The Iliad of Homer translated by Ennis Rees

The Iliad of HomerMy rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked this book up at Autumn Leaves Used Books in Ithaca, NY. The previous owner inscribed his name and the date he bought this little volume. I did some research and found that he was from Cortland, NY, which is near to Ithaca and Homer, NY. How could I pass up a book with those kind of connections! 🙂

I’d never read Ennis Rees’s translations of Homer, but I do have his Odyssey in my to read pile. He was a professor and a poet, even named the South Carolina Poet Laureate in 1984-85. His free verse translation of the Iliad is wonderful. It flows, it’s fast, it’s exciting, it keeps many of the repeated epithets of the gods and heroes, which I savor but some find too repetitive.

In Matthew Arnold’s lecture “On translating Homer,” he lays out four items necessary for a good translation. It must be eminently rapid, plain and direct in syntax and words, plain and direct in substance of thought (i.e. in manner and ideas) and noble. Rees hits all of these and makes an excellent translation. I still like Caroline Alexander’s and Lord Derby’s a bit more, but I am so happy to have read and a have a copy of this book on my shelf. The only thing I missed was that there were no line numbers to correspond to the original text. They are very useful to be able to go back to the Greek or to compare sections with other translations.

As for the Iliad itself, I continue to learn new things, or I come across the same topic multiple times that it finally makes an impression on me. I loved how Homer goes back and forth in history as he tells his story, mentioning the endgame then returning to the present (e.g. the deaths of Patroclus, Hector and Achilles; as well as the destruction of the wall protecting the Achaean ships by Apollo and Poseidon long after the war). I liked the spooky/scary nature of a River or a Horse speaking in a human voice. It isn’t comic or silly, but startling, as it would have been to Achilles. And the battle with the River Xanthus/Scamandar is mind-blowing. Achilles fighting a river, the river fighting back and then Hephaestus fighting the river with fire (Book XXI).


The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

The PenelopiadMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

Atwood offers us a very intriguing telling of the Odyssey from two different points of view: Penelope and her twelve maids. These maids were executed at the end of the Odyssey. It gives a different and valid perspective that challenges one to look more closely at Homer’s epic and at similar instances in literature and life. Emily Wilson, in her new translation of the Odyssey, also commented on these maids and how they have been misinterpreted by male translators over the centuries, adding words that weren’t there in the original Greek and implying they were simply throwing themselves at the suitors and deserving of death. Atwood offers another, more active, perspective, for these maids and for Penelope. Penelope calls out blatant sexism but Atwood weaves a more complex tale, adding a class dimension as well. Atwood complicates Penelope too, with respect to her relationship with the maids and how the maids view her in the underworld. Attempts at justice for these maids feels like reading a newspaper article today. Atwood’s prophetic writing streak continues.

Atwood roots her story firmly in the Homeric tradition and mythology. I smiled at references I knew and learned several new ones, such as Odysseus possibly being the son of Sisyphus (p. 46). She nails some important facets of male vanity too, especially when Penelope says of Odysseus: “it’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness” (p. 137).

I have to say I loved the reference to Tennyson’s poem, Ulysses. Penelope and Odysseus are just reacquainting themselves with each other and are telling each other stories. She says to him, “We’re not spring chickens any more,” to which he responds, “That which we are, we are” (p. 172). His words are a direct quote of Tennyson. Well-woven, Ms. Atwood!

Her story is somewhat similar to the burlesque translations of Homer that were popular up to the Victorian era. More often, those tended to be risqué just to be risqué, whereas Atwood has a definite set of points to make. But, at times, I felt her writing was a bit too much. Not in the content but in the “wink wink”, breaking the 4th wall, cutesy modern-day commentary. I might be somewhat influenced by having immediately just finished Madeline Miller’s excellent The Song of Achilles”, a retelling/revealing of the lives of Achilles and Patroclus. Miller told an amazing story without the pithy asides and snarky commentary.

I have to say that in the last 15 years or so, women have brought such fresh air, new ideas, and solid scholarship to Homer. Caroline Alexander’s Iliad and Emily Wilson’s Odyssey are great additions to the list of translations (Alexander’s is the best translation I’ve read of Homer, ever, in my opinion). And now Atwood’s reimagining of the Odyssey and Miller’s take on the Iliad add to the corpus. Avail yourself of these wonderful works.

