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The “Iliad” as if in “clear and eloquent (musical) English” contest

November 27, 2011

Somebody at Simon & Schuster, Inc. has dreamed up “The ‘Iliad Greek Translation’ Contest.”  In short, the contest is to produce the “best translation of Iliad, 3.380-420” in English.  The “Grand Prize winner will receive copies of The Iliad, translated by Stephen Mitchell . . . and one Skype session with Stephen Mitchell (up to 60 minutes in length), based on his schedule and availability.”  The losers may just purchase the book for themselves, which may be the intention of the contest, or they may check out the local library’s copy, or may ask for it as a gift.

To submit your entry, you must have email, must be “14 years of age or older,” and must not be an employee or a relative of an employee of the publisher or even someone living in the household of an employee or an employee’s relative.  If you meet those qualifications (and a geographical qualification that I note at the end of this post), then you have until “11:59:59 pm ET on May 15th, 2012.”

Your entry “will be judged by Stephen Mitchell on or about May 16, 2012.”  He will judge it “based on the following equally-weighted judging criteria: (a)adherence to original version of the Translation, (b) eloquence and (c) artistic quality.”   You “are not required to have knowledge of the Greek language to participate (though it may be helpful),” and your translation into English “may be as free or literal as [you one of the] entrants wish.”  Or, as the promotional announcement says, Mitchell will evaluate your entry “on the basis of the clarity and eloquence (music of the English).”

If that’s not entirely clear to you, well then just go to the official rules of the contest and then back to the promotional announcement rules.  Be careful when following the first step of the official rules (i.e., “1. How to Enter.  Log onto [‘Site’]“) because at the moment the site is redirecting would-be entrants strangely to the American Tourister luggage website. And be careful when visiting the promotional announcment rules because, although much Greek help is given to those who don’t know Greek, at the moment the translation given at the end (i.e., “2] Literal translation”) does not quite end with all of the passage that is to be translated for the contest (i.e., 418-420 for the “literal translation” is not yet shown for the Iliad, 3.380-420, which is the entire bit to be translated).

HT to rogueclassicism, who notes: “Sadly (and somewhat bizarrely to me, given that the prize is a class Skype session), the contest is only open to people in the 50 states of the US and DC.”

18 Comments leave one →
  1. November 27, 2011 1:59 pm

    What?? What does “(a)adherence to original version of the Translation” mean? Note that “Translation” in the rules is a defined term that is explained thus:

    Entrants must translate the entire Greek passage of the Iliad 3.380-420 into English (“Translation”), and send entrant’s Translation, name, phone number, school and course of study (only if participating with or as part of a class or school) via email to Translation may be included in the body of email or as pdf attached to email.

    So what is the “original version of the Translation”? Does it mean the first draft of the Translation? Or the Greek? Or one of the material given in the instructions: “1) the Greek text, 2) an interlinear translation, [or] 3) a literal translation, with alternatives.”

    Because, if it is the latter, and Stephen Mitchell does not know Greek, how can he judge the translation? All he can judge is “adherence to the cribs used by Mitchell to judge the translation.”

  2. November 27, 2011 2:10 pm

    LOL, Theophrastus. You are tempting me to post a comparison of Mitchell’s version and others’ translations of 3.380-420.

  3. Russ permalink
    November 27, 2011 8:28 pm

    Speaking of translating into Greek, can you recommend a good Greek-English New Testament interlinear and Greek New Testament dictionary? My wife just asked what I wanted to see under the Christmas tree, so…..I thought I would be daring. 🙂

  4. November 28, 2011 12:50 pm


    What Is your basis for saying Mitchell does not know Greek? I believe you are correct, but he avoids admitting it.

  5. November 28, 2011 1:03 pm

    Russ: I can’t recommend interlinears in general — I think they impede language learning. Also, printed interlinears have largely dropped by the wayside — most people are using Bible software.

    But if you definitely want a printed interlinear, you can find a simple one tied to the NRSV here or one that is tied to non-Catholic translations (NIV/NASB) here. The latter is particularly interesting since it features an amazing interlinear translation by Robert Mounce as well as parsing information, and is usually considered the best of the bunch.

