Conversation: Stephen Mitchell, Author of the New Translation of Homer’s ‘The Iliad’


“The rage of Achilles–sing it now, goddess, sing through me.”

That’s the first line of Homer’s “The Iliad” in the new translation by Stephen Mitchell, a poet and one of the preeminent translators and interpreters of ancient and modern classics. His works include “Gilgamesh,” “Tao Te Ching,” “The Book of Job,” “The Gospel According to Jesus” and “The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke.”

I recently sat down with Mitchell at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., to talk about “The Iliad” and the craft of translation:

Watch Mitchell read from “The Iliad”:

A transcript is after the jump.

JEFFREY BROWN: Welcome to Art Beat. I’m Jeffrey Brown. I’m here at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., today with Stephen Mitchell, the translator of Homer’s “Iliad.” Welcome to you.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: Thank you. Good to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: I guess, the first question: You’ve taken on so many different kinds of things, why “The Iliad”?

STEPHEN MITCHELL: Well, “The Iliad” is maybe the great poem, and I’ve been fascinated by it for a long time, ever since my sixth grade teacher asked us to trace Athena, so that really —

JEFFREY BROWN: Sixth grade?

STEPHEN MITCHELL: Sixth grade. There’s a famous drawing by John Flaxman where she is floating in the air in a kind of negligee and spear and a helmet, and that captured my imagination. There’s something compelling about the music of it that I had never heard in any English translation, and there’s something also compelling about the vastness of mind of Homer. Homer includes everything in human life — all opposites, all experiences, from tragedy to the joy of a warrior killing an enemy, to the tenderness of a marriage, to something like forgiveness and communion. It’s all there. People like Tolstoy and Goethe have called “The Iliad” a miracle, and it truly is. So I wanted to immerse myself in it for a few years and this was my way.

JEFFREY BROWN: You mentioned other translations. There are a lot of translations for those of us, for English speakers, to read, but you’ve never been satisfied with any of them.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: No. They have their virtues, but my own ear never got interested in the rhythms of these translations enough for me to get past even Book 1, so actually before I began work on this, I had never read “The Iliad.” This was my way of reading it.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’d never read “The Iliad”?

STEPHEN MITCHELL: No, so there are disadvantages —

JEFFREY BROWN: You mean, you’d start it, you’d try.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: But I literally could never get through Book 1, because for me the music of these verse translations never had the interest or the power that I knew was in story, and so I had the sense that if I could immerse myself in the Greek and really become intimate with it that I would be able to hear a different kind of music that would be fulfilling at least for me. And in my experience when I’m satisfied with something, there is a large enthusiastic public

JEFFREY BROWN: So how does it actually work? What is the process? You do have Greek, you know Greek.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: What I do is I have these cheap little notebooks with the model cover, and I first make an awful, ugly, clunky, literal version on the right hand side of the page with all the options and alternatives that are possibilities in my particular kind of English. And then I read the important commentaries and I study the textural apparatus, and the right hand of the page looks like a royal mess. It’s just quite frightening actually. And then I stop, and line by line, passage by passage I listen for the kind of rhythm that will be the equivalent in English to the original Greek. It’s a really fascinating, magical process where I’m listening closely enough and carefully enough so that eventually my listening creates what I want to hear. When that happens, I know it immediately and the pen starts writing on the left hand side of the page and that’s my second draft.

JEFFREY BROWN: It creates what you want to hear.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: Yeah. What I feel would be an English that embodies the essence of the music of the Greek. And that’s everything in Homer. The meaning to me, a literal translation or especially prose translation, conveys nothing of the experience of the original.

JEFFREY BROWN: One of the noticeable things and got some attention: You took out the famous epithets, those descriptive phrases for many of the main characters and the gods, the heroes and gods. You use slang, some English slang, that is certainly not there in the original Greek.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: Sometimes. And I often took out the epithets. That’s very correct. Sometimes I didn’t. But the reason for that is that what ennobles the verse in Greek and elevates the style in English often seems tedious. If every time Hector appears, for example, and he’s “bright helmeted Hector” or every time Achilles appears and he’s “quick foot Achilles,” the reader quickly gets pretty bored with that, so it’s important to my mind to be able to tell works in Greek and what is just a drag in English. As for the slang, I was sparing in that, but occasionally there is something in the Greek that has intense passion and when you try to translate the words rather than the tone or the intensity, it falls absolutely flat. For example, there’s a line where Hector, after his beloved friend is killed — sorry, Achilles, after his beloved friend is killed by Hector, is about to kill Hector. He calls him something you like “you person whom I can never forget.” Well, you know, what does that mean? I said, “you son of a bitch.” There are not that many expressions in English that convey the kind of passion at contempt or hatred, and that was ready to had.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, it sort of leads to a bigger context question of the role of a translator. In this or in any of the works you’ve done, how much freedom do you feel you have?

STEPHEN MITCHELL: That’s a really interesting question and gets to the essence of what a good translation is and what good translator does. I feel I have enormous freedom because my allegiance is to the spirit of the text not to the literal meaning.

JEFFREY BROWN: The spirit and not the actual, not the actual letters.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: Yeah, there’s a famous passage in the Letters of Paul, which says, “the letter kills and the spirit gives life.” He wasn’t talking about translation but —

JEFFREY BROWN: No, I don’t think so.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: But, it rings true, and the point is to create a text in another language, in the parallel universe of English, that is alive, that uses words that people actually speak, but also is neither formal and academic on the one side, nor vulgar and too colloquial on the other. So it’s a very fine act of balancing diction. Since my allegiance is to my enormous love for the original text and to that music, I feel that I have my own permission to be as free as I need to be to make something alive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you get flak and push back from the scholars and the experts and “how dare you?”

STEPHEN MITCHELL: There are experts like that, I’ve found. I’ve gotten some flak, but most of the scholars are extremely grateful and respectful and actually use this in universities. For instance, my “Gilgamesh” — all over the place at universities. I once got some flak from orthodox Taoists who became very irate that my version of the “Tao Te Ching” was not a translation, that I would take off at certain points and throw the original out the window and do variations on the original theme. It wasn’t a translation, so I had that privilege, I felt. But this did not make them happy.

JEFFREY BROWN: No one’s ever said that me before, that they had orthodox Taoists after them.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: It’s the silliest thing, because Taoism is a way of living in the world with absolute flexibility and to make it a religion is a contradiction in terms.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Stephen Mitchell is the translator of Homer’s “Iliad,” the latest, the newest translator. Thanks for talking with us.

STEPHEN MITCHELL: You’re welcome.