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.’

(Thanks, Paul!)


  1. Perhaps the Odyssey’s lack of popularity lies in the fact that it is a sequel. 🙂 Even today, Hollywood moguls know that sequels seldom live up to the original.

  2. Interestingly, the Chinese Wikipedia entry for Odysseus lists at least four translations of the Odyssey, but not Donghua Fu’s. It also gives comparative translations of one sentence:
    και θάνατος θα σ’ εύρηέξω απ’ την θάλασσα ελαφρός, και θα σε σβύση αγάλιμες τα λαμπρά γεράματα• και ωστόσ’ ολόγυρά σουθα ‘ναι μακάριος ο λαός
    The English versions of this show variance at one point. Cowper’s translation is:
    So shalt thou die in peace a gentle death, Remote from Ocean; it shall find thee late, In soft serenity of age, the Chief Of a blest people.
    But Butler’s says:
    As for yourself, death shall come to you from the sea, and your life shall ebb away very gently when you are full of years and peace of mind, and your people shall bless you.
    I don’t know Greek, but it seems that death coming from the sea is the correct interpretation. I find it fascinating that even on points like this differences of interpretation exist that completely alter the meaning of the text!

  3. Forgot to mention, two of the Chinese versions mirror Cowper, two mirror Butler.

  4. That’s Iakovos Polylas‘s modern Greek that you’ve got there (the Chinese Wikipedia accidentally has as Lakovos). Here‘s the Homeric Greek. ἐξ ἁλὸς is famously ambiguous.

  5. See, for instance, “Odysseus’ Last Journey” if you have JSTOR access.

  6. I was just about to say, reading that Greek there, “θα? What on earth is θα?” And then it occurred to me that it’s modern Greek.
    *cue ‘It’s all Greek to me’ punchline*

  7. The most exotic copy of the Iliad I have in my collection is Victor Xuereb’s translation L’Ilìjade in Maltese, a gift from Bulbul. Compared to the list price of that new Arabic translation, it fares much better. (http://www.um.edu.mt/mup/author/w-z/xuerebvictor)

  8. “θα? What on earth is θα?” And then it occurred to me that it’s modern Greek.
    Hehe. Shows how much Greek I know…

  9. It appears that we are more interested in the Trojan War than Odysseus and his journey.

  10. Just a nitpick. His transliteration of 祇園精舎の鐘の声 諸行無常の響きあり (Gionshōja no kane no koe. Shōgyomujō no hibiki ari) has an error. It should be Shogyōmujō. And the reason that all Japanese know it is because it’s taught in school, just as the opening lines of Hōjōki are.

  11. And the reason that all Japanese know it is because it’s taught in school, just as the opening lines of Hōjōki are.
    Well, sure; that’s why Greeks knew Homer as well, after the days of the rhapsodes. That’s one of the main ways culture gets transmitted.

  12. (Disinterested plug for The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachery Mason.)

  13. Mattitiahu: θα < θέλω να. Like English and many other languages, Modern Greek has made its future marker from a verb meaning ‘want to’, though in Greek it’s less obvious.

  14. Bill Walderman says

    “ἐξ ἁλὸς is famously ambiguous.”
    Maybe high blood pressure from excessive sodium consumption?

  15. John Emerson says

    The Caucasian Albanians (who followed the Armenian church) believed that Homer’s writings were sacred to the Greeks.
    During WWII in exile (sort of) in Chungking, Chen Kang translated Parmenides into Chinese. That has to be a low-circulation book, but it was republished in China sometime in the 1980s or 1990s. I have a copy which I haven’t read yet.

  16. David Eddyshaw says

    @Bathrobe, re sequels
    I cannot resist annoying several different constituencies by repeating the old line (originally about Lord of the Rings vs The Hobbit, I think)
    Only two people have ever written a sequel better than the original: Lewis Carroll and God.
    Can’t find the source, unfortunately.

