On Homer, fine-tuning ’The Iliad’ and being the rock star of translators

Stephen Mitchell in conversation with Jessica Allen
On Homer, fine-tuning the Iliad and being the rock star of translators
Photograph by Stephaine Noritz

He Knows Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and Danish. And his progressive translations include Gilgamesh and The Gospel According to Jesus. Now Stephen Mitchell takes on Homer’s The Iliad—and he cuts about 1,100 lines along the way.

Q: Although there hasn’t been a major new translation of The Iliad in 15 years, there are about 200 in existence—six alone in the previous decade. Did you think the time was right for a new one?

A: Well, it was the right time for me. I didn’t think of anybody else. I just wanted to spend a few years with the vast mind of Homer. I never think of that sort of thing when I begin a project: I have a sense that something is right and I just plunge into it. And I was lucky enough to have had that sense after the very great M.L. West edition was published [in Greek], so I had an advantage over previous translators who were working from the 1902 Greek Oxford Classical Texts. It’s a very defective edition in many ways.

Q: What are the most significant differences between the two versions?

A: The most important, for English readers, is the fact that professor West has identified many individual lines and passages, and even one entire book, that are probably later interpolations. And this makes a huge difference in the tautness, drama, and readability, for that matter, of the translation.

Q: I read in a recent Wall Street Journal piece on you, the one where they refer to you as—

A: As a rock star.

Q: Yes! The rock star of translators.

A: Oh, I’ve gotten so much teasing from my wife about that. She’s actually the rock star in my family so I’m just barely catching up with her.

Q: I’ve read that you had a tough time getting through Book 1 of any translation of The Iliad.

A: Yes—my ear was always bored by the quality of the verse. Intuitively I knew that the Greek—the power of the language—had to equal the power of the story. But there was only a pale glimmer of that music, I felt, in English. It always sounded like warmed-over Tennyson.

Q: I was brought up with Robert Fagles’s 1990 translation, whose vision has been compared to visceral films by directors like Sam Peckinpah and Sergio Leone. He wasn’t a literal translator and even introduced colloquialisms. This sounds a lot like the way you’re often described. Clearly you haven’t read Fagles’s translation, but how do you think his interpretation differs from yours?

A: I don’t think it’s for me to say, but if you take any passage, even a few lines and read them side by side, you’ll have a good sense of how they differ.

Q: I did that, with the end of Book 24—the beautiful meeting between Priam and Achilles when Priam begs to take back the body of his son, Hector, for a proper burial.

A: That’s an amazing passage. It just sends shivers down your spine, it’s so beautiful. I can define the differences, I just don’t think it’s my place to do it. If mine is better people will know that and if it’s not then people will know that too. So it’s really not my job.

Q: I also compared the passage where Achilles has chased Hector around the Trojan walls three times and Hector finally stops to face him and asks Achilles not to mutilate his body should he die, and to return his corpse to his comrades and promises to do the same in return.

A: Book 22.

Q: In your translation Achilles responds, “Don’t talk to me of agreements, you son of a bitch,” whereas Fagles’s Achilles says, “Hector, stop! You unforgiveable, you . . . don’t talk to me of pacts.”

A: Here’s my attitude: the English has to be alive. It has to be something that someone could believably say, so it has to be part of a living language. And it has to have the kind of emotional power behind it that I feel when reading the Greek. Here is Achilles expressing his heartbreak and contempt and intense hatred at the enemy who has killed his beloved friend—if it doesn’t have the emotional power behind it, it means nothing. There are only a few expressions in English these days that convey that kind of intense contempt—“son of a bitch” is about as good as it gets.

Q: I had a friend who read the translated Iliad many times as an undergraduate, but during her Ph.D. read it in Greek, and the last book brought her to tears in a way the English translation never could. When I heard that I felt like I’d forever be missing something. Does this sentiment ever enter your mind—how will I ever do that justice? Is that overwhelming?

