Which translations of western classics should I read?
February 28, 2006 4:39 PM   Subscribe

Which translations of western classics like the Iliad, Odyssey and Oresteia would you recommend?

I've never had much interest in reading classical literature until recently, when I've found references to them cropping up repeatedly in various essays and books I've been reading. I'm very keen on reading them, but searching on Amazon brings up multiple different translations, and I'm not sure which is suitable.

Basically, I'm looking for translations that are easily readable yet also hew closely to the spirit of the original work. I suppose this might be too much to wish for, but I have bad memories of reading bone-dry classics in school and I suspect part of the problem was the translations used.

Related to this - which other classics would be a good idea to read?
posted by adrianhon to Writing & Language (41 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
There are camps: I'm partial to Robert Fagles for Homer and the Oresteia; but others prefer other big names, such as Robert Fitzgerald or Richmond Lattimore. Fagles takes some liberties with the translation in favour of contemporary idiom, but I like the energy that he gives his readings.

[What marks out both Homer and Aeschylus, I think, is their lack of psychology -- at least, of 'internality' as we'd now understand it. It all happens on the surface (but not superficially). Speech and action is everything.]

A good idea might be to look at the Penguin Homer In English, though it's out of print right now: it goes from medieval renditions through famous early-modern translations (Chapman, Pope) to contemporary renditions and 'Homer-inspired' pieces.

Lastly, you can't ignore Christopher Logue. He is not a translator. He is a reteller, but in some ways, his retelling is closer to Homer -- or, at least, the Homeric oral tradition -- than many faithful translations.
posted by holgate at 5:02 PM on February 28, 2006

If you're reading "History of the Peloponnesian War" I really recommend the translation by Rex Warner.

The oratory in this book is especially powerful and criticaly important to the development of the 'story' and short of reading it in the original I don't think you can do any better.
posted by tiamat at 5:09 PM on February 28, 2006

I'm partial to Fagles translation of The Iliad & the Odyssey. Its the only translation that I've read that has allowed me to follow the story and still be swept up in the prose (but thats me, YMMV), I've yet to read his translation of The Oresteia. For what its worth, I own this affordable set.

As for other classics, I would recommend reading Gilgamesh and the Aeneid.
posted by lilnemo at 5:10 PM on February 28, 2006

Again with the Fagles: his translation of the Iliad preserves, most marvelously, the meter and flow of the verses.
posted by Dr. Wu at 5:13 PM on February 28, 2006

I likle Pope's Iliad. and what holgate said, Logue rocks -- languagehat and I posted about him,
posted by matteo at 5:19 PM on February 28, 2006

Here's an article to get a handle on Fagles.
posted by lilnemo at 5:24 PM on February 28, 2006

I am quite fond of the Lattimore Iliad and Odyssey; I've looked into Chapman, and the Fagles has its points, but the blunt, odd free dactyls of Lattimore really seem to convey the otherness of Ancient Greece.
posted by ikkyu2 at 5:36 PM on February 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I like the Lattimore & Greene transaltions of the Oresteia.
posted by AuntLisa at 5:36 PM on February 28, 2006

You want my real advice? Spend three years learning ancient Greek, and read the originals. Seriously. All of these works were written with the meter and pitch of ancient Greek very specifically in mind. Pindar, for example, sucks unless you know Greek. (Disclaimer: I don't really know Greek that well at all, but if I had the time I'd learn it).

That being said, there are some pretty good approximations of the originals. You really can't go wrong with the Odyssey and the Iliad; I prefer Fagles's translation over Stanley Lombardo's, although I've heard Lombardo's are better when performed live. The original epics are very specific in rhyme, meter and tone (and would be very beautiful if performed as they were written, or at least passed down), so don't get a prose translation (of anything, actually) as you'll lose a great deal of the lyric flavor of the original.

I can't recommend Sappho enough, either (althout not the Mary Barnard translation, which is way not sexy)--try Anne Carson's, which has the original Greek printed on the facing page.

The philosophers are must-reads, too; start with Heraclitus (that edition has a reputation as being somewhat too "new age-y," but Heraclitus was pretty new age-y himself) and work towards Plato (I provided a link to Symposium rather than The Republic because fuck The Republic).