The Odyssey by Homer (Emily Wilson, translator)

The OdysseyMy rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was so excited to read Emily Wilson’s Odyssey, the first full translation into English by a woman. I’d recently finished Caroline Alexander’s Iliad, the first translation of that work into English by a woman. Alexander’s was the best Iliad I’d ever read and I savored each line. She blew away translations I’d read from the 19th, 20th and 21st century. I have to say I wasn’t as enamored with Wilson’s edition of the Odyssey.

To be fair, a chunk of my unhappiness was that I really dislike Odysseus. If you asked me five or ten years ago, I’d have said the Iliad sucked and the Odyssey rocked. I’ve totally flipped and prefer the Iliad these days. I find Odysseus to be arrogant, selfish, vain, and ungrateful. Homer perhaps meant us to see Odysseus this way, and if he did, he succeeded. Of the 20 years he was away from Ithaca, he spent 10 at war in Troy, 8 years in bed with two different goddesses, and the other two years mouthing off and strutting around, often leading to his men being killed. My reaction to Odysseus reminds me of the TV series MASH. Larry Linville was an amazing actor for creating such a hated character as Frank Burns, I can’t like Burns, and by proxy, Linville. I should praise Linville for creating such a deep & real character. I should praise Homer for showing us how awful Odysseus is. And, therefore, I should praise Wilson for conveying Homer’s intent into English.

As for Wilson’s translation, her introduction was amazing. I loved that she gave the original Greek words for certain things, a definite help with my study of the language. I was so happy that she tracked her translation close to the original, line for line. It makes study and following along with an original text (and Latin translation) so much easier. Caroline Alexander did that too and I was forever grateful. As reviews of Wilson’s translation (and Alexander’s) noted, many translators have embellished the text, adding so much more than was actually there in the original epic. Some of that is male arrogance. Some is academic pomposity. Either way, it often slows the story down and complicates tracking with the original. Wilson’s Odyssey flowed smoothly and quickly. I welcome her approach.

Some of the choices she made I didn’t find so exciting. For example, her choosing to update the language to a more contemporary, colloquial tone. This reminded me of Stanley Lombardo’s recent translations of both of Homer’s epics. Wilson chose things like “pigheaded” for “boaster/big talker” in the original. She described Demeter “with the cornrows in her hair”. The original Greek meant godly locks or fair-tressed. That seemed a stretch for me. Now, these are translator choices and translation by definition is meant to reach out to a larger audience (i.e. those who can’t read the a text in its original language). I got hooked on Homer a long time ago, in translation, and the one I read fit for the time I read it. If I’d first encountered Alexander Pope’s or George Chapman’s translation, I would have politely did my class report and then moved on and never looked back. The translation I read worked for me. People encountering Homer for the first time today might want language that is different, that they can relate to. If it captures them, then they can move into all the varied versions in English since the early 1600s, and maybe explore further.

While word choices can be battled over by both sides with both sides being correct, one decision Wilson made that I can’t be happy with was her disposing of the repetitive epithets. These are phrases found in Homer that modify the name of people, deities or objects. “Rosy-fingered dawn”, “bright-eyed Athena”, etc. She said that these were due to it being an oral poem originally and that they weren’t necessary for a written work. I disagree. I find them useful to root the story and characters, giving something familiar to hook onto as you move through the work. “Comfort words”, if you will, like comfort food. Caroline Alexander kept them in and I loved them and didn’t feel like they were repetitive or slowed the flow of the story. Wilson changed the translations around, choosing alternative forms each time she came upon one. She changed “rosy-fingered Dawn” to “her fingers bright with flowers” and also “the early Dawn was born; her fingers bloomed.” Perhaps valid translations, but the “nickname” for these characters is something I remember and I like re-encountering it when I meet them.

