What differentiates Homer?

The newest addition to my collection of English translations of the Iliad is Robert Graves’ The Anger of Achilles: The Iliad. I have been wanting to find this translation! I carried it around with me all weekend hoping to get through a few books, but it was a busy holiday weekend, and I only managed the introduction. Here is the opening stanza overlooking a stadium at ancient Messene.

Graves’ translation was published in 1959, a year before Albert Lord’s The Singer of Tales. I wonder how much Graves was aware of/accounted for Parry and Lord’s research on oral composition in performance. His introduction values the Iliad as a poem that was meant to entertain those who heard it and believes it needs to be “rescued from the classroom.” Fair enough. I strongly believe how we teach poetry and other genres impacts their popular reception. But with Graves, his characterization of the poem as entertainment seems almost to be a way for him to explain what he thinks of as “deficiencies” in the ancient text.

Scholars who approach the poem as a work of oral composition-in-performance speak quite differently about the same qualities that Graves describes negatively. Such scholars recognize that what distinguishes the Iliad and the Aeneid is not that the former was composed to entertain and the latter written “for fame not profit” to be read “as a solemn intellectual task.” A (if not the) significant difference between the two poems is their methods of composition, which enfolds other issues including purpose and meaning. Homer and Virgil are not comparable.

Graves’ biases impact his interpretation of the poem throughout the introduction. He critiques Lattimore’s Iliad translation for being too dense and including “defects” from the original, like unnecessary repetition. Essentially, it seems Lattimore is too faithful and thus does “less justice” to Homer. 🤨 Graves also expresses certainty about events that are not quite as definitive as he suggests. For example: When, where, and by whom did the poem come together into the version that has come down to us from antiquity? I am very curious to see how this will all play out in the translation!

Thoughts? Ideas? Suggestions? I would love to hear any or all in the comments.

12 thoughts on “What differentiates Homer?

  1. Texts with multiple translations are so fascinating to me, especially when translators deviate a lot from the source.

    Although the page you’ve included in your stunning photo doesn’t make it look like Graves went totally crazy, it still makes me think of a recently published new translation of “Beowulf” by Ruth Franklin. She decided that it was truer to the poem to make the whole thing in modern slang, rather than standard or old-fashioned-sounding (modern) English.

    I think the idea is delightful but I’m not so sure about translators making choices like these. As you say, for instance, with Graves, he might think that the repetition in “The Iliad” makes it less pleasant for modern readers, and to an extent, I get the idea of adapting a text so that people today will still enjoy it, but at the same time, it’s a poem, and repetition is part of it, not to mention a part of Homer’s (whether an individual or collective, or both), writing style. Personally, I think translators should try to stay true to that.

    Thanks for giving me something to ponder, as always, and I’m interested to read what you end up thinking of the Graves translation when you finish!

    1. I’ve heard of that Beowulf translation and have been wanting to read it! At some point, I will get to it, I hope. I do think translation brings up such interesting and difficult questions. What does it mean to be “true” to an ancient (or other) poem, especially when we have so many gaps in our understanding of the culture it’s coming out of? Homer is an especially interesting case, I think, because of the oral composition issue!

  2. Haha the raised eyebrow is so cute! I just wanted to say that I used to feel sad because I knew I would never be able to read a classic written in another language, but then I realized that an English translation was my own personal original language classic, as long as it was translated at least 100 years ago when students were still required to learn Latin and Greek. For example around 1995 I bought a 5 dollar economy version of Odyssey from Barnes & Noble that was a Samuel Butler translation and as I read it scales dropped from my eyes and I had never read anything so beautiful before and I wept. And that translation is now the Official translation of Odyssey to me just like KJV is my Official Bible to me!

    1. I have read that version and found it very accessible and enjoyable to read. Now you have made me want to reread it, especially as my ancient Greek improves so that I can compare it to the original. 🧡

      1. I think that’s why I liked the Butler translation, because it was accessible. I tried to read the Robert Fagles version once and I literally could not understand a single word of it 💁🏻‍♂️

      2. Fagles’ translation is really dense and embellished. The important thing is finding a translation that you can connect with. I am happy you found yours 🧡

  3. Plus it’s written like a poem which automatically makes it harder to understand 🙂

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