A: No, because here’s what it was like for me: I start with the experience of falling in love with the text. And just like falling in love with a person, you want to immerse yourself in as much intimacy as possible—that’s why people get married. It’s like a kind of stereophonic experience: as I’m working on something I hear the Greek in one ear and in the other ear I listen as carefully as I can. I listen for that kind of equivalent music to appear in my other ear. Sometimes it’ll be five minutes, sometimes 10, sometimes a half-hour, but I know when I hear it that it’s genuine and I’ll write that down. That’ll be my second draft, and whether it takes another 10 drafts—or 30 or 40—it’s only a question of fine tuning.

Q: So in some cases, you were doing 30 to 40 drafts of a single passage before you nailed it? Some people might say that sounds like a marriage, in a sense.

A: It’s an experience of continual delight because at one point something sounds perfect and then I’ll read it again in another month, and there’s a little thing that’s off about it or as I’m reading I hear another level. It’s a continual experience of fine tuning and then when the final page proofs come in, that’s when it’s done and I never listen in the same way again because once it’s printed that’s the culmination for me. It’s a deeply satisfying experience.

Q: Can you recall a passage that took 40 drafts to fine-tune?

A: The dialogue in Book 6 between Hector and Andromache [his wife, who has lost her entire family to war, and begs him not to return to battle] is one of the great high points in world literature: it’s so deeply moving, so human and filled with husbandly love and despair and hope—everything imaginable in an extreme situation like that.

Q: You tell a lovely anecdote in your introduction about a rural village in Colombia that became obsessed with a Spanish translation of The Iliad because they felt it reflected their own world in a war-torn country in which crazed gods play with the lives of men, and nobody is quite sure what the fighting is even about.

A: It’s a wonderful story, isn’t it?

Q: Absolutely. But there’s got to be more besides war in The Iliad that continues to resonate with contemporary readers. Why do we keep coming back to it?

A: In my experience, there’s the whole spectrum of what it means to be human: there’s war, hope, love, anger—and the deadly consequences of that—and there’s the ego that’s stuck in its own projections, there’s a sense of forgiveness and there’s the awe-filled moment of grace in the end between Priam and Achilles, which is truly one of the luminous passages in all of literature. You never expect that to happen. Here’s the dignified old king and his deadly enemy and something opens up between them, some kind of communion of the heart, and it’s the most moving thing to experience after such mayhem and slaughter. The Iliad is the great tragedy in our literature but it’s also beyond tragedy because of that final book. There’s something that happens to lift it even beyond tragedy and I think that the vast mind of Homer—which is what attracted me to the book in the first place—is inclusive of all human experiences and sees beyond opposites. It’s a breathtaking conclusion.

Q: There are those who say Shakespeare should be seen on stage, as it was intended, and not just read. Do you feel that Homer’s poem, which would have been orally recited, should be heard, and not just read?

A: Well, it would be an interesting experience but it’s not clear that the whole Iliad was ever recited in one go, even in several goes. There was a wonderful event last night in New York of a dramatic reading at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine where a number of actors took on various parts and—

Q: Using your translation?

A: Yes! I actually helped the director fine-tune his script. He basically took the whole Iliad and cut and spliced and boiled the whole thing down to an hour and a half and the audience was enraptured! There were passages where people burst out laughing, like when Zeus was being seduced by his wife, Hera. I wasn’t aware it was such a funny passage. So it works very well read aloud.

Q: And this allowed you to discover something new about the poem by seeing how the audience reacted to it.

A: Yes! I discovered quite a bit, actually. It was really quite an adventure.

Q: Are you already at work on The Odyssey?

A: Yes, indeed, I just finished four books and I hope to finish the whole project in a year to a year and a half.

Q: You include a translated passage from Book 9 of The Odyssey in your introduction to The Iliad where Odysseus speaks about eating and drinking with his comrades while listening to a poet, and how it’s the most beautiful thing in the world. Did you translate that bit?

A: Yes.

Q: Because that bit was gorgeous! It still resonates 2,700 years later: you just want to cut that passage out and put it in your back pocket.

A: Oh, I so agree. The women characters, in particular, really come alive and leap off the page. I’m enchanted by the work.