Homeric Hymn No. 2: Translations Comparison Essay

July 16, 2021 by Essay Writer

Updated: Mar 19th, 2021

This essay will compare two English translations of the poem “Homeric Hymn No. 2” from the classical Greek text the Homerica, composed by Homer in the 7th century BCE. The first translator is Hugh G. Evelyn-White, and the year of publication is 1914. The second translator is Helene P. Foley, and the year of publication is 1994. After reviewing the two translations, this paper will argue that the version by Foley ranks as superior to the version by Evelyn-White, and the argument will utilize the following passages to prove said claim: the abduction of Demeter’s daughter by Aidoneus, the description of Demeter’s grief at the loss of her daughter, and finally, the description of the scene in which Zeus offers a truce to Demeter and sends Rheia, her mother, as his envoy to negotiate for the return of spring.

First, the essay will compare the opening description of Demeter by each translator:

Evelyn-White (1914) Foley (1994)
I begin to sing of rich-haired Demeter, awful goddess — of her and her trim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus rapt away, given to him by all-seeing Zeus the loud-thunderer. Apart from Demeter, lady of the golden sword and glorious fruits (Evelyn-White 1-2) Demeter I begin to sing, the fair-tressed awesome goddess, herself and her slim-ankled daughter whom Aidoneus seized; Zeus heavy-thundering and mighty-voiced, gave her, without the consent of Demeter of the bright fruit and golden sword (Foley 2)

When you compare the words used in Evelyn-White’s version, “awful” versus the word “awesome” used in Foley’s version, is clear that Foley’s words provide a clearer characterization of Demeter herself (Evelyn-White 1-2; Foley 2). For instance, Foley’s descriptive language immediately and accurately portrays Demeter’s power as a member of the gods of Olympus, a force to be reckoned with, whereas Evelyn-White’s use of the word “lady” makes Demeter seem mortal, and therefore less of a threat (Evelyn-White 1-2). Also, Evelyn-White’s use of the words “rapt away” make no sense to the reader (Evelyn-White 1-2). Conversely, Foley’s use of the word “seized” immediately clarifies for the reader that we are witnessing a violent abduction (Foley 2).

For the second point, the paper looks at how each of the translators describe the grief that Demeter suffers at the loss of her daughter, and the depression that besets her immediately following Persephone’s abduction:

Evelyn-White (1914) Foley (1994)
But grief yet more terrible and savage came into the heart of Demeter, and thereafter she was so angered with the dark-clouded Son of Cronos that she avoided the gathering of the gods and high Olympus, and went to the towns and rich fields of men, disfiguring her form a long while. (Evelyn-White 2) A more terrible and brutal grief seized the heart, of Demeter, angry now at the son of Kronos with his dark clouds. Withdrawing from the assembly of the gods and high Olympus, she went among the cities and fertile fields of men, disguising her beauty for a long time. (Foley 6)

A comparison of these two passages indicates that Foley’s words have more poetic charge and power than Evelyn-White’s, which make for a more engaging read. For example, in Evelyn-White’s version, he uses the words “came into the heart of Demeter” to describe the grief of the goddess, while Foley translates it simply as “seized the heart” (Evelyn-White 2: Foley 6). Foley’s translation is more muscular, less passive, and more compelling in the poetic sense. Similarly, Evelyn-White uses the words “she was so angered” to describe Demeter’s feelings towards Zeus, while Foley simply writes “angry now” (Evelyn-White 2: Foley 6) Foley’s translation represents an active, more emotionally-charged read, with far less usage of passive verb forms.

Finally, let’s examine how each translator depicts the scene where Zeus sends Rheia, Demeter’s mother, to bargain for the return of spring:

Evelyn-White (1914) Foley (1994)
And all-seeing Zeus sent a messenger to them, rich-haired Rhea, to bring dark-cloaked Demeter to join the families of the gods: and he promised to give her what right she should choose among the deathless gods and agreed that her daughter should go down for the third part of the circling year to darkness and gloom, but for the two parts should live with her mother and the other deathless gods. Thus he commanded. And the goddess did not disobey the message of Zeus; swiftly she rushed down from the peaks of Olympus and came to the plain of Rharus, rich, fertile corn-land once, but then in nowise fruitful, for it lay idle and utterly leafless, because the white grains was hidden by design of trim-ankled Demeter. (Evelyn-White 5) To them Zeus, heavy-thundering and mighty-voiced, sent as mediator fair-tressed Rheia to summon, dark-robed Demeter to the tribes of gods; he promised, to give her what honors she might choose among the gods. He agreed his daughter would spend one-third, of the revolving year in the misty dark and two-thirds, with her mother and the other immortals. So he spoke and the goddess did not disobey his commands. She darted swiftly down the peaks of Olympus, and arrived where the Rarian plain, once life-giving, udder of earth, now giving no life at all, stretched idle, and utterly leafless. For the white barley was hidden, by the designs of lovely-ankled Demeter. (Foley 24)

A comparison of these two passages reveals numerous instances where the action is muted somewhat by Evelyn-White’s choice of words, whereas Foley’s word choice offers a much clearer delineation of the power struggle at play between Zeus and Demeter. For example, Evelyn-White uses the words “all-seeing” to describe Zeus (Evelyn-White 5). This language implies omnipotence, and a quiet calm, confidence. Conversely, Foley describes Zeus as “heavy-thundering” and “mighty-voiced,” which diminishes his power somewhat, suggesting that Zeus makes a lot of noise and shouts a great deal, but makes no allusion to his omnipotence (Foley 24). If anything, these descriptors characterize Zeus as bit of a bombastic blowhard who bullies his way to power.

Similarly, Evelyn-White describes Rheia as a “messenger,” while Foley uses the word “mediator” (Evelyn-White 5: Foley 24). This is extremely significant. Messenger connotes a powerless individual, simply being sent on an errand of little import. A mediator, meanwhile, suggests that Rheia herself has power, and that Zeus needs her help, because he has not been able to bend Demeter to his will.

In conclusion, Helene P. Foley’s 1994 version of the “Homeric Hymn No. 2” stands as a superior translation to that of Hugh G. Evelyn-White as it offers considerably more clarity in characterization, action, and power dynamics implicit in the story between Zeus and Demeter. Foley’s translation also contains more poetry, and thus reflects Homer more truthfully. Foley’s powerful and engaging language creates a more compelling read. Evelyn-White’s words offer less poetry, which equates to less interest overall for the reader.

Works Cited

Hesiod, Homeric Hymns, Epic Cycle, Homerica. Translated by Evelyn-White, H G. Loeb Classical Library Volume 57. Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann Ltd. 1914. Print.

Foley, Helene P. The Homeric Hymn to Demeter: Translation, Commentary, and Interpretative Essays. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1994. Print.

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