Between X and Homer

Matthew Arnold, On Translating Homer:

“When I say, the translator of Homer should above all be penetrated by a sense of four qualities of his author: — that he is eminently rapid; that he is eminently plain and direct both in the evolution of his thought and in the expression of it, that is, both in his syntax and in his words; that he is eminently plain and direct in the substance of his thought, that is, in his matter and ideas; and, finally, that he is eminently noble; — I probably seem to be saying what is too general to be of much service to anybody. Yet it is strictly true that, for want of duly penetrating themselves with the first named quality of Homer, his rapidity, Cowper and Mr. Wright have failed in rendering him; that, for want of duly appreciating the second named quality, his plainness and directness of style and diction, Pope and Mr. Sotheby have failed in rendering him; that for want of appreciating the third, his plainness and directness of ideas, Chapman, has failed in rendering him; while for want of appreciating the fourth, his nobleness, Mr. Newman, who has clearly seen some of the faults of his predecessors, has yet failed more conspicuously than any of them.

Coleridge says, in his strange language, speaking of the union of the human soul with the divine essence, that this takes place,

Whene’er the mist, which stands ’twixt God and thee,
Defæcates to a pure transparency;

and so, too, it may be said of that union of the translator with his original, which alone can produce a good translation, that it takes place when the mist which stands between them — the mist of alien modes of thinking, speaking, and feeling on the translator’s part — ‘defæcates to a pure transparency,’ and disappears. But between Cowper and Homer — (Mr. Wright repeats in the main Cowper’s manner, as Mr. Sotheby repeats Pope’s manner, and neither Mr. Wright’s translation nor Mr. Sotheby’s has, I must be forgiven for saying, any proper reason for existing) — between Cowper and Homer there is interposed the mist of Cowper’s elaborate Miltonic manner, entirely alien to the flowing rapidity of Homer; between Pope and Homer there is interposed the mist of Pope’s literary artificial manner, entirely alien to the plain naturalness of Homer’s manner; between Chapman and Homer there is interposed the mist of the fancifulness of the Elizabethan age, entirely alien to the plain directness of Homer’s thought and feeling; while between Mr. Newman and Homer is interposed a cloud of more than Ægyptian thickness — namely, a manner, in Mr. Newman’s version, eminently ignoble, while Homer’s manner is eminently noble.”

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4 thoughts on “Between X and Homer

  1. The oldest translation of Homer I found that is clear and seems accurate is the Samuel Butler translation. It is written in prose though, which I think is a very fine thing, considering I enjoy depth beauty over the surface beauty given to poetic devices than can weight it down. I couldn’t trudge through Pope’s version. Is there a newer translation you enjoy? I very much like Fagles’ translation. A woman by the name of Emily Wilson did a translation of the Odyssey which I’m curious about.

    1. Personally, I like to use Lombardo’s Iliad and Odyssey the most with my classes. Fagles takes some liberties I am not comfortable with. Emily Wilson’s translation is artful and fascinating, but I have not yet used it in a class.

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