By Homer. Translated by E. V. Rieu. Revised and updated by D. C. H. Rieu and Peter Jones.
There are probably now more translations into English of the Iliad than there are character names in it. Since the days of Chapman and Pope, every scholar of the classics seems to have taken a crack at the epic poem and its “sequel,” the Odyssey. The first two works of Western literature, and still two of the best… of course there will be legions of translations.
This puts the English-language reader into a conundrum about which translation to pick up. Right now, there are three popular verse translations that you can purchase in almost any bookstore: Robert Fitzgerald (1974), Richmond Lattimore (1951), and Robert Fagles (1990). There’s a recent verse translation by Stanley Lombardo that I think is stunning, and I hope it soon gets as much exposure as these other three. The Fitzgerald translation is my personal favorite; I’ve read through it quite a few times. It was the standard edition at my college when I attended. Currently, the Fagles translation appears to be the most popular on bookstore shelves.
Prose translations aren’t the rage in Homer studies at the moment, but a few still kick around. Since Samuel Butler’s 1898 translation is in the public domain, it often pops up in budget and “gift” editions—like the Dover Thrift Edition. W. H. D. Rouse’s 1938 version was popular when I was in elementary school because the inexpensive Signet/Mentor printing was the easiest to get hold of. I first read the Odyssey in Rouse’s rich prose, so it has currency with me and I find it more readable than Butler’s.
This brings me to E. V. Rieu, who released a prose translation of the Iliad in 1950—the second book released from Penguin Classics, and therefore of great historic importance. (The first Penguin Classic was—surprise!—Rieu’s translation of the Odyssey.) Rieu served as the general editor of the Penguin Series until 1964. The first time I read the Iliad was from Rieu’s translation.
In 2003, Penguin—which also publishes Fagles’s verse Iliad—decided to dust off and update their standard prose telling of the Wrath of Achilles. Rieu’s son D. C. H. Rieu and Dr. Peter Jones oversaw an extensive revision of the elder Rieu’s work. (Rieu died in 1974.) Having spent many years reading verse versions of the Iliad, I decided to revisit it in prose, and see what the re-booted E. V. Rieu the Iliad had to say.
The Rieu/Rieu/Jones Iliad is one of the most literally close translations to the Homeric Greek; prose gives translators less problems in getting the original language on the page, where verse requires some stretching, paraphrasing, and general re-arranging to create a decent English poem from a complex Ancient Greek one. This translation tries to stick as close as possible to the Greek text (such as it survives, as least) and its oral poetic devices. If you want to get a close sense of what Homer actually wrote/sang, this is the version to read.
However, because of this Iliad’s adherence to the original text, it’s quite a dry read. A literal translation can’t really help but end up doing this, and most of the beauty I associate with the Fagels-Fitzgerald-Lombardo versifications doesn’t come through here. In fact, sometimes the Rieu-Rieu-Jones Iliad is a touch dull. I don’t recommend it as anybody’s first reading of Homer.
The revisions to E. V. Rieu’s 1950 text—which I own and can use for comparison—have rendered many parts flatter than they were before. The revisers explain what they changed from Rieu Sr.’s work, and most of it makes sense: they added back Homer’s many stock phrases that Rieu Sr. either cut or altered to provide variety; eliminated anachronistic technology and references; excised some attempts to soften the Greek commanders’ orders (“Please…” and “Would you…”); and undid some British wording that doesn’t make sense in the Bronze Age (such as Achilles telling Agamemnon: “I have yet to hear of any public fund we have laid by”). Good choices if you want a literal version of the poem. But some of Rieu Sr.’s more playful language is gone.
Also, I don’t like the revisers’ choice to use the word “Greek” to universally apply to the three words that Homer uses for the besiegers of Troy: Achaioí (“Achaeans”), Danaoí (“Danaans”), and Argeioi (“Argives”). Homer used these three names for a reason: they have different poetic meters and could serve whatever function was required for the line. Therefore, I believe using these three different names in translations—which isn’t that confusing in context anyway—is an important part of preserving the oral tradition of the poem. Since the revisers seems ardent about projecting that tradition in their new version, it’s strange that they didn’t do so here. Also, I think preserving the three names informs the reader of Homer’s point of view from his own time; he never calls the Greeks Héllenes, the name the Classical Greeks used to refer to themselves. (The word “Greek” by the way, would not have been used either; it comes from the Latin word Graeci, a name for a Balkan people the early Italians first encountered and then applied to an entire nation, much the same way they gave the word Germanici to the people who still call themselves Deutsche.)
