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Homer's Iliad Retold

Love and war with Achilles, Hector, and Helen of Troy in a hot new telling of Homer’s epic “The Iliad.”

Scene from Book XXIV of the Iliad: Hector's corpse brought back to Troy (detail). Roman artwork (ca. 180–200 CE), relief from a sarcophagus, marble. (Louvre)

Scene from Book XXIV of the Iliad: Hector's corpse brought back to Troy (detail). Roman artwork (ca. 180–200 CE), relief from a sarcophagus, marble. (Louvre)

In the great tale of ancient Greece, young Paris swiped the beautiful Helen and took her off to Troy. And on came war and heroes. Gods and chariots. Achilles. Hector. Agamemnon. The Trojan horse. It’s an epic that goes to the essential nature of life – its beauty and its tragedy.

The greatest teller of the heart of the tale is Homer in The Iliad. A new translation takes us back to the speed and clarity and grace of Homer’s telling, and makes it new.

This hour, On Point: to sailing ships, sword and shield, and the walls of Troy with Stephen Mitchell’s new translation of Homer’s The Iliad.

-Tom Ashbrook

Guests

Stephen Mitchell, poet and translator. His latest translation is of “The Iliad.” You can find an excerpt here.

James Romm, professor of classics at Bard College and author of “Ghost on the Throne: The Death of Alexander the Great and the War for Crown and Empire” and “The Edges of the Earth in Ancient Thought.”

From Tom’s Reading List

The New Yorker “For sheer weirdness, it would be hard to find a passage in the Western canon that can compete with the tenth book of Homer’s Iliad—the one classicists call the Doloneia.”

PBS “That’s the first line of Homer’s “The Iliad” in the new translation by Stephen Mitchell, a poet and one of the preeminent translators and interpreters of ancient and modern classics. His works include “Gilgamesh,” “Tao Te Ching,” “The Book of Job,” “The Gospel According to Jesus” and “The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.”"

Playlist

Apollo’s Lyre by Michael Levy
The Trojans Attack by James Horner
Bibasis: Spartan Dance by Petros Tabouris

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  • Anonymous

    I am submitting this comment in advance of the January 2 edition of “On Point” featuring Stephen Mitchell and Classics Professor James Romm.  My aim is to stimulate focus on two related issues which have been skirted in previous interviews with Mr. Mitchell (“M”) concerning his “Iliad.”

    First, does M know Homeric Greek well enough to translate Homer’s words, let alone to savor and transmit Homer’s “rhythms” and “music,” as referred to at pp. liii-liv of M’s Introduction?

    Second, did M plagiarize the work of other published translators?

    M has avoided addressing the first issue.  In an NPR interview,* Jeffrey Brown broached the subject: “So how does it actually work? What is the process? You do have Greek, you know Greek.”  M finessed the latter statement, and Brown did not follow up.  While the transcript of the interview has a period after “Greek,” the context and audio recording sound interrogative, inviting an answer.

    A couple of questions by Tom or Professor Romm would likely clear this issue up.

    The second issue is related because, if M lacks competence in Greek, he would have little choice other than to borrow the work of others in order to produce a “translation” of Homer’s poem.

    In a piece M wrote for the Wall Street Journal. (“Found in Translation,” WSJ, November 12, 2011, p. C-3, and online,† he quoted early drafts of lines 50-56 of book 1 of his “Iliad” (lines 49-53 of the original Greek ±).  M offered this sequence of drafts as an “example” of his translation method.

    The first draft (described by M as “raw stuff”) was copied from the prose version of A.T. Murray (Wyatt rev., Harvard, Loeb Ed., 1999).

    Murray, p.16:

    “Then he sat down apart from the ships and let fly an arrow;
    terrible was the twang of the silver bow.
    The mules he attacked first and the swift dogs,
    but then on the men themselves he let fly
    his stinging arrows, and struck;
    and ever did the pyres of the dead burn thick.”

