Nonfiction > Samuel Butler, trans. > The Iliad of Homer
Samuel Butler, trans. (1835–1902).  The Iliad of Homer.  1898.
THE HEAD MASTER of one of our foremost public schools told me not long since, that he had been asked what canons he thought it most essential to observe in translating from English into Latin. His answer was, that in the first place the Latin must be idiomatic, in the second it must flow, and in the third it must keep as near as it could to the English from which it was being translated.  1
  I said, “Then you hold that if either the Latin or the English must perforce give place, it is the English that should yield rather than the Latin?”  2
  This, he replied, was his opinion; and surely the very sound canons above given apply to all translation. The genius of the language into which a translation is being made is the first thing to be considered; if the original was readable, the translation must be so also, or however good it may be as a construe, it is not a translation.  3
  It follows that a translation should depart hardly at all from the modes of speech current in the translator’s own times, inasmuch as nothing is readable, for long, which affects any other diction than that of the age in which it is written. We know the charm of the Elizabethan translations, but he who would attempt one that shall vie with these must eschew all Elizabethanisms that are not good Victorianisms also.  4
  For the charm of the Elizabethans does not lie in their Elizabethanisms; these are but as the mosses and lichens which Time will grow upon our Victorian literature as surely as he has grown them upon the Elizabethan—upon such of it, at least, as has not been jerry-built. Shakespeare tells us that it is Time’s glory to stamp the seal of time on aged things. No doubt; but he will have no hands stamp it save his own; he will rot an artificial ruin, but he will not glorify it; if he is to hallow any work it must be frankly secular when he deigns to take it in hand—by this I mean honestly after the manner of its own age and country. The Elizabethans probably knew this too well to know that they knew it, but whether they knew it or no they did not lard a crib with Chaucerisms and think that they were translating. They aimed fearlessly and without taint of affectation at making a dead author living to a generation other than his own. To do this they transfused their blood into his cold veins, and quickened him with their own livingness.  5
  Then the life is theirs not his? In part no doubt it is so; but if they have loved him well enough, his life will have entered into them and possessed them. They will have given him of their life, and he will have paid them in their own coin. If, however, the mouth of the ox who treads out the corn may not be muzzled, and if there is to be a certain give and take between a dead author and his translator, it follows that a translator should be allowed greater liberty when the work he is translating belongs to an age and country widely remote from his own. For a poem’s prosperity is like a jest’s—it is in the ear of him that hears it. It takes two people to say a thing—a sayee as well as a sayer—and by parity of reasoning a poem’s original audience and environment are integral parts of the poem itself. Poem and audience are as ego and non-ego; they blend into one another. Change either, and some corresponding change, spiritual rather than literal, will be necessary in the other, if the original harmony between them is to be preserved.  6
  Happily in the cases both of the Iliad and the Odyssey we can see clearly enough that the audiences did not differ so widely from ourselves as we might expect after an interval of some three thousand years. But they differ, especially in the case of the Iliad, and the difference necessitates a greater amount of freedom on the part of a translator than would be tolerable if it did not exist.  7
  Freedom of another kind is further involved in the initial liberty of rendering in prose a work that was composed in verse. Prose differs from verse much as singing from speaking or dancing from walking, and what is right in the one is often wrong in the other. Prose, for example, does not permit that iteration of epithet and title, sometimes due merely to the requirements of metre, and sometimes otiose, which abounds in the Iliad without in any way disfiguring it. We look, indeed, for the iteration and enjoy it. We are never weary of being told that Juno is white-armed, Minerva grey-eyed, and Agamemnon king of men; but had Homer written in prose he would not have told us these things so often. Therefore, though frequently allowing common form epithets and titles to recur, I have not less frequently suppressed them.  8
  Lest, however, the reader should imagine that I have departed from the letter of the Iliad more than I have, I will give the first fifty lines or so of the best prose translation that has yet been made—I mean that of Messrs. Leaf, Lang, and Myers, to which throughout my work I have been greatly indebted. Often have they saved me from error, and rarely have I found occasion to differ from them as to the meaning of a passage. I do not believe that I have translated a single paragraph without reference to them, but this said, a comparison of their opening paragraphs with my own will show the kind of way in which I differ from them as to the manner in which Homer should be translated.  9
  Their translation (here, by Dr. Leaf) opens thus:—
          Sing, goddess, the wrath of Achilles Peleus’ son, the ruinous wrath that brought on the Achaians woes innumerable, and hurled down into Hades many strong souls of heroes, and gave their bodies to be a prey to dogs and all winged fowls; and so the counsel of Zeus wrought out its accomplishment from the day when strife first parted Atreides king of men and noble Achilles.
