I’m a Kindle fanatic, but I go for quality rather than volume, and today I’m kicking off my selection of the Greek and Latin classics. Obviously the trio to start with is Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with Virgil’s later Aeneid – but which translation?
Well, the first decision is easy. These epic poems were chanted (long before they were written down) so the prose translations don’t do it for me: I want a sense of how the ancient languages worked. Despite being written in different languages five centuries apart, all three epics used dactylic hexameter. (DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh DUH-duh-duh) – so I’d like a version that nails the odd drumbeat of those 20ish syllable lines. What’s more, Homer wrote the oral sagas down compactly; scholars say the Greek doesn’t waste a word.
So I’m looking for a verse translation that’s not florid or flowery. Three big names come up: Robert Fitzgerald, Robert Fagles, and Richmond Lattimore.
Richmond Lattimore was both a translator and poet and worked before post-modernism introduced interpretative translating to a broad audience. His Iliad and Odyssey are reportedly as pin-perfect as English can come to ancient Greek: syllable counts and line lengths are constant, as in the Greek.
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.
He’s also the only big name who hews to the same line count, a huge achievement: any line of Homer corresponds to the same line in Lattimore. For this attention to detail and structure, plus the way his spare English and beats reflect the chants of thirty centuries ago, he’d be my first choice. One issue with Lattimore: he never did an Aeneid.
Robert Fagles is the rock star of Homeric verse: there’s a grab-bag of modern coinings in his verse, and it’s all pretty good stuff. Apparently though he takes a few liberties with his translation; it’s far more a transliteration than Lattimore’s.
Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns
driven time and again off course, once he had plundered
the hallowed heights of Troy.
Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,
many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,
fighting to save his life and bringing his comrades home.
But he could not save them from disaster, hard as he strove
the recklessness of their own ways destroyed them all,
the blind fools, they devoured the cattle of the Sun
and the Sungod blotted out the day of their return.
Launch out on his story, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
start from where you will sing for our time too.
His line lengths all cut the mustard, and the vowels make it more of a tone poem than Lattimore’s. Also, Fagles translated the Big Three, so a real contender.
Robert Fitzgerald takes a slightly different perspective: look at how different that “Sing in me… and through me tell the story” is in sense to Fagles and Lattimore. Fitzgerald also plays havoc with Greek meter to make his English work: this ain’t a poem for chanting.
Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story
of that man skilled in all ways of contending,
the wanderer, harried for years on end,
after he plundered the stronghold
on the proud height of Troy.
He saw the townlands
and learned the minds of many distant men,
and weathered many bitter nights and days
in his deep heart at sea, while he fought only
to save his life, to bring his shipmates home.
But not by will nor valor could he save them,
for their own recklessness destroyed them all
children and fools, they killed and feasted on
the cattle of Lord Helios, the Sun,
and he who moves all day through heaven
took from their eyes the dawn of their return.
Of these adventures, Muse, daughter of Zeus,
tell us in our time, lift the great song again.
As such I’m not going for Fitzgerald’s work. So which: Lattimore or Fagles?
Well, Lattimore didn’t do an Aeneid, and neither writer, unforgivably, is available from a single imprint on Kindle. (Cover designs and consistent formatting shouldn’t make a difference, but do: I love seeing a nice grid of those Penguin Classics covers on my screen.)
But the precision-translation of Lattimore’s more to my taste, so he’ll be my choice for Homer’s epics. While I’m trying out Fagles’ Aeneid (having read his Iliad and Odyssey decades ago.) Of course, the sensible thing is to buy both.