Essay / Literature

Iliad: Why the Lattimore Translation

The curriculum of Torrey Honors College starts out with Homer’s Iliad. This means the book has a special place in the life of our program: students we have admitted into the program but haven’t met in person yet mostly read it in advance over the summer, and then show up on campus for our formative first discussions. Of course, the Iliad also has a special place in the entire history of Western literature,1 so for both reasons it’s important for us to get this book right.

We use the 1951 Richmond Lattimore translation, and here’s why.

In a 2012 New Republic review article on recent books on Homer, classicist Peter Green described Lattimore’s translation as one that “consciously and deliberately set out to produce a text calculated to give readers with no knowledge of Greek as accurate a picture as English could convey of the Homeric original.” Every line of Lattimore corresponds to a line of Homer, which makes it easy for readers to cross-check commentaries on specific lines and words. Even a reader who only knows a little bit of koine Greek from the New Testament can use an online aid like the Perseus Project to get a peek at the original. The commitment to line-for-line matching also meant that Lattimore kept himself on a short leash as a translator; he couldn’t let himself say too much more or less than Homer said about anything.

As for the meter, Lattimore didn’t try to replicate the exact rhythm of Homer’s’ Greek dactylic hexameter, but he did produce what Green calls a “loose quasi-hexametrical” line. Reading it aloud doesn’t quite introduce a strong rhythm into your mind, but it definitely flows along. And previous English Iliads with literary pretensions had definitely introduced a strong rhythm, but it was an English rhythm, iambic pentameter. I think it would be very hard to choose between hearing the wrong music (iambic pentameter) and hearing no music at all in Homer; Lattimore’s quasi lets me hear, however faintly, something just a bit like the right music. While acknowledge its limitations, Green praises  “the ‘Lattimore line'” as “to date the best substitute for the hexameter that anyone has devised.”

Finally, Lattimore lets Homer repeat himself verbatim; he translates and prints the little epithets that Homer uses to introduce characters; he picks English words that are in the right registers to match Homer’s. All of these moves let the Greekless reader feel the effects of the original, and produces a text that you can dig deep into for closer study. Lattimore sometimes errs a bit on the side of making things too easy for the reader, for instance in the opening pages where he simply points out Apollo by name where Homer had identified him only by description; we trade suspense for clarity. But on the first or second read-through, it’s a good trade.

Green argues that “the occasion that produced such an English Iliad was, of course, the huge expansion of American university education in the humanities, largely fostered by the GI Bill in the years immediately following World War II.” Previous generations of Homer translators could assume an educational setting in which there would be relatively few students each year, and that those students would have been properly prepped, equipped with ancient languages. Lattimore’s 1951 translation was practically a cheater’s guide to enable the vast numbers of new collegians to take up and read a text they had not been prepared for properly. Green goes on:

The postwar development of the humanities at the college level led to a noticeable degree of contempt among conservative academics for what novelties such as Lattimore’s Iliad were setting out to achieve. Old-school classicists, secure in their familiarity with Homeric Greek, regarded the whole idea as unnecessary and a dilution of proper scholarly standards, like general courses in classical civilization that relied on translated texts. When, in 1976, Malcolm Willcock produced a Companion to The Iliad based on Lattimore, elderly heads were shaken at this symptom of decline. Nor did the Greekless get any help from that avant-garde classical autodidact Donald Carne-Ross, who was fond of saying that what they should do was get off their butts and learn Greek: three months should suffice to let them at least read Homer by construal (this claim had more than the old fogeys shaking their heads), and having bypassed the need for the kind of help that Lattimore offered, they could move on to serious theories of translation. Carne-Ross wanted free scope, in English literary terms, for the development of creative versions, and his relentless dismissal of Lattimore’s work—in particular in an essay on his Odyssey, significantly titled “A Mistaken Ambition of Exactness”—has been one of the main reasons for the decline in Lattimore’s reputation in recent years.

After such a class-conscious paragraph, would it be too class-conscious of me to admit that in Torrey Honors College at Biola University, doing general education with Christian eighteen-year-olds from every major in the twenty-first century in southern California, we are not striving to climb the loftiest peaks of elite classical education? We do not intend to “get off our butts and learn Greek,” nor (a couple of months later) Hebrew, nor (first thing next semester) Latin, nor Italian, French, and German after that. We are doing everything in English translation, at a pace of roughly a book per week. And we are doing it via Socratic pedagogy with our eyes on the prize of intellectual and spiritual formation in community.

In other words, Lattimore’s labors to make the Iliad more accessible to more people is exactly why it’s the best translation for us. Understandably, classicists from a golden age of learning will look down with Olympian scorn on our modest works. Fair enough. But Lattimore’s translation is engaging, and supports very close study from our (mostly) Greekless undergrads and their (largely also Greekless) generalist tutors. So Green’s argument holds good:

FORTUNATELY, THE survival of Lattimore’s remarkable tour de force has not depended on the say-so of captious literary critics. Despite the rival offerings of Robert Fitzgerald (much touted by Carne-Ross), Robert Fagles, and Stanley Lombardo, there are still many students who have come to Homer by way of Lattimore, and not a few of these have been inspired by his version to learn Greek and reach out to the full richness of the original. Proof of his Iliad’s enduring value is the excellent new edition “designed,” as the blurb proclaims, “to bring the book into the twenty-first century,” with up-to-date bibliography, maps, an onomastic glossary, explanatory running notes on background and critical trends, and, perhaps most important, a clear and comprehensive survey by Richard Martin of the very considerable advances in Homeric scholarship achieved since the original appearance of Lattimore’s Iliad in 1951.

I should conclude by noting that in our twenty-five years of reading Homer, Torrey Honors College has previously tried out two other translations: We briefly subjected students to the Loeb volumes of A.T. Murray, which are by design extremely literal and strike students as solid wood. Then for several years we lurched in the other direction with the Fagles translation, which speeds along wondrously with considerable literary charm, but introduces some of its own imagery (gasp!), often omits Homeric epithets (shudder), and in other ways fails to hold up to close scrutiny. To put it in Odyssean terms, we needed a way between the Scylla of the too-literal and the Charybdis of the overly-free.2 As it turns out, that way has existed since 1951, when Lattimore produced a text that fits our needs very well.


1 I say “Western” on purpose, but remember: the action of the book is set in Turkey, our text’s form comes to us through Alexandria, and the chronological flow of Book I is determined by Zeus and the gods being off feasting in Ethiopia for eleven days.

2To put it in Bible translation terms, Loeb = NASB or maybe even Young’s Literal; Fagles = NIV or TEV; but Lattimore lands in the ESV or CSB zone. Don’t press this comparison too hard, though: there’s a world of difference between Homer’s elusive presence to the English-speaking world (through Chapman and Pope, for instance), and the Bible’s much steadier presence (through the KJV and liturgical tributaries). And it’s a difference that makes a difference.

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