  Who then among the gods set the twain at strife and variance? Even the son of Leto and of Zeus; for he in anger at the king sent a sore plague upon the host, that the folk began to perish, because Atreides had done dishonour to Chryses the priest. For he had come to the Achaians’ fleet ships to win his daughter’s freedom, and brought a ransom beyond telling; and bare in his hands the fillet of Apollo the Far-darter upon a golden staff; and made his prayer unto all the Achaians, and most of all to the two sons of Atreus, orderers of the host: “Ye sons of Atreus and all ye well-greaved Achaians, now may the gods that dwell in the mansions of Olympus grant you to lay waste the city of Priam, and to fare happily homeward; only set ye my dear child free, and accept the ransom in reverence to the son of Zeus, far-darting Apollo.”
  Then all the other Achaians cried assent, to reverence the priest and accept his goodly ransom; yet the thing pleased not the heart of Agamemnon son of Atreus, but he roughly sent him away, and laid stern charge upon him, saying, “Let me not find thee, old man, amid the hollow ships, whether tarrying now or returning again hereafter, lest the staff and fillet of the god avail thee naught. And her will I not set free; nay, ere that shall old age come on her in our house, in Argos, far from her native land, where she shall ply the loom and serve my couch. But depart, provoke me not, that thou mayest the rather go in peace.”
  So said he, and the old man was afraid and obeyed his word, and fared silently along the shore of the loud-sounding sea. Then went that aged man apart and prayed aloud to King Apollo, whom Leto of the fair locks bare, “Hear me, god of the silver bow, that standest over Chryse and holy Killa, and rulest Tenedos with might, O Smintheus! If ever I built a temple gracious in thine eyes, or if ever I burnt to thee fat flesh of thighs of bulls or goats, fulfil thou this my desire; let the Danaans pay by thine arrows for my tears.”
  So spake he in prayer, and Phœbus Apollo heard him, and came down from the peaks of Olympus wroth at heart, bearing on his shoulders his bow and covered quiver. And the arrows clanged upon his shoulders in his wrath, as the god moved; and he descended like to night. Then he sate him aloof from the ships, and let an arrow fly; and there was heard a dread clanging of the silver bow. First did he assail the mules and fleet dogs, but afterward, aiming at the men his piercing dart, he smote; and the pyres of the dead burnt continually in multitude.
  I have given the foregoing extract with less compunction, by reason of the reflection, ever present with me, that not a few readers—nor these the least cultured—will prefer Dr. Leaf’s translation to my own. Throughout my work I have taken the same kind of liberties as those that the reader will readily detect if he compares Dr. Leaf’s rendering with mine. But I do not believe that I have anywhere taken greater ones. The difference between us in the prayer of Chryses, where Dr. Leaf translates “If ever I built a temple,” &c., while I render “If ever I decked your temple with garlands,” &c., is not a case in point, for it is due to my preferring Liddell and Scott’s translation. I very readily admit that Dr. Leaf has in the main kept more closely to the words of Homer, but I believe him to have lost more of the spirit of the original through his abandonment (no doubt deliberate) of all attempt at stately, and at the same time easy, musical, flow of language, than he has gained in adherence to the letter—to which, after all, neither he nor any man can adhere.  11
  These last words may suggest that I claim graces which Dr. Leaf has not attained. I can make no such claim. All I claim is to have done my best towards making the less sanguinary parts of the Iliad interesting to English readers. The more sanguinary parts cannot be made interesting; indeed I doubt whether they can ever have been so, or even been intended to be so, to a highly cultivated audience. They had to be written, and they were written; but it is clear that Homer often wrote them with impatience, and that actual warfare was as distasteful to him as it was foreign to his experience. Happily there is much less fighting in the Iliad than people generally think.  12
  One word more and I have done. I have burdened my translation with as few notes as possible, intending to reserve what I have to say about the Iliad generally for another work to be undertaken when my complete translation of the Odyssey has been printed. Lastly, the reception of my recent book, “The Authoress of the Odyssey,” has convinced me that the general reader much prefers the Latinised names of gods and heroes to those which it has of late years been attempted to popularise: I have no hesitation, therefore, in adhering to the nomenclature to which Pope, Mr. Gladstone, and Lord Derby have long since familiarised the public.

    August 8, 1898.

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