Homer in English

I’ve been fascinated with Homer’s poems since I was a teenager, but the only language I understand is English (and not always that). I wondered what I was getting by way of translations: good poetry, good reconstruction of a performance piece for reading, or just wordiness.

There are 110 translations of the Iliad into English listed by Wikipedia, and 74 of the Odyssey, to be found here https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/English_translations_of_Homer. From George Chapman, a contemporary of Shakespeare, to 12 translations published in the last 15 years, there has been a 400 year attempt to reproduce and interpret these ancient Greek poems for English speakers.

Can this aim ever be realised? How can the recitation of a long poem in 12,000 archaic Greek hexameters once  delivered at religious festivals in Greece from 700 BC to the fall of Athens after 100 BC, be made meaningful to foreign audiences, especially the media-sodden, instant gratification audiences of 21st century Western cities, used to SF, melodrama and crime thrillers?

Doesn’t a translation of Homer always remain a poem (or prose narrative) by the translator, with varying proximity to the original content? Is there that much difference between a translation of something so foreign, and an adaptation of it, like Joyce’s Ulysses or the Coen’s Brother Can You Spare a Dime?

Discussions of the ten years of Odysseus’ wanderings (10 years probably just meant a long time), and where he went by what route are probably taking the wrong approach. A better analogue would be with a work like The Best Years of Our Lives, a film that deals with the adjustment of war heroes to home life, and asks, what price glory?

Three Homers

There seems to have been three ‘Homers’, which makes his (their) poems’ point of view hard to grapple with, without going into questions of divergent authorship or interpolated passages, let alone ways of translation. There may have been hundreds who contributed to the poems over the centuries, some with perhaps just a word; but the main achievements were by:

1. A celebrated bard who recited traditional poems, who at least once gave a performance of genius that was remembered.

2. A great poet who reimagined such a performance, and wrote it down for posterity.

3. An editor with extraordinary poetic gifts who standardised variant texts, perhaps in some cases combining them, to form the one we have today.

The times these men lived in are unknown, a guess is:

traditional  recitation 1200 BC – 750 BC;

written version about 750 BC – 700 BC;

standard version reign of Peisistratos 560 BC – 530 BC, or so Herodotos believed.

Any one of these, or perhaps all three, could be ‘Homer’.

One of these men lived in Anatolia or one of the islands in what became Aeolian and Ionian Greece, and could have been familiar with early poetry of states such as Lydia or the Hittite realms. In some ways Homer’s poems evoke the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is said to have a structure similar to the Odyssey. This is one strand of Homer’s poetry. Another, a reflection of widespread recitation, is the inclusion of many dialect words from Ionia and Aeolia. This is probably a part of the poems that cannot be translated at all.

Points of view

Variant viewpoints about subject matter are apparent within the poems, not surprising the way it has come down to us. The traditional value of the Bronze Age was at first that of honour. What others thought of you was more important that what you were. It was what is referred to as a ‘Shame’ culture. This appears immoral to moderns. How can we adjust to the earlier value?

Also within Homer’s texts we find disillusionment with these traditional attitudes, a more ‘realist’ approach revealing personal emotions. Archilochus, a younger contemporary of Homer, wrote:

One of the Thracians now delights in the shield I left

Unwillingly near a bush, for it was perfectly good,

But at least I got away. Why worry about a shield?

Let it go. Some other time I’ll find another no worse.

(Frag 5, Loeb)

This was shocking stuff to his contemporaries, but equalled by Homer’s sardonic treatment of some Greek heroes, and some Olympian gods. Can translators convey this variation of tone?

What’s depicted is not just bravado, as in the portrait of Ajax, not glory as in the fate of Akileus, not carnage, so faithfully shown: but, the knowledge all men must suffer and die despite their love of life, and that courage and willingness to excel is all men can show. Odysseus’ story is not just of adventure, but of persistence in the face of the loss of what he loves. None of this is spoken. It is in the attitude of the poet, in his choice of words and phrases. Somehow it gives a powerful sense of wisdom, of harsh personal experience endured, and of nobility, of self containment. Generations of Greeks loved these poems and took them to heart.

But none of these experiences is replicated in the modern urban West. So how convey the attitudes behind the words?

