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You Be the Judge: Part I, “Iliad” Translations

December 2, 2011

What if you were judging the translations of the Iliad?  You already know that Stephen Mitchell will judge “best translation of Iliad, 3.380-420″ in English, in a Simon & Schuster, Inc. contest.  Well, would you judge Mitchell’s translation first?  Would you call it a translation, use scare quotes around the word “translated” (as I did here) for what Mitchell and others before him have done?  Has the translating gotten better and better?  Or are the translations just different, each special and unique in its own way?  Which do you like?  Why?  Do you like Homer better in the Greek?  How?

Stephen Mitchell rendered Homer’s Greek into English in 2011;  Herbert Jordan in 2008; Stanley Lombardo in 1997; Robert Fagles in 1990; Robert Fitzgerald in 1974; and Richmond Lattimore in 1951.  Before them, Homer had Helen saying to Aphrodite, the following:

δαιμονίη, τί με ταῦτα λιλαίεαι ἠπεροπεύειν;

This is the end of the sample I’d like you to judge.  It’s book Three, line Three Hundred and Ninety Nine, or 3.399.  Here are the Englishings of that particular line (in an order I’m not going to share with you yet); for now, let me just call these translation I, translation II, translation III, translation IV, translation V, and translation VI.  Below the translations of the one line are the translations of the full 3.380-399 passage in the very same order; finally, you’ll see all of the lines of Homeric Greek that were translated.  What do you notice?  How do you judge this?  After a few comments, I’ll reveal whose translation is whose.

Strange divinity! Why are you still so stubborn to beguile me?

………………………………O immortal madness,
why do you have this craving to seduce me?

Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?
Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?

You eerie thing, why do you love
Lying to me like this?

Goddess, why would you want to deceive me so?

What do you want now, goddess? Why are you always
tricking me?



…………………………………………..But Aphrodite caught up Paris
easily, since she was divine, and wrapped him in a thick mist
and set him down again in his own perfumed bedchamber.
She then went away to summon Helen, and found her
on the high tower, with a cluster of Trojan women about her.
She laid her hand upon the robe immortal, and shook it,
and spoke to her, likening herself to an aged woman,
a wool-dresser who when she was living in Lakedaimon
made beautiful things out of wool, and loved her beyond all others.
Likening herself to this woman Aphrodite spoke to her:
‘Come with me: Alexandros sends for you to come home to him.
He is in his chamber now, in the bed with its circled pattern,
shining in his raiment and his own beauty; you would not think
that he came from fighting against a man; you would think he was going
rather to a dance, or rested and had been dancing lately.’
So she spoke, and troubled the spirit in Helen’s bosom.
She, as she recognized the round, sweet throat of the goddess
and her desirable breasts and her eyes that were full of shining,
she wondered, and spoke a word and called her by name, thus:
‘Strange divinity! Why are you still so stubborn to beguile me?


………………………..But this time Aphrodítê
spirited Aléxandros away as easily
as only a god could do. She hid him in mist
and put him down in hiw own fragrant chamber,
while she herself went off to summon Helen.
She came upon her on the battlement, amid
a throng of Trojan ladies.
  ……………………………………..Here the goddess
plucked at a fold of her sweet-scented gown
and spoke to her. She seemed a spinning-women
who once had spun soft wool for her, at home
in Lakedaimôn, and the princess loved her.
In this guise ravishing Aphrodítê siad:

“Come home with me. Aléxandros invites you.
On the ivory-inlaid bed in your bedchamber
he lies at ease, and freshly dressed – so handsome
never could you imagine the man came
just now from combat; one would say he goes
to grace a dance, or has until this minute
danced and is resting now.”

………………………………………So she described him,
and Helen’s heart beat faster in her breast.
Her sense being quickened so, through all disguise
she recognized the goddess’ flawlwss throat,
her fine breasts that move the sighs of longing,
her brilliant eyes. She called her by her name
in wonder, saying:

……………………………..“O immortal madness,
why do you have this craving to seduce me?