    Compare M’s first draft (parentheticals his):

    “Then he sat down apart from (opposite)
    the ships and shot (let fly) an arrow,
    and terrible was the twang from the silver bow.
    First he attacked the mules and the swift dogs,
    then he shot his sharp (piercing) arrows on the men themselves,
    and forever the pyres of the dead kept burning thick (close together).”

    The indebtedness of this draft to Murray is too heavy to be coincidence between two independently achieved translations.

    M’s second and final drafts incorporate minor changes, many found in other published translations. §

    M’s second draft   [Other translators]:

    Then he dropped to one knee and an arrow flew,   [Fagles: "he dropped to a knee"]
    and a dreadful twang arose from the silver bow.            [Lattimore: "rose from the bow"]
    First he attacked the mules and the flickering dogs,
    then he let fly his arrows on the men themselves.
    And night and day the pyres of the dead kept burning.            [Fitzgerald: "night and day"]

    M’s final draft (as published) [other translators]:

    He dropped to one knee and drew back a deadly arrow,
    and a dreadful twang rang out from the silver bow.                           [Fagles: "rang out"]
    First he attacked the mules and the dogs, but soon
    he shifted his aim and struck down the men themselves.              [Butler, Rieu: "aimed"]
    And the close-packed pyres of the dead kept burning, burning,   [Rieu: "close-packed"]
    beside the Achaean ships, all day and all night.

    Apart from the revisions copied from other translators, M’s final draft contains a few variations of his own.  In M’s first line, “drew back a deadly arrow” has no basis in the original. In his second line the adjective “dreadful” is a paraphrase of “terrible,” and is no closer to the Greek. In his fourth line “shifted his aim” has no basis in the Greek, nor does “struck down.”  “Beside the Achaean ships,” in M’s last line, does not appear in the original. Hence, the words which M introduced, without copying from other translators, do not constitute translations by him from the Greek.

    A six-line passage is a small sample, but Mitchell did describe it as an “example,” and it is the only passage for which M has disclosed his telltale first draft.

    Before concluding, I ought to disclose that my own translation was published in 2008 at the University of Oklahoma Press.
    _____________

    * http://www.pbs.org/newshour/art/blog/2011/11/conversation-stephen-mitchell.html

    http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052970204190704577024470798695892.html?KEYWORDS=stephen+mitchell

    ± ἕζετ’ ἔπειτ’ ἀπάνευθε νεῶν, μετὰ δ’ ἰὸν ἕηκε·
    δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ’ ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο·           
    οὐρῆας μὲν πρῶτον ἐπῴχετο καὶ κύνας ἀργούς,
    αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ’ αὐτοῖσι βέλος ἐχεπευκὲς ἐφιεὶς
    βάλλ’· αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί.

    § The translations cited besides Murray’s are: R.Fagles (Penguin 1990); S.Butler (Barnes & Noble Ed. 1995), p. 8; R.Lattimore (Chicago 1951); E.V. Rieu (Jones & Rieu Rev., Penguin 2003), p. 5; R.Fitzgerald (FS&G 1974).

    • Brett

      You’ve, essentially, rhetorically, accused the man of plagiarism and of being a poor translator…The “proof” you offer in your comment is, frankly, not compelling. Considering your own translation has been published (and presumably hasn’t created the same activity/level of interviews and reviews), might there be some professional jealousy/sour grapes on your part?

      That said, your examples of “…drew back a deadly arrow,” or, “beside the Achaean ships,” are interesting. If, indeed, as you claim, these are purely of Mitchell’s manufacture and have no basis in the original, then they might at least say something about Mitchell’s abilities as a poet, albeit they may reveal something shoddy/inauthentic about Mr. Mitchell’s abilities as a translator (or whatever it is of which you seem to be accusing Mr. Mitchell).  

      Aside from my suspicion that you may simply be wound up too tight and may have fostered some resentment toward Mr. Mitchell, my question for the show’s quests would have to do with where to draw the demarcation line of taking liberties in translating an ancient classic. (If one were to edit out of your comments all of the oblique suggestions that Mr. Mitchell is somehow an inferior translator and a thief, that question might still remain.) As you know, translating literature, whether ancient or modern, is so much more than simply changing words from one language to another.    

