In 1962, issue number 28 of The Paris Review published Christopher Logue’s initial translation of Homer’s Iliad (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616), described in the headnote as “from a new English version of Book Sixteen.” In the “Notes on Contributors,” Logue mentioned that he would “like it to be known that his knowledge of Homeric Greek is negligible,” as much a defiant assertion as an apology for a deficiency, and expressed his gratitude for the “cribs” prepared by two distinguished British scholars. The magazine also contained an interview with Ezra Pound by the American poet Donald Hall, an appropriate complement to Logue’s work, as Pound’s translations and commentaries in the early decades of the twentieth century were instrumental in opening the field to include a much more imaginative approach to translation than had previously been the practice of scholars of the original language.
As scholar Bruce Weibe points out, “It is a commonplace of Homer studies that each age translates the poem befitting current taste.” Alexander Pope (1688-1744), for instance, created anIliad of heroic couplets rather than trying to approximate Homer’s dactylic hexameters. A great poet such as Pope was effectively given a personal pass, but the prevalent attitude persisted that a proper translation was the provenance of the serious scholar and that a thorough knowledge of the original language was essential.
The justifiably lauded Penguin Classics series in the middle of the twentieth century acknowledged the irrelevance of the “Biblical or Tennysonian English” of earlier translations and claimed that a translation by Philip Vellicat of Aeschylus’s plays “employs a simple and poetic English in modern idiom.” Nonetheless, its 1950 edition of The Iliad by E. V. Rieu (which Logue termed “mid-Windsor steady”) was a version in prose whose introductory chapter emphasized narrative, historical context, and character development but did not discuss the crucial decision to discard completely Homer’s poetic structure. This is as significant a choice as Pound made when he published his “translations” of poems such as “The Seafarer,” but because it was in accord with accepted academic practice, it did not arouse much controversy in contemporary journals.
Consequently, Richmond Lattimore’s admired and still very respected translation of the Iliad in 1951 was praised by William Arrowsmith as “the finest translation of Homer ever made into the English language” because Lattimore had accomplished the feat of accurately conveying the rhythms of the Greek hexameter in what he called “my own ‘poetical language,’ which is mostly the plain English of today.”
Robert Fitzgerald, whose 1961 version of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1616) revolutionized the public’s perception of that work, claimed that Lattimore’s book was “so decisive that it is reasonable to foresee a century or so in which nobody will try again to put theIliad in English verse.” What he did not foresee was that the revolution in poetry on both shores of the Atlantic occasioned by the emergence of the New American Poetry was enlarging the conception of poetic possibility in ways that effectively broke down the boundaries which had restricted the art of translation more than most people realized.
Although some classically trained scholars had considerable reservations about Logue’s initial effort, Robert J. Forman noted that “the popular success of this version was so great . . . that Logue subsequently expanded this work” in War Music: an Account of Books 16-19 of Homer’s “Iliad” (1981), then Kings: An Account of Books 1 and 2 of Homer’s “Iliad” (1991) and The Husbands: An Account of Books 3 and 4 of Homer’s “Iliad” (1994).
Now Logue has moved beyond any...
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