On Translation

Achilles is found singing to a lyre, in a passage of Book IX of the Iliad. Homer sets the scene in five dactylic hexameters; George Chapman translates them into four couplets of fourteeners.

I wrote a post about each book of the Iliad, in Chapman’s version of 1611. As I said at the end, I look forward to reading Emily Wilson’s version. Meanwhile, here I examine the vignette of the lyre in several existing English translations, as well as in the original.

Three books mentioned in the text

The exercise is standard, at least without the Greek.

  • In the Introduction to the Wordsworth Classics edition of the Iliad (in Chapman’s translation with modernized spelling; Ware, Hertfordshire, 2003), Adam Roberts analyzes Patroclus’s slaying of Thestor in the renditions of Fagles, Pope, and Chapman. The event is told in lines 399–410 (Chapman’s lines 381–92) of Book XVI.

  • The Introduction of an edition of Books I, VI, XXII, and XXIV of Alexander Pope’s Iliad (Boston: Ginn & Company, 1898) gives quotations from the prose of Leaf and the verse of Chapman, Ogilby, Pope, Cowper, Sotheby, the Earl of Derby, Bryant, Tennyson, and Arnold, concerning the Trojan encampment by night, watchfires shining like stars, as described in Book VIII. Says editor William Tappan in the Preface,

    The principle aim in this edition … has been to present a correct text, with such introduction and commentary as are needed by pupils in secondary schools for a reasonably thorough appreciation of the poem.

    The edition seems to have been used by my father’s father at Sidwell Friends School in Washington.

In the following from Book IX, they are Ulysses and Ajax Telamon, and he is Achilles:

The quarter of the Myrmidons, they reacht, and found him set
Delighted with his solemne harpe, which curiously was fret
With workes conceited, through the verge: the bawdricke that embrac’t
His loftie necke, was siluer twist: this (when his hand laid waste
Eetions citie) he did chuse, as his especiall prise,
And (louing sacred musicke well) made it his exercise:
To it he sung the glorious deeds, of great Heroes dead,
And his true mind, that practise faild, sweet contemplation fed.

These are Chapman’s lines 183–90, cut and pasted from Early English Books Online. I have made one change: “Eetions” was “Actions.” Probably the copy-text had Aetions, since the Wordsworth Classics edition has “Aëtion’s”; but the name that Homer gives is better transcribed as Eëtion, and this is the spelling that Allardyce Nicoll uses, in his print edition of Chapman’s Iliad (Pantheon, 1956; paperback edition, Princeton University Press, 1968).

We can deal with errors, if we know they can happen. Alerted by a recent tweet, I looked up a talk by a Bible scholar, Peter J. Williams, who summarizes an argument by F. F. Bruce in a slide; I quote the bullet points, as a reminder of how thin our evidence may be for what some ancient person wrote:

  • 1. Classical scholars accept authenticity of classical works attested by only a few late manuscripts
  • 2. NT manuscripts are earlier and more numerous
  • 1 + 2: We should accept NT
  • This is an argument for consistency

The transcribers working for Early English Books Online have the appearance of taking care, since they leave an ellipsis, or some such symbol, when they cannot read letters, though it be obvious what the letters must be. Chapman does sometimes personify abstract concepts, so he could conceivably have referred to “Action’s city.”

The city is Thebes, and Pope refers to it this way. He has a different music:

And now arrived, where, on the sandy bay,
The Myrmidonian tents and vessels lay,
Amused at ease, the godlike man they found,
Pleased with the solemn harp’s harmonious sound;
The well-wrought harp from conquered Thebæ came,
Of polished silver was its costly frame.
With this he soothes his angry soul, and sings
The immortal deeds of heroes and of kings.

Pope’s “heroes” has two syllables; Chapman’s, three. To see how much the two poets have embellished the original, we can read the prose translation by Murray in the Loeb edition (1924), found at the Perseus Project:

And they came to the huts and the ships of the Myrmidons, and found him delighting his soul with a clear-toned lyre, fair and richly wrought, whereon was a bridge of silver; this had he taken from the spoil when he laid waste the city of Eëtion. Therewith was he delighting his soul, and he sang of the glorious deeds of warriors.