Homer has a unique presentation of the Olympian gods. Not terrifying nature spirits, not the powerful deities of classical Greek religion, the gods of Homer are powerful, but unpredictable; immortal, but may be wounded. They experience fear, rage, jealousy and spite that seem almost human. They take sides in human conflicts, like Georgian rakes betting on a cockfight. Neither negligible nor merely destructive, how can they be shown to bring out the qualities Homer gives them?

Translators have to interest readers in a version of a once recited poem longer than any other book they may have read. As well they have to make them aware of divergent attitudes as they appear in the text without confusing them, and make clear contemporary customs and conventions, if possible making them relevant to modern times. Has anyone succeeded?

Oral poetry had its devices to aid memory when these long poems were recited. Each hero has an epithet. Gods, and weapons, are described in the same set way. The phrases are adapted to the measure and help the reciter to recall the next passage. But should these devices be translated if the poem is read, not heard? Isn’t it a bit like writing a novel from a film script and leaving in the camera directions or the director’s blocking instructions?

Some translators

Translators had different readers in mind. Pope wrote for a classically trained educated elite who supported his work on a subscription basis. Several recent versions adapted a literal English version to poetry and were aimed at the education market. These considerations may have influenced the tone of their work.

In the excerpt from the Odyssey that follows (16, 260-300), Odysseus has returned to Ithika, revealed himself to his son Telemakos, and reassured him that together they may defeat the suitors who have abused the hospitality of Telemakos and his mother Penelope.

Hospitality was one of the most important virtues of the period, and its abuse unforgivable. Odysseus can show no mercy to the suitors without incurring shame.

Yet the situation he finds has been caused, paradoxically, by Penelope. She believes he will return, that he is resourceful enough to survive any disaster that may have occurred. She has unbounded confidence in Odysseus, and loves him very much. The text doesn’t say much of this.

That confidence in her husband has caused the delay the suitors have taken advantage of. To preserve the kingdom and all the families that depend on a strong ruler, Penelope must marry. That she won’t is one of the few signs of her devotion. Telemakos is young and unsure of himself. But Odysseus stands with the gods.

Odyssey 16, 260-300

1. George Chapman, 1615

The Phæacensian peers, in one night’s date,

While I fast slept, fetch’d th’ Ithacensian state,

Grac’d me with wealthy gifts, brass, store of gold,

And robes fair-wrought; all which have secret hold

In caves that by the Gods’ advice I chus’d.

And now Minerva’s admonitions us’d

For this retreat, that we might here dispose

In close discourse the slaughters of our foes.

Recount the number of the Wooers then,

And let me know what name they hold with men,

That my mind may cast over their estates

A curious measure, and confer the rates

Of our two pow’rs and theirs, to try, if we

Alone may propagate to victory

Our bold encounters of them all, or prove

The kind assistance of some others’ love.”

“O father,” he replied, “I oft have heard

Your counsels and your force of hand preferr’d

To mighty glory, but your speeches now

Your vent’rous mind exceeding mighty show.

Ev’n to amaze they move me; for, in right

Of no fit counsel, should be brought to fight

Two men ’gainst th’ able faction of a throng.

No one two, no one ten, no twice ten, strong

These Wooers are, but more by much. For know,

That from Dulichius there are fifty-two,

All choice young men; and ev’ry one of these

Six men attend. From Samos cross’d the seas

Twice-twelve young gallants. From Zacynthus came

Twice-ten. Of Ithaca, the best of name,

Twice-six. Of all which all the state they take

A sacred poet and a herald make.

Their delicacies two, of special sort

In skill of banquets, serve. And all this port

If we shall dare t’ encounter, all-thrust-up

In one strong roof, have great care lest the cup,

Your great mind thirsts, exceeding bitter taste,

And your retreat commend not to your haste

Your great attempt, but make you say, you buy

Their pride’s revenges at a price too high.

And therefore, if you could; ’twere well you thought

Of some assistant. Be your spirit wrought

In such a man’s election, as may lend

His succours freely, and express a friend.”

His father answer’d: “Let me ask of thee;

Hear me, consider, and then answer me.

