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ON TRANSLATING HOMER
GIVEN AT OXFORD
MATTHEW ARNOLD, M.A.
PROFESSOR OF POETRY IN THE UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD, AND
FORMERLY FELLOW OF ORIEL COLLEGE
ON TRANSLATING HOMER.
It has more than once been suggested to me that I should translate Homer. That is a task for which I have neither the time nor the courage; but the suggestion led me to regard yet more closely a poet whom I had already long studied, and for one or two years the works of Homer were seldom out of my hands. The study of classical literature is probably on the decline; but, whatever may be the fate of this study in general, it is certain that as instruction spreads and the number of readers increases, attention will be more and more directed to the poetry of Homer, not indeed as part of a classical course, but as the most important poetical monument existing. Even within the last ten years two fresh translations of the Iliad have appeared in England: one by a man of great ability and genuine learning, Professor Newman; the other by Mr. Wright, the conscientious and painstaking translator of Dante. It may safely be asserted that neither of these works will take rank
as the standard translation of Homer; that the task of rendering him will still be attempted by other translators. It may perhaps be possible to render to these some service, to save them some loss of labour, by pointing out rocks on which their predecessors have split, and the right objects on which a translator of Homer should fix his attention.
It is disputed, what aim a translator should propose to himself in dealing with his original. Even this preliminary is not yet settled. On one side it is said, that the translation ought to be such “that the reader should, if possible, forget that it is a translation at all, and be lulled into the illusion that he is reading an original work; something original," (if the translation be in English), “ from an English hand.” The real original is in this case, it is said, “ taken as a basis on which to rear a poem that shall affect our countrymen as the original may be conceived to have affected its natural hearers.” On the other hand, Mr. Newman, who states the foregoing doctrine only to condemn it, declares that he “ aims at precisely the opposite: to retain every peculiarity of the original, so far as he is able, with the greater care the more foreign it may happen to be ;” so that it may “ never be forgotten that he is imitating, and imitating in a different material.” The translator's “ first duty,” says Mr. Newman, “is a historical one; to be faithful.” Probably both sides would agree that the translator's “ first duty is to be faithful ;"