One thing that I reliably get huffy about is modern translations of Greek and Latin classics. (Yes, really.) I can’t remember exactly why, but I was recently reminded of the Fagles translation of the Odyssey, which I’ve never really liked, and I wanted to compare it to my favorite, Richmond Lattimore’s.

Reading Lattimore is about as close as you can get to reading Ancient Greek, without actually reading Ancient Greek. It helps that that each of Lattimore’s lines is exactly 14 syllables, approximating the meter that the Greek poem is written in. But mostly it’s his extremely faithful, and yet still poetic, word choices that make reading his translation so close to the experience of reading the original text.

Some examples from the first five lines of the Odyssey:

Line 1

Greek:           ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον, ὃς  μάλα πολλὰ
                 andra moi ennepe, mousa, polutropon, hos mala polla

Lattimore:       Tell me muse, of the man of many ways, who was driven
Fagles:          Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns

“andra moi ennepe”, is quite literally, “tell me, Muse, of the man”, which is what Lattimore renders.

Compare Fagles’ “sing to me of the man”, which isn’t really true to the Greek since “sing” isn’t actually present there.

“Polutropon” is a tough word to translate. Literally “much-turned” or “much-turning”, (poly-trope-ic), it could mean “versatile” or “wandering” or perhaps “tricky”, or lots of other things. Lattimore picks “the man of many ways”, and Fagles picks “the man of twists and turns”, both of which seem OK.

Line 2

Greek:           πλάγχθη,  ἐπεὶ Τροίης ἱερὸν  πτολίεθρον  ἔπερσεν:
                 plangthe, epei Troies hieron ptoliethron epersen:

Lattimore:       far journeys, after he had sacked Troy's sacred citadel.
Fagles:          driven time and again off course, once he had plundered / the hallowed heights of Troy.

“Ptoliethron” is a poetic version of the word “polis”, which just means “city”, and “hieron” means “holy” or “sacred” (like hieroglyphics, which are sacred writing). So really what you would want here is “sacred city”.

Lattimore gives us “Troy’s sacred citadel”. I’m not sure how much closer you could get to the Greek, since “Troy’s sacred city” doesn’t make complete sense in English.

Fagles gives us “hallowed heights”, which sounds nice but gives you a sense of how much license he is taking with the language.

Line 3

Greek:           πολλῶν δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων  ἴδεν ἄστεα καὶ νόον ἔγνω,
                 pollon d' anthropon iden astea kai voon egno,

Lattimore:       Many were they whose cities he saw, whose minds he learned of,
Fagles:          Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds,

This line is another great contrast between Lattimore’s and Fagles’ styles.

Fagles’ rendering is technically incorrect, since πολλῶν, “many”, modifies “men” and not “cities”. So it has to be “he saw the cities of many men”, not “many cities of men”.

It’s interesting that both Lattimore and Fagles render νόον “noon”, which is “mind” in the singular, as “minds”. (“noon” can also mean lots of other things as well.)

Line 4

Greek:           πολλὰ δ᾽ ὅ γ᾽ ἐν πόντῳ πάθεν  ἄλγεα ὃν  κατὰ θυμόν,  
                 polla d'ho g' en ponto pathen algea hon kata thumon

Lattimore:       many the pains he suffered in his spirit on the wide sea,
Fagles:          many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea,

Again, while “heartsick” has an emotional charge to it, κατὰ θυμόν definitely means “in his heart”. Lattimore has to add an extra “wide” here, I assume for metrical purposes, but neither “wide” nor “open” is actually in the Greek.

Line 5

Greek:           ἀρνύμενος ἥν  τε  ψυχὴν   καὶ νόστον  ἑταίρων.
                 arnumenos hen te  psuchen kai noston hetairon.

Lattimore:       struggling for his own life and the homecoming of his companions.
Fagles:          fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home.

Lattimore renders νόστον, “noston”, as “homecoming”. This is the standard meaning of the word as it shows up in lots of Greek literature and related scholarship; Odysseus is fighting for the homecoming of his friends.

Here again, Fagles gives us the much less literal “to bring his comrades home”.