The Iliad by Homer translated by Stephen Mitchell
At the beginning of January, in the bookshop of Terminal 2 at San Francisco airport, I looked for a translation of the Iliad – not that I really expected to find one. But there were ten: one succinct W.H.D. Rouse prose translation and one Robert Graves, in prose and song, both in paperback; two blank verse Robert Fagles in solid covers; one rhythmic Richmond Lattimore with a lengthy new introduction;[*] and three hardback copies of the new Stephen Mitchell translation, with refulgent golden shields on the cover and several endorsements on the back, of which the most arresting is by Jaron Lanier, author of You Are Not a Gadget: ‘The poetry rocks and has a macho cast to it, like rap music.’
There was also one translation of the Odyssey, by Fagles again. It was ever thus: for all its well-remembered adventures and faster pace, the Odyssey has always been outsold – out of 590 Homer papyrus fragments recovered in Egypt at the last count, 454 preserve bits of the Iliad. The ready explanation – that ancient schoolmasters preferred the Iliad because the other Homer is just too much fun – is no doubt true but doesn’t explain why the Iliad has been preferred outside the schoolroom as well, from antiquity and the Byzantine millennium to the Terminal 2 bookshop.Why are our contemporaries so keen on buying and presumably reading the Iliad’s Iron Age reminiscence of Bronze Age combat? Publishers certainly view it as a paying proposition: at least twenty new English-language translations have been published since 1950, not counting ones from private presses. In Greece, as in Italy for students of the liceo classico, it is a compulsory school text (several modern Greek versions also serve as cribs), but why are the passengers at Terminal 2 in San Francisco buying the English versions?