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Stephen Mitchell does it to Helen, and to Homer, as he did it to the Bible

September 30, 2011

Stephen Mitchell has “translated”

Genesis: A New Translation of the Classic Bible Stories

A Book of Psalms: Selected and Adapted from the Hebrew


The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers

Tao Te Ching: A New English Version (Perennial Classics)

Gilgamesh: A New English Version

Bhagavad Gita: A New Translation

And now he’s taken on Homer:  The Iliad: (The Stephen Mitchell Translation)

Now Alexandra Alter is calling him “the ‘rock star’ of translators”  for calling Helen — who refers to herself as the “dog-eyed one” – a “bitch.”  Alter goes on to say:  “Mr. Mitchell cut about 7% of the poem—because he believes those passages were added by later poets. He dropped book 10, which describes a nighttime raid against the Trojans, entirely. He left out most of the stock character descriptions because he felt that while the phrases serve a rhythmic function in Greek, they add nothing in English. His next project: ‘The Odyssey.'”

Doesn’t it sound like some of the easy reader Bible translations already out?  And can we wait to see what he calls the Cyclops?

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 4, 2011 11:52 am

    Thanks for letting me know about this new translation of the Iliad — I have gone ahead and ordered it.

    I do admire Stephen Mitchell’s adaptations, which are usually particularly well crafted in English. I know that Mitchell’s translation of the Laozi has been controversial, particularly since Mitchell worked with a co-translator (he does not read classical Chinese) and misses a number of points deemed essential to orthodox Daoists. Nonetheless, I think Mitchell’s strength is his excellent English skills. Thus, reading Mitchell is often like reading a clever interpretation or commentary on the original, and thus worthwhile.

    Mitchell is reported to have “left out most of the stock character descriptions because he felt that while the phrases serve a rhythmic function in Greek, they add nothing in English.” Now this is certainly regrettable, since the use of epithets and repetition is one of most common features of Homeric poetry, and not merely for hexametric purposes, but to remind the listener of the many characters and their characteristics. However, in truth, this issue has frequently troubled many translators of Homer.

    By the way, I did not see the link to original Alexandra Alter article which you quoted. Here it is.

  2. October 4, 2011 1:57 pm

    Thank you for the comment, including your good assessment of Mitchell’s strengths and failings. Thanks too for linking to Alter’s article. Here, now, I’m linking also to the comments following her article. A couple of comments make your point about how “‘phrases serve a rhythmic function’ . . . the use of epithets and repetition.” The two commenters imagine Mitchell’s re-do of Shakespeare; one illustrates the problem very well, I think: “O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?” to “Hei, Romeo, why do you have that name, sweetie?”

  3. January 26, 2012 10:09 pm

    You may find this review of Mitchell’s Iliad interesting. We are linked to in the comments.


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