Murray’s translation is slightly more literal than that of Samuel Butler (1898), found at the MIT Internet Classics Archive (which announced a “restoration project” in 2011, but nothing since):

When they reached the ships and tents of the Myrmidons, they found Achilles playing on a lyre, fair, of cunning workmanship, and its cross-bar was of silver. It was part of the spoils which he had taken when he sacked the city of Eetion, and he was now diverting himself with it and singing the feats of heroes.

One may take the word of a scholar that Murray transmits the literal meaning of Homer’s Greek. However, the Greek is still worth looking at, though the prospect be frightening. Eva Brann confesses, when introducing her Homeric Moments: Clues to Delight in Reading the Odyssey and the Iliad (Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2002),

This is the time to reveal a—poorly—hidden agenda of this book: to snaffle at least a few readers into learning Greek. What else, after all, is so important, once livelihood is assured and the family launched and leisure left over? Truth to tell, most of us who learned Greek in college can’t really sight-read very competently …

I learned Greek, though not from Ms Brann, at the college where she was and is a tutor; and I cannot sight-read Greek, unless perhaps it is mathematics. Still I am sorry for the qualification with which Ms Brann closes her paragraph, and which I highlight here:

I will not hesitate to draw the reader’s attention to Homer’s Greek when he does something wonderful with it, but always in transliteration and with a translation.

If readers can believe in the value of looking at Homer’s Greek, I think they ought to be willing to look at it in Greek letters.

I have heard a rumor that students of calculus learn better if they know the Greek alphabet. This is plausible, since the symbolism of calculus includes Greek letters, and if these are disconcerting, so will the mathematics be.

I confess to being disconcerted by technical language, when it involves computers. The laptop that I had bought used (and that I am using now) failed recently, and an error message told me that the problem was in /dev/sda1, and I should run fsck manually; I somehow could not understand for a long time that what I was supposed to do was type fsck /dev/sda1, hit enter, and follow the prompts.

What is clear to some of us is opaque to others.

We were looking at how Odysseus and Telamonian Aias found Achilles playing a harp or lyre. More precisely, it was a phorminx. Here are the lines of Homer, 185–9 of Book Ι (Iota), as given by the Perseus Project:

Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας:
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν.

At least three analyses are possible: syntactical, lexical, and metrical.


Let us get the last one out of the way, tabulating the six feet of each line as follows:



















































































I use capitals here, without the tonal accents, because

  • the capitals are closer to the letters in use when the Iliad was first written,
  • written accents were not in use then,
  • there is no pattern to the accents anyway.

The pattern is in the length of the syllables. A long syllable followed by two short syllables is the foot called a dactyl. The two shorts may instead be one long; then the foot is a spondee. The last syllable of a Homeric line is either a spondee or a trochee—a long syllable followed by a short.

A syllable is long if it has a long vowel; and Η and Ω are always long, as are diphthongs, while Α, Ι, and Υ may be long, depending on the word, but Ε and Ο are always short. A syllable with a short vowel is still long if the vowel is followed (in the same word or the next) by a doubled consonant, two consonants, or one of the double consonants Ξ and Ψ.

One may ask why written Greek does not use separate letters for five long and five short vowels, and why each of the compounds ΚΣ and ΠΣ is spelled also with a single letter. One may ask this, but I have no answer, except to observe that irregularity is inevitable in what we do. I have needed a long time to understand this.

In discussing the sound of the Iliad, Julian Jaynes writes as follows, where I replace his garbled transliteration “Menin aedie Thea” (it should be Mênin aeide thea) with the Greek:

Even the poem itself is not wrought by men in our sense. Its first three words are Μῆνιν ἄειδε θεά, Of wrath sing, O Goddess! And the entire epic which follows is the song of the goddess which the entranced bard ‘heard’ and chanted to his iron-age listeners among the ruins of Agamemnon’s world.

… The function of meter in poetry is to drive the electrical activity of the brain, and most certainly to relax the normal emotional inhibitions of both chanter and listener. A similar thing occurs when the voices of schizophrenics speak in scanning rhythms or rhymes. Except for its later accretions, then, the epic itself was neither consciously composed nor consciously remembered, but was successively and creatively changed with no more awareness than a pianist has of his [sic] improvisation.