    “NT Dictionaries” are usually called “Greek lexicons” and you can find many of them by searching “greek lexicon” on Amazon. There are a very wide range — some are prestigious and complete and expensive, and others have basic definitions show many declensions of words and are easy to use. I don’t know what you are looking for here, so maybe it is best to use the “look inside” feature of Amazon and find one that has the features you need.

  6. November 28, 2011 1:10 pm

    Herbert: See his interview here:

    JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned other translations. There are a lot of translations for those of us, for English speakers, to read, but you’ve never been satisfied with any of them.

    STEPHEN MITCHELL: No. They have their virtues, but my own ear never got interested in the rhythms of these translations enough for me to get past even Book 1, so actually before I began work on this, I had never read “The Iliad.” This was my way of reading it.

    JEFFREY BROWN: You’d never read “The Iliad”?

    STEPHEN MITCHELL: No, so there are disadvantages —

    JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, you’d start it, you’d try.

    STEPHEN MITCHELL: But I literally could never get through Book 1, because for me the music of these verse translations never had the interest or the power that I knew was in story, and so I had the sense that if I could immerse myself in the Greek and really become intimate with it that I would be able to hear a different kind of music that would be fulfilling at least for me. And in my experience when I’m satisfied with something, there is a large enthusiastic public

    JEFFREY BROWN: So how does it actually work? What is the process? You do have Greek, you know Greek.

    STEPHEN MITCHELL: What I do is I have these cheap little notebooks with the model cover, and I first make an awful, ugly, clunky, literal version on the right hand side of the page with all the options and alternatives that are possibilities in my particular kind of English. And then I read the important commentaries and I study the textural apparatus, and the right hand of the page looks like a royal mess. It’s just quite frightening actually. And then I stop, and line by line, passage by passage I listen for the kind of rhythm that will be the equivalent in English to the original Greek. It’s a really fascinating, magical process where I’m listening closely enough and carefully enough so that eventually my listening creates what I want to hear. When that happens, I know it immediately and the pen starts writing on the left hand side of the page and that’s my second draft.

    JEFFREY BROWN: It creates what you want to hear.

    STEPHEN MITCHELL: Yeah. What I feel would be an English that embodies the essence of the music of the Greek. And that’s everything in Homer. The meaning to me, a literal translation or especially prose translation, conveys nothing of the experience of the original.

    Stephen Mitchell left out that he typically has these notebooks prepared by others or mechanically (from Perseus.) I have met him, and I know a fair number of people who know Mitchell well — he does not know Greek.

  7. November 29, 2011 3:54 am

    Theophrastus, thank you so much!

    Mitchell is very slippery. Brown says, “You do have Greek. You know Greek.” Mitchell does not respond yes or no. Instead he goes into the notebook bit, in such a way as to lead listeners to think the “awful, clunky, literal version” he refers to is a literal version he translated from the Greek.

    I think he gave the game away–unintentionally–in a piece he wrote for the Wall Street Journal, here. There, he refers to the notebook routine, and discloses his five-line first draft of what turned out to be six lines in his published Iliad. The five-line draft is lifted, largely verbatim, from A.T. Murray’s prose translation, which is available on Perseus and in book form (Loeb Classics). To reach his final version, Mitchell disguised his reliance on Murray, by poaching phrases from other published translations, and inventing a few phrases, none of which has a basis in the original Greek. The sequence of drafts he published in the WSJ indicates that Mitchell did not “translate” any part of the passage in question. It is a small sample, but it is the only passage I know of for which Mitchell has disclosed his first draft, and in the WSJ he calls it an “example” of his method.

    Isn’t this plagiarism? Or at minimum a sham claim of “translation”?

    I don’t suppose you’d know how to get a look at one or more of those notebooks…?

  8. November 29, 2011 12:11 pm

    Herbert: I had not seen that article, and I believe you are exactly right.

