An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2016

On Translating Homer’s Iliad

Caroline Alexander
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This reflective essay explores the considerations facing a translator of Homer’s work; in particular, the considerations famously detailed by the Victorian poet and critic Matthew Arnold, which remain the gold standard by which any Homeric translation is measured today. I attempt to walk the reader through the process of rendering a modern translation in accordance with Arnold’s principles.

CAROLINE ALEXANDER is the author of The War That Killed Achilles: The True Story of Homer's Iliad and the Trojan War (2009), and the international best-sellers The Bounty: The True Story of the Mutiny on the Bounty (2004) and The Endurance: Shackleton's Legendary Antarctic Expedition (1998). She has written for The New Yorker, National Geographic, and Granta. The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander was published in 2015 by Ecco Press.

“It has more than once been suggested to me that I should translate Homer. That is a task for which I have neither the time nor the courage.”1 So begins Matthew Arnold’s classic essay “On Translating Homer,” the North Star by which all subsequent translators of Homer have steered, and the gold standard by which all translations of Homer are judged. A reader will find Arnold’s principles referenced, directly or indirectly, in the introduction to most modern translations–Richmond Lattimore’s, Robert Fagles’s, Robert Fitzgerald’s, and more recently Peter Green’s. Additionally, Arnold’s discussion of these principles serves as a primer of sorts for poets and writers of any stripe, not only those audacious enough to translate Homer.

While the title of his essay implies that it is about translating the works of Homer, Arnold has little to say about the Odyssey, and he dedicates his attention to the Iliad. The greater and more profound of Homer’s two epics, the Iliad relates the events of a few weeks in the tenth and final year of the long, stalemated Trojan War, and by doing so evokes the tenuousness of human life and the blighting tragedy of all war. At the time of Arnold’s writing in 1861, eighteen complete translations of the Iliad had been published in the English language–a remarkably small number given that the Iliad, the oldest of Homer’s two epics, is believed to have been composed around 730–700 bc. Since then, and despite Arnold’s observation that at the time of his essay the “study of classical literature is probably on the decline,”2 sixty-five new translations have appeared, a figure that does not take into account many partial translations and adaptations. . . .

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  • 1Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer: Three Lectures Given at Oxford (London: Longman, Green, Longman, and Roberts, 1861), 1.
  • 2Ibid.