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A readable Iliad in modern idiom
on 29 June 2002
Robert Fagles's translation of Homer's Iliad is spiritually if not literally true to the original. Both versions repeat set speeches and descriptions in precisely the same words, and the translation exhibits a fairly regular rhythmic beat. But Homer's Greek was chanted, and the set passages were like refrains in which listeners could, if they chose, join in as a chorus. In English, the repetitions sometimes become tedious, especially when the same speech is given three times in two pages, as in the relay of Zeus's orders in Book II. Especially noteworthy is Bernard Knox's long and fascinating Introduction, a masterpiece of literary criticism and scholarship which conveys Homer's grim attitude toward war, the interplay of divine and human will, and the ancient concepts of honor, courage, and virility in the face of the stark finality of death. Knox also includes a succinct explanation of the quantitative, rather than accentual, basis of Greek (and Latin) verse. For easy readability, Fagles's translation is without rival. For elegance and poetry, however, I recommend Richmond Lattimore's older but still gripping and fluent translation.