Frequently Asked Questions About Jordan's Iliad
Answers to common questions, provided by the translator:
Question: Why read the Iliad?
Here is what Professor E. Christian Kopff said during an interview by David Kopel, podcast on iVoices on May 29, 2009:
"Homer's Iliad is the first great work of literature in the tradition that stretches from ancient Greece through Rome and the Christian Middle Ages to the modern world. It has both haunted and inspired creative figures in the West going back thousands of years.
Thomas Jefferson wrote in one of his letters that as you get older you stop getting interested in the latest best sellers, and in the end there is only Virgil and Homer, and perhaps only Homer.
What Jefferson found is what others have found over and over again, which is why the Iliad has been both important and inspiring to our own 20th aand 21st Century literature, and also why translations of it keep popping up on the best seller list, and why publishers keep looking for translations.
We as a people keep turning to it--and other works of ancient Greek literature-over and over again, to inspire ourselves ethically, politically, and creatively."
Professor Kopff is Associate Director of the Honors Program at the University of Colorado, Boulder, author of The Devil Knows Latin: Why America Needs the Classical Tradition, and editor of the Teubner Greek edition of Euripides' Bacchae.
Question: What is the Iliad about?
The Iliad is set three millennia ago, during the final year of the Trojan War, a conflict in which Greek warriors sailed the Aegean to what is now Turkey and besieged the citadel of Troy for ten years.
In the first few pages the Greek hero Achilles quarrels with the chief king, Agamemnon, over a female slave whom the Greek soldiers had awarded to Achilles as a prize of honor in recognition of his exploits.
Agamemnon seizes the woman. Achilles withdraws from fighting in a rage, and remains withdrawn for the bulk of the poem, during which time the Trojans, led by Hector-- Trojan King Priam's son--almost burn the beached Greek ships and drive the invaders into the sea.
Hector kills Achilles' close friend, Patroclus, prompting Achilles to resume fighting. The Greeks drive the Trojans back to their walled city. Achilles kills Hector. He abuses the corpse but, in the final pages of the poem, returns it to Priam for funeral honors.
The Iliad ends there, before Achilles dies from an arrow shot into his heel, before the Greeks enter Troy by means of a hollow wooden horse and destroy the citadel.
That is a short summary of the Iliad's plot.
Question: What is the role of the gods in the Iliad?
The course of the war is influenced by the pantheon of immortal Olympian gods headed by Zeus, some of whom align with one side or the other.
These divine rivalries are mainly rooted in "The Judgment of Paris," although that is barely mentioned in the poem itself. Click here for discussion of the background of the Trojan war, including the Judgment of Paris:
One way for the reader to view the gods is that the exercise of their divine powers provides an explanation of how otherwise inexplicable events come to pass.
Question: Why read Jordan's translation?
It is highly readable, perhaps the most readable of all the verse translations of the Iliad, according to a consensus of critics, as quoted on the
Question: Why read Jordan's translation instead of--or in addition to--Robert Fagles' translation?
The Fagles 1990 translation is an admirable piece of work. It does differ, however, from the Jordan translation in ways which might induce readers to choose Jordan instead of--or in addition to--Fagles. Professor Kopff in the interview cited above:
"[Fagles] expanded the size of the poem noticeably. It's more than fifteen per cent longer in Fagles' version than it is in Homer's version. One of the things that Herbert Jordan has done is to step back, in a way that hasn't been done since the time of Richmond Lattimore, more than a generation back, and make sure that not only are the words correctly translated, but there's a line-by-line translation, so you get a feeling for the same scope that Homer did, and not expand it and make it bigger. Fagles sometimes used Homer as a springboard to jump off of, so that he could expound his own feelings for language, so that it is a much longer work than Homer's. Jordan sticks to the Greek, sticks to the line-by-line, giving you a real feeling for the pacing and the length of the work."
Fagles also introduced a level of informality in tone and diction which many believe mars his translation. For example, he refers to Ajax as "backpedaling," an inappropriate term in translating a work 3,000 years old.