………………..but Aprhodite snatched Paris away,
easy work for a god, wrapped him in swirls of mist
and set him down in his bedroom filled with scent.
Then off she went herself to summon Helen
and found her there on the steep, jutting tower
with a troop of Trojan women clustered round her.
The goddess reached and tugged at her fragrant robe,
whispering low, for all the world like an old crone,
the old weaver who, when they lived in Lacedaemon,
wove her fine woolens and Helen held her dear.
Like her to the life, immortal Love invited,
“Quickly – Paris is calling for you, come back home!
There he is in the bedroom, the bed with inlaid rings –
he’s glistening in all his beauty and his robes!
You’d never dream he’s come from fighting a man,
you’d think he’s off to a dance or slipped away
from the dancing, stretching out at ease.”

……………………………..……….……….Enticing so
that the heart in Helen’s breast began to race.
She knew the goddess at once, the long lithe neck,
the smooth full breasts and the fire in those eyes –
and she was amazed, she burst out with her name:
“Maddening one, my Goddess, oh what now?
Lusting to lure me to my ruin yet again?


………………………………………………But Aphrodite
Whisked Paris away with the slight of a goddess,
Enveloping him in mist, and lofted him into
The incensed air of his valuted bedroom.
Then she went for Helen, and found her
In a crowd of Trojan women high on the tower.

A withered hand tugged at Helen’s fragrant robe.

The goddess was now the pahntom of an old woman
Who had spun wool for Helen back in Lacedaemon,
Beautiful work, and Helen loved her dearly.
In this crone’s guise Aprodite spoke to Helen:

“Over here. Paris wants you to come home.
He’s propped up on pillow in your bedroom,
So silky and beautiful you’d never think
He’d just come from combat, but was going to a dance,
Or coming from a dance and had just now sat down.”

This wrung Helen’s heart. She knew
It was the goddess – the beautiful neck,
The irresistible line of her breast,
The iridesecent eyes. She was in awe
For a moment, and then spoke to her:

“You eerie thing, why do you love
Lying to me like this?


but Aphrodite snatched the prince away,
shrouded in mist – easy for gods to do –
and set him down in his fragrant bedchamber.
She searched for Helen and soon found her
amid the Trojan women high on the rampart.
The goddess tugged at Helen’s perfumed gown,
having assumed the form of an old woman,
a wool carder who lived in Lacedaemon
and whose loyalty to Helen knew no bounds.
In her likeness divine Aprhodite spoke:
“Go, dear, Paris bids you meet him at home.
He is stretched on the couch in your bedchamber,
Handsome in fine raiment. You would not think
that he had been fighting – dancing perhaps,
And now resting his feet after the dance.”
Helen listened and grew angry at first,
but when she noticed the goddess’ pale neck,
her sparkling eyes, her irresistible breast,
she uttered Aphrodite’s name and said:
“Goddess, why would you want to deceive me so?


But Aphrodite swept Paris away with ease,
as a god can do; she shrouded him in dense mist
and set him down in his own sweet-smelling bedroom.
Next, she went off to summon Helen. She found her
in the midst of a crowd of ladies on the high ramparts.
And taking the form of a wool-spinner – an old woman
whom Helen loved, who had woven her beautiful things
in the days when she was her servant in Lacedǽmon –
she tugged at the edge of her fragrant robe, and she said,
“come with me, ma’am. Prince Paris wants you back home.
He is waiting for you; he is sitting there in his bedroom
Dressed in the finest of clothes and gleaming with beauty.
No one would think he came from a battle. He looks
as fresh as if he were on his way to a dance.”

These were her words, and they made Helen’s heart beat faster.
She knew the goddess: her luscious neck and her ravishing
breasts and her brilliant eyes. Astonished, she said,
“What do you want now, goddess? Why are you always
tricking me?