    Here is another example of Stephen Mitchell’s translation style, from his translation of Psalm 148:

    Praise God in the highest heavens;
    praise him beyond the stars.
    Praise him, you bodhisattvas,
    you angels burning with his love.
    Praise him in the depths of matter;
    praise him in atomic space.
    Praise him, you whirling electrons,
    you unimaginable quarks.
    Praise him in lifeless galaxies,
    praise him from the pit of black holes.
    Praise him, creatures on all planets,
    inconceivable forms of life.

    You hardly need to be a scholar of Hebrew to suspect that this is more interpretation than translation.

  9. November 29, 2011 1:35 pm

    a sham claim of “translation”?

    more interpretation than translation

    To me, this is much more the issue than is whether Mitchell “knows Greek” (or “knows Hebrew” for that matter).

    Richard Pevear, for example, does not “know” Russian, and yet his translations of Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s works have won not a few awards. So how does he do it? He works with Лариса Гиршевна Волохонская (i.e., his wife, aka Larissa Volokhonsky):

    Pevear and Volokhonsky are candid about their tag-team approach to translation. Volokhonsky, a native speaker of Russian, pores over the original text first and creates a transliterated draft marked with her comments about the author’s literary style. Pevear, who does not read Russian, works from that draft to polish the English text, discussing pressing questions that emerge along the way with Volokhonsky. Should any disagreements emerge, Pevear makes the call.

    (They’ve also translated into English from French, Greek, and Italian. How well do they know these languages?)

    Similarly, David Bellos, despite not “knowing” the source language won the very first Man Booker International Prize for translating from Albanian into English various novels by Ismail Kadare. Bellos says that Albanian is “a language I do not possess beyond phrase-book level.” And he explains further (on page 67 of Is That a Fish in Your Ear?):

    I work from the French translations done by the violinist Tedi Papavrami and then raise my own queries with both Papavrami and Kadare, through the medium of French, which Kadare speaks well enough to discuss allusions, references, questions of style, and so on.

    Mitchell’s collaboration cannot be with a native speaker of Homeric Greek (or with a reader whose mother tongue is biblical Hebrew). And yet his description of how he works (on page lxi of his Iliad) isn’t so different from the way award winning translators Pevear and Volkhonsky and Bellos work. He does admit he doesn’t know some Greek:

    The most fascinating part of the process of translation [of Homer] was after I had done all my homework, looked up the Greek words I didn’t know, pored over [Martin L.] West’s textual apparatus, studied the commentaries, and was left with a bramble of possibilities on the right-hand page of my notebook and a blank page on the left. At this point I began to listen for the fhythm, and line by line, sometimes after a minute, sometimes after ten — magically it seemed — the words began to configure themselves, my hearing created what I wanted to hear. . . .

    Notice the problem: “my hearing created what I wanted to hear.”

    This is in stark contrast to what Willis Barnstone suggests. Barnstone wants the author to speak through his translation. In a number of works, Barnstone has recited the story of Robert Fitzgerald asking Ezra Pound for advice in translating the Odyssey: “I was thinking that the way to do it would be to hit the high spots, to translate what I could translate, so to speak, and let the rest go.” Pound simply replies: “Oh no, let Homer say everything he wanted to say.” Even though Mitchell can eventually figure out, doing his homework, what Homer is saying, the real problem is that he gives Homer no real hearing. Mitchell admits to us his readers:

    To my ear these omissions [of most of Homer’s “fixed epithets” and many of his “patonymics”] make the English sound more natural and rapid, without any sacrifice of nobility.

    Now, that is real interpretation, claiming that Homer’s noble sounds have little to do with what and how he has said what he’s said.

  10. November 29, 2011 2:02 pm

    A few corrections and comments:

    (1) it was not Bellos who one the first Booker International prize, it was Ismail Kadare. [link] Note that one of the other contenders was Stanislaw Lem who was also translated into English “through French.”

    (2) I do not know Pevear’s Greek or Italian translations. I do know his translation of The Three Musketeers, which was done without the help of Volokhonsky. I must say Dumas’s French is not difficult, so I suspect that Pevear could handle it without the help of any assistant.