And go with Lattimore's tragedies.
posted by maxreax at 5:37 PM on February 28, 2006

There're also Richmond Lattimore's Iliad and Odyssey translations. They're generally held to be a bit more stilted than Fagles, but perhaps a little closer in places to the literal meaning of the Greek original.
posted by Sonny Jim at 5:38 PM on February 28, 2006

I've looked into Chapman

posted by maxreax at 5:38 PM on February 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

Stanley Lombardo’s translation of The Iliad is a great read.
posted by Huplescat at 5:48 PM on February 28, 2006

Another vote for Fagles on the Iliad and Odyssey, but I don't think you'd be "wrong" to use any translation mentioned here (with a caveat re: Logue. Even if I was a fan, his disregard for scholarship is kind of unsettling to me).
posted by bardic at 6:07 PM on February 28, 2006

"You want my real advice? Spend three years learning ancient Greek, and read the originals. Seriously."

At St. John's we do a year-and-a-half of ancient Greek, Attic first and then Homeric. We translate some of Aristotle, later Homer. Homeric is harder than Attic. It's not easy. We start translating Aristotle by the end of the first semester.

That said, I'm going to be a bit of a contrarian here. On this matter of the Greek writers, if you are wanting to experience Homer as pure poetry, then maxreax's advice is sound. However, I think you can get much of an understanding of a work reading it in translation—as far as Homer's narratives, translation is fine. Understanding Homer deeply, not so fine.

On the matter of which translations, for the most part, at SJC the College itself and usually the tutors don't insist on any particular translation. As holgate says, there are different camps advocating the important translations, and this is certainly the case with these particular books. Doing some translation yourself is revealing, but often it just comes down to personal taste. There are bad translations, of course, and you'll want to avoid those. But that won't be hard. What you'll find available for the most part are the best regarded. Anyway, here too I will be a bit contrarian and say that I found and still find snobbishness regarding which translation one prefers to be very damn annoying and I didn't worry about it much.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:15 PM on February 28, 2006

But I used Lattimore for Homer.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 6:16 PM on February 28, 2006

I love Robert Lowell's "Oresteia." It's out of print, but you can easily find used copies.
posted by grumblebee at 6:44 PM on February 28, 2006

This is my favorite speech in Lowell's adaptation. The ghost of queen Clytemnestra is trying to wake up her demons (the furies) so that they'll avenge her death. (She was killed by her son, Orestes.)

How can you still be sleeping?
You are no use to me dead. Wake up –
since you have neglected me, I wandered
ashamed and abandoned among the other dead.
They abuse me unceasingly because I killed my husband;
none protests
the blow of my own son. He killed me.
The wound is under my heart … from my son's sword.
Look … though in daylight you cannot see
insubstantial things; yet in your dream,
the mind has eyes to see my slaughtered spirit.
How often I have poured out libations to you –
soothing, sobering … without wine
to muddle your dogged heads.
I served them to you at midnight,
when no other god is banqueted.
Orestes has trampled these gifts underfoot;
he leaps lightly as a fawn from your unattended snare.
He has escaped, he is gone –
how he despises you. Ah Furies,
invincible powers of the depths,
listen to me and understand.
It is my life I entreat you for … my once life.
Clytemnestra rouses you from your dream.

You complain of work, but your prey has escaped.
My son has abler fiends than mine;
they save him while you sleep.

Why aren't you awake yet? Can't you feel guilt?
He is gone,
Orestes who killed his mother is gone.

Are you still whining and barking?
Wake up, stand up;
Evil is your province, it mourns your absence.

Ah poor she-dragons, sleep and exhaustion
have drained the sources of your anger.

Catch him, catch him, catch him, catch him, catch him.

