Home > Iliad, The > Finding the Best Translation of The Iliad

Finding the Best Translation of The Iliad

There are several considerations to keep in mind when deciding on an English translation of The Iliad. Most of these are universal concerns for any ancient writing, some are specific to Homer.

First of all, the question ‘What is the best translation of The Iliad’ is itself a bad question. Although there can be many ‘good’ translations of a work into another language, there is no such thing as ‘the best’ translation. There are three reasons for this:

  • Our knowledge of Ancient Greek is ever changing (hopefully for the better). This means that a good translation might be proven to be inaccurate as our knowledge of the original language changes over time.
  • Our own language is ever changing. The English we are speaking right now will sound hopelessly old-fashioned in two hundred years time. So that what might be a good translation now will be unreadable in the future.
  • There are many different ways to translate from one language into the next. Not any one way can ever be considered ‘better’ than another. Each method depends on the purpose of what the translation will be used for.

To explain this last point, it’s easier to ask the major questions you’ll need to answer before settling on a translation.

1. Poetry or Prose?

The Iliad is a book of poetry. It was written in what we now call Ancient Greek with a definite poetic meter. When translating into modern English then, the very first question is: Should we translate the Greek poetry into English poetry, and have a poem of The Iliad? Or should we translate the Greek poetry into regular English prose and have just have a story of The Iliad?

Again, although this is somewhat a matter of preference, I would say that if you’re going to sit down and read it, it would be better for you to get one that translates into English poetry, rather than prose. If you want to merely familiarize yourself with the underlying story, then prose would be better, but just know that you would be missing out on a lot of the structure and flow of the original.

So, we want a poetic translation. The next question is:

2. What kind of Poetry?

In the case of both The Iliad, The Odyssey and nearly any other Greek epic, the poetic meter used throughout is called ‘dactyllic hexameter’. This is a fancy name for a simple idea.

‘Dactylic’ refers to the rhythm of the words. The way the words come out when spoken aloud sounds like: DUM-da-da, DUM-da-da, DUM-da-da (that would be three ‘dactyls’). ‘Hexameter’ means that there are six dactyls in one line. So six DUM-da-da’s and you’ve got one line of Homeric poetry.

The problem is, dactylic hexameter sounds pretty clunky and abnormal in English. For whatever reason, six repetitions of DUM-da-da sounds kind of weird. Although some have attempted to translate Homer is this manner, none of them are very successful. It’s hardly ever used by English poets even when writing their own poems. Longfellow wrote ‘Evangeline’ using that style, but he appears to be the only poet to ever come even remotely close to making it work. And even his sounds funny (if I may be so bold). Here’s the first two lines:

This is the forest primeval. The murmuring pines and the hemlocks,

Bearded with moss, and in garments green, indistinct in the twilight,

Anyway, it’s just weird. So although we want poetry, we don’t want it exactly as Homer wrote it. We want it a little freer. Different translators use different techniques to accomplish this task.

Which brings us to our next question.

3. Do we want a more ‘formal’ translation, or a more ‘dynamic’ translation?

This is the main difference in translation philosophy. The problem with any translation into any language is that no two languages use exactly the same words in exactly the same manner. Every language has different ideas associated with different words and the ideas overlap and play off of each other in a thousand different ways each unique to themselves.

Consider the Spanish expression: “Tengo hambre”. Translating that phrase into English strictly by word-for-word replacement would give you the phrase: “I have hunger”. Although you can probably figure out what is being said, it isn’t correct. In English we say “I am hungry”. We don’t say what we have (hunger), we say the physical state we find ourselves in (hungry). This is just one example of the many intricacies involved in translation.

So then, what is the difference between formal and dynamic? a formal translation would be a translation that attempts to re-create the original ‘literally’. By that, I mean that it replicates the original language into the receptor language word-for-word to the best of it’s ability. As I said, to do this strictly is impossible. But you can attempt to do it as best you can, and still retain at least a normal sounding sentence at the end.

Rather than a literal translation, some prefer a more ‘dynamic’ translation. Whereas a formal (literal) translation would strive for ‘word-for-word’ accuracy, a dynamic translation would strive for ‘thought-for-thought’ accuracy. They would look at the entire line or stanza, attempt to determine what the actual thought or meaning is behind the entire section, and then attempt to translate that underlying thought into English (rather that merely replacing each of the actual words).

So although these approaches are different, both have their own positive aspects. If you were attempting to critically sit down and study The Iliad to find out what it was actually literally saying, you would want a formal translation. If you were just wanting to get a feel for the meaning of the poem, you would want a dynamic translation.

With these in mind we can look at our options.

