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Rendering Homer

According to the historian John Julius Norwich, the most beautiful line in the entire Iliad comes in Book VII, after the single combat between Hector and Ajax; night is falling, and the herald Idaeus urges them to stop fighting:

But night is already at hand; it is well to yield to the night. (VII: 282)

The number of published English versions of the Iliad is a testament to the range of different translations a single text permits. In the case of Homer, there is a four hundred year old tradition of translations, and each version reflects both the original text and the contemporaneous state of the English language.

The first complete English translation of the Iliad was that of George Chapman, published in 1616:

Hereafter we shall warre againe till Jove our Herald be,
And grace with conquest which he will: heaven yeelds to night, and we.

Chapman’s version is composed in what is, to us, a visibly archaic English (the strange use of ‘we’ instead of ‘us’, for example); he uses the iambic heptameter, a popular contemporary verse form. A century later, Alexander Pope published a version in heroic couplets. This version, whilst it still sounds strange to modern ears, is couched in a more recognisable idiom:

But now the Night extends her awful shade;
The goddess parts you; be the night obey’d.

Flaxman’s slightly later translation has the more oratorial:

Night comes, to Night’s advance, brave warriors, yield.

Cowper’s blank verse rendering has a reputation for fidelity to the original:

But the Night
Hath fallen, and Night’s command must be obeyed.

Interestingly, Murray’s modern, prose version seems closer to the more flowery Seventeenth Century translations than Cowper’s:

Moreover night is now upon us, and it is well to yield obedience to night’s behest.

Although QuickSilver has yet to attempt a translation of Homer, one of the lessons to be learned from this wealth of different interpretations can be applied to all types of translation, namely, that there is really no such thing as ‘the perfect translation’. Even two native speakers will often come up with quite different translations of the same text, both of them equally correct and idiomatic.

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