Thursday, January 19, 2006

Whose Homer?

(for Stefan Hagemann)

I'm teaching the Iliad again, in Stanley Lombardo's 1997 translation, and we just hit a line that always sticks in students' minds, Hector's rebuke of his brother Paris in Book 3. As the opposing forces mass for battle, Paris steps out and offers to fight the Greeks' best man to the death. Menelaus steps up -- he's not the best Greek, but he is Helen's husband after all. Paris, suddenly pale, runs back to the Trojan lines. Hector then speaks with impatience and contempt:

"Paris, you desperate, womanizing pretty boy!"
I just recommended Lombardo's Iliad to my friend Stefan Hagemann, so I'll make a case for my choice by looking at how the other members of the Big Four -- Richmond Lattimore (1951), Robert Fitzgerald (1974), and Robert Fagles (1990) -- handle this one line. Here's Lattimore:
"Evil Paris, beautiful, woman-crazy, cajoling."
Yes, Lattimore is close to the Greek (Lombardo too, as you can see here). The problem with Lattimore's line, to my mind, is that it's nearly impossible to imagine someone saying it in English. It's very difficult to hear cajoling, for instance, as a term of rebuke. And what's urgently missing is the word you, the inevitable pronoun of rebuke in English ("Why you little . . . .").

I love Robert Fitzgerald's Odyssey, but like many readers, I find him less at home in the Iliad. Here's Fitzgerald's Hector:
                                               "You bad-luck charm!
Paris, the great lover, a gallant sight!"
Fitzgerald leaves out any overt reference to Paris' beauty (in the Greek, he is "best in form," or "best in figure"), a curious omission, as Homer has just noted Paris' glamorous leopard-skin (he is the only warrior in the poem to wear one). As for "You bad-luck charm!" -- that phrase introduces a tone of high camp that I find bewildering in this context.

Robert Fagles has picked up all the establishment honors, but his translations of Homer (and Aeschylus) seem to me to strain too hard for a faux-lofty, Yeatsian rhetoric. Rarely do they, for me, ring true. Here's Fagles' Hector:
"Paris, appalling Paris! Our prince of beauty --
mad for women, you lure them all to ruin!"
What I first notice here is the sheer verbiage: what Homer does in five words, Lattimore and Lombardo in six, Fitzgerald in eleven, Fagles does in sixteen. Fagles' Hector speaks with stagey repetition (he seems to have a British accent, methinks) and (like Fitzgerald's Hector) with two! -- two! -- exclamation points. Another problem: Fagles' translation seems a little misleading for new readers of the poem, for Paris has lured neither Helen nor any other woman. (There is no "them all.") The Iliad presents Helen as the victim of a sexual kidnapping of sorts, a woman filled with contempt for her keeper. It's not at all clear that she's been "ruined": though she's filled with shame and self-hatred, the poem never passes judgment on her, treating her rather with compassion and generosity.

Facing multiple translations in a bookstore, it can be difficult to know what choice to make. Picking some scattered lines for comparison can sometimes illuminate the differences among translations to a remarkable degree. Looking at this line in four translations reminds me of why I choose Lombardo's Iliad when I teach.

Related posts

Paris, pretty-boy
Translators at work and play
Aeschylus in three translations

Interview with Stanley Lombardo

comments: 5

Anonymous said...

Reading this post makes me think I would love your class and get totally excited about the Illiad solidifying my place of honor in the kingdowm of dorkdom.

Crritic! said...

How about:

"Paris, I see you got your brand new leopard-skin pillbox hat!"??

brian said...

Hello; my friend Joe turned me on to your blog, so forgive me for just dropping in. I am teaching the Illiad and Odyssey this spring as well (first time for me, not really my area, but doing it anyway at Missouri State University...), and just finished Feagles' Illiad. I rather liked it, although i understand your complaint about the translation of Paris' statement.

Still, there is a strong sense in the poem itself that Paris has indeed lured them all to their ruin, when we realize (or are blatantly reminded!) in nearly every book that the entire war need not occur or continue to occur(like any war), and that either side (well, really on the Acheans) may theoretically quit at any time. So he's doing the make-a-point-with-the-translation thing, which is not always preferable, in my opinion. And, as you know, there are varying traditions about what kind of role Helen plays in the ordeal, unless you simply see Homer as *the* authority on the topic. Even so, Helen's annoying and constant self-reference and self-loathing perhaps betray the fact that she not-so-secretly enjoys all of this? Hence she loses the 'victim' title...but I digress.

Sorry for the long post; I'd like to read your other posts on Homer soon, and hear any advice you have on teaching the materials, since I'm in the middle of working my way through the Odyssey currently...

Michael Leddy said...

Thanks for such a thoughtful comment, bd. Paris has brought all of Troy to ruin, but that too, I think, is different from luring. If Fagles is bringing the larger point of Troy's ruin in, I can't see how "luring" will do it.

Helen in Iliad 3 does look like a victim to me -- Aphrodite's order that she get to the bedroom seems to suggest that, and Helen's wondering about her brothers (who are already dead) makes her situation poignant, as the gap between human hopes and reality always is in the Iliad (as with the refrain "But Zeus would not hear their prayers"). But then in 6 Helen seems to make a play for Hector! (Maybe she has Stockholm syndrome?!) And in the Odyssey, she's someone else again -- drugging the wine and trying to pass for a patriot. I don't see much consistency in her characterization in Homer, which might be the point -- a beautiful enigma.

I'm generally not keen on Fagles, but I do like the way he handles the end of Iliad 20 -- that might be my favorite passage from his translation. I haven't looked at his Iliad at length for a while.

My simplest advice with Homer is to do no more than two episodes (if that much) per class. It takes time. Whose translation are you using for the Odyssey?

Crritic!, as you already know from my e-mail, I was laughing out loud.

Ana, you'd be welcome in a Homer class. The world needs more readers of Homer.

Joshua, try Lattimore and Lombardo side by side. It'll be very interesting!

Thanks to everyone for the comments.

[This comment replaces two comments that I wrote a little earlier today. The first was sketchy, and the second corrected a typo in the first.]

brian said...


Many thanks for your comments, and advice on the pace of teaching the poem. I've been doing that thing (of which I am sure all teachers are guilty at some point...) where I overcompensate, i.e. try to crush too many things into one class period, out of fear that I will not have enough to say, come up short, etc. So your word on two episodes/class is good for me.

I'm using Classical Mythology: Images & Insights, by Harris/Platzner, which has within it over 700 pages of primary texts; Fitzgerald does the Iliad, and Lombardo (great interview, by the way!) does the Odyssey (although I'm in the act of re/reading Lattimore's for preparing the lectures, etc.). So we'll see how it goes; I need to basically try to cover the entire history of Classical Lit. in about 25 class periods, I'm sure you know how that goes...