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Homeric Names in English

Here is a chronological table showing how some important Homeric names have been spelled by translators into English:

Homer (800 bce) Αχιλλεύς Ἕκτωρ Ἀχαιοί Ἰθάκη Αἴας (plural) Αἴαντε
Pope (1720)AchillesHectorAchaianIthacaAjax(pl) Ajaces
Butler (1898)AchillesHectorAchaeanIthacaAjax(pl) Ajaxes
Rieu (1950)AchillesHectorAchaeanIthacaAias(pl) Aiantes
Lattimore (1951)AchilleusHektorAchaianIthakaAias(pl) Aiantes
Fitzgerald (1974)AkhilleusHektorAchaianIthakaAías(pl) Aías
Fagles (1991)AchillesHectorAchaeanIthacaAjax(pl) Aeantes
Lombardo (1997)AchillesHectorAchaeanIthacaAjax(pl) Ajaxes
Jordan (2008)AchillesHectorAchaeanIthacaAjax(pl) Ajaxes

Until the 20th Century, the dominant orthography was the anglicized Latinate version of Homeric names--especially the well-known names--which had come into popular usage long before.

For example, well before the 20th Century, the word Achilles was in common usage, such as "Achilles Tendon," and "Achilles Heel"; "hector" had become a verb; "Ithaca" was a city in New York, site of Cornell University; and "Ajax" was the usual title given to English translations of Sophocles' play by the same name--all as spelled in this sentence.

In 1947 Colgate-Palmolive introduced its Ajax cleanser--a brand still globally popular--with the slogan "Stronger than dirt!," a reference to the Iliadic hero.

Nevertheless, beginning with Rieu's use of Aias/Aiantes in 1950, translators broke with tradition and with the use of familiar Homeric names. Lattimore not only used Aias/Aiantes, but went further and rendered many familiar names using unfamiliar spellings, such as Achilleus and Ithaka. At the head of his glossary, he acknowledged a departure from "a frequent, though not universal, practice to latinize Greek names, then anglicize the Latin forms," but he did not explain why he chose to depart from this all-but-universal practice. While use of "Achilleus" might be defended on the basis of approximating the spelling and pronunciation of the original, "Ithaka" seems an unwarranted affront to the reader accustomed to "Ithaca."

Fitzgerald went still further, using "Akhilleus"--barely recognizable as the Achilles well known to the reader. The table gives only a hint of the extent to which Fitzgerald Grecized proper Homeric names. For example, instead of Mycenae as employed by Butler and Rieu, Fitzgerald used "Mykênai," a deviant spelling and additionally perplexing for the curious accent mark above the "e." He used accent marks even on names like Aías; his reader is not told why.

In 1991 Fagles returned to the orthography employed a century earlier by Butler--and others.

Curiously, Fagles declined to return to Butler's plural for the two Ajaxes. Bernard Knox, in his introduction to Fagles' Iliad, described "Ajaxes" as a "grotesque" term. (Penguin Classics Ed. at 67). Fagles used "Aeantes," which may well be an original invention. Whether "Aeantes" is more or less grotesque than "Ajaxes" is open to debate. At any rate, while the traditional orthography re-employed by Fagles has generally been followed by Lombardo and this writer in spelling Homeric names, both of the latter concur with Butler in the use of "Ajaxes."

In contrast to Fagles' use of "Aeantes" instead of "Ajaxes," he tacked in the opposite direction in book 18 when naming thirty-three Nereids who followed Thetis out of the deep. The list of names begins in the original at 18.39 with: Γλαύκη, Θάλειά, Κυμοδόκη, Νησαίη, Σπειώ, Θόη, Ἁλίη, etc. All other translators have transliterated these names, e.g., Glauca, Thalia, Cymodoce, Nesaea, Spio, Thoa, and Halia. Fagles undertook to translate the names into English meanings: Glitter, Spray, Embrace, Fair-Isle, Cavern, Mist and Spindrift, etc. (Fagles' lines 45 f.). Whether or not some of these inventions are far-fetched, their use seems inconsistent with the translator's use of Aeantes instead of a form of Ajax. Also, if names are to be translated, instead of transliterated, why stop at the Nereids? Why not call Odysseus "Wrath-Object," or Menelaus "Army's-Fury?"

An aspect of the treatment of names by Lattimore and Fitzgerald is their use of "Alexandros," instead of "Paris," each time the former term appears in the original referring to Helen's abductor. To be sure, Homer uses Alexandros 45 times in the Iliad compared with Paris only eleven times. However, "Paris" is the name so well embedded in public consciousness that use of "Alexandros" is an unnecessary obstacle for the reader. Accordingly, the subsequent translators referred to in this essay all returned to "Paris" for every reference to the prince.

It will be observed from the above table that translation of Αἴας/Αἴαντε has perplexed translators, perhaps more than any other Homeric name. Pope used "Ajax" and formed the plural as "Ajaces," likely reflecting his knowledge of Latin and its influence in his day. In ensuing centuries a trend towards anglicization has resulted in optional plurals for such non-Homeric words as "thorax": either thoraxes or thoraces. Fitzgerald ducked the problem, thereby avoiding the arguably grotesque: he used Aías as both singular and plural. Time--and its inevitable new translations of Homer--will determine which, if any, of the recent orthographies endures.*

It seems likely that the spellings of familiar Homeric names employed by Lattimore and Fitzgerald will prove to have been deviant attempts to liken familiar English names to the Greek. After all, we are translating into English, and none would advocate using the transliterated Greek term "neus" instead of "ship" in such a translation. Why, then, use the Grecized term "Mykênai" instead of "Mycenae," or "Akhilleus" instead of "Achilles?"

One recent scholarly observer, commenting on the spelling of Homeric names, called Fitzgerald's spellings "pedantic."


Herbert Jordan
August 2009
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*A 2011 version by popularizer Stephen Mitchell followed the orthography of Lombardo and Jordan, except that Mitchell omitted mention of Ithaca. --HJ

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