Thursday, February 4, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Ian Johnston (trans.), Homer, The Iliad. Arlington, Va.: Richer Resources Publications, 2007. Pp. 563. ISBN 9780977626908. $24.50 (pb).

Ian Johnston (trans.), Homer, The Odyssey. Arlington, Va: Richer Resources Publications, 2007. Pp. 497. ISBN 9780977626991. $24.50 (pb).
Reviewed by Barbara Clayton, Stanford University

A visit to Ian Johnston's home page reveals an extraordinary list of translation accomplishments. In addition to an impressive selection from ancient Greek: both Homeric epics, the Oresteia, five plays of Aristophanes, four plays of Sophocles, four of Euripides, and an abridged version of Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, Johnston has also translated works of Cuvier, Descartes, Diderot and Rousseau, as well as Kafka, Kant, and Nietzsche. A translation of Lucretius is in progress. On the same page, in addition to all of these texts one can access over seventy essays by Johnston covering the full gamut of Western civilization, from Exodus to Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene.

Johnston clearly believes in making as much information as possible available on-line. Consequently, I suspect that potential readers will be reluctant to buy his paperback translations when the electronic versions are free. Moreover, in the case of the Iliad, the electronic version offers a wealth of extra material not available in the printed edition. Links at this site include a "List of Deaths," compiled chronologically and detailing the method of death (e.g., "spear in the neck,"); an index of speeches in the Iliad, presented in alphabetical order of speaker, that includes the addressee, what the speech is about, and how long it is; and a chronological list of over 130 English translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey, many with links to sample passages and/or the complete text of the translation. The electronic glossary of proper names in the Iliad (there is no glossary for the on-line Odyssey) includes line numbers and is more detailed than the one in the paperback. Furthermore, this extra material is much easier to use with the electronic version because there one accesses Johnston's translations by the individual books of the poem, whereas in the printed versions the book number does not appear at the top of the page, so it is very difficult, going back through the poems, to know where you are. Johnston also offers an abridged version of both the Iliad and the Odyssey on-line. In all versions he has indented direct speech and uses a slightly shorter line for these passages, a sensible innovation that makes the narrative much easier to follow.

Other useful tools that appear in the printed edition are synopses at the beginning of each book--which for some reason get progressively longer and more detailed in the case of the Odyssey--and occasional footnotes. The Odyssey, for no obvious reason that I can see, has noticeably more notes than the Iliad. (On p. 139 of the Odyssey a note incorrectly identifies Gaia as the child of Chaos.)

Johnston's translations are without introductions. One can, however, find a series of essays on the Iliad addressing many of those issues one would expect to see discussed in an introduction (such as the gods in Homer) at the following link:

The most important question any new translation of Homer must face is this: what sets this version apart from the others, and in particular, how does it differ from the current favorites (an honor that I would give to the translations of Stanley Lombardo and Robert Fagles)? Johnston does not provide a translator's preface for either his Iliad or Odyssey, but the back of both books states that his translation provides "an accurate text . . . in a modern English poetic form," intended for first-time readers of the Homeric epics. A fuller account of purpose is to be found in the last of Johnston's essays on the Iliad (at the website given above), "On Modern English Translations of the Iliad." This is a thoughtful, engaging essay and extremely useful in understanding what Johnston hoped to achieve with his own translations. It is to be regretted that his publisher did not include it in one or both volumes. Here Johnston writes of his goal to create a balance between the "strangeness" of the text--understood as applying to both the language itself and the Homeric world view--and the present-day world of his readers, all the while maintaining a "fluent modern idiom." He appears not to admire the translation of Lombardo, which he finds too "colloquial." He has praise for Fagles, although he criticizes what he sees as a tendency toward archaizing and an occasional over-indulgence in alliteration. In Johnston's opinion Robert Fitzgerald's translation is the best when judged for its poetic quality alone, without taking into account absolute accuracy. We can conclude then that Johnston is looking to establish a different balance of contemporaneity, fidelity to the Greek, and poetic quality than he finds in Lombardo, Fagles, or Fitzgerald. In what follows I will consider these three features, and draw upon the translations of Lombardo, Fagles and Fitzgerald for comparison.