  17. I wonder whether the greater popularity of the ILIAD, compared to the ODYSSEY, isn’t simply due to warfare having been a much more common activity among pre-modern elites than exploration. All too many chieftains or kinglets or the like could identitify with Achilles or Agamemnon or someone within the story, and understand the psychology of men involved in a long, protracted war. And I suspect that a Somali warlord today (for example) would probably “get” the Iliad in a way few of us first-worlers could.
    I’m reminded of a course I once taught on the history of the French language, and when I explained the main features of Gaul (large number of tribes, in a near-permanent state of warfare against one another) and the late Roman Republic (heavily clan-, family- and clientelism-based politics, on a background of civil war), one of my students said that Julius Caesar sounded like the kind of man who, in Congo-Kinshasa (the student’s country of origin), would feel right at home…

  18. “ἐξ ἁλὸς is famously ambiguous.”
    He “ex-hales”, one last time. Why must the critics forever find complications?

  19. Once again I am pleased to be outside the pale. I have never been interested enough to read the Iliad, but I have read the Odyssey several times in various translations, as well as commentary by various scholars.
    There is far too much interest in war.

  20. Bathrobe: Perhaps the Odyssey’s lack of popularity lies in the fact that it is a sequel.
    My first thought was something along those lines, actually. I doubt this has much bearing on the situation in antiquity, but how many modern readers decide to read the Homeric epics, figure they might as well start with the one that comes first in the timeline, and then never get around to reading the Odyssey? My guess is: enough to give the Iliad a significant advantage in sales, on top of whatever else it might have going for it.

  21. Mitchell seems to get more bad reviews for translation than anyone else. His Dao De Jing has lots of flak.

  22. I’d like to second BWA’s recommendation of The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachery Mason. To me, it really captured the spirit of the original remarkably well.

  23. @John: Yeah, a desiderative periphrastic construction. I think the να is actually supposed to be some form of the Classical Greek subordinating clause particle ἵνα which, despite not being entirely clear, looks like it’s originally some sort of pronoun in the locative, since it can also mean ‘where’ in some early sources.
    That said, thank goodness the Greeks did away with their morphologically derived future somewhere in the medieval period, because god knows it was a horribly messy and irregular derivation. (In most cases it was formed with the PIE desiderative *-h₁si̯- morpheme (which is paralleled in the formation of the Vedic > Classical Sanskrit future), but because intervocalic -s- and -i̯- both disappear at various times in the history of the language, you often end up with future stems that are more-or-less completely irregular in formation and idiosyncratic to most verbal roots.)
    @Bathrobe: Don’t feel bad, I’m working on a Ph.D. in Greek linguistics right now, so I should probably know these things. Frankly, I’m kind of embarrassed at how long it took me to realize it was a quotation from a Modern Greek translation and not from Homer itself.

  24. @mattitiahu: Another Greeker! I wonder if you care to open a blog on the Greek language? Hellenisteukontos is not updated since quite a while and a good blog about Greek would surely be welcome for the crowd hanging around here.

  25. Here’s a confession of ignorance on a much less refined scale: I’m reading and enjoying the same Luttwak article in the LRB (and yes, LH, also being impressed by the casual way Luttwak appears to bat away Mitchell’s translation after a paragraph, only to remember that it IS his nominal subject and return to it 1000 or so words later. Don’t you love LRB house style?). However, after Luttwak listed Mitchell’s past translations of national epics, I kept wondering: Why doesn’t he include that wonderful Onegin? Only now have I realized that our subject is STEPHEN, not STANLEY, Mitchell. Perhaps it would have helped if Luttwak had mentioned his name one or two more times…

  26. To which I might add
    this link
    to an obituary of Stanley ‘Onegin’ Mitchell. Does anyone know if they were related?

  27. Two recommendations for Mason, and the Slate review has intrigued me. Must get it.

  28. “There is far too much interest in war.”
    Point taken, and yes, there is a lot of unhealthy rubbernecking in a lot of war coverage. Nevertheless, since war, like the poor, seems to be always with us, we really should try to understand it’s many natures. Where better to start than the Iliad?

