Sunday, December 26, 2010

On first looking into Fagles's Homer


For those who haven't been keeping score, the late Robert Fagles's translations of Homer's Iliad and Odyssey have been the most popular editions of both since they were published in the 1990s.

This is the third Odyssey translation I've read. I don't remember the first, by Robert Fitzgerald, very well; it must be 30 years since he introduced me to the epic poem. Much more recently, my standard has been Richmond Lattimore (quoted underneath the banner above right). Of course, many others have tried to re-create Homer for readers of English in their time -- I'd had no idea how many till I checked it out. See the remarkable list here. Many, including the famous versions by Alexander Pope, have been literary re-tellings rather than close translations, and I'm not such a purist as to condemn them for that reason.


Fagles, like most modern translators, doesn't try for a strict hexameter, the bardic six-accents-per-line formula of the ancient Greek. He writes, in his postscript: "I would like to hold a middle ground, here between [Homer's] spacious hexameter line -- his 'ear, ear for the sea-surge,' as Pound once heard it -- and a tighter line more native to English verse. ... Working from a five- or six-beat line while leaning more to six, I expand at times to seven beats -- to convey the reach of a simile or the vehemence of a storm at sea or a long-drawn-out conclusion to a story -- or I contract at times to three, to give a point in speech or action sharper stress."


My impression is that Fagles wants to tell the Odyssey story in contemporary language while staying true to the spirit of the original. If -- no one is too sure -- the poem was originally recited before being written by Homer or someone else, it would not have been intended for a literary or intellectual audience. We can assume that its themes, however heroic or archetypal, were expressed in language that everyone could grasp. Fagles wants to communicate as directly as possible with his readers, but no more than Pope did, albeit Pope wrote for an aristocratic public who would have felt at home in his fine-spun eloquence.


Fagles's verse doesn't particularly try for grandeur, but it has dignity and goes down smoothly. Only occasionally, with phrases such as "we'll have a pot-luck" and "catch my drift," does he seem to me to overstep the line between informal speech and slang. 

When it comes to different interpretations of Homer, comparisons are odious. I expect most of the translations linked to above cast some light on the earliest masterpieces of Western civilization. Anybody who has what it takes to read a very long narrative poem in ancient Greek and try to recast it has my respect.


That said, I still think Lattimore did something astounding: produced a modern English Iliad and Odyssey in the six-stress-line meter, with a poetic sensibility, while staying as faithful as possible to the original. For anyone getting acquainted with Homer for the first time, Fagles can be recommended as probably the most accessible. But after reading Fagles, I want to return to Lattimore. 

And I don't mean that as a snide put-down of Fagles's achievement. It's a tribute to the inspiration offered by both.



Van Wijk said...

I have a beautiful bound copy of Pope's Odyssey, but I never cared for Pope's version. I grew up reading W.H.D. Rouse's translations of Homer and Bulfinch and haven't had much desire to move past them.

I still have the first book I ever owned, a paperback copy of Edith Hamilton's Mythology, which I read at age 11 or so.

Marcus said...

I studied two years of ancient Greek in college at Chicago (it was a Straussian thing to do), and though I am no classicists (I'm divorced, not a virgin), my impression is that the newer translations by Lombardo are wonderful - at least the Iliad. I've always found Lattimore cumbersome and exceedingly hard to read. The fact that Lattinore and Fagles are the "most read" does not recommend them as we live in an age when less and less classical literature is read. Those translations have hardly made the youth rush out and be inspired by Homer.

I like Pope and Dryden's Virgil because I'd rather have an excellent poet retell the poem in his own right than have a mediocre one attempt a transliteration, which is what Lattimore did. Really, he put me off to Homer until I discovered Lombardo.

My personal take is that translating even a common list of household items from ancient Greek is impossible without disputes, so I side with the better poet, not the scholar. Lombardo is both.

Thanks for the post.

Rick Darby said...

Van Wijk,

I've only read the Pope translation in excerpts. I don't think I'd make it through his entire volume, too much like having dessert for every meal.


Never heard of Lombardo's translations. Based on your recommendation, maybe next time I take up reading Homer that will be my choice.

Lawrence Auster said...

I tried Fagles's Iliad when it came out in the nineties. I found it not just unsatisfactory, but unreadable--jumpy and excessively kinetic, with lots of phrases enclosed in em dashes, as though deliberately seeking to subvert the idea of a poetic line. It was as though his main intent was to make the reader nervous, just as the main intent of so much contemporary film and TV drama is to make the viewer nervous. I believe Fagles was deliberately appealing to a certain decadent contemporary sensibility. People don't want beauty and sense, they want jumpiness; and that's what he decided to give them.

My own experience of "On first looking into..." was with Lattimore's Iliad at age 13 or 14. I was knocked over and captivated by it. Yes, it has flaws but nothing I've seen has come close to it.

Rick Darby said...


I didn't have that reaction to Fagles's translation, although I have no doubt he was consciously trying to appeal to a large audience, or as large as any classical literature can attract.

His verse is rather low-key and plain, downplaying word magic, and as you say emphasizing the action through his phrasing. But Homer is in large part the poetry of action. Less so in the Odyssey than in the Iliad, but still, such non-civilized themes as revenge and judging men by their prowess as warriors play a big part.

What I thought was good about the Fagles translation was its sturdiness and clarity. Those aren't the only virtues a transmission of Homer can give, and Fagles leans too much to the prosaic for my taste, but no version (even our admired Lattimore) can do everything.