Johnston does a fine job of finding his modern idiom. His characters by and large sound no different than those of contemporary cinema, which, if I have understood him correctly, is what he wanted. There are a few moments when the effect is unepic to my ear, as at Iliad 2.157 where Agamemnon tells his troops that the Trojan allies "are a huge problem for me," or when Johnston uses the adverb "really" to translate a superlative ("The man is really strong," Agenor says of Achilles at Iliad 21.681). Even more jarring is his decision to use the verb "to have sex," which appears a number of times in the Iliad and even more frequently in the Odyssey. Gone are the days of "mingling in love" for mi/gnumi, but there are plenty of other options, "making love" and "lying with" being the two favored by Lombardo, Fagles and Fitzgerald. Twice in Johnston's Iliad we find the verb "copulate" (at 16.210 of Polydora and Spercheius, "a woman copulating with a god" and at 20.271 of the North Wind and the horses of Erichthonius) which is inappropriate in the first case, and questionable in the second. There is only one place for ugliness in the Iliad, and that is Thersites' speech in Book 2. Here is an instance when mi/gnumi needs a rough edge, and in fact Johnston gets it exactly right. His Thersites lashes out at Agamemnon with: "Or do you want a young girl to stash away, / so you're the only one who gets to screw her?" Checking the other translations we see that only Fagles manages to insert a true note of nastiness. Here is Lombardo: "Maybe it's a young girl for you to make love to / And keep off somewhere for yourself;" and Fitzgerald: "Or a new woman / to lie with, couple with, keep stowed away / for private use--is that your heart's desire?" Finally Fagles, using the verb "spread" to powerful effect, gives us: "Or a young woman, is it?--to spread and couple, / to bed down for yourself apart from all the troops?"

Johnston's second goal, accuracy, is also well realized. True mistakes are rare, and most are minor or simply poor choices, such as the line describing dead Trojans lying on the plain at Iliad 11.185, now "far more friendly (fi/lteroi) to the vultures than their wives." (Lombardo writes "dearer," Fagles, "craved far more," and Fitzgerald, "more loveable.")

The following may be a mistake, or it may be a joke at Menelaus' expense. At Iliad 17.570 Athena gives Menelaus, who is defending the body of Patroclus, the boldness of a fly (mui/hs qa/rsos). Lombardo beefs up the image by making it the "boldness of a horsefly;" Fagles ratchets up another notch with "the horsefly's raw daring;" Fitzgerald retains "boldness" but, on the principle that obscurity is ennobling, makes the mui=a a"shad fly." Johnston has Athena invigorate Menelaus with the "persistence of a gnat!"

Occasionally what is a faithful translation of the Greek creates an awkward or puzzling moment. For example, two epithets, diogenh/s and diotrefh/s, are translated literally by Johnston as "child of Zeus" and "child raised by Zeus," and used in direct address to Odysseus--which gives them added emphasis--four times in the Odyssey (as well as at Iliad 1.373 where Achilles says to Patroclus, "Come, Patroclus, born from Zeus, fetch the girl"); this could be perplexing for readers new to Homer. It is quite possible, however, that these moments are meant to constitute the "strangeness" Johnston speaks of in his essay on translation. If so, then I found them to be more disconcerting than strange. A similar attempt at strangeness might be behind Johnston's pronounced tendency to leave out the direct article before words signifying people or gods. Here is an example from Iliad 2 (11-15). Zeus is giving instructions to Dream, whom he is sending to Agamemnon:

Report my words precisely.
Bid him quickly arm long-haired Achaean troops,
for now they'll capture Troy, city of wide streets.
Immortal gods who dwell on Mount Olympus
no longer disagree about all this.

In addition to accuracy, a translator must also decide how and when to try and get at various word or sound play in the Greek, when to follow Homer in repeating a passage or line verbatim and when to ignore such repetition, and when to indicate that the syntax of the original is significant. In general, I do not find that Johnston is particularly sensitive to this aspect of the translator's task. One of the most famous of these special syntactical moments occurs when Penelope tells Eurycleia to wash the feet of Odysseus, who is still disguised as a beggar (Odyssey 19.358 in the Greek text). I begin with Fagle's translation of this line, which copies the Greek exactly, using an ellipsis to heighten the effect:

Up with you now, my good old Eurycleia,
come and wash your master's ... equal in years.


Eurycleia, rise and wash your master's--that is,
Wash the feet of this man who is your master's age.


Come here, stand by me, faithful Eurykleia,
and bathe, bathe your master. I almost said,
for they are of an age[...]