4. What are the more well known translations that fit our preferences?

From what I gather, there are three authors popular today that fulfill what we’re looking for:

  1. Richmond Lattimore
  2. Robert Fitzgerald
  3. Robert Fagles

So how do each of these stack up in terms of their translation philosophy? Technically, there are no neat categories to which we can say, ‘This one is literal’ and ‘This one is dynamic’, so instead we’ll consider it as a scale. We can put strictly ‘word-for-word’ at one end, and ‘thought-for-thought’ at the other. Although this judgment is somewhat subjective, here’s how these translations fare:

Lattimore                                       Fagles                                      Fitzgerald

<————————————————————————————————————>

word-for-word                                                                                      thought-for-thought

 

This is a major thing to consider depending on your purposes for reading. For my part, I want to sit down, relax, and read the poem. Studying it meticulously is well and good, but I really just want to read it. This means I would lean toward the ‘thought-for-thought’ end. However, before we jump in and make our decision, lets look at some of the individual idiosyncrasies of each version.

 

 

The Iliad - Richmond Lattimore

Richmond Lattimore

Richmond Lattimore’s translation is the most literal of the three translations we are considering. This can either be a good thing or a bad thing depending on your preferences. If you are taking a college course on Homer, this will probably be the translation your professor will be using.

Another plus I’ve found is that the introduction of this work is the best of each of the three. It helps get you up to speed with the most relevant information better than any of the others.

Some things are off-putting for me with this version however. In his attempt to be more true to the original flow of the Greek verse, Lattimore uses long, drawn out lines of English verse. Although he doesn’t attempt to re-create the dactylic hexameter, he does strive for keeping six beats to a line, which makes for laborious verse in English. It feels like each line is a bit too long for comfort.

Finally, as time is passing (Lattimore’s translation is nearly 60 years old), it seems like the language is a bit archaic. Some will argue that Homer’s original poem itself uses archaic language intentionally to give off a ‘noble’ quality to his work. I suppose that this is a valid argument, but I’m not sure if Lattimore’s translation itself can be described as ‘noble’.

 

The Iliad - Robert FaglesRobert Fagles

Robert Fagles’ translation is a bit freer than Lattimore’s, which again can either be a good or bad thing depending on your needs.

Although it reads much smoother than Lattimore’s, this also means that Fagles has to take a bit more poetic license since it’s not quite as literal. Fagles is a translator par excellence though, so a little poetic license is acceptable to me.

Of the three translations, Fagles is the most recent and so his verse is the most ‘modern’ sounding. Modern language can easily become a turn-off though, as I think Stanley Lombardo’s translation shows. In Lombardo’s work, the language spoken throughout the poem almost becomes street slang at points. Sometimes while listening to the characters speak, you subconsciously tend to look down on them (something that Homer certainly wasn’t intending to do). Fagles avoids this entirely though, and manages easy readability on one hand, without making the characters sound like angry teenagers on the other.

 

The Iliad - Robert FitzgeraldRobert Fitzgerald

Last but not least, we have the most ‘poetic’ of the three, with Robert Fitzgerald’s work.

Fitzgerald seems to have shunned the original meter entirely in favor of a more fast-paced beat with less syllables per line. This allows for a quick and intense run-through from beginning to end. I liked how Fitzgerald separated the stanzas as well. The whole structure seemed very fluid and natural. Of the three, I have to say that Fitzgerald gave a really enjoyable read and really made it hard to put down.

Although this style certainly has many strong points, I just can’t help but feel that maybe it’s a little too much for my taste. The Iliad is a work that takes some seriously thought into what’s going on and the temptation with this one is to rush right through it.

I really did enjoy it though, and honestly might choose it as my favorite, if not for one thing that really got under my skin: Fitzgerald translates the names in the poem as accurately as he can. Although this sounds like a great thing in theory, it’s just annoying. To anyone who has grown up with the common names and spellings, it’s very off-putting. Achilles, for example, is translated Akhilleus, Ajax is translated Aías, Mycenae is translated Mykênai, etc.

I’m told that there are certain versions of Fitzgerald’s translation in which the names have been changed back into the common spellings, so if you can find one of those, it would definitely be preferable.

 

Final Analysis

In the end, after all the considerations (as well as reading through large sections of each), my vote goes for Robert Fagles.  Fagles provides is an easy read, but not too easy, and his style is superb without being overwhelming. I would also say though, that any of these three would be a terrific choice – provided you purchase the right copy of Fitzgerald. If you’re only going to get one however, I’d suggest Fagles.

Once you’ve taken into account all the considerations however, you should be informed enough to make your own decision on the matter.

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  1. Frank Holden
    May 10, 2012 at 12:15 pm

    I thank you so much for your frank and unstuffy prose and your astute comparisons. I have the Lattimore Iliad, so I’m afraid I’ll have a go at that first. The late folksinger Richard Dyer-Bennett had a go at reciting/recording Fitzgerald’s, as a matter of choice I assume. I’ve heard pieces of those recordings. Although I will insist that he was the 20th century master of folksinging/balladeering in english, singing is much more than icing on the cake of great storytelling. And great as he was at the one, he sounds a bit drawn out and artificial at the other. But then he spent most of his life becoming a great minstrel and only latterly turned to Homeric recitation. However, there must be a few great actors about who can do with Homer what Richard Burton, (the actor) did with the poetry of Dylan Thomas.

  2. prachi
    June 30, 2012 at 4:39 pm

    which translation would be best in prose?