Click here for a side-by-side comparison of a brief passage, Greek, Jordan, and Fagles:
Question: Why read Jordan's translation instead of Richmond Lattimore's translation?
Matthew A. Roberts' review in Chronicles: :
"Richmond Lattimore's 1951 translation was for decades the staple of undergraduate courses. While Lattimore is praised for his literalness, translating each line of Greek with one line of English, he is criticized for his awkwardness because of needed filler to complete his six-stress lines. Jordan seeks to rectify the shortcomings of Lattimore's meter with a five beat-line, avoiding unnecessary filler. Employing contemporary language, Jordan renders supple verse that is loyal to the traditions of English blank verse."
Calum Maciver in Bryn Mawr Classical Review, January 15, 2009, states that while Lattimore is "closer to the original," his translation is often "painfully literal." As an example, he avers that Jordan's translation of book 3, line 9:
'Each man's heart steeled to support his comrades'
is "eminently better to read than Lattimore's
'Stubbornly minded each in his heart to stand by the others.'"
Question: Why read Jordan's translation instead of Stanley Lombardo's translation?
Lombardo magnified the informality introduced by Fagles to a jarring extent, using street language like "awesome." He failed to heed Alexander Pope's warning not to "lose the spirit of an ancient, by deviating into the modern manners of expression." (Preface to Pope's translation of the Iliad).
Question: Why read Jordan's translation instead of Stephen Mitchell's 2011 version?
Mitchell carries the 20th century drift towards informality well over the top. For example, he has Achilles call Hector a "son of a bitch." A reader who wants that kind of diction in the Iliad will find it only in Mitchell's.
Mitchell has published compelling evidence that his version of the Iliad is not a new translation at all, but rather a reinterpretation based largely on previous published translations. Read his piece here, and scroll down for analysis.
Critics of Mitchell's version have said:
"Stephen Mitchell translates Homer's work so even Snooki could understand. Mitchell's new translation of the 'Iliad' sounds more like MTV's 'Jersey Shore' than Mt. Olympus." L.A. Times, January 6, 2012
"[Mitchell's] insistence on speed forces him to sacrifice nobility. Part of the way in which the epic legitimizes its ability to talk about so many levels of existence and so many kinds of experience is its style: an ancient authority inheres in that old-time diction, the plushly padded epithets and stately rhythms. All this, along with many other subtle effects, is gone from Mitchell's Iliad." Daniel Mendelsohn, in "The New Yorker," November 7, 2011, p. 76.
"Mitchell took it on himself to produce and circulate an Iliad that is improperly abridged, indeed mutilated." "London Review of Books," February 23, 2012
A "rather dull literary work." "The Economist," October 15, 2011
"[A] curiously tepid translation." Steve Donaghue in "The Quarterly Conversation," December 5, 2011.
"[A]n altogether uncomfortable reading experience." Amanda Eads in "Nerditorial," October 26, 2011
Question: Why Read Jordan's Translation Instead of Anthony Verity's?
Verity's is a prose translation, whereas that of Jordan follows in the verse tradition of Homer himself, and translators such as Chapman, Pope, Lattimore, Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Lombardo. As the author of Verity's introduction states, (xiv), "the poet of the Iliad describes his own work in terms of singing, and expects future generations to hear about what happened at Troy by listening." Nevertheless, curiously, Verity boasts that he has "kept clear of 'poeticizing' Homer," (Note on the Translation, xxix), as if converting Homer's Greek song into English prose produces a result superior to versions in English verse. To weigh Verity's claim, compare for example his version of Book 3, line 9 ("raging in their hearts to fight on each other's behalf"), with Jordan's ("Each man's heart steeled to support his comrades."). Neither version is literally accurate, but which is more pleasing to read?
Question: Who authored the Iliad? Was there a real Homer?
Click to read a discussion of these issues, long known as Homeric Questions.