  29. John Emerson says

    Mitchell translates largely from languages he doesn’t know, with the help of translations and intermediaries. This was common practice in Chinese translation up until a decade or two before Mitchell was born, but isn’t really acceptable any more.
    For the Dao De Jing he used the Ames-Young translation of the Chen Kuying Chinese-language study, which is an OK study but in no way ground-breaking or definitive — it was really just a work for the educated general reader of Chinese. Mitchell made it seem that he was bringing serious scholarship to the job, when actually there were probably 20 more scholarly translations then in print.
    He has to be extraordinarily well connected in the publishing world. He gets huge advances and massive publicity campaigns.

  30. Mitchell translates largely from languages he doesn’t know
    Indeed. So did Le Guin, of course (whose “version”, as she calls it, I love) but she says so openly: “This is not a translation. I do not know any Chinese.” I have always loved her one-sentence takedown of Mitchell’s version: “I started out using translations by Stephen Mitchell and Chang Chung-yuan, but found them not useful.”

  31. Hat, Somewhere in those Patrick O’Brian novels (I don’t know which one–probably you haven’t come to it yet) Dr. Maturin compares the Iliad and the Odyssey and, with something approaching enthusiasm, calls the Iliad by far the greater book of the two. I think that this is on the occasion when one of the midshipmen or young officers has just looked into Chapman’s Homer.

  32. The Unix Power Classic: A book about the Unix Way and its power, by yours truly. Unfinished, alas: arse longa, vita brevis.

  33. looked into Chapman’s Homer
    Wasn’t that about Keats’s dissection of his friend’s pigeon?

  34. @minus273: I occasionally blog about Greek and Indo-European linguistics at http://memiyawanzi.wordpress.com, though I hardly claim to have content nearly as interesting as Hellenisteukontos.

  35. probably you haven’t come to it yet
    No, I haven’t, but now I’m eagerly anticipating it.

  36. @mattitiahu: Ah so you’re Memiyawanzi! Thanks for the Bion excerpt, which I much enjoyed (there’s a special kind of slowness in the exposition) and duly copied in my reserve for future chapter-head quotations.

  37. The passage from Luttwak contains Chinese names rendered in at least three different permutations of surname and personal-name syllables; still it’s disappointing that he couldn’t find the surname in “Luo Niansheng”.

  38. Put me down as another reader with a (slight) preference for the Odyssey. Maybe because I was familiar with the story from a much earlier age, or maube because Odysseus is the most fascinating Homeric character (brains over brawn).
    Folk literature also shows a marked preference for the Odyssey. Variations on the Cyclops episode turn up in the Arabian Nights, Icelandic sagas, Ossetian Nart tales and the Book of Dede Korkut.
    Finally, give me a call when a disco group names itself after the Iliad. I rest my case.

  39. Plus, another thumbs up to Memiyawanzi. I’d never heard of Ivan Kotliarevskiy’s Ukrainian burlesque of the ”Aeneid”. I have a copy of Aloys Blumauer’s German-language parody of Virgil’s epic, although I’ve yet to read it properly. It was published in the 1780s and Russian Wikipedia claims it served as a model for Kotliarevskiy and Nikolai Osipov, who published his own Russian-language “travesty” of Virgil in 1791. A Belarusian contribution to the genre, which has been attributed to Vikenty Rovinsky, was written a few decades later and is apparently an important work in the history of Belarusian literature. Of course, before that, in the 17th century, there were Virgilian burlesques by Scarron, Charles Cotton et al..

  40. still it’s disappointing that he couldn’t find the surname in “Luo Niansheng”
    It might look trivial, but in dismissing Mitchell (and musing over the proclivities of airport bookstands), Luttwak launches into something of a tour de force of learned comments on the Iliad. So it’s actually fairly important to get details like given names and family names, (or Japanese romanisations) right in order to carry it off. The learned cloak looks a little less impressive when it’s got tatters in it.

  41. Just coming back to this thread three years later to thank everyone for the recommendation for The Lost Books of the Odyssey, which I just finished.

    Also I have a few burning questions that maybe y’all can answer: why does the Iliad get to be called the Iliad, when the other poems of the epic cycle also tell the story of the Trojan War? Wouldn’t the Achillead be a better name? Was the Iliad always called the Iliad?

