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Getting a New Read on Homer's Classics

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Getting a New Read on Homer's Classics

Getting a New Read on Homer's Classics

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Homer's epics, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey," have been read by captivated, or maybe that should be captive, high school and college students for centuries now. Now there are new translations of both of Homer's poems that claim to make them more accessible for students and for readers who just want a compelling story. As translated by Ian Johnston, "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are designed to appeal to the modern reader without compromising the beauty of Homer's works.

WEEKEND EDITION'S classics commentator Elaine Fantham has thumbed through the volumes. She joins us from the studios of the CBC in Toronto. Elaine, thanks very much for being with us.

ELAINE FANTHAM: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: And did you like them?

FANTHAM: Very much, indeed. There are, of course, many good translations of Homer. And the question is really what your audience will respond to. You can't distort Homer to please, say, a teenage audience. God forbid. And what really impressed me about Ian Johnston's translations is the combination of dignity, emotion and a simplicity which gives it a real narrative drive. The other thing I'd like to say about this translation - it sounds silly, but it's a matter of layout. If you pick up a text of Homer in translation, you have columns of stanzas or couplets marching down the page. What they've done with Ian Johnston's version is to use indentation to mark off the speeches from the action. And Homer has a lot of speeches. He's very dramatic. And so when the eye falls on the page, and I'm imagining for a moment a 16-year-old who has to be persuaded that this is worth reading, there isn't this daunting sort of column of undisturbed couplets, for instance.

SIMON: Elaine, what did you notice? Was there a particular speech that impressed you with the way it was handled and rendered?

FANTHAM: The first thing I noticed as I read through the first book was the extraordinary impact of Achilles challenge to Agamemnon. I mean I've read this in Greek. I've read this in English. But it came through with such power that you really were witnessing a kind of young bull challenging the old leader of the herd. And then I looked to see how they handled Vercites(ph). He's supposed to be an ordinary ranking enlisted man. And he doesn't have the right to pipe up and criticize Agamemnon and he does. And what he says is right, but he still gets in trouble for it.

So I looked to see how Johnston handled that and I was very pleased to see that he gave that the impression of Vercites speaking out of turn without actually dragging in colloquialisms which would be out of fashion next year. But if I may just quote a speech?

SIMON: Please, by all means.

FANTHAM: I think one of the scenes everybody is fondest of, and with good reason, is when Hector goes out to fight for the last time. And he's going to be killed by Achilles. And he says farewell to Andromache at his little boy, Astyanax. I'm doing a little bit of excerpting, but I think what will come through is the clarity of this and the drive.

My dear husband, your war-like spirit will be your death. You've no compassion for your infant child, for me, your sad wife, who before long will be your widow. For soon the Achaeans will attack you altogether and cut you down. As for me, it would be better if I'm to lose you, to be buried in the ground. For then I'll have no other comfort once you meet your death except my sorrow. I have no father, no dear mother, for Lord Achilles killed my father when he wiped out Phoebe(ph), city with high gates, slaying Etian(ph).

I had seven brothers in my home. All went down to Hades in a single day for swift-footed Lord Achilles killed them all while they were guarding their shambling oxen and their white shining sheep. As for my mother, he brought her here with all his other spoils. Then he released her for a massive ransom, but archer goddess Artemis then killed her in her father's house. So Hector, you are now my father, noble mother, brother and my protecting husband. So pity me. Stay here in this tower. Don't orphan your child and make me a widow.

Well, I'll stop there. To me, this is such natural English. It's plain and yet it's full of meaning. Now, of course, if they were in a modern movie, spoken by - not Brad Pitt - who was Hector? I can't remember now in "Troy." But I think that they - you might think that they were just lacking in imagination. But I find them powerful and with that kind of drive that makes you go on reading.

SIMON: Elaine, I must say you are one of the few people that saw that movie, "Troy."

FANTHAM: Oh, really?

SIMON: But I know you're a fan of Brad Pitt. I'm told, by the way, Eric Bana.

FANTHAM: Eric Bana, yes.

SIMON: Eric Bana.

FANTHAM: And neither of these gentleman, I'm afraid, raised any kind of tremors in my breast.

SIMON: Some of these speeches have been set to music.

FANTHAM: Yes. As a matter of fact, that was part of the reason why I chose Andromache's speech. Duncan MacMillan has composed for piano and string trio and contralto a vocal cycle, "Through the Scaean Gates," which begins with that wonderful simile about men falling like leaves, the generations of men fall like leaves. And then has Andromache's farewell and Hector's reply.

(Soundbite of "Through the Scaean Gates")

SIMON: Elaine, thank you very much.

FANTHAM: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: Elaine Fantham is professor emeritus of classics at Princeton University and our classics commentator here at WEEKEND EDITION. Ian Johnston's translations of "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" are published by Richer Resources Publications. There's even an audio version of "The Iliad" available from Naxos AudioBooks.

(Soundbite of "Through the Scaean Gates")

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