In dreams you hunt your prey, barking and baying,
as if your hunger would never rest,
yet you do nothing. Are you so corrupted and conquered
by weariness that you can only sleep,
you forget my pain. Rise,
you must torment him with just accusations,
the cruel words of a quick conscience.
Breathe a mist of blood in his face from your throats and bellies.
Dry his hopes, hunt him to death.
posted by grumblebee at 6:57 PM on February 28, 2006

If you're interested in reading the (relatively) modern classic Don Quijote, supposedly Edith Grossman's translation is fantastic.
posted by anjamu at 7:21 PM on February 28, 2006

I love love love the recent translation of Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell (which is even better when read by Geoge Guidall). Mitchell admits that it's not a literalist translation, but who cares? It's beautiful. Perhaps not truly Western, but so what? Isn't this the oldest written narrative that survives to this day? This is a wonderful version of an archetypal story.
posted by jdroth at 7:29 PM on February 28, 2006

I am no expert in ancient Greek, but I particularly prefer the Lattimore translation to either Fagles or Fitzgerald. But, as you are no doubt coming to realize, you will find as many opinions on this as there are translations.

My preference here has nothing to do with fidelity to the original, or which college professor suggested it to me-- it just boils down to the style of language that was arresting and compelling to me. Lattimore is not a prose translation, and I found that the presence of the meter really propelled me through the text. The writing also has a heavy but beautiful feel to it.

I would suggest going to the project gutenberg text, reading the first book of the Iliad, choosing your favorite passages, looking them up in several translations at the book store, and reading them side by side. I am sure one will jump out at you as being more "alive" than the others. Trust your instincts.
posted by Maxwell_Smart at 7:39 PM on February 28, 2006

I am fond of the Seamus Heaney translation of Beowulf.
posted by Astro Zombie at 8:58 PM on February 28, 2006

My classical archaeologist/classicist girlfriend has repeatedly recommended Richmond Lattimore's translations, and just again recommended them after looking at her Lattimore copy of the Odyssey next to my copy of Fagles' translation.
posted by The Michael The at 8:59 PM on February 28, 2006

All of the translators discussed above are good, so you have to decide for yourself. As noted by others, the best strategery is to compare for yourself.

Go to a good library and borrow two or three or four translations of one work you're dying to read. If you can't borrow all of them at once, photocopy the first section of each work you can't borrow. Go home and read all of them in parallel (maybe a page at a time) until you decide which is best for you. If one pisses you off, make a note of who the translator was so you'll know who to avoid for the next thing you read, then toss it aside and concentrate on the remaining translations until you get down to one you want to keep going on right now.

You've got plenty of time to read two or more translations of each, but you have to start somewhere and and you have to start now, while you're still interested.
posted by pracowity at 9:06 PM on February 28, 2006

I love love love the recent translation of Gilgamesh by Stephen Mitchell

Mitchell's selected Rilke is very good, as well. He's astonishingly eclectic in his choices, which would normally set off the alarm bells. But he delivers.

Other things to read? Y'know, a decent translation of the Old Testament (i.e. the Jewish Study Bible) might fit well with Homer's war stories.
posted by holgate at 9:08 PM on February 28, 2006 [1 favorite]

I love Lombardo's translation of the Iliad and Odyssey; very poetic and very readable at the same time. I have also seen a video of Lombardo performing some of the Odyssey live with a bongo drum and all and it was pretty cool.

I've heard bad things about Lattimore, not specifically the translations here, but about some other translations he did where he took just way too many liberties with basic concepts.

Also, I have ro recommend Diane Rayor's Sappho translations, and not just because she was my professor :)
posted by dagnyscott at 10:16 PM on February 28, 2006

I'll second Heany's Beowulf as well as his Antigone.

Other things to read? Y'know, a decent translation of the Old Testament (i.e. the Jewish Study Bible) might fit well with Homer's war stories.

It's certainly not decent in terms of faithfulness to the original, but the King James Bible is among the most beautiful--and most influential--works in the English language. Read it for the words and you'll realize how much English lit owes to that single translation.
posted by maxreax at 10:17 PM on February 28, 2006

I've read the Tanakh in the original Hebrew, and still prefer the King James Bible.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:10 PM on February 28, 2006

Martin Hammond's translations - both Iliad and Odyssey - aren't the most elegant in terms of English prose, but come the most close to getting the sense of poetry of the original Greek, I think. Plus they're very easy to read.