Johnston makes no attempt to capitalize on this heart-stopping instance when we wonder if Penelope has recognized Odysseus after all:

So come now, stand up, wise Eurycleia,
and bathe a man the same age as your master.

In terms of the poetic quality of Johnston's translations, there are certainly many times when he more than holds his own with all three translators I have been citing for comparison, both at the level of individual words and phrases, and in larger syntactical units. Here are just a few examples in which I think Johnston has done an outstanding job: To translate the a)qemisti/a of Polyphemus, Johnston makes him "a law unto himself" ("knew no law," Lombardo; "dead set in his own lawless ways," Fagles; "knowing none but savage ways," Fitzgerald). When Athena pours qespesi/hn xa/rin over Telemachus before he reaches the Assembly at Odyssey 2.12, Johnston renders this beautifully with "god-like poise" ("silver grace," in Lombardo; "marvelous splendor," Fagles; "sunlit grace," Fitzgerald). Finally, although Johnston tends to be somewhat conservative in his translations in terms of straying from the Greek, here is a moment where we see him taking a risk that pays off. It comes from the beginning of Iliad 6:

Ajax, son of Telamon, Achaea's tower of strength,
was the first to break through ranks of Trojans,
punching out some breathing room for his companions.

The Greek here has Ajax "creating light/deliverance" for his companions (fo/ws d' e(ta/roisin e)/qhken). Lombardo comes closest to a literal translation of this phrase:

Telamonian Ajax, the Achaean wall,
Was the first Greek to break the Trojan line
And give his comrades some daylight.


That Achaean bulwark giant Ajax came up first,
broke the Trojan line and brought his men some hope


Aías Telamônios, Akhaian
bastion on defense, attacked and broke
a Trojan mass, showing his men the way

More often than not, however, Johnston's style is rather ordinary. I present just one example to illustrate, Agamemnon's parting threat to Chryses at Iliad 1.4-5. Johnston writes, "Go away. If you want to get home safely, don't anger me." Lombardo livens things up with a colloquial twist: "Now clear out of here before you make me angry!" Fagles is characteristically wordy: "Now go, / don't tempt my wrath--and you may depart alive." Fitzgerald allows Agamemnon to still sound like a king, even in his anger: "Leave me in peace and go, while you can, in safety." All three of these versions offer something to like or dislike; Johnston's is completely neutral.

It seems in fact that Johnston was not expecting much beyond this. Here is what he says at the end of his essay on translations of the Iliad in English: "Long narrative poems are rarely, if ever totally even in their poetic quality. The author settles into a basic relatively uninspired style which carries the narrative and then, when inspiration strikes, launches his verse into hitherto unexplored realms of truly moving poetry for a while, before settling down again into the regular style." This is exactly how I would describe Johnston's translation of the Iliad and the Odyssey: basic and relatively uninspired, with flashes of the exceptional. But I do not agree with him that all translators of Homer must necessarily be uninspired for long stretches. Indeed, I find that Lombardo, Fagles and Fitzgerald all sustain, to a remarkable degree, an astonishing level of inspiration in their translations from beginning to end. Johnston's version is a perfectly serviceable one, and I would not hesitate to use his on-line text, especially in a course where students were only reading selected bits of Homer. But I would not use these translations in courses in which the artistry of Homer is paramount.

There is something almost generic about Johnston's effort. Indeed the physical appearance of his printed translations, with their monochromatic pale yellow background, the minimal and minimalist art work, and the single, plain font for title and author evoke nothing so much as the notion of a generic Homer. Like most generics they do the job adequately; but sometimes generic is not what we want. On the other hand, I am tremendously grateful to Johnston for generously sharing so much of his work, especially the supplementary material on the Iliad, in electronic format. There is nothing at all generic about his love of Homer, which will be obvious to anyone who makes his acquaintance through his excellent website.

There are some typographical errors, enumerated below.

In the Iliad:
p. 73 missing period, line 60
p. 111 missing word "as," line 701
p. 180 "heart" for "hearth," line 76
p. 269 "that" for "that is," line 72
p. 294 missing period, line 982
p. 329 missing word "of," line 504
p. 336 missing word "a," line 769
p. 367 missing word "of," line 968
In the Odyssey:
p. 27 "They're" for "They," line 68
p. 143 comma for a period at end of footnote
p. 459 "That" for That's," line 309
p. 469 missing period at end of footnote

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