Friday, January 9, 2015

The Iliad and The Odyssey (Naxos Audiobooks)

Homer is believed by ancient Greeks to be the first and best of the epic poets. The greatest works attributed to this blind poet are The Iliad and The Odyssey. Like many classics, there are scores of translations. Some are very literal and stay true to the original structure. Others are a bit more free with their translation and go for readability and understanding to try and attract the modern reader. Everyone has a translation they prefer. Translations of Homer are not my hill to die on. I just want to be able to understand what I am reading/listening to. Today, I will be reviewing The Iliad and The Odyssey, translated by Dr. Ian Johnston and read by Anton Lesser.

Most all of us know the story of The Iliad and The OdysseyThe Iliad takes place towards the end of the Trojan War and features such warriors as Achilles, Agamemnon, and Hector. It is a very gruesome book with a lot of fighting and bloodshed. The Odyssey takes places ten years after Troy fell. Odysseus (a minor character from The Iliad) is the main character and he has been lost at sea and not returned home. His wife remains faithful to him, despite the numerous suitors bidding for her affection. Odysseus undergoes an epic journey with the gods conspiring against him and suffers many perils along the way before returning home safely. These should be required reading or listening for all high school children. I say listening because these tales were originally told orally, so it only makes sense to listen to them!

In order to show you how Dr. Johnston's translation differs from an older translation, I am going to provide you with the opening stanza of The Iliad from Alexander Pope's translation and Dr. Ian Johnston's translation.

Alexander Pope's translation
Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of mighty chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore.
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!

Dr. Ian Johnston's translation
Sing, Goddess, sing of the rage of Achilles, son of Peleus
that murderous anger which condemned Achaeans
to countless agonies and threw many warrior souls
deep into Hades, leaving their dead bodies
carrion food for dogs and birds
all in fulfillment of the will of Zeus.

As you can see, Pope's translation is more flowery and poetic. It has a couplet rhyming structure, but oddly uses Roman god names, not Greek ones. Johnston's translation does not have a rhyming structure but is much more approachable in that he avoids archaisms, ancient, and Medieval language. As you can see there, is no perfect translation. It is all a matter of preference. If you are a seasoned veteran at epic poetry, you might prefer Pope's or another flowery translation because you can understand and appreciate all the references. If you are a younger student or this is your first encounter with epic poetry since high school, That is why I prefer Dr. Johnston's translation at this moment in my life, but I hope to one day appreciate the older versions.

The audio itself is very regal. Anton Lesser, one of Britain's leading classical actors, does a good job with pacing and flow of the story, which can be hard to do, especially in The Iliad when it gets kind of bloody! People might recognize his voice from other Naxos Audiobooks, if you are a Charles Dickens fan, because he has read many of those works including Great Expectations and A Tale of Two Cities! You won't be disappointed by him! So if you are looking for a well-performed reading of The Iliad and The Odyssey, in unabridged or abridged (though I don't know why you'd choose the latter), you can buy directly from Naxos Audiobooks or find them on Audible as well!