Who then were these gods that pushed men about like robots and sang epics through their lips? They were voices whose speech and directions could be as distinctly heard by the Iliadic heroes as voices are heard by certain epileptic and schizophrenic patients, or just as Joan of Arc heard her voices …

This is from The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977; pp. 73–4). I shall return to Jaynes on the subject of Homer’s diction. Meanwhile, concerning Jaynes’s controversial theory of consciousness, I note that, as a touch-typist, thanks to my mother, who, having trained at a secretarial school, thought I should have similar training, with typing if not stenography—as a touch-typist, I am unconscious of where the letters are on the keyboard; my fingers know, but I don’t.

I have little sense for fitting meaningful syllables into patterns as being a natural or primitive process; but that it is so is the argument of Collingwood at the beginning of the “Art” chapter of Speculum Mentis (Oxford, 1924). I quote at length because I can easily do so, having found a suitable electronic version on the Internet Archive, and because I get caught up in the poetry of the ideas and their expression, and the passage ends with a reference to a Homeric goddess. Be it bold or italic, the emphasis is mine:

That poetry is in a special sense the spiritual kingdom of the child was first divined by Plato; and when the theory of art was seriously taken up again by philosophers of the eighteenth century, they reasserted the same notion as the very heart and core of their new speculations on the subject. When Hamann wrote that ‘poetry is the mother-tongue of mankind’, and when Vico a generation earlier laid it down that poetry is the natural speech of children and savages, they held in their hands the clue to the solution of all the problems of aesthetic.

They seem to have meant that art is the simplest and most primitive, the least sophisticated, of all possible frames of mind. Hence it is the normal activity of those minds whose experience has been brief and which have as yet learnt little from others. Children and savages are not better artists than grown and civilized men; on the contrary, art like all other forms of activity improves with practice and does not spring into existence full-grown; but children and savages are in a special sense natural artists; art is to them a life in which they are immersed as in a flood of warm water which bears along in its course passive and effortless organisms. A grown and civilized man [sic] achieves aesthetic experience by the effort of deliberately shutting out other competing interests; he refuses to look at a given object historically or scientifically, and will see it aesthetically. Hence, for the civilized man, art has become a somewhat alien thing and difficult of approach; he bewails lost romance and thinks of the aesthetic experience as something that died with his dead childhood, or exalts beauty into a far-away goal to which some day a difficult uphill road may lead him. But art is difficult for him not because it is intrinsically difficult, but because his entire education has been designed to wean him from it; it is far away not because it is on the heights of the spiritual life, but because it is in the depths. Art is the foundation, the soil, the womb and night of the spirit; all experience issues forth from it and rests upon it; all education begins with it; all religion, all science, are as it were specialized and peculiar modifications of it. Art is the sleep of the soul; as a baby does little but sleep, so the infant soul knows hardly any experience but art; as a grown man sleeps from his labours, so the awakened spirit returns into art to find new strength and inspiration, going down into that as into the fountain in which Hera renewed her virginity.

The thought that we have have lost our artistic sensibility with our childhood: we might compare this with Jaynes’s argument that as a race (the human race), we have lost our ability to hear the voices of the gods. But there happen to be no gods in the Homeric passage under consideration.


Richmond Lattimore brings us into metrical territory by following Homer’s line divisions and giving six beats to each line, as he says in the introduction to his translation (University of Chicago, 1951; Phoenix edition, 1961). He renders our selected passage thus:

Now they came beside the shelters and ships of the Myrmidons
and they found Achilleus delighting his heart in a lyre, clear-sounding,
splendid and carefully wrought, with a bridge of silver upon it,
which he won out of the spoils when he ruined Eëtion’s city.
With this he was pleasuring his heart, and singing of men’s fame.

Let us recall now the Greek:

Μυρμιδόνων δ᾽ ἐπί τε κλισίας καὶ νῆας ἱκέσθην,
τὸν δ᾽ εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον φόρμιγγι λιγείῃ
καλῇ δαιδαλέῃ, ἐπὶ δ᾽ ἀργύρεον ζυγὸν ἦεν,
τὴν ἄρετ᾽ ἐξ ἐνάρων πόλιν Ἠετίωνος ὀλέσσας:
τῇ ὅ γε θυμὸν ἔτερπεν, ἄειδε δ᾽ ἄρα κλέα ἀνδρῶν.