Think’st thou, if Pallas and the King of skies

We had to friend, would their sufficiencies

Make strong our part? Or that some other yet

My thoughts must work for?” “These,” said he “are set

Aloft the clouds, and are found aids indeed,

As pow’rs not only that these men exceed,

But bear of all men else the high command,

And hold of Gods an overruling hand.”

“Well then,” said he, “not these shall sever long

Their force and ours in fights assur’d and strong.

And then ’twixt us and them shall Mars prefer

His strength, to stand our great distinguisher,

When in mine own roofs I am forc’d to blows.

2. Alexander Pope, 1725

“All, all (Ulysses instant made reply),

I tell thee all, my child, my only joy!

Phaeacians bore me to the port assign’d,

A nation ever to the stranger kind;

Wrapp’d in the embrace of sleep, the faithful train

O’er seas convey’d me to my native reign:

Embroider’d vestures, gold, and brass, are laid

Conceal’d in caverns in the sylvan shade.

Hither, intent the rival rout to slay,

And plan the scene of death, I bend my way;

So Pallas wills — but thou, my son, explain

The names and numbers of the audacious train;

’Tis mine to judge if better to employ

Assistant force, or singly to destroy.”

“O’er earth (returns the prince) resounds thy name,

Thy well-tried wisdom, and thy martial fame,

Yet at thy words I start, in wonder lost;

Can we engage, not decades but an host?

Can we alone in furious battle stand,

Against that numerous and determined band?

Hear then their numbers; from Dulichium came

Twice twenty-six, all peers of mighty name.

Six are their menial train: twice twelve the boast

Of Samos; twenty from Zacynthus’ coast:

And twelve our country’s pride; to these belong

Medon and Phemius, skill’d in heavenly song.

Two sewers from day to day the revels wait,

Exact of taste, and serve the feast in state.

With such a foe the unequal fight to try,

Were by false courage unrevenged to die.

Then what assistant powers you boast relate,

Ere yet we mingle in the stern debate.”

“Mark well my voice, (Ulysses straight replies:)

What need of aids, if favour’d by the skies?

If shielded to the dreadful fight we move,

By mighty Pallas, and by thundering Jove?”

“Sufficient they (Telemachus rejoin’d)

Against the banded powers of all mankind:

They, high enthroned above the rolling clouds,

Wither the strength of man, and awe the gods.”

“Such aids expect (he cries,) when strong in might

We rise terrific to the task of fight.

3. Samuel Butler, 1900

“I will tell you the truth, my son,” replied Ulysses. “It was the Phaeacians who brought me here. They are great sailors, and are in the habit of giving escorts to any one who reaches their coasts. They took me over the sea while I was fast asleep, and landed me in Ithaca, after giving me many presents in bronze, gold, and raiment. These things by heaven’s mercy are lying concealed in a cave, and I am now come here on the suggestion of Minerva that we may consult about killing our enemies. First, therefore, give me a list of the suitors, with their number, that I may learn who, and how many, they are. I can then turn the matter over in my mind, and see whether we two can fight the whole body of them ourselves, or whether we must find others to help us.”

To this Telemachus answered, “Father, I have always heard of your renown both in the field and in council, but the task you talk of is a very great one: I am awed at the mere thought of it; two men cannot stand against many and brave ones. There are not ten suitors only, nor twice ten, but ten many times over; you shall learn their number at once. There are fifty-two chosen youths from Dulichium, and they have six servants; from Same there are twenty-four; twenty young Achaeans from Zacynthus, and twelve from Ithaca itself, all of them well born. They have with them a servant Medon, a bard, and two men who can carve at table. If we face such numbers as this, you may have bitter cause to rue your coming, and your revenge. See whether you cannot think of some one who would be willing to come and help us.”

“Listen to me,” replied Ulysses, “and think whether Minerva and her father Jove may seem sufficient, or whether I am to try and find some one else as well.”

“Those whom you have named,” answered Telemachus, “are a couple of good allies, for though they dwell high up among the clouds they have power over both gods and men.”

“These two,” continued Ulysses, “will not keep long out of the fray, when the suitors and we join fight in my house.

4. Robert Fitzgerald, 1961

“Only plain truth shall I tell you, child.

Great seafarers, the Phaiákians, gave me passage

as they give other wanderers. By night

over the open ocean, while I slept,

they brought me in their cutter, set me down

on Ithaka, with gifts of bronze and gold

and stores of woven things. By the gods’ will

these lie all hidden in a cave. I came

to this wild place, directed by Athena,

so that we might lay plans to kill our enemies.