    (3) I respect Mitchell’s right to reinterpret the Iliad; he is certainly not the first to do so. However, he should not be calling it a translation. More to the point, his insulting other translations (“the music of these verse translations never had the interest or the power that I knew was in story”) seem churlish. Perhaps his complaint of “missing music” is directed to Lattimore (but I like Lattimore and find it to be a work of genius). But how can he make that complaint against Herbert Jordan or Stanley Lombardo or Robert Fagles or even Alexander Pope?

  11. November 29, 2011 2:35 pm

    Thanks for the correction [and the link, which leads to Kadare’s acceptance speech, translated by Bellos, from French? to English]. Notice Kadare’s allusion, in his final sentence, to where he and his audience are: in “far distant Scotland, … to undertake a visit tomorrow to where my imagination first dwelt, to a house which, more than any other edifice, fired my passion for literature: the castle of Macbeth, Thane of Glamis and Cawdor.” Very interestingly, Bellos, in his recent book on translation, re-tells the story Kadare tells (in his “memoir-novel, Chronicle in Stone) of his considering Macbeth to be “the founding experience of his own life in literature.” The fascinating thing is that the experience came through a translation of Shakespeare, whom Kadare had never read in English.

    On Pevear, elsewhere you and I have already noted that he does not translate the French (although he does the Russian) of Tolstoy’s War and Peace. (Well, let me correct that statement. Pevear does translate the French but in footnotes for the English reader! I just checked.)

    Sounds like you’d put Mitchell with Greg Nagan (whose The Five Minute Iliad and Other Instant Classics: Great Books For The Short Attention Span a friend of mine gave me to give me a long laugh, and it worked). Nagan asserts:

    This is an abridged translation, meaning I have skipped all those parts of the epic that might have been troublesome to translate and have made up the rest. Also, it does not rhyme and has no meter. I assure the reader that in all other regards this is almost a faithful presentation of the Iliad.

  12. November 29, 2011 3:52 pm

    J.K. Gayle –

    You put your finger on it: “sham claim of translation.”

    In the case of Mitchell’s Tao Te Ching, for one, he forthrightly admitted that he could not read the original, called his work a “version” (not a translation), and acknowledged basing his version on previous translations.

    He took a different tack on his Iliad, although his piece in the WSJ, linked above, shows that his first draft was copied from the Murray translation, without acknowledgement.

    Like Theophrastus, I support Mitchell’s right to do a reinterpretation of the Iliad, provided he calls it that.

    Thanks for the hearty laugh I got from the Nagan quote! And now, of course, one may say that “Mitchell’s Iliad has been likened to that of Greg Nagan, of which Nagan himself said:. . . .”

  13. November 29, 2011 3:57 pm

    Adaptation is a completely valid form of artistic expression. When a movie director adapts Shakespeare by setting it, say, in a World War II-like time frame. And adaptation from a non-English work is also completely legitimate and can be thrilling.

    So I would not compare Stephen Mitchell to Nagan, but rather (to use a biblical example) to Eugene Peterson. (However, I think Mitchell is a better writer than Peterson.)

    However, even though Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad may or may not have artistic merit (I have only read part of it, and have not yet formed a judgment); his work is quite a distance from translation as I perceive it, and I think his churlish remarks about all the existing translations (many of which are artistic while being scholarly) seem wildly out of place.

  14. December 2, 2011 5:59 pm

    Herbert, I believe I was just quoting you saying, “sham claim of translation.” But I did put the scare quotes around “translation” to describe what I think Mitchell is up to when he elides Homer’s text so badly, so much.

    Theophrastus, Yes Nagan is not doing what Mitchell is doing. The former makes us laugh, on purpose. Peterson and Mitchell? Well, at least Peterson translates the whole text, if he embelishes, etc. and writes with his own voice and not the authors’ and so forth.

    Your comments inspired this post: You Be the Judge: Part I, “Iliad” Translations

  15. December 3, 2011 4:28 am

    J.K. – Wow! I love the contest! Thank you for taking the (considerable) trouble to set that up. And may the gods who hold Olympus let the comments come rolling in!


  1. You Be the Judge: Part I, “Iliad” Translations « BLT
  2. Making books attractive « BLT
  3. Mitchell’s Helen, Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, My Iliad « BLT

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