  42. Quoth Wikipedia: “The title Ἰλιάς Ilias (genitive Ἰλιάδος Iliados) is elliptic for ἡ ποίησις Ἰλιάς, he poiesis Ilias, meaning ‘the Trojan poem’. Ἰλιάς ‘of Troy’, is the specifically feminine adjective form from Ἴλιον, ‘Troy’; the masculine adjective form would be Ἰλιακός or Ἴλιος. It is used by Herodotus.”

    So it’s been called that for as long as we know about, and it’s probably called that because it is emphatically the Trojan poem, written before any other that survived even to classical times. Even the Odyssey is not about Troy as such, but is set all over the Mediterranean world.

  43. Yes, and the other poems of the epic cycle were probably composed in imitation of it.

  44. (Just my guess, mind you.)

  45. A few weeks ago I read Butler’s The Authoress of the Odyssey, which is Butler’s book-length argument that the Odyssey was written by a young woman living in Sicily with the Iliad in front of her, and that the landscape and seascape are Sicilian rather than Ionian. As a fully paid-up member of the post-Tiptree generation, I wasn’t about to believe that you can really tell the gender of an author from their work, but it’s interesting nonetheless, not only for the light it casts on the poem, but for the light it casts on Butler’s own time.

  46. I’ve heard about that book for decades but haven’t gotten around to it; it certainly sounds like an interesting read.

  47. A lot of it is just his non-tendentious (as far as I can see) summary of the Odyssey, so you can skip that.

  48. marie-lucie says

    Some time ago I read that a female author had recently made a case for the author of the Odyssey to have been Nausicaa. I don’t think I mixed up this author with Butler, since I had heard of him and read Erewhon decades ago while taking courses in English literature.

  49. Edward N Luttwak says

    I wonder if there might be any interest in a continuous (“variorum”) account of the Trojan cycle (from the start of the Cypria to the death of Odysseus the last returnee) now widely known (episodically) only from the plays.

  50. Certainly sounds like an interesting project.

  51. ktschwarz says

    That’s just what Eric Shanower is doing in Age of Bronze, in graphic novel form, while trying to be visually accurate using archaeological references. Trojans are pictured as Hittites (with citation to Manfred Korfmann). So far he’s covered pre-Iliad episodes such as Achilles in disguise, Telephus, Iphigenia, Philoctetes, and Troilus and Cressida. Unfortunately, the series seems to be stuck at this point due to not being commercial enough for the artist to make a living at it.

  52. John Cowan says

    I wonder if there might be any interest in a continuous (“variorum”) account of the Trojan cycle (from the start of the Cypria to the death of Odysseus the last returnee) now widely known (episodically) only from the plays.

    From Graves’s I, Claudius:

    Yes, I have often had the notion of re-writing the story of Troy in Latin prose for the benefit of our poorer citizens who cannot read Greek; beginning with the egg from which Helen was hatched and continuing, chapter by chapter, to the apples eaten for dessert at the great feast in celebration of Ulysses’s home-coming and victory over his wife’s suitors. Where Homer is obscure or silent on any point I would naturally draw from later poets, or from the earlier Dares whose account, though full of oetical vagaries, seems to me more reliable than Homer’s, because he actually took part in the war, first with the Trojans, then with the Greeks.

    The egg and apples allude to the Latin expression for ‘from soup to nuts’, ab ovo usque ad mala. I have often wondered what the nature of this egg was in actual Roman banquets.

  53. whose account, though full of oetical vagaries

    I first thought “oetical” was some obscure classical term, but just as I was on the point of researching it I realized it was simply a typo for “poetical.”

  54. Stu Clayton says

    Selections From The oetical Works of Robert Browning, at Amazon.

    The New Bath Guide: or, Memoirs of the B-N-R-D Family. In a Series of oetical Epistles, at AbeBooks.

    What do you linguistic fellows call this phenomenon of losing p up front ? Incontinence ?

  55. What do you linguistic fellows call this phenomenon of losing p up front ? Incontinence ?

  56. Stu Clayton says

    Continent Celtic, then.

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