Count up the suitors for me, let me know

what men at arms are there, how many men.

I must put all my mind to it, to see

if we two by ourselves can take them on

or if we should look round for help.”



“O Father, all my life your fame

as a fighting man has echoed in my ears—

your skill with weapons and the tricks of war—

but what you speak of is a staggering thing,

beyond imagining, for me. How can two men

do battle with a houseful in their prime?

For I must tell you this is no affair

of ten or even twice ten men, but scores,

throngs of them. You shall see, here and now.

The number from Doulikhion alone

is fifty-two picked men, with armorers,

a half dozen; twenty-four came from Same,

twenty from Zakynthos; our own island

accounts for twelve, high-ranked, and their retainers,

Medôn the crier, and the Master Harper,

besides a pair of handymen at feasts.

If we go in against all these

I fear we pay in salt blood for your vengeance.

You must think hard if you would conjure up

the fighting strength to take us through.”


who had endured the long war and the sea


“I’ll tell you now.

Suppose Athena’s arm is over us, and Zeus

her father’s, must I rack my brains for more?”

Clearheaded Telémakhos looked hard and said:

“Those two are great defenders, no one doubts it,

but throned in the serene clouds overhead;

other affairs of men and gods they have

to rule over.”

And the hero answered:

“Before long they will stand to right and left of us

in combat, in the shouting, when the test comes—

our nerve against the suitors’ in my hall.


5. Stanley Lombardo, 2007

“I’ll tell you the truth about this, son.

The Phaeacians brought me, famed sailors
Who give passage to all who come their way.
They brought me over the sea as I slept

In their swift ship, and set me ashore on Ithaca
With donations of bronze and clothing and gold, 

Splendid treasures that are now stored in caves
By grace of the gods. I have come here now
At Athena’s suggestion. You and I must plan
How to kill our enemies. List them for me now
So I can know who they are, and how many,

And so I can weigh the odds and decide whether
You and I can go up against them alone
Or whether we have to enlist some allies.”

Telemachus took a deep breath and said:

“Father, look now, I know your great reputation,

How you can handle a spear and what a strategist you are,
But this is too much for me. Two men
Simply cannot fight against such superior numbers

And superior force. There are not just ten suitors,
Or twice that, but many times more.

Here’s the count: From Dulichium there are fifty-two—
The pick of their young men—and six attendants.
From Samê there are twenty-four,
From Zacynthus there are twenty,
And from Ithaca itself, twelve, all the noblest,

And with them are Medon the herald,
The divine bard, and two attendants who carve.
If we go up against all of them in the hall,
I fear your vengeance will be bitter indeed.
Please try to think of someone to help us,   

Someone who would gladly be our ally.”

And Odysseus, who had borne much:

“I’ll tell you who will help. Do you think
That Athena and her father, Zeus,
Would be help enough? Or should I think of more?”

Telemachus answered in his clear-headed way:

“You’re talking about two excellent allies,
Although they do sit a little high in the clouds
And have to rule the whole world and the gods as well.”

And Odysseus, who had borne much:

“Those two won’t hold back from battle for long.

They’ll be here, all right, when the fighting starts

Between the suitors and us in my high-roofed halls.


6. Ian Johnston, 2007

“All right, my child, I’ll tell you the truth.

Phaeacians, those famous sailors, brought me.

They escort other men, as well, all those
who visit them. And I remained asleep

as they transported me across the sea
in their swift ship and set me here in Ithaca.
They gave me splendid gifts of bronze and gold
and woven clothing. Now, thanks to the gods,
these things are stored away in caves.

I’ve come at Athena’s bidding, so we may plan
destruction for our enemies. But come now,
tell me about the number of the suitors,
so I know how many men there are
and what they’re like. Then, once my noble heart
has thought it over, I’ll make up my mind,
whether we two are powerful enough
to take them on alone, without assistance,
or whether we should seek out other men.”

Shrewd Telemachus answered him and said:

“Father, I’ve always heard about your great renown,

a mighty warrior—your hands are very strong, your plans intelligent.

