Stanley Lombardo From Aratus to Zen


A Segmented Version of the 2016 Interview with Richard H. Armstrong

On April 29, 2016, Professor Stanley Lombardo came to the UH campus to perform in the Honors College’s City Dionysia celebration at the Menil Collection. I used that opportunity to conduct a long interview with him, which ranged over the whole of his career as a literary translator. The full-length interview is hosted on the website of the Center for Hellenic Studies, but I post here a segmented version for students of translation who may want to access specific parts of this discussion.  The interview is broken into chapters with the audio link, notes, and some bibliography.

A portion of this interview was edited for publication as a chapter in A Companion to the Translation of Greek and Latin Epic, edited by Richard H Armstrong and Alexandra Lianeri (Wiley-Blackwell).

1. The Making of a Poet Translator (8:58).

Lombardo describes his formation as a poet, his early learning of Greek and Latin, and his dissertation: a translation of Aratus‘ Phaenomena, which he later published.



  • Lombardo, Stanely, tr. Sky Signs: Aratus’ Phaenomena(North Atlantic Books: Berkeley CA, 1983).
  • —. Aratus’ Phaenomena: An Introduction and Translation. Ph. D. Dissertation, University of Texas at Austin, 1976, 1979.

2. Aratus, Lucretius, the Problems of Voice and Poetic Meter (9:44).

More on Aratus’ poem and its charms, Lombardo’s struggle to find a poetic voice for Lucretius and Dante, and the “alchemy” of poetic voice that occurs in poetic translation. Lombardo talks a bit about meter as well, and they discuss the problem of English accentual hexameter.


  • Lombardo, Stanely, tr. Parmenides and Empedocles: The Fragments in Verse Translation (Grey Fox Press: San Francisco, 1982)

3. Translating Homer, A Screenplay for the Iliad, A Reading of Il. 19.379-407 as Screenplay (10:14)

Lombardo discusses his first attempts at translating Homer, the process of visualizing a scene in cinematic form, Christopher Logue’s early influence on him, and his co-written screenplay for an Iliad film which mysteriously went nowhere two years before Warner Brothers’ Troy. He then reads from his Iliad to illustrate the “cinematic” visual cues we can’t help but see in Homeric narration.


  • Mench, Fred. “Film Sense in ‘The Aeneid.’ Arion (1969) 8.3:380-397.
  • Logue, Christopher Logue. War Music: An Account of Homer’s Iliad. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. Earlier publication, Patrocleia: Book 16 of Homer’s Iliad freely adapted into English (Lowestoft, Suff: Scorpion Press, 1962).
  • Audio recording: The Death of Patroclus: Book XVI of Homer’s Iliad, 77 Records, 1963, directed by Douglas Cleverdon, read by Logue, Alan Dobie, Martin Starkie, Terry Scully and Vanessa Redgrave.
  • Lombardo, Stanley, tr. Iliad. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1997.

4. The Process of Translation, Robert Fitzgerald’s Notebooks, Epic of Gilgamesh, Richmond Lattimore’s Homer (12:14)

They discuss the process of translation in more detail, including what process is evident in old notebooks. Armstrong discusses Robert Fitzgerald’s notebooks from his translation of the Odyssey. Lombardo discusses his translation of Gilgamesh, the problem of “false friends” in translation, and how the English translation has a life of its own. He also discusses Richmond Lattimore’s Homer as an example of semantic translation and the problems of reading it in performance.


  • Fitzgerald, Robert, tr. The Odyssey. New York: Doubleday, 1961.
  • —. Papers for Homer’s Odyssey in translation, 1953-1960. Archive manuscript, Houghton Library, Harvard University.
  • Lattimore, Richmond, tr. The Iliad. Chicago: U Chicago P, 1951.
  • Lombardo, Stanley, tr. Sappho: Poems and Fragments. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2002. 