  • Brett

    Perhaps it is Mitchell’s use of modern idiomatic expressions/ modern language that would in some eyes make his translation inferior to Lattimore’s or Fagels’, say. These sorts of criticisms are always prominent in the translation and publishing of an ancient piece of literature. Accessibility is important, yet using a modern street expression within a 3,000 year-old work is worthy of a cringe or two…  

  • Brett

    …Speaking of modernity and Homer…I remember in high school (over forty years ago) first seeing an expression, “out of sight, out of mind,” in The Odyssey and being amazed that the expression went back that far. I wondered, at the time, if the use of the expression was of the translator’s labor and not of Homer’s.  

  • omaha listener

    have your guests read the book All Things Shining by Dreyfus and Dorrance Kelly and if so what do they make of the interpretation there of Homer?
    thanks

  • http://www.facebook.com/greg.naughton Greg Naughton

    A few months ago I decided I wanted to read the Iliad.  I got my hands on at least 7 of the most common translations, Butler, Lord Derby, Pope, Fagles. I quickly began to realize that was different from the other ones, and in fact what the translators were doing was INTERPRETING, not relaying the direct text.  Eventually I sought out the interlinear translation (Greek text on left, English on right) which led to finding (FINALLY!) the Loeb Classics translation published by Harvard press.  I didn’t know it at first, but what I was looking for was the cleanest, least interpreted, accurate translation of the original text as is possible to come up with. The language is not edited for the flow of the English language mind, and can be quite difficult to read. Still, I discovered a lucidity of imagery that could not have been surpassed by any translator. After all, it is the Iliad, possibly the most important book western civilization has ever produced.  I would highly recommend that any readers who are interested in reading the real, actual Iliad and Odyssey seek out the Loeb translations.  They are pricey but well worth it.

  • Molly Connors

    Tom: Does your guest really believe that Homer was a historical figure? Milman Parry’s work on oral tradition in the Balkans is so very convincing. It seems to be hard to dismiss his work. I was a Greek and Latin major, read HOmer in Greek, and given about 20 percent of the lines in the Iliad and Odyssey are repeats really makes me think there were generations of bards, not one blind guy in Turkey. (I’ve been to Troy, btw.)

  • Roy-in-Boise

    Moving as this is the larger questions are: When will war be obsolete and why does it take war for us to touch with our humanity?

  • Emjones

    It might interest you that the Brad Pitt version of Troy was filmed at San Jose Del Cabo, Mexico. A beautiful place west of Cabo San Lucas! They had to move thousands of rare cactuses then replant them when the filming was over. 

  • L armond

    I once had a secretary  who took a survey course of literature, and one assignment was the Iliad.  She’d come to my place for help understanding the writing assignments.  I was stunned with her comment and reaction to the Iliad.  Shr was shaking and splotched when I answered the door.  I thought it was due to lack of confidence in doing college classwork.  Helping her with the essay question, and looking into her face I was so afraid for her.  But then she said:  I want to be educated.  You are so lucky to know all about the times when the gods were alive.

    What a precious burden to answer and respect.

  • Stan

    Point of interest, just read a book The Private Life of Helen of Troy by John Erskine I loved the different view of Helen.
    “After Troy, Helen reestablished herself in the home.It will be seen that apart from her divine beauty and entire frankness was a conventional woman”.

  • Petercohen76

    I had the privilege of being among several generations of Harvard students who listened (now nearly forty years ago)to the great John Finley declaim about Homer, in his ever popular course,  The Great Age of Athens. We began by reading the Robert Fitzgerald translations of both The Iliad and The Odyssey.   I remember Finley’s comparison of Homer’s style in the two works–perhaps commenting upon the impending end of his his own distinguished  career as an academic (both scholar and, perhaps, more notably, as mentor and teacher)–the poetry of The Iliad reflected the blazing illumination of a genius writing at the peak of his power with the brilliance of the mid-day sun while the Odyssey was more like the mellow, luminous  light at the end of day, before sunset. 

    I suspect that Finley was employing his own poetic license in describing Homer’s writing as such but it was unforgettable and and a very effective didactic technique,  one of the few specific memories I retain of the numerous undergraduate lectures I sat through.   

