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On translating Homer's "Iliad" by Mitchell

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Did Stephen Mitchell Translate Homer's Iliad? Dec 12, 2011

Stephen Mitchell's article, posted above, indicates that he borrowed from existing translations, rather than translating himself.

In the article, Mitchell discloses two earlier drafts leading to lines 50-55 of Book 1 of his version of The Iliad (lines 49-53 of the original Greek*).

The drafts support the following critique of Mitchell's previous work:

"Mitchell does not translate. He does not even speak or read the languages that he 'claims' to translate. He gathers the existing translations, takes what he likes from each, and produces his 'compromise.' Mitchell . . . has made an industry of pretending to translate works as diverse as the Book of Job, Gilgamesh, The Tao Te Ching, and the teachings of Jesus." †

Mitchell's first draft (descibed by him as "raw stuff") was copied from the prose version of A.T. Murray (Wyatt rev., Harvard, Loeb Ed., 1999).

Murray, p.16:

"Then he sat down apart from the ships and let fly an arrow;
terrible was the twang of the silver bow.
The mules he attacked first and the swift dogs,
but then on the men themselves he let fly
his stinging arrows, and struck;
and ever did the pyres of the dead burn thick."

Mitchell's first draft (parentheticals his):

"Then he sat down apart from (opposite)
the ships and shot (let fly) an arrow,
and terrible was the twang from the silver bow.
First he attacked the mules and the swift dogs,
then he shot his sharp (piercing) arrows on the men themselves,
and forever the pyres of the dead kept burning thick (close together)."

The indebtedness of this draft to Murray is too heavy to be coincidence between two independently achieved translations.

Mitchell's second and final drafts incorporate minor changes, many found in other published translations. ±

Mitchell's second draft: Other translators:

Then he dropped to one knee and an arrow flew, [Fagles: "he dropped to a knee"]
and a dreadful twang arose from the silver bow. [Lattimore: "rose from the bow"]
First he attacked the mules and the flickering dogs,
then he let fly his arrows on the men themselves.
And night and day the pyres of the dead kept burning. [Fitzgerald: "night and day"]

Mitchell final draft (as published):

He dropped to one knee and drew back a deadly arrow,
and a dreadful twang rang out from the silver bow. [Fagles: "rang out"]
First he attacked the mules and the dogs, but soon
he shifted his aim and struck down the men themselves. [Butler, Rieu: "aimed"]
And the close-packed pyres of the dead kept burning, burning, [Rieu: "close-packed"]
beside the Achaean ships, all day and all night.

Apart from the revisions copied from other translators, Mitchell's final draft contains a few variations of his own, none of which conforms more closely to the Greek than the first draft, copied from Murray. In Mitchell's first line, "drew back a deadly arrow" has no basis in the original. In his second line the adjective "dreadful" is a paraphrase of "terrible," and is no closer to the Greek. In his fourth line "shifted his aim" has no basis in the Greek, nor does "struck down." "Beside the Achaean ships," in Mitchell's last line, does not appear in the original. Hence, the words which Mitchell introduced, without copying from other translators, do not constitute translations by him from the Greek.

Mitchell's development of the passage supports the critic's charge, quoted near the top of this comment, with a slight twist. Instead of gathering existing translations and taking what he likes from each, Mitchell started with a copy of the Murray translation and overlaid it with parts of other existing translations--a process which involved no translation by Mitchell. Mitchell does not credit Murray, or any translator.

* ἕζετ' ἔπειτ' ἀπάνευθε νεῶν, μετὰ δ' ἰὸν ἕηκε·
δεινὴ δὲ κλαγγὴ γένετ' ἀργυρέοιο βιοῖο·
οὐρῆας μὲν πρῶτον ἐπῴχετο καὶ κύνας ἀργούς,
αὐτὰρ ἔπειτ' αὐτοῖσι βέλος ἐχεπευκὲς ἐφιεὶς
βάλλ'· αἰεὶ δὲ πυραὶ νεκύων καίοντο θαμειαί.

These lines are identical in the Oxford Classical Text and in M.L. West's text favored by Mitchell.

± The translations cited besides Murray's are: R.Fagles (Penguin 1990); S.Butler (Barnes & Noble Ed. 1995), p. 8; R.Lattimore (Chicago 1951); E.V. Rieu (Jones & Rieu Rev., Penguin 2003), p. 5; R.Fitzgerald (FS&G 1974).

[Edited at 2011-12-12 09:46 GMT]

[Edited at 2011-12-12 10:42 GMT]

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