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Book Forum: Literature   |    
Homer: The Odyssey
Am J Psychiatry 1998;155:1792-1793.
View Author and Article Information
Evanston, Ill.

by Robert Fagles (translator). New York, Viking Penguin, 1996, 541 pp., $35.00.

This new translation of The Odyssey is produced by Robert Fagles, who not long ago gave us a celebrated translation of The Iliad (R3415512CHDBBGJF). The Odyssey is much harder to translate because it ranges over a vast expanse of space and time, whereas the action of The Iliad is packed into a very small area and takes place in a relatively brief period of time, making choices about the style of the poetic translation easier. If one compares this new translation of The Odyssey with the other two recent translations likely to be available in the library of psychiatrists (R3415512CHDBJEIH,R3415512CHDECAEC), one can experience the remarkable differences in the way even extremely competent translators approach Homer’s Greek. The special merit of the translation by Fagles is that an outstanding Penguin Audiobook, superbly read by Ian McKellen, is available with it. The audiobook was not sent to me along with the text so I bought it in preparing this review because I think the real test of a translation of Homer is in speaking it out loud. One should never forget that these poems were sung and not read 2,700 years ago.

The actual choice of translation is not as simple as several enthusiastic reviewers of Fagles’ recent work have made it appear. There are advantages and disadvantages of each. Fagles produces poetry that is harsh and to the point, a forceful telling of the story packed with action. The Lattimore translation is more faithful to the Greek, but it produces a kind of long-winded singsong effect. The Fitzgerald translation is in-between, preserving more of the poetic beauty than Fagles, but it is not as direct and easy to read or listen to. I will offer two brief examples from some of my favorite lines in Book 1. Lattimore renders lines 32–34 of Book 1 as follows:

Oh for shame how the mortals put the blame upon us gods, for they say evils come from us, but it is they, rather, who by their own recklessness win sorrow beyond what is given. (p. 28)

Fitzgerald renders the same three lines as follows:

My word how mortals take the gods to task! All their afflictions come from us, we hear. And what of their own failings? Greed and folly double the suffering in the lot of man. (p. 14)

Fagles offers the following:

Ah how shameless—the way these mortals blame the gods. From us alone, they say, come all their miseries, yes, but they themselves, with their own reckless ways, compound their pains beyond their proper share. (p. 78)

Similarly, in another crucial statement in Book 1 of The Odyssey, Lattimore renders lines 341 and 342 as follows:

You should not go on clinging to your childhood. You are no longer of an age to do that. (p. 34)

Fitzgerald translates it as follows:

You need not bear this insolence of theirs, you are a child no longer. (p. 22)

Fagles offers the following:

You must not cling to your boyhood any longer— it’s time you were a man. (p. 87)

These are crucial quotations from the opening of The Odys­sey, which very much deals with the fate people bring on themselves and with the coming of age of Telemachus (Telemachos [Lattimore], Telémakhos [Fitzgerald], Telemachus [Fagles]).

Fagles has produced probably the most readable and action-packed version of The Odyssey, and it comes with the bonus of a wonderful introduction by the Hellenic scholar Bernard Knox, which offers a learning experience all by itself for those interested in Homer. But translation of poetry from one language to another is incredibly difficult. Having recently translated the Oedipus Trilogy of Sophocles into English, I can attest to this from personal experience; the translator inevitably has to read his or her own personality into the Greek or slant the translation for a specified contemporary purpose such as readability, contemporariness, and so on. Readability has always been very important, as anyone who tries to tackle the famous translations of Homer from the eighteenth-century such as that of Pope can attest. Fagles enhances the readability of his translation with 14 pages of notes, a bibliography of suggested further reading, four maps, four family trees, and a 20-page pronouncing glossary of the proper names that occur in the poem.

As Knox explains,

The Odyssey owes much of its power to enchant so many generations of readers to its elegant exploitation of something that war temporarily suppresses or corrupts—the infinite variety of the emotional traffic between male and female. In his treatment of these relationships Homer displays an understanding of human psychology that many critics…have been reluctant to recognize. (p. 50)

One of the most interesting aspects of Fagles’ translation is a certain awareness on his part of women’s issues, leading him to make his rendering of the material involving Helen, Circe, Calypso, Nausicaa, and Penelope considerably more empathic than the usual presentations of these prominent female characters.

Having read other reviews of Fagles’ work, I was prepared to be overwhelmed when I listened to the tapes and read the book, but I was not. Although it is true that Fitzgerald’s translation at times adds things or omits them, I found it more suitable to my literary taste, but I am the first to admit that this is really a matter of individual preference. Using any of these translations, every psychiatrist should be quite familiar with The Odyssey, a book dealing with existential issues that portrays the onset of the age of exploration and human self-reliance and, perhaps, the beginnings of humanism. The poetry is magnificent, and the character of Odysseus, who in Greek is repeatedly referred to as a man of many turns and twists, that is, many clever tricks or wiles, is truly heroic.

Although there are more English versions of Homer than of the Bible, this great archetypal sea epic presents us with the coming of age of Telemachus as he emerges from adolescence and must establish his identity against that of his mother in the absence of his father. There are many passages expressing the adolescent rudeness of Telemachus as he attempts to address his mother throughout the poem, including "much of what he says about her to other people" (p. 51). The final scene, with father and son standing side by side slaying the suitors, as Kohut (R3415512CHDCHHHE), pointed out, deserves an important comparison to the story of Oedipus and his father. In addition, the closing scenes of The Odyssey present one of the most dramatic, moving, and excitingly beautiful endings in the history of all literature.

Every psychiatrist should be familiar with The Odyssey and The Iliad, not only because of the tremendous lessons they teach us about human nature in its early phase of development in the Western world but also because they are samples of poetic art offering peak aesthetic experiences, yielding information and insights that cannot be found in the jargon of the literature of psychiatry and the behavioral sciences. I suggest that the reader have a look at each of these three translations at the library and pick the one that seems to appeal the most; all are wonderful.

Homer: The Iliad. Translated by Fagles R. New York, Penguin Books, 1990
The Odyssey of Homer: A Modern Translation. Translated by Lattimore R. New York, Harper & Row, 1967
Homer: The Odyssey. Translated by Fitzgerald R. Garden City, NY, Anchor/Doubleday, 1961
Kohut H: Introspection, empathy, and the semi-circle of mental health. Int J Psychoanal  1982; 63:395–407


Homer: The Iliad. Translated by Fagles R. New York, Penguin Books, 1990
The Odyssey of Homer: A Modern Translation. Translated by Lattimore R. New York, Harper & Row, 1967
Homer: The Odyssey. Translated by Fitzgerald R. Garden City, NY, Anchor/Doubleday, 1961
Kohut H: Introspection, empathy, and the semi-circle of mental health. Int J Psychoanal  1982; 63:395–407

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