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Today is Saturday, December 16, 2017 at 02:13 PM.


Students do not read any of these works. They do, however, read English translations of them: Lattimore's translation of Homer's Iliad, Mandelbaum's translation of Virgil's Aeneid, and so on. This is a point worth thinking about.

English translations are an essential part of Humanities 110, and even though mythic stories are told about how much smarter Reedies were in the days of "Old Reed," I have yet to hear reports that in the early days of Hum 110 the students and faculty, disdaining translations, read all of the works in their original Greek, Latin, or Hebrew. But granted that we have to use translations, what makes a "good" translation, and how does the humanities staff decide on which translations to use?

I started thinking some more about the question of what makes a good translation this past fall, when the new translation of Homer's Odyssey by Robert Fagles (Viking, 1996) appeared. It was reviewed in major newspapers and magazines (Time devoted three pages to the story in its October 28, 1996, issue), Fagles was interviewed on National Public Radio, and Penguin Audiobooks issued an unabridged 13-hour tape of the British actor Ian McKellen reading Fagles's translation. I was pleasantly surprised that this translation attracted such interest, because it is not as if there is a dearth of good translations of the Odyssey. The Fagles translation joins other highly acclaimed modern translations of the Odyssey, including those of Robert Fitzgerald (Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1961) and Richmond Lattimore (Harper and Row, 1967).

So why all the attention for a new translation of a work that has been translated into English so many times already?

There are at least three good reasons:

  • We live in an age when publishing is big business, and Homer and Fagles are good copy.
  • Homer's epics belong to a select group of works that everyone in our culture is expected to have read at some point in high school or college, but which in fact many people have not, and even those who have read the Odyssey might not remember it well.
  • Fagles, a professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, is a poet and well-respected translator of other ancient texts, including Aeschylus' Oresteia (1975); Sophocles' Antigone, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus (1982); and Homer's Iliad (1990). With each new translation of the Odyssey or any other great work, there is the hope that the translator may make the work come alive for a new generation of American readers and students.
Translations are essential for the Humanities 110 course, and a good or bad translation can make or break a text. We only read works that have been translated into English, and faculty and students will only enjoy reading and discussing works that have been translated well. The humanities staff thinks a great deal about the English translations of various works read in the course and constantly monitors new translations as they appear.

Some translations have been used for years in Hum 110. For example, Richmond Lattimore's excellent translation of the Iliad (Chicago, 1951) has been used for decades in Hum 110, even though more recent translations have appeared, including those of Robert Fagles (Penguin, 1990) and Stanley Lombardo (Hackett, 1997). As each new translation of the Iliad has appeared, members of the humanities staff have read the new translations and compared passages with the corresponding ones in Lattimore. So far Lattimore's translation has come out on top.

What are the faculty members looking for when translations are compared? Accuracy, clarity, and readability.

Accuracy refers primarily to how well the translator gets across the essential meanings, idioms, and nuances of the text. It should not be confused with simple literalism, which can lead to awkward word-for-word "translation-ese," difficult to read and leaving the reader wondering why anyone would want to read the text at all.