So, as I was getting into the book, I was thinking 4 stars. That dropped to 3 stars through the bulk of it and when I finished, I initially chose 3 stars. I changed that a few seconds later to 2 stars. Goodreads rankings are roughly “Hated”, “Ok”, “Liked”, “Really Liked”, “Loved”. I’m torn. 2 is too low, 3 seems a teensy bit too high. But, I’ll go with my original gut feeling and choose 3 stars.

On a person note, I have to say that after Odysseus’s men kill the cattle of Helios, I wanted to become a full-time vegetarian: “It did no good; the cows were dead already. The gods sent signs–the hides began to twitch, the meat on skewers started mooing, raw and cooked” (Book XII: 391-394). Wow.

The Essential Homer (Stanley Lombardo, transl.)

The Essential HomerMy rating: 1 of 5 stars

I love Homer, and I love reading translations of Homer. This is the first one I think I ever gave so low a rating. I do feel kind of bad about it, and initially changed it to two stars, but then dropped it back to one. It’s primarily about the translator’s choices. First, he chose to eliminate or spice up the many repetitive items in the original Greek text, things like epithets for people and adjectives for events (e.g. rosy-fingered dawn). I think that the repetition of epithets and phrases work. Indeed, they are likely due to the poems originally being oral works as the introduction states, but they continue to add value in a written work, especially one of this length. They provide markers for the reader/listener and I think help build excitement and drama. I recently read Caroline Alexander’s translation of the Iliad and her use of repetition that is in the original text was beautiful. I highly recommend her Iliad.

Another choice the narrator made, and one that might be useful for some, is to bring colloquial American language to the text. Curses, slang, etc. pop up. Now, I don’t want crazy archaic words and seriously twisted Miltonian phrasing, but the contemporary slang just doesn’t work for me. Perhaps it would be useful to get young people excited by a text that can be daunting, overwhelming and at times boring. For whatever reason, I took to Homer when I read the Odyssey in high school and I’ve been with him ever since. Maybe some of these words will hook new people who then might explore the text deeper through other translators and the original text.

The Iliad by Homer (Caroline Alexander, translator)

The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline AlexanderMy rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an amazing translation of the Iliad. I’ve read many different translations, new and old, and this one wins hands down. It’s mind-boggling that this is the FIRST full translation published by a woman. I can’t believe it took so long but Caroline Alexander’s effort was worth the wait. This is not to say that all the other translations are bad (though some are), but hers brought this epic tale back to me again with new eyes and simply transformed it. As an added bonus, her introduction was excellent.

I took so long to read it since I savored each line. I pulled out a copy of the Iliad I had in classical Greek with a Latin translation and read it along with many of her lines. She often kept Homer’s repetitions. Some translators choose other words or try to change things around, since it can seem to be repetitive or cumbersome. But, looking at the Greek, the text backs her up. Hers is not a literal, simplistic translation. She adds her tone and flourish to the work, but she lets the original verses flow off the page. Homer was a storyteller, an oral one, and the repetition of lines, reuse of epithets and cadence are essential to sustaining understanding and building drama.

I have to say that I so enjoy Homer’s metaphors and similes. I smiled at some and was wowed by others. I was taken by the opening lines of Book 11: “Dawn from her bed arose by the side of good Tithonos, to bring light of day to deathless gods and mortal men.” And the concepts of guest friends and hospitality give one hope (6.212-231, 11.777-780, 18.385-390).

Someone once called the great poet Sappho the 10th Muse. I might go so far as to call Caroline Alexander the 11th.

Pope’s Translation of Homer’s Iliad: Books I, VI, XXII, XXIV

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve wanted to read more of Pope’s translations of Homer and I was glad to have a chance with this little academic book that chose four books from the Iliad and added notes and an introduction. I have to say that the heroic couplet looks fun when you read a few lines here and there, but for a sustained piece of epic poetry, it became cumbersome and got in the way of the story. Yes, there was a rhythmic flow, but after awhile, all I could hear was the rhythm, not the content. Further, as many have noted, Pope embellished upon Homer, adding things that just weren’t in the text. It makes for a good yarn but after having read the Iliad several times, I felt that it didn’t need these extras to make it good.

I’m glad I’ve read it and now I can go back to other translations and explore new ones. I’m looking forward to reading Caroline Alexander’s recent translation of the Iliad (2015).