……………………………..τὸν δ᾽ ἐξήρπαξ᾽ Ἀφροδίτη
ῥεῖα μάλ᾽ ὥς τε θεός, ἐκάλυψε δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἠέρι πολλῇ,
κὰδ δ᾽ εἷσ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ εὐώδεϊ κηώεντι.
αὐτὴ δ᾽ αὖ Ἑλένην καλέουσ᾽ ἴε: τὴν δὲ κίχανε
πύργῳ ἐφ᾽ ὑψηλῷ, περὶ δὲ Τρῳαὶ ἅλις ἦσαν:
χειρὶ δὲ νεκταρέου ἑανοῦ ἐτίναξε λαβοῦσα,
γρηῒ δέ μιν ἐϊκυῖα παλαιγενέϊ προσέειπεν
εἰροκόμῳ, ἥ οἱ Λακεδαίμονι ναιετοώσῃ
ἤσκειν εἴρια καλά, μάλιστα δέ μιν φιλέεσκε:
τῇ μιν ἐεισαμένη προσεφώνεε δῖ᾽ Ἀφροδίτη:
‘δεῦρ᾽ ἴθ᾽: Ἀλέξανδρός σε καλεῖ οἶκον δὲ νέεσθαι.
κεῖνος ὅ γ᾽ ἐν θαλάμῳ καὶ δινωτοῖσι λέχεσσι
κάλλεΐ τε στίλβων καὶ εἵμασιν: οὐδέ κε φαίης
ἀνδρὶ μαχεσσάμενον τόν γ᾽ ἐλθεῖν, ἀλλὰ χορὸν δὲ
ἔρχεσθ᾽, ἠὲ χοροῖο νέον λήγοντα καθίζειν.
ὣς φάτο, τῇ δ᾽ ἄρα θυμὸν ἐνὶ στήθεσσιν ὄρινε:
καί ῥ᾽ ὡς οὖν ἐνόησε θεᾶς περικαλλέα δειρὴν
στήθεά θ᾽ ἱμερόεντα καὶ ὄμματα μαρμαίροντα,
θάμβησέν τ᾽ ἄρ᾽ ἔπειτα ἔπος τ᾽ ἔφατ᾽ ἔκ τ᾽ ὀνόμαζε:
δαιμονίη, τί με ταῦτα λιλαίεαι ἠπεροπεύειν;


8 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2011 7:10 pm

    Contest looks great. I am afraid I recognized two of the translations straight off from memory!

    I will comment more early next week.

  2. December 4, 2011 12:44 pm

    Well, unfortunately, I guessed your matching scheme for your samples (which was hardly well disguised). So, this is not a blind evaluation for me.

    Let’s start by dismissing the horrible translation #6 — clearly the worst of the pack. “Ravishing breasts” is at best a cliche, but looking at the word “ravish” raises the question of who is ravishing whom? And this text has no poetry to it other than layout; it is a prose translation with little attention paid to stress, rhythm, and euphony; that is laid out as poetry. I have to admit considerable disappointment with #6; it is not at the same level of the other translation.

    Further both #3 and #6 change Helen’s question — moving it away from a rhetorical question (why do you love tricking me?) to a pair of questions that are substantive: (“What do you want now, goddess? Why are you always tricking me?”) This creates a very different feel and takes us far away from Homer’s text.

    The exasperation of Helen looses considerably as well in #6 — consider Helen’s cry:
    #1: Strange divinity
    #2: O immortal madness
    #3: Maddening one, my Goddess
    #4 You eerie thing
    #5: she uttered Aphrodite’s name and said: “Goddess….
    #6: goddess

    #6 omits so much of the psychological build up, and is even challenged by capitalization.

    Now, let us look at how the disguised Aphrodite pulls Helen’s robe:
    #1: She laid her hand upon the robe immortal, and shook it,
    #2: Here the goddess plucked at a fold of her sweet-scented gown
    #3: The goddess reached and tugged at her fragrant robe,
    #4: (In a stanza by itself): A withered hand tugged at Helen’s fragrant robe.
    #5: The goddess tugged at Helen’s perfumed gown,
    #6: she tugged at the edge of her fragrant robe,

    Notice how literal #1 is. But notice even more, how vigorous the language in #4 is. It is highly evocative, and works well in English. In fact, these are the two translations I use most commonly — #1 for studying with the Greek; #4 for pleasure reading. #2 and #3 are also fine, acceptable translations. I can see that I should give more attention to #5, which apparently aims for high concordance with the the Greek texts.

