Book 18); and (3) the meeting between Priam and Achilles (in Book 24). It was incredibly moving to hear these three sections read aloud, and even better that it was by Mitchell, himself. He followed up the readings with a lengthy question and answer session. Of course, I ended up buying another copy and having him inscribe it for me on the title page!
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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Alex Interesting! I read his Gilgamesh. Liked it, although I didn't like that he had to translate from secondary sources; but that wouldn't be an issue here. And this new, pared-down text thing...very intriguing.

Have we talked about Homer? I've talked about Fagles so many times I forget with whom. I love Bernard Knox's intro so much I want to marry it.


message 2: by Lora (new) - added it

Lora Just FYI: Mitchell is releasing his translation of The Odyssey on Oct 1 of this year.


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