Edward Luttwak has a review of Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Iliad that disposes briskly of the ostensible subject (“Mitchell took it on himself to produce and circulate an Iliad that is improperly abridged, indeed mutilated”) but has a number of things to say about the question he is really interested in: why is the Iliad so lastingly popular, considerably more so than its opposite number (“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“). I’d like to present here a passage with some fascinating tidbits about availability in unexpected countries:
The only Chinese Homer used to be Donghua Fu’s 1929 version of the Odyssey (Ao-de-sai) published in Changsha in 1929, but that renegade engineer and pioneering Chinese grammarian translated an English text. To translate Homer once is inevitable treason, but twice? Things are far better now that the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences supports the study of ancient Greek and Latin at its Institute of Foreign Literature. Luo Niansheng, once its most distinguished classicist, who studied in the United States and at the American School of Classical Studies in Athens before the Second World War, died in 1990 while translating the Iliad. His version was completed by Wilson Wong, who learned his Greek at Moscow State University in the 1960s, and who went on to translate the Odyssey as well, in verse form. Until then, China’s only translation from the Greek had been in prose, by the celebrated Yang Xianyi, who with his wife, Gladys Taylor, translated many Chinese classics into English as he lived through the hellish vicissitudes of China from 1940 till his death in 2009, including his and his wife’s separate imprisonment. Wong and Niansheng, who also translated Aeschylus’ tragedies, propelled the first Chinese-Ancient Greek dictionary, published in 2004. By then, another member of the Institute, Zhong Mei Chen, who studied Homeric Greek at Thessaloniki’s Aristotle University after a spell at Brigham Young University in Utah, had published poetical new translations of both the Iliad and the Odyssey.
The Luo Niansheng/Wilson Wong Iliad is on sale online, with a handsome Zeus on the cover, for just 19.60 yuan, or $3.10 at the skewed exchange rate. By contrast, writing in Al-Ahram’s English edition in 2004, Youssef Rakha complained that Ahmed Etman’s new prose translation of the Iliad into Arabic was ‘unaffordably priced at LE250’ or $41.44, although he acknowledged that Egypt’s Supreme Council of Culture was publishing a presumably much cheaper paperback edition of Suleyman al-Boustani’s pioneering 1904 verse translation of both Homers. Etman – a professor of classics at Cairo University and chairman of the Egyptian Society of Graeco-Roman Studies, as well as a talented playwright – was quoted in the article explaining why Homer was not translated into Arabic until 1904, and then by the Maronite Catholic al-Boustani, even though his writings were ubiquitous in the Greek-speaking lands that came under Arab rule in the seventh century: ‘Homer is all mythology,’ Etman says, ‘his numerous divinities alone would have been all too obviously incompatible with the Muslim creed. Early Arab authors were too concerned with religion to consider promoting such mythology, however familiar they might have been with Homer and however much they might have admired him.’