  • M. A.

    Congratulations “on point” for introducing the Iliad to your readers. This is the greatest book about war, and also its horror, without belittling the other side. Also, it is a poem about the human existence, and the power of emotions!
    M. A.

  • Adkeditor

    I have read the Iliad more than once, but I am no scholar. I recall reading some years ago that one scholar thought the Greeks act so barbarically in the Iliad that the poet must be satirizing them and that his real sympathies lie with the Trojans. I am wondering how this theory has been received in academia.

  • VTlistener

    I enjoyed listening today and it made me wonder  if you are familiar with Margaret Atwood’s  wonderful 
    novella, The Penelopiad?    In it  Penelope
    reminisces on the events during the Odyssey,
     life in Hades, Odysseus,
    Helen,
    and her relationships with her parents. A chorus
    of the twelve maids, whom Odysseus believed were disloyal and whom Telemachus
    hanged, interrupt Penelope’s narrative to express their view on events.   I saw
    the play in Ottawa in Fall 2007 and loved every minute of it.  I bought a copy and my playreaders group read
    it a few months later and again were so impressed by the writing.  It is Margaret Atwood at her very best. 

    • Anonymous

      I enjoyed that book too.

  • MB

    Wonderful. Makes me want to read Homer, something which in 1965 all Columbia feshmen were expected to have digested within the first week. Had they used a translation as accessible as this quite a few more of us might have actually read it.

  • Janice200

    What has happened to Tom Ashbrook’s voice? The edge is replaced by a nice gentleness. I suspect he has a sore throat. I read Robert Fitzgerald’s translation and am interested in this new one.

  • Dan Cooper

    Thank you for the show and I’ve ordered the book.  After hearing Prof. Mitchell’s wonderful voice I thought this would actually be better that way and intended to buy my first audiobook, too bad another man narrates it.  Though he sounds fine in the clip it lacks the magic of tone and understanding the guest brought to the work, I wonder if he ever considered doing it himself?

  • Roymerritt19

    Though the beauty of the story may be celebratory it is essentially material that reveals the nonsense of war and the often immoral reasons that states utilize to engage in warfare.  The battle between Achilles and Hector is indicative of the waste of the young warriors we encourage to represent us in these useless conflicts that resolves nothing sometimes only increases the animosity some cultures display towards one and another.  Achilles succumbing to an arrow in his heel by my perception represents the weakness of a militant posture.  And in the end this literature reveals that deceit is often the only thing that triumphs.  All we can gather from this glorious tale is that humanity has not advanced far from the time of that blind Greek sophisticate. 

  • Pingback: First Stories (What to Read Next) | Reading Women

  • adam

    The Iliad may very well be penned as a book to edify on the plaguing nature of rage and war, but in the bigger picture, the Iliad, Oddyssey, Trojan Cycle, and even the entire Greek Epic Cycle are all about the decay of mankind. The Trojan Cycle is the last cycle of several in Greece. The Epic Cycle contains these series: the Titanomachy, the Story of Oedipus, the Thebaid, and finally the Trojan Cycle and its lost epics (the journey of the Argonauts may be included in the Greek Epic Cycle). After each cycle, men decay. After the Titanomachy, the Golden Age ends and man experiences more misery. After the Story of Oedipus and the Thebaid, many of the great men die off, and the world will never see men as high as them. After the Trojan Cycle, all of the great men die off. Interestingly, right after the Trojan Cycle, the Greek Dark Ages happen, which is a historical period in which the Mycenaeans (early Greeks) completely disappear from Greece for centuries. This is historically backed up as for that period, hardly any artifacts at all are found of anyone living in Greece. So the unifying theme and Truth of all Greek mythology is the decay of man.

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  • Soesdkeoqlorr

    This means when you’re in action you get warm. So you should dress yourself appropriately in your ‘action suit’. An action suit is usually a thermal baselayer, a fleece type midlayer and a shell on top a different world dvd. Thin and not too bulky to climb in, but not all that warm either.

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