When it comes to translating classic literature, one of the most pressing issues a translator faces is determining how closely to follow the original text. One the one hand, you don’t want to deviate so far from the original that you lose or change the meaning. On the other hand, sometimes a literal, word-for-word translation can leave modern readers confused and frustrated.
This was the dilemma faced by renowned translator Stephen Mitchell when he began work on a new translation of The Iliad. The epic poem is full of long-winded descriptions and epithets like “you doer of deeds not forgotten” that sound formal and almost ritualistic to modern English speakers. The Wall Street Journal notes that Mitchell decided to take some liberties with these parts of the text when he translated, resulting in a more modern-sounding poem:
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).
In trying to capture the flavor of the original Greek, Mitchell also changed some of the insults flung around in the poem into more modern epithets. For example, “you doer of deeds of not forgotten” became “you son of a b***,” which gives a more forceful indication of just how angry Achilles is at Hector.
In the Wall Street Journal, Mitchell defended his translation as more accurately capturing the action-packed spirit of the story:
“If you translate literally, the English may sound stilted or phony. I’ve never been able to read ‘The Iliad,’ actually, until I sat down to do this. I could never get past book one in any translation. I found the language very dull.”
There’s no doubt that this new translation of The Illiad will have a broader appeal than earlier translations that stuck more closely to the original Greek, but there will undoubtedly be some scholarly controversy as well. What do you think? Is it best to stick as closely as possible to the original work, even if the result sounds old-fashioned? Or is it best to modernize the language, making the underlying story more accessible?