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Ancient Cultures Literature Translations of the Iliad by Homer

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Written in the mid-8th Century BCE, “The Iliad” is usually considered to be the earliest work in the whole Western literary tradition, and one of the best known and loved stories of all time. Through its portayal of the epic subject matter of the Trojan War, the stirring scenes of bloody battle, the wrath of Achilles and the constant interventions of the gods, it explores themes of glory, wrath, homecoming and fate, and has provided subjects and stories for many other later Greek, Roman and Renaissance writings.

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Such arguments are common these days, for we have all sorts of translations to choose from, new and old. In fact, at no time in the history of Homer in English have we had so many options readily available. Not so long ago, the translations of Rieu and Lattimore ruled the English-speaking Iliad world between them for a generation, but now the field is much more crowded, with recent versions by Fitzgerald, Fagles, and Lombardo in print (among others) and even more choices in the public domain on the internet (including many of the long forgotten versions now freely available through Google Books). The most obvious reasons for this are a growing interest in Homer among Greekless readers (especially as a Great Book in Liberal Studies and Humanities curriculums) and the prospect of a tidy income from the text-book market

Faced with such a rich array of choices, a neophyte seeking the “right” translation or a teacher in search of a class room text has good reason to worry about an attack of consumer anxiety. Presumably anyone in search of a translation has to begin by rejecting Boswell’s notion (often repeated by later students of the questions) that translation is inherently impossible. We may not be able to get the exact equivalent of Homer’s poem, whatever that means exactly (since the surviving official text is clearly not exactly the same poem Homer composed and since virtually all those dealing with the Iliad are reading it silently at home rather than listening to a professional bard singing the text at a large group feast), but with a judicious sense of the limits of the translator’s artistic license we can get close enough to it to satisfy ourselves that we are dealing with Homer or at least an acceptable form of the original.

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The year 1992 saw two major pieces of scholarship published in two very different fields. André Lefevere's Translation, Rewriting, and the Manipulation of Literary Fame suggested to the field of translation studies a wider scope for analyzing the impact of interpretive rewriting on reception

That same year, Henry Jenkins published Textual Poachers, that seminal work of ethnographic fan studies that demonstrates the impact of fan culture on the reception of texts in popular media. Translation studies many scholars have been expanding the definition of "translation" as a theoretical construct. In Enlarging Translation, Empowering Translators (2007), for example, Maria Tymoczko highlights some non-Western conceptions of what we term "translation" in English, such as rupantar ("to change in form") and anuvad ("speaking after") in India, tarjama ("definition") in Arabic, and tapia and kowa in Igbo, both of which mean a variation of "break apart and tell again" (Tymoczko 2007, 68–71). As far back as 1959, Roman Jakobson defined three different kinds of translation: interlingual, which is the traditional definition, the transfer of meaning from one language to another; intralingual, which is the transfer of meaning between two sign systems within the same language, such as a modern English translation of Chaucer; and intersemiotic, which Jakobson rather weakly described as the transfer of verbal signs into a nonverbal sign system, giving the example of translating "verbal art into music, dance, cinema, or painting" (Jakobson 1959, 238). In the decades since, and especially with the advent of the Internet, intersemiotic translation has become much richer than Jakobson could have imagined. It can be argued that every piece of online fan fiction is an intersemiotic translation—from cinema, television, or animation to text, but also from static text to hypertext and from the sign system of traditional literary work to the particular sign system of fan work, with its codes for genre, tagging norms, and assumption of audience familiarity with fan culture at large.

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To conclude, the Iliad ultimately depicts a deeply dualistic world, where glory must be balanced with agony and individual action with a lack of ultimate control

The Iliad has remained a touchstone for Western culture because it honestly explores essential conflicts of the human condition without condescending to its readers by providing easy answers. Its raw power and beauty has ensured that we’ve kept mulling over its challenges nearly three millennia later.

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Homer, Alexander Pope, and Maynard Mack. 1967. The Iliad of Homer. London: Methuen.

Jakobson, Roman. 1959. "On Linguistic Aspects of Translation." In On Translation, edited by Reuben A. Brower, 232–39. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jenkins, Henry. 1992. Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture. New York: Routledge.

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