    I also own #6, but this comparison clearly indicates how inferior that translation is. I think I will put it in the basement; I don’t think I will be referring to it frequently.

  3. December 5, 2011 12:58 pm

    Here is perhaps the most embarrassing confession of my life: I have never read Homer. There, I said it. Not in English, and certainly not in Greek. So I come to these translations as your proverbial blank slate.

    The first thing I’m struck by are the wide-ranging translations of δαιμονίη—though none of them seem to be appropriate. A δαίμων is, at least in Plato, a spirit that is neither god nor human; sometimes it is a personified concept like Love, and sometimes it is the whispering voice of one’s inner guide. Diotima told Socrates that daemons interpret and transport human things to the gods and divine things to humans, acting as intermediaries for prayers from us and messages from the divine.

    So I’m puzzled: Goddess? Strange divinity? Immortal madness? Eerie thing? None seem really on point for a numinous and shape-shifting manifestation of the divine.

    Next I was struck by the fact that none of the translators made a link between δαιμονίη, the term Helen calls Aphrodite who appears as the old “spinster,” and Λακεδαίμονι, the land on which Sparta is situated, where Helen had lived, and where she had known the old woman. A great opportunity lost.

    Version I seems heavy-handedly poetic: “She laid her hand upon the robe immortal” is just plain awkward, and the use of “likening herself to” this old woman—twice—is muddy writing.

    Version II suffers from poor writing, too. “Spirited Aléxandros away as easily as only a god could do” is simply wrong: it should be “Spirited Aléxandros away easily, as only a god could do.” “She hid him in mist and put him down in his own fragrant chamber, while she herself went off to summon Helen”: what’s with this “she herself” business? It implies that someone else had done the first two actions, while she took the third.

    Version III isn’t bad, but leaves me a bit cold, until we get to the end, where it all crashes and burns. Those last two lines are wretched.

    Version IV is so fresh and modern, and strays so far from a conservative reading of the text, that I’m guessing this is Mitchell’s work. He finds some lovely phrasing, but you can never trust it as a translation (“vaulted bedroom,” anyone?). This has been true of everything of his that I’ve read. I do love, however, that his “A withered hand tugged at Helen’s fragrant robe” finally makes clear who is tugging and whose robe is being tugged. But then he totally blows it with “Over here. Paris wants you to come home.” Crass and ugly. It’s like some trench-coated spy whispering, “Psst, c’mere. Got a message for ya.”

    Version V is probably my favorite, despite the misplaced modifier at the beginning: It should be “Aphrodite snatched the prince away—easy for a god to do—and, shrouded in mist, set him down.” The rest is clear, accurate, and pleasant to the ear.

    Version VI is clunky and decidedly unpoetic. “Next, she went off to summon Helen” is harsh, as is “come with me, ma’am.”

    None is awful, and none is perfect. I’d end up cobbling together my own version from theirs, just to make something worth reading.

  4. December 5, 2011 6:09 pm

    I should spill the beans at this point to say (as you immediately recognized) that version 6 is Mitchell’s (2011); 5 is Jordan’s (2008); 4 is Lombardo’s (1997); 3 is Fagles’ (1990); 2 is Fitzgerald’s (1974); and 1 is Lattimore’s (1951). You give good reasons to single out #6 for the most negative critique, but I appreciate that you’ve said the really positive things you’ve noted about the others. In addition, thank you for calling on others to follow your astute assessment with their own thoughts. As we get more comments, I’ll try to follow up to summarize what different readers have said.

    For someone who’s reading the Iliad for the first time (in both English versions but also in Greek!), you sure have read it well. I too noticed how the very linguistically marked word δαιμονίη is a veiled wordplay on Λακε- δαίμονι, the name for Sparta (which I translated in my dissertation as “Deity-Striker-town”). Later in the Iliad, Homer uses the word λάκε for something like “to strike” or “to crash.” Have you noticed too, in other contexts, how the Greek word for happiness is εὐδαιμονία, or εὐ + δαιμονία? Could it be literally something like “blessedness from the divinities” for something figurally understood as joy or happiness? I like how you too interact with the Englishings here, to critique them. Hope to say more later.


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