I modify Lattimore as follows to emphasize some grammatical points—lexical points will come later:

And they came beside the shelters and ships of the Myrmidons.
And they found him delighting his heart in a lyre: clear-sounding,
splendid, carefully wrought. And a bridge of silver was upon.
The which he won out of the spoils when he ruined Eëtion’s city;
with which he was pleasuring his heart. And he was singing of men’s fame.

I have used a bold “and,” prepositively, (for that is the English way,) for each instance of the Greek postpositive particle δ᾽. This would be δέ or more likely δὲ if not followed by a vowel. The particle might also be translated as “then” (and then possibly be given postpositive position); in any case, it would seem to signify an independent clause.

The two remaining clauses are relative. At least we may call them so, although their subjects are forms of the same pronoun serving elsewhere (as in the second line of our passage) as a simple demonstrative or third-person pronoun. This pronoun is ὁ ἡ τό, which developed into the definite article, while the relative pronoun became ὅς ἥ ὅ. In place of ὁ, we see ὅ in the last line, only because it takes its accent from the ensuing emphasizing enclitic, γέ. So ὁ γέ has become ὅ γε, at least according to what I learn from books.

No pronoun is needed in the first line. The number of the subject of the clause is shown by the verb. The number is dual, as Murray points out in an earlier footnote; even though Phoenix accompanies Odysseus and Aias, he is not treated as one of them. Perhaps he arrives separately; in any case, in the first line we might write, “the pair came beside the shelters and ships …”

In the third line, Homer’s ἐπί, which became the preposition and prefix that we use in words like “epidemic,” is evidently just an adverb. For better sense in English, Lattimore treats it as a preposition with object “it,” while Murray uses the demonstrative “there.”

Be they interpreted as demonstrative or relative, the pronouns beginning the fourth and fifth lines should refer either to the whole lyre or to its silver yoke. Perhaps the former is intended.


Here we are passing to diction. What is silver in the instrument is the ζυγόν. The word is cognate with the English “yoke,” and the words seem to have the same original meaning: the bar laid across a pair of oxen so that they can pull a plow or a carriage. That’s the first definition for the Greek word in Cunliffe’s Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect (University of Oklahoma, 1963) and in Liddell and Scott’s Greek–English Lexicon (with a revised supplement; Oxford, 1996). The third definition in the former lexicon is “The cross-bar which joined the horns of a lyre and to which the strings were fastened”; Definition II in the latter lexicon is “cross-bar of the φόρμιγξ.” In either case the very Homeric line that we are looking at is cited. The other ends of the strings are joined to the body of the instrument, after passing over a bridge. One can see the set-up on a webpage, “Building a Replica of the Great Silver Lyre of Ur,” though the lyre there is a couple of millenia older than Achilles.

I do not know whether there is a distinct Greek word for the bridge of a lyre in the sense above. According to the Pocket Oxford Classical Greek Dictionary (2002), this bridge is another possible meaning of ζυγόν; but neither Liddell and Scott nor Cunliffe seems to have sanctioned this. By Cunliffe’s second definition, the word in the plural can mean “oarsmen’s benches, extending from side to side of a ship.” Definition II of Liddell and Scott has a second part, which is just a quotation from a tenth-century Byzantine agricultural work, the Geoponica, which defines ζυγός in terms of its compound with the prefix σύν-, made abstract: a ζυγός is the συζυγία, the joining, of the vine to the stake.

Achilles’s phorminx is said to be “well-wrought”; at least the translators pick some such expression for Homer’s δαιδαλέος. There is an associated verb, δαιδάλλω, used in Book XVIII, line 479, in an overview of how Hephaestus adorns Achilles’s shield. Later in the book, at line 592, Homer recalls the legendary Δαίδαλος, Daedalus, whose labyrinth made for Ariadne is resembled by the image of a dance-floor that Hephaestus inlays in the shield. For Chantraine in Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, histoire des mots, tome I, Α – Δ (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1968), the etymology of the words beginning δαιδαλ- is unclear, though they seem to result from reduplication (“redoublement”) of δαλ-.