But what you say
is far too big a task. I’m astonished.
Two men cannot fight against so many—

and they are powerful. In an exact count,
there are not just ten suitors or twice ten,
but many more. Here, you can soon add up
their numbers—from Dulichium there are
fifty-two hand-picked young men, six servants in their retinue,

from Same twenty-four,

from Zacynthus twenty young Achaeans,

and from Ithaca itself twelve young men, all nobility.

Medon, the herald,
is with them, as is the godlike minstrel,

and two attendants skilled in carving meat.

If we move against all these men inside,

I fear revenge may bring a bitter fate,
now you’ve come home. So you should consider
whether you can think of anyone who’ll help,

someone prepared to stand by both of us
and fight with all his heart.”

Then lord Odysseus, who had endured so much, answered him and said:

“All right, I’ll tell you. Pay attention now, and listen. Do you believe Athena,
along with Father Zeus, will be enough for the two of us,

or should I think about someone else to help us?”

Shrewd Telemachus

then said in reply:

“Those two allies you mention
are excellent. They sit high in the clouds, 

ruling others, men and immortal gods.”

Long-suffering lord Odysseus answered him and said:

“The two of them won’t stand apart for long from the great fight—we can be sure of that—

when Ares’ warlike spirit in my halls
is put to the test between these suitors

and ourselves.


How well do these versions work? Note that Homer refers to song, and singing, when he mentions his poem: he doesn’t mean Gregorian chant, lieder, opera or vapid pop, but music that is in the words themselves, music that guides us, not just entertains us with an adventure story. I heard no music at all.

I would dismiss right away the older versions of Chapman, Pope (and Butler). Right for their times, and perhaps good poetry as many think, they leave too much of Homer out. The surface brilliance of Pope in particular omits Homer’s overtones of nuanced meanings. All versions have too much reverence, even Lombardo’s.

In The Lesbian Lyre (on Sappho and much else, including Homer), classicist Jeffrey M Duban expresses dissatisfaction with most modern translations of Homer. He stresses the importance of Homeric structure, based on language, and criticises the unfamiliarity of some modern translators with ancient Greek, such as Fitzgerald, Fagles and Logue.

I found Fitzgerald’s version readable but over extended pages a bit dull. Lombardo’s version was easy to follow but has disconcerting bits of prose embedded in the verse. Johnston’s version I couldn’t read, nor Fagles’. I haven’t looked at the versions by Verity, Powell or Wilson, but I’ll probably give them a try.

I have an uncomfortable feeling it’s about the emperor’s new clothes. Homer has been revered for so long that he must be good. Therefore attempting a translation must be creditable. But as no reader knows the original or the context in which it was written, a version, an adaptation, aimed at getting public attention, might be good enough, with the support of enough critics. There’s also a bit of Billy the Bard set loose at times I think.

A translation I would like to see would be each of the 24 books made by a different translator, and see if it feels like the same poem throughout. Also, I’d like a book and video package, with a recorded performance by someone with Stanley Lombardo’s gifts, as well as the printed word. Homer was made to be heard.

Do translators have to choose between accessibility and superficiality; or accuracy and obscurity? Perhaps the next translation will reveal an answer.

I think a reader of Homer has to do some background reading first. Gilbert Murray’s Rise of the Greek Epic (1907) is a good choice, a free ebook at https://archive.org/details/riseofgreekepicb00murruoft.

Being satisfied with pastiche is not good enough.

An involving discussion of the Odyssey, with Debra J Dickerson, Jodi Bottum, Christopher Hitchens and translator Stanley Lombardo, moderated by Connie Doebele, is on C-SPAN’s BookTV (2000) and can be found here https://youtu.be/ixfs_VQWq_8. Joyce, Kazantzakis and other ‘adaptations’ are discussed, various translations, poetic conventions, and Lombardo reads from his translation and in ancient Greek. An interview with Robert Fagles is here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qI7mSFLAUdM, and a lecture by Barry Powell here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FWLG8Z4oMzQ.

©2017 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.

One thought on “Homer in English

  1. Ave. Thanks for reminding me that I should read again, Penguin Classics Homer in English. I continue to look forward to reading your missives. Paganism is my preferred way of life.You are extremely adept in your explorations of this wonderful way of life. Thank you .William Milne.

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