Friday, September 30, 2011

Mitchell "does" Homer

Stephen Mitchell has a new treatment of the Iliad:

It's Not All Greek to Him

The 'rock star' of translators produces a daring new version of the epic poem; the 'B' word

In various versions of Homer's nearly 3,000-year-old epic poem "The Iliad," the Trojan warrior Hector is referred to as "glorious," "flashing helmeted," and "man-killing." But he's probably never been described as a "son of a bitch" before.

Getty Images

Menelaus pursues Helen of Troy before the altar of Apollo as recounted in 'The Iliad,' in an engraving by Piringer after the original Grecian vase.

Stephen Mitchell's take on "The Iliad," the first major new translation in nearly 15 years, is an action-packed, slick and contemporary rendering of the Trojan war saga. Mr. Mitchell took some unusual liberties: He cut about 1,100 lines, modernized the dialogue and left out most of the fusty-seeming descriptors attached to each character (swift-footed Achilles, bright-eyed Athena, crafty Odysseus).

The text is peppered with modern slang. Helen refers to herself at one point as a "bitch" (the Greek original is "dog-eyed one"). Elsewhere, Hector yells a phrase at a soldier that could be literally translated as "Begone, cowardly puppet." Other translators have struggled with the insult, rendering it as "wicked doll," "rag doll" and "glittering little puppet." In Mr. Mitchell's translation, Hector yells, "Go ahead, sissy, run!" And when Achilles rails at Hector, he doesn't call him, "You doer of deeds not forgotten," as the original Greek reads. Instead, Mr. Mitchell has Achilles say, "Don't talk to me of agreements, you son of a bitch."

Mr. Mitchell defends his movie-style dialogue. "If you translate literally, the English may sound stilted or phony," says Mr. Mitchell. Asked if he thought his version would stir controversy, he laughed. "Of course," he said. "That's how scholars earn their living, by disputing things."

Mr. Mitchell, 68, may be the closest thing that the translation world has to a rock star. He brings oblique sayings in ancient languages to the masses, upsetting established scholars and occasionally creating unlikely hits. His 1988 version of the Tao Te Ching sold more than 900,000 copies in the U.S. Several of his other popular translations, which include The Gospel According to Jesus, Gilgamesh and poems by Rainer Maria Rilke, have each sold more than 100,000 copies.

Some of his translations aren't, strictly speaking, translations, but adaptations. He knows Greek, Latin, Hebrew, French, German, Italian and Danish, but he's also rewritten works in languages he doesn't know—Chinese, Sanskrit and Babylonian. His interpretations of sacred texts have been criticized by evangelical Christians and "very irate Taoists," says Mr. Mitchell.

There have been plenty of English translations of "The Iliad," including several published in the 20th century. Mr. Mitchell says he felt he could do better. "I've never been able to read 'The Iliad,' actually, until I sat down to do this," he says. "I could never get past book one in any translation. I found the language very dull."

Several years ago, he picked up the original Greek text and began translating the opening lines for fun. He was quickly immersed in the dramatic story. The epic opens 10 years into the war, which the Greeks waged after the Trojan prince Paris kidnapped Helen, the wife of the Greek king Menelaus.

Mr. Mitchell, who was born in Brooklyn and studied comparative literature at Yale, bounced some ideas off Homeric scholars, including Martin West, who wrote a book about how "The Iliad" was composed. Using Mr. West's research as a guideline, Mr. Mitchell cut about 7% of the poem—because he believes those passages were added by later poets. He dropped book 10, which describes a nighttime raid against the Trojans, entirely. He left out most of the stock character descriptions because he felt that while the phrases serve a rhythmic function in Greek, they add nothing in English.

His next project: "The Odyssey."

Friday, September 23, 2011


Arline sends this link to a remarkable aerial tour of Israel: Watch it in full screen mode if possible. Its a preview of Jerusalem, an IMAX film set for release in 2013.