Disclaimer - he used to teach me Latin, but they are very, very good.
posted by greycap at 11:18 PM on February 28, 2006

I quite like T.E. Lawrence's Odyssey as an artifact of literature, but it's a translation into oddly-metred prose if that's not your thing.
posted by Pseudoephedrine at 1:46 AM on March 1, 2006

Related to this - which other classics would be a good idea to read?

[full disclosure: my friend wrote this book, but I don't profit in any way by posting this.]

There's a book you should check out, either at the library or getting it at Amazon. It's called The Well-Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. Here's the book's website.
The Well-Educated Mind offers brief, entertaining histories of five literary genres — fiction, autobiography, history, drama, and poetry — accompanied by detailed instructions on how to read each type. The anotated lists at the end of each chapter — ranging from Cervantes to A. S. Byatt, Herodotus to Laurel Thatcher Ulrich — preview recommended reading and encourage readers to make vital connections between ancient traditions and contemporary writing.
Publisher's Weekly called it "a timeless, intelligent book."

So there's that.
posted by Alt F4 at 5:31 AM on March 1, 2006

Man, I'd go by your ear. I own about 4 different versions of the Iliad and used to sweat over which one was most "correct". And then I realized it wasn't like anyone was keeping score, and unless I planned on impressing Classics students on the subway, well, it really doesn't matter. To my ear Fagles is on the money for a lot of the reasons listed above.

Some of the books you'll be diving into can be tough going - I'd flip through a few translations until you find one written in a voice you'd be willing to stick with to the end.
posted by theinsectsarewaiting at 6:44 AM on March 1, 2006

with a caveat re: Logue. Even if I was a fan, his disregard for scholarship is kind of unsettling to me

What the hell does that mean? Do you even know how Logue feels about "scholarship" (whatever that might be in this context)? I don't, and I don't care. Logue is a great poet who does amazing, utterly convincing... performances? reanimations? inhabitings?... of Homer, making him more alive than any other ancient poet in modern English. If you're deaf to his music, I feel sorry for you, but just say you don't like him, don't cover it with slurs on his "disregard for scholarship."

I highly recommend Fitzgerald's Odyssey for a traditional translation that's immensely poetic in its own right. Beyond that, if you want to appreciate Greek poetry, you should, as maxreax says, try learning Greek. It's not that hard and it pays immediate dividends with Homer, who uses a single meter and lots of repetition.
posted by languagehat at 8:54 AM on March 1, 2006

Is Greek really that easy to learn? Say you had a full-time job? How long would it take if you spent 30 min to an hour every night?

How about Latin or Classical Chinese?
posted by kensanway at 4:10 PM on March 1, 2006

"Is Greek really that easy to learn?"

Easy for him, maybe. Surely Attic or Homeric Greek is harder for most people to learn than most of the Germanic or Romantic languages? But learning to read it is easier than speaking it, of course, and you don't need to learn to speak it.

As I said, at SJC freshman start from zero and are translating Aristotle by the end of the first semester. Now, I really struggled with Greek, so I'm not the best judge. But I think if you asked johnnies, the consensus would be that that first semester of Greek is pretty difficult.

For people who have an aptitude for languages, I think it's much easier.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 5:46 PM on March 1, 2006

How about Latin or Classical Chinese?

How are you with languages. I'm a mediocre language student. I had great fun for a month about a year ago trying to teach myself Latin. Seriously — it was fun. However, it really does take daily effort. It's not something you can set down for a few weeks and then come back to. If you're going to learn Latin, you need some good books, and you need to spend half an hour to an hour a day focusing on them. While I was doing that, I made my way through basic stuff, and understood what I was doing. Then real life got in the way for a couple weeks and when I returned to Latin, I'd lost a lot of it. You may be different, of course, but I think that learning any language requires dedication and commitment. Latin seems rewarding; I hope to return to it someday.
posted by jdroth at 6:57 PM on March 1, 2006

Is Greek really that easy to learn? Say you had a full-time job? How long would it take if you spent 30 min to an hour every night?

But learning to read it is easier than speaking it, of course, and you don't need to learn to speak it.