Look up Daedalus in, say, Howe and Harrier, A Handbook of Classical Mythology (New York: F. S. Crofts & Co., 1947), a book apparently used by my mother in college, and you find the elaborate story of Daedalus, but no account of its sources. Perhaps Ovid’s Metamorphoses is for us the origin of most of the story; but what were Ovid’s sources? What did Homer know of Daedalus, beyond the one hint? The line I gave is the only citation for Daedalus in the Index of Proper Names in the Loeb edition of the Iliad.

The most challenging words of our passage are the following nouns.

  • Φρήν yields the second element of the term schizophrenic, though Julian Jaynes does not seem to take note of this; also the first element of phrenology, which is properly (albeit metaphorically) used today for attempts to let computer programs judge persons (such as job applicants) by scans of their faces.

  • Θυμός seems to have no derivatives in English; the names of the thymus gland and the herb thyme come from θύμος and θύμον respectively, as I discussed when considering Book IX as a whole.

In our passage, each of the two nouns is the object of the same verb, τέρπω, related to the first element of our word Terpsichorean. We may provisionally translate the Greek verb as delight. First it is a present participle in the middle voice, then an indicative imperfect verb in the active voice. Achilles, with a phorminx,

  • was found delighting himself in the φρήν;

  • delighted the θυμός.

Murray translates each noun as soul; Lattimore, as heart. Chapman and Pope do not translate, but rewrite, referring to mind and soul respectively.

Butler avoids translating the nouns individually. This could be the wisest course. Jaynes argues plausibly that heart, mind, and soul are anachronistic in Homer. Words like θυμός and φρήν pass through historical phases that Jaynes calls Objective, Internal, Subjective, and Synthetic, respectively; the words refer first to external observations, then bodily sensations, then the “internal spaces” where things happen, and finally consciousness. Thus (by Jaynes’s account) θυμός first means “activity as externally perceived” then “the so-called stress or emergency response of the sympathetic nervous system.” In this case, we might render θυμὸν ἔτερπεν as, “he was calming his nerves.”

As for φρήν, let us start the account in Chantraine, Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue grecque, histoire des mots, tome IV-2, Φ – Ω et index (Paris: Éditions Klincksieck, 1980), whereby the word

pose de nombreux problèmes, souvent discutés. Tout d’abord, l’identification anatomique de l’organe φρήν, φρένες pour lequel il n’y a pas unanimité. L’étude récente de S. Ireland et F. Steel … sur φρήν comme organe chez Homère, passe en revue les diverses explications : « diaphragme », vue antique souvent acceptée par les modernes, « péricarde », notamment pour O. Körner, « poumons », selon Onians, mais conclut de manière assez vague : un groupe d’organes dans la partie supérieure du corps.

There is no agreement on what organ φρήν refers to. Jaynes proposes the lung, in part because both words are usually used in the plural.

I see no evidence in the lexica that φρήν is used in the dual form φρένε rather than the plural φρένες; but using the plural for a pair of things is apparently normal. While in our passage the first verb, ἱκέσθην “came,” is dual, the second, εὗρον “found”, is plural, though it has the same implicit subject. Perhaps the choice between dual and plural depends on the needs of the meter.

From referring to the lungs, φρένες comes to denote the associated sensations of breathing. Says Jaynes,

Laboratory studies have demonstrated that even simple sensory experience of an object, its recognition, and the recall of the name associated with it, all can be observed in recordings of respiration taken simultaneously. It is thus not surprising that when some internal sensation is first connected to such functions as recognition and recall, it is located in the phrenes

The reference for the studies is an Italian journal of 1920–21. I find this interesting, because of my encounters with assertions that, through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of the brain, we can observe thinking. If so, then we can observe thinking also in the lungs.

Given English usage, we might translate εὗρον φρένα τερπόμενον as “they found him soothing his breast.” We end up with something like the following.

And they came beside the shelters and ships of the Myrmidons.
And they found him soothing his breast in a lyre: clear-sounding,
splendid, Daedalian. And a bridge of silver was upon.
The which he won out of the spoils when he ruined Eëtion’s city;
with which he was calming his nerves. And he was singing of men’s fame.

The point is not to have a translation as such, but to get closer to Homer. This would be my answer to a question that Lattimore quotes in his Foreward:

I wish to thank … finally, all those friends who have sustained me in the belief that this work was worth doing, and refrained from asking, ‘Why do another translation of Homer?’; a question which has no answer for those who do not know the answer already.

8 Trackbacks

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