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All translations of Homer are erroneous












Who could have conjectured that even Pope would wander away so far from his matchless original? “Wretches!” cries Theoclymenus, the seer; and that becomes, “O race to death devote!” “Your heads are swathed in night,” turns into “With Stygian shade each destined peer” (peer is good!) “impending fates invade,” where Homer says nothing about Styx nor peers. The Latin Orcus takes the place of Erebus, and “the burning coasts” are derived from modern popular theology. The very grammar detains or defies the reader; is it the sun that does not give his golden orb to roll, or who, or what?

Such as these, or not so very much better than these as might be wished, are our efforts to translate Homer. From Chapman to Avia, or Mr. William Morris, they are all eminently conscientious, and erroneous, and futile. Chapman makes Homer a fanciful, euphuistic, obscure, and garrulous Elizabethan, but Chapman has fire. Pope makes him a wit, spirited, occasionally noble, full of points, and epigrams, and queer rococo conventionalisms. Cowper makes him slow, lumbering, a Milton without the music. Maginn makes him pipe an Irish jig! Lord Derby makes him respectable and ponderous. Lord Tennyson makes him not less, but certainly not more, than Tennysonian. Homer, in the Laureate’s few fragments of experiment, is still a poet, but he is not Homer. Mr. Morris, and Avia, make him Icelandic, and archaistic, and hard to scan, though vigorous in his fetters for all that. Bohn makes him a crib; and of other translators in prose it has been said, with a humour which one of them appreciates, that they render Homer into a likeness of the Book of Mormon.

Homer is untranslatable. None of us can bend the bow of Eurytus, and make the bow-string “ring sweetly at the touch, like the swallow’s song.” The adventure is never to be achieved; and, if Greek is to be dismissed from education, not the least of the sorrows that will ensue is English ignorance of Homer.

From Andrew Lang, We need Homer and the Study of Greek

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2 Comments

  1. rey

    I think you should try your hand at translating it anyway, because you’ll do a better job than all your predecessors.

  2. In Elpenor’s Lessons in Ancient Greek I translate only a few verses; even there one can affirm what A. Lang’s says, that Homer can not be translated.

    My translation can be called philosophical, caring mainly for the meaning in as deeper dimensions as I would be able to understand, and in the presentation of this meaning in a language that would keep something of the original’s service to the meaning. Even if we agree that those few verses found a translation adequate according to these criteria – still it is not Homer, it lacks the musical qualities of the original. It can be used by the student of Greek as a way of noticing crucial details, necessary to understand the original, helping him to enjoy better the original, but as a stand-alone translation I think that it could still be called erroneous. My advice to anyone who might wish to read Homer is A. Lang’s advice: Learn Greek!.

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