I'm going to say something very weird. If you want to learn Greek, I recommend that you learn to read it out loud before you do anything else. Don't worry about the meanings of the words or the case endings or anything. Just learn the alphabet, the rhythm, and the pitches (this is, I know, pretty hard to do without someone who speaks it helping you). Then try reading part of the Iliad aloud. Listen to the rhythm and the tone. It's absolutely beautiful.

In Aristophanes's The Birds, most English translations have the birdsongs rendered as "Titititititi" or "Popopopopopo." In the original Greek, read aloud, the birdsongs are pitch-and-rhythm specific, and quite cool. In Euripides's The Bacchae, the rhythm of the Bacchae's chants is lost in most English translations.

Learning how to read Greek alound shouldn't take you longer than a week, if that at all. If you want to get more into it, it'll take a while--you need to learn the declensions, the verbs, etc. I never did it. It's a pain in the ass. It can be easier to just read the translations and hope you're getting the nuance of the words. That being said, you'll never get the real nuance of the sound except in the original Greek.

And I know that was just about the most pretentious thing to assert, but you'll agree with me when you hear it.
posted by maxreax at 7:01 PM on March 1, 2006

It should be noted that a lot of Attic and Homeric pronunciations are only guessed at, regardless of what contemporary Greeks claim.
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 12:00 AM on March 2, 2006

Surely Attic or Homeric Greek is harder for most people to learn than most of the Germanic or Romantic languages?... As I said, at SJC freshman start from zero and are translating Aristotle by the end of the first semester.

Two different animals. Attic Greek, especially as used by people like Aristotle, is quite difficult; Homeric is much easier, despite the variant forms (you don't have to know when to use which, after all, and they're easy to recognize). I always recommend that people start with a text like Pharr's Homeric Greek, learning a few basic words and bits of grammar and plunging right into the text. It pays immediate dividends, and once you get the sound of it in your ear, you'll want more.

a lot of Attic and Homeric pronunciations are only guessed at, regardless of what contemporary Greeks claim.

It's nonsense to say we "guess at" ancient pronunciations; we know in some detail how ancient Greek was pronounced, though of course we have to guess at the finer points of how the pitch accent actually worked in context. But we know how the vowels and consonants were pronounced at various periods. I recommend Allen's Vox Graeca and Horrocks' Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers.

As for contemporary Greeks, they're great people but they know absolutely nothing about the history of their own language; they're under the nationalistic delusion that the ancient Greeks spoke exactly like they do themselves. Ignore them.
posted by languagehat at 5:23 AM on March 2, 2006 [1 favorite]

I guess I was misinformed about spoken ancient Greek.

"Attic Greek, especially as used by people like Aristotle, is quite difficult; Homeric is much easier, despite the variant forms (you don't have to know when to use which, after all, and they're easy to recognize)."

That wasn't my experience. Homer had a lot of stuff I hadn't seen before. But, again, I really struggled with this stuff. One of the few true academic humiliations for me. But I deeply resist memorizing anything, for any reason, so I started out badly behind and never really caught up. *sigh*
posted by Ethereal Bligh at 7:15 AM on March 2, 2006

I'm a little late to the game, but I disagree with all the Fagles loving that was going on. Read the Fitzgerald translations of Homer - they're simply superior. And while you're at it, check out his translation of the Aeneid for more epic poetry.
posted by Dasein at 10:28 PM on March 5, 2006

I'm way late here, but just in case a word counts from someone who spends a good part of every week reading the stuff in Greek... I'll try to stick to Homer and tragedy.

There are merits to all kinds of translations of Homer--I believe that Homer (likewise, say, Herodotus) is an author who survives translation very well. Yet at the end of the day I don't feel that reading any other translation reminds me much of reading Homer in Greek, only Lattimore. Awkward, stilted, not an event in English literature per se -- say what you will about Lattimore, but I think 90% of the oddity of reading Lattimore is a damn good reflection of the real texture of Homeric poetry. Therefore, while I will certainly sometimes recommend other translations to people who are concerned about whether they will make it through or not (plenty of other translations do things to juice it up & keep the pages turning), I will never hesitate to recommend Lattimore to any reader who IS going to read the whole thing and wants the best, dammit. If I've made it sound as if Lattimore's English is an obstacle, I shouldn't have -- you may need to adapt to it, but it's as readable (NOT as fast tho) when you get into the groove as anything else.