  3. July 13, 2012 at 12:48 am

    Thanks for the analysis. I was thinking about which translation to read, all the 3 mentioned in your post were highly rated. Your post concisely argues the pros and cons of each and I think I will go with your final analysis and start with Fagles. Then maybe move on to Fitzgerald.

  4. John
    July 20, 2012 at 3:53 am

    As the gods have willed it, I am reading a translation by E.V. Rieu, updated by Peter Jones. How would you rate this translation?

    And while I’m at it–which books about the Iliad do you recommend?

  5. Anthony O'Neal
    January 21, 2013 at 1:45 am

    “If you want to merely familiarize yourself with the underlying story, then prose would be better, but just know that you would be missing out on a lot of the structure and flow of the original.”

    You are always missing out on the structure and flow of the original unless you read it in the original Ancient Greek. If you read a poetic translation, you are reading an entirely different structure and flow interposed on top of a translation. And it’s already difficult enough to translate the meaning, to try to translate to poetry is necessarily going to require the translator truly torture the meaning in order to impose their (again, not Homer’s) poetry on top of it. Of course, theoretically someone could try to mimic the poetry and flow of Homer, but that would require them to torture the meaning even more, because while Homer’s type of poetry was difficult enough in Ancient Greek, it’s virtually impossible in English.

    “The problem is, dactylic hexameter sounds pretty clunky and abnormal in English. For whatever reason, six repetitions of DUM-da-da sounds kind of weird.”

    It’s not the meter itself, it’s simply due to the fact that, because of the underlying phonemic structure of our language, it’s a lot more difficult to construct quantitative meter than in Ancient Greek, so what comes out often tends to be really strange nonsense. That’s why we usually alter stressed and unstressed syllables rather than long and short one – but you can’t really recreate the same feel of the original Iliad using that method. So, as sad as it may seem, English is really just and Iliad-unfriendly language.

    “So although these approaches are different, both have their own positive aspects. If you were attempting to critically sit down and study The Iliad to find out what it was actually literally saying, you would want a formal translation. If you were just wanting to get a feel for the meaning of the poem, you would want a dynamic translation.”

    I’ve often found that a more literal translation gives you a better feel for the culture of the original, that they have more character. I’ve often found dynamic translations rather bland. In their rush to improve upon the original and sort out all of its wrinkles, take a lot of it. Literal translations may seem strange at times, but there is a beauty left in that strangeness.

  6. Anthony O'Neal
    January 21, 2013 at 2:08 am

    Also important to note that Longfellow’s “The Forest Primeval” that you blasted said was weird was written in “qualitative meter”, which, again, means varying syllable stress, not the quantitative meter of Homer, which means varied syllable length. Here is an example of some quantitative Dactylic hexameter in English:

    Down in a | deep dark | hole sat an | old pig | munching a | bean stalk

    If that sounds absurd, it is, again, because of the extreme difficulty that is inherent in making such a meter work with English.

    • August 12, 2014 at 9:23 pm

      Hey guys, I’m not sure if what is listed above is correct. “Pig” is short, not long, in quantitative. And “munching a” are three shorts in a row, not a dactyl.

  7. June 3, 2013 at 10:54 am

    Excellent post. I will be dealing with a few of these issues as
    well..

  8. Nellie Haddad
    July 7, 2013 at 11:18 am

    I really don’t post on these things often, but . . . you’ve done a great job! Thank you! I’m asking my students to read this. I work for an online university that provides texts for free–a good deal, you’d think, but in terms of translations, it means they have to be available online for free. A huge disservice to the students, especially when tackling difficult literature. But often, they don’t know there’s anything else. This gives them a chance to find a text that will lead to enjoyment rather than frustration. Thank you again!

  9. Chathan Vemuri
    April 14, 2016 at 2:22 am

    I disagree with you on Lattimore. I read the Lattimore translations and I find they flow very elegantly. Plus his lines have a really good rhythm, one I’m told is preserved from the original Greek by many ancient Greek experts. Very impressive considering this is supposed to be a more literal translation. Plus his translations are dirt cheap and won’t break the bank. I found his Odyssey and Iliad for 9 and 10 bucks each, only spending 19-20 for both.

    Fagles is enjoyable though I’m a stickler for accuracy when done well.

    A rather underrated set of Homer translations are those by Rodney Merrill. They rival Lattimore in accuracy and rhythm. In fact, Merrill did his translations with an eye to the fact that Homer’s epics were composed to be sung by bards. So he tries to keep a musical flow to the verse. Plus he translates the epics into their original dacytilic hexameters. He does a really good job of it I’d say.

  10. January 11, 2017 at 5:13 pm

    I wholeheartedly agree that the Fagles translation is the best one out there. The Pope translation is also great, if you don’t mind the older style of language.

    I’ve heard many people echo the author’s claim that an Iliad translation in the meter of the Greek is impossible to do without sounding clunky, but I see that as a challenge. I began writing my own translation of the Iliad in dactylic hexameter, and I’m publishing my work weekly on my blog at http://www.jsimonharris.com. I hope anyone who is interested will check it out. You can follow along as I translate the Iliad, and even leave comments and suggestions which may influence my work.

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