5. Mind-to-Mind Translation: A Zen Perspective (4:17)

Lombardo, who is also a Zen master, talks about mind-to-mind communication in Zen Buddhism and its relation to his practice as a translator.  (If this interests you, you should see the text below of his talk, The_Odyssey_Koan.)


  • Lombardo, Stanley with Stephen Addiss. Zen Sourcebook: Traditional Documents from China, Korea, Japan. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2008.

6. Homer’s Worldview vs. Virgil’s, Thersites and the Language of American Translation (10:15)

From a quotation by William Cowper, they lead into a discussion of Homer’s all-encompassing view of life versus that of Virgil. This leads to a discussion of Lombardo’s use of specifically American idioms in his translation, with a comparison between his version of Odysseus’ speech to Thersites (Il. 2.246-264) and Richmond Lattimore’s.


Cowper, William. The Works of William Cowper: Comprising his Poems, Correspondence, and Translations. Edited by Robert Southey. 8 vols. London: Bohn, 1854. Vol. 7, p. xvi.

7. Unit of Composition in Translation, Sustainable Effort, Performance as the Culmination of Translation (6:01)

Lombardo talks about the verse paragraph as his unit of composition, how one has to develop a technique to go the full distance in translating epic, and how performance shapes the nature of his translations, down to the layout on the page.

8. Evolution of a Performance Practice, Performance and Translation Revision (5:05)

Lombardo discusses the evolution of his performance practice, which includes a drum to mark the movement of narration. Mention is made of Lombardo’s 2008 performance in the University of Houston’s Moores Opera House, shortly after Hurricane Ike had struck the city. He performed from his Iliad and Aeneid without intermission for two and a half hours to a full house of listeners. He talks about how performance was a part of the translation revision process, particularly for the women’s voices in Homer.

9. Iliad vs. Odyssey: Translation Process and Comparison; An Authorial View of Homer (6:17)

Lombardo discusses translating the Odyssey after the Iliad, and some of the differences between the poems and how this affects the translator’s task. He expresses his view of Homer as one poet working with a variety of traditional materials, and returns to the concept of a mind behind the text (see segment 5 above).  They discuss translation as “archival performance” (Armstrong) and how a poet both draws from a background of poetry yet writes in a distinct voice—as does a poet translator.


  • Lombardo, Stanley, tr. The Odyssey. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2000.

10. More on Translating Virgil: The Problem of Dido’s Voice (5:28)

Lombardo discusses some of the difficulties in translating Virgil’s interlocking and complex verse as opposed to Homer’s, and how he had to find a strategy for it. He also discusses problems with the tone in the Aeneid, and what he learned from an unsuccessful performance he did in San Francisco.


  • Lombardo, Stanley, tr.  Aeneid. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2005.

11. Translating Ovid: Dealing with the Playful Poet (4:54)

Unlike the situation with his Homer and Virgil translations, Lombardo found translating Ovid’s Metamorphoses to be something he was able to accomplish quite rapidly, once he had changed his view of the poet thanks to a timely suggestion from a woman at one of his readings. They discuss how translators approach playful poets with virtuosic effects, and the limitations one has in such situations.


  • Lombardo, Stanely, tr. Metamorphoses. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2010.

12. Translating Dante, the Challenge of Lucretius again and the Bhagavad Gita (7:49)

Lombardo discusses how he moved on to translate Dante’s Divine Comedy, and how his background in didactic epic at the beginning of his career with Aratus helped him. They return to discussing the possibility of Lombardo translating Lucretius and why it is an interesting text from the poetic standpoint; Lombardo talks about his current effort at translating the Bhagavad Gita.

13. Favorite Translations, the Problem of So Many Translations (3:58) 

Lombardo talks about some of his favorite translations into English, and they discuss the current problem of the crowded field of translations in epic and how this obscures any sense of coherent tradition in English translation at this point.

14. Conclusion: Towards a New Pedagogy of Translation and Classics (7:60)

Lombardo talks about how he has students approach the development of translations as works in themselves, and they further discuss new pedagogical approaches to enhance the study of classical languages through a more creative application of writing and translation.