Tragedy. This is a good opportunity for me to say that AFAIK Fagles has only ever made one decent translation, and that is the so-called "Theban" plays of Sophocles (Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, Antigone). (By the way, I caution strongly against David Grene's current, second edition of these plays for Chicago. The first edition, by various hands, was better. Grene's Herodotus is good though.) I don't think much of Fagles' other translations, especially his Oresteia (pretentious and irrelevant echoing of Shakespeare -- "the rest is silence" -- I also saw it staged, which was horrible, though he can't take all the blame for that!). I wish I was as sure with Oresteia as with Homer of a really perfect translation for a serious reader! Aeschylus is most emphatically NOT an author who survives Englishing intact. On the other hand, if I may pick up on the "how hard is Greek to learn" thread -- you're not going to be reading the choral odes of "Agamemnon" in your armchair with 30 minutes a day of leisure learning, so let's find a translation here. This is some of the densest and most difficult poetry imaginable (also some of the most beautiful). If you want a starkly literal translation that the average undergraduate finds incomprehensible, look at Hugh Lloyd-Jones (UC Press, ISBN 0520083288). It also has thorough notes & would make an excellent companion for any more readable translation (more for looking at its literal rendering than for the notes). If you are actually into close reading of an alien but wonderful poetic style, you can just stick with Lloyd-Jones. For a readable translation, better than Lattimore or Fagles is another Chicago translation, for the stage, by David Grene and Wendy Doniger O'Flaherty. I haven't looked at Peter Meineck's Oresteia (pub. by Hackett), though I will have a look before the next time I teach Oresteia in English -- it is also supposed to be lively & actable & is probably looser than Grene & O'Flaherty.

There is some good work in Oxford's series "Greek Tragedy in New Translations," but they're not uniformly good. For that matter, there's a new Oresteia (Shapiro and Burian), but from Amazon's "search inside" and the uneven reviews, I wasn't too tempted to look more closely. On the other hand, the collaborations by Charles Segal and Reginald Gibbons (Euripides' Bakkhai, Sophocles' Antigone) can be recommended without hesitation.

If you want to grab a random tragedy in English, a low-risk strategy is to choose the Univ. of Chicago paperbacks (though, again, avoid Grene's second edition of the "Theban" plays). Say, grab "Euripides I" and read Warner's Medea and Grene's Hippolytus -- these are major tragedies.

Oresteia + Theban Plays (Fagles) + Euripides (Bakkhai trans. Gibbons/Segal, Medea & Hippolytus in the Chicago ed.) would be an excellent introduction to Greek tragedy. You can always delve into the truly wacky Euripides plays later.

For sheer armchair fun, read Herodotus (if David Grene's English seems a bit stilted to you, try the Penguin or Oxford). For the prose masterpiece of Classical Greece, intellectually and stylistically (also easily the most topical-for-today book ever written), read Thucydides. Rex Warner, rec'd above, is quite loose -- you won't get a sense of Thuc. the stylist. Steven Lattimore (the other translator's son) has made a hyperliteral translation (pub. by Hackett) that will appeal only to the close-reading purist (who doesn't mind un-English English). Perhaps the best advice is to start by reading the ABRIDGED Hackett "Thuc. on Justice, Power, and Human Nature." It's excellent. From there, you can choose "The Landmark Thuc." for its solid old warhorse translation & zillions of maps, Thomas Hobbes for some choice 17thc. English, or whatever. (I'll definitely class Thuc. as "learn Greek to appreciate him" -- though the speeches in his history are the headache-to-the-Greek-student equivalent of Aeschylus' odes -- but that's part of why he's so fucking brilliant.)

The Hackett Plato translations are the equivalent of the Chicago tragedy--grab one and go, and you'll rarely go wrong.

OK, I couldn't stick to poetry--I had to mention Hdt., Thuc., Plat.

& since we mentioned tragedy, let's throw a bone to comedy. The best English Aristophanes translation ever (actually it's AMERICAN) is "Four Plays by Aristophanes" (ISBN 0452007178).
posted by Zurishaddai at 4:53 PM on March 19, 2006 [2 favorites]

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