But, despite these complaints, I think anyone with an interest in Homer beyond a standard “read and enjoy” level—and there’s certainly nothing wrong with just that—should pick up the new Rieu Iliad for the following reasons:
First, as I’ve mentioned, it’s very literal. It preserves Homer’s oral repetitions and many epithets that other translations use conservatively, if at all. “Swift-running Achilles,” “Hector of the flashing helmet,” “Diomedes of the great war-cry,” “Grey-eyed Athene,” “Zeus who drives the stormcloud”—if Homer used the phrase, the translators use it… even if it means doing it over and over and over again. Maybe some readers will get bored reading constantly how every Greek and Trojan is “godlike,” even when they aren’t behaving that way, or reading that people speak in “winged words,” but these are accurate reflections of the oral bardic tradition. The Iliad isn’t a modern novel, but an early Archaic Greek poem; although its characters behave in ways that we understand today—a reason the poem still grips us—it was written in a specific tradition thousands of years old, and this translation captures some of how this worked.
Second, the line breakdowns at the start of each book and the indexed titles for each section within are a great guide through the story, especially if you wish to quickly track down a specific passage. (“Hey, where’s that section where Teucer misses Hector and kills two Trojans? Oh, here it is.”) The revisers mark down the passage of days and how long the battle has raged at every step. (Did you know that Books XI through XVIII all occur over one day? For a story occurring over fifty days, that’s impressive.) To make understanding events even easier, Rieu Jr. and Dr. Jones place the names of the Greeks in Roman script, Trojans in Italic, and the god in capitals (italicized if they’ve sided with Troy) in their running notes. Even if you’re reading another edition, you might want to keep this one on hand for quick references.
Third, the revisers provide a great Cast of Characters section, broken down by Greeks, Trojans, and gods, for fast reference and with a clear pronunciation guide. First-time readers—again, even if reading another edition—will find this invaluable.
Lastly, the extensive new introduction goes into enormous depth about the poem’s history, style, connection to actual events, themes, and structure. It’s the best introduction to a version of the Iliad I’ve ever come across, and both new and familiar readers will find much valuable information here.
To close, I’ll provide a comparison of passages in Rieu’s original translation and the 2003 revised version. Dying Hector speaks his last word to Achilles after he learns that the Greek warrior will not return his body to Troy in Book XXII:
Hector of the flashing helmet spoke to him once more at the point of death. “How well I know you and can read your mind!” he said. “Your heart is hard as iron—I have been wasting my breath. Nevertheless, pause before you act, in case the angry gods remember how you treated me, when your turn comes and you are brought down at the Scaen Gate in all your glory by Paris and Apollo.”D. C. H. Rieu and Dr. Peter Jones re-render this as:
Death cut Hector short and his disembodied soul took wing for the House of Hades, bewailing its lot and the youth and manhood that it left. But Prince Achilles spoke to him again though it was gone. “Die!” he said. “As for my own death, let it come when Zeus and the other deathless gods decide.”
Dying, Hector of the flashing helmet said:Terser in general, especially that first sentence. Notice that Rieu Jr. and Jones have removed the novelistic convention of “he said” between the quotes, and changed “Prince Achilles” to the more Homeric “godlike Achilles.” “Godlike” is the most common stock epithet in the poem. Apollo also got his “Phoebus” back. In general, the revision feels less like fine-tuned English, which was probably the point.
“How well I know you and see you are what you are! Your heart is hard as iron. I have been wasting my breath. But reflect now before you act, in case angry gods remember how you treated me, on the day Paris and Phoebus Apollo bring you down in all your greatness at the Scaen Gate.”
As he spoke, the end that is death enveloped him. Life left his limbs and took wing for the house of Hades, bewailing its lot and the youth and the manhood it left behind. But godlike Achilles spoke to him again, though he was gone: “Die! As for my death, I will welcome it when Zeus and the other immortal gods wish it to be.”
And, just to get some broader perspective, here’s another prose translation, the W. H. D. Rouse one from 1938:
Hector answered him dying:A bit “British novel” in style, and Rouse chopped out the epithets entirely. No flashing helmet, no “godlike.” Rouse also likes referring to “God” which sounds too Christian, when it should be “the gods.”
“Ah, I know you well, and I forebode what will be. I was not likely to persuade you, for your heart is made of iron. But reflect! or I may bring God’s wrath upon you, on that day when Paris and Phoibus Apollo shall slay you by the Scaen gate, although you are strong.”
As he spoke, the shadow of death encompassed him; and his soul left the body and went down to Hadês, bewailing his fate, bidding a last farewell to manhood and lusty strength. Hector was dead, but even so Achilles again spoke:
“Lie there dead! My fate I will accept, whenever it is the will of Zeus and All Gods to fulfill it.”
Finally, my personal favorite translation, the Robert Fitzgerald one:
Then at the point of death Lord Hektor said:Yes, some liberties taken. But I still love the way it reads.
“I see you now for what you are. No chance
to win you over. Iron in your breast
your heart is. Think a bit, though: this may be
a thing the gods in anger hold against you
on that day when Paris and Apollo
destroy you at the Gates, great as you are.”
Even as he spoke, the end came, and death hid him;
spirit from body fluttered to undergloom,
bewailing fate that made him leave his youth
and manhood in the world. And as he died
Akhilleus spoke again. He said:
“Die, make an end. I shall accept my own
whenever Zeus and the other gods desire.”