Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

HOMER: The Iliad (Book 1)

Most of the books we read in the Great Books Series weren’t written in English. A few authors are American: John Dewey and Henry James, for example. Shakespeare and Chaucer were British. But most authors in the Great Books spoke and wrote in other languages. Chekhov and Tolstoy were Russian; Clausewitz was German; Machiavelli was Italian; Thucydides and Aeschylus were Greek. This week’s reading highlights another Greek: Homer. Except for some of the selections from the Bible, Homer’s Iliad is the oldest work in the Great Books Series. The Iliad was written around 700 B.C. The World Book Encyclopedia says that Genesis was written sometime between 1000-500 B.C. The Book of Job 600-400 B.C. and Ecclesiastes 400-300 B.C. Scholars don’t agree on dates but we do know these works came from much earlier oral traditions: Genesis somewhere between 2000-1500 B.C., the Book of Job circa 1600 B.C. and Solomon (“The Preacher” and supposed author of Ecclesiastes) about 965 B.C. In other words, these stories were handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation for several hundred years before they were finally written down. Homer’s Iliad falls into this category. The reader may ask: so what? Who cares when The Iliad was written? The main point here is these are very old stories. Many readers don’t particularly care when something was written and they may not care if it was written in the ancient Middle East or in 19th century Russia or in pre-historic Greece. But all readers care about the language used to tell the story. The Great Books Series are published for English-speaking readers. The Iliad has to be translated into a language that I can understand; otherwise, it’s (literally) Greek to me. But does the English translation matter? Some folks say no; others say it makes all the difference in the world. The Great Books Series, for example, chose the King James translation of the Bible. Why? They thought it was the best. A useful exercise may be to compare three translations of the opening lines of the Iliad and make our own conclusions whether translations matter.

Here are the opening lines of the Iliad from Richmond Lattimore (1951): “Sing, goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilleus and its devastation, which put pains thousandfold upon the Achaians, hurled in their multitudes to the house of Hades strong souls of heroes”

 Here are the opening lines of the Iliad from our Great Books selection by Robert Fitzgerald (1974): “Anger be now your song, immortal one, Akhilleus’ anger, doomed and ruinous, that caused the Akhaians loss on bitter loss and crowded brave souls into the undergloom”

 And here’s the newest translation by Robert Fagles (1990): “Rage; Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus’ son Achilles, murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses, hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls, great fighters’ souls”

 Translations do matter. Look at the first words of these three translations: Sing; Anger; Rage. The first step sets the tone for the rest of the journey. In all three translations the dead all end up in the same place: (1) the house of Hades, (2) the undergloom or (3) the House of Death. The story’s the same but the words chosen by the storyteller matter. It changes the whole tone of the story. Modern translators choose English words to tell us what Homer said in Greek. Homer chose written words to translate The Iliad for a new audience: readers. In that sense, Homer translated The Iliad long before Lattimore or Fitzgerald or Fagles. For Homer, translations do matter; and he was a master at it.


Post a Comment

<< Home