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E. V. Rieu

E. V. Rieu

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Emile Victor Rieu CBE
CBE and C.B.E. are abbreviations for "Commander of the Order of the British Empire", a grade in the Order of the British Empire.Other uses include:* Chemical and Biochemical Engineering...

 (10 February 1887 – 11 May 1972) was a classicist, publisher and poet, best known for his lucid translations of Homer
In the Western classical tradition Homer , is the author of the Iliad and the Odyssey, and is revered as the greatest ancient Greek epic poet. These epics lie at the beginning of the Western canon of literature, and have had an enormous influence on the history of literature.When he lived is...

, as editor of Penguin Classics, and for a modern translation of the four Gospel
A gospel is an account, often written, that describes the life of Jesus of Nazareth. In a more general sense the term "gospel" may refer to the good news message of the New Testament. It is primarily used in reference to the four canonical gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John...

s which evolved from his role as editor of a projected (but aborted) Penguin translation of the Bible
The Bible refers to any one of the collections of the primary religious texts of Judaism and Christianity. There is no common version of the Bible, as the individual books , their contents and their order vary among denominations...

. His translation of the Odyssey
The Odyssey is one of two major ancient Greek epic poems attributed to Homer. It is, in part, a sequel to the Iliad, the other work ascribed to Homer. The poem is fundamental to the modern Western canon, and is the second—the Iliad being the first—extant work of Western literature...

, 1946, was the opener of the Penguin Classics, a series that he founded with Sir Allen Lane and edited from 1944 to 1964. According to his son, "[h]is vision was to make available to the ordinary reader, in good modern English, the great classics of every language."


Rieu was born in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

, youngest child of the Swiss Charles Pierre Henri Rieu
Charles Pierre Henri Rieu
Charles Pierre Henri Rieu , Swiss Orientalist, was born at Geneva.He studied at Bonn University, where he received his doctors degree in 1843...

 (1820-1902), an eminent Orientalist, and his wife Agnes, daughter of Julius Heinrich Hisgen of Utrecht
Utrecht (city)
Utrecht city and municipality is the capital and most populous city of the Dutch province of Utrecht. It is located in the eastern corner of the Randstad conurbation, and is the fourth largest city of the Netherlands with a population of 312,634 on 1 Jan 2011.Utrecht's ancient city centre features...

. He was a scholar of St Paul's School and Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College, Oxford
Balliol College , founded in 1263, is one of the constituent colleges of the University of Oxford in England but founded by a family with strong Scottish connections....

, gaining a first in Classical Honours Moderations in 1908. In 1914 he married Nelly Lewis, daughter of a Pembrokeshire
Pembrokeshire is a county in the south west of Wales. It borders Carmarthenshire to the east and Ceredigion to the north east. The county town is Haverfordwest where Pembrokeshire County Council is headquartered....

 businessman. They had two sons and two daughters.

Having worked for the Bombay
Mumbai , formerly known as Bombay in English, is the capital of the Indian state of Maharashtra. It is the most populous city in India, and the fourth most populous city in the world, with a total metropolitan area population of approximately 20.5 million...

 branch of Oxford University Press
Oxford University Press
Oxford University Press is the largest university press in the world. It is a department of the University of Oxford and is governed by a group of 15 academics appointed by the Vice-Chancellor known as the Delegates of the Press. They are headed by the Secretary to the Delegates, who serves as...

, Rieu joined the publishers Methuen in London in 1923, where he was managing director from 1933 to 1936, and then academic and literary adviser. The University of Leeds
University of Leeds
The University of Leeds is a British Redbrick university located in the city of Leeds, West Yorkshire, England...

 awarded him an honorary D.Litt in 1949, and he received a CBE
Order of the British Empire
The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire is an order of chivalry established on 4 June 1917 by George V of the United Kingdom. The Order comprises five classes in civil and military divisions...

 in 1953. In 1951, he was chosen president of the Virgil Society and seven years later vice-president of the Royal Society of Literature
Royal Society of Literature
The Royal Society of Literature is the "senior literary organisation in Britain". It was founded in 1820 by George IV, in order to "reward literary merit and excite literary talent". The Society's first president was Thomas Burgess, who later became the Bishop of Salisbury...


Rieu died in London in 1972.


The inspiration for the Penguin Classics series, initially faint, came early in the Second World War
World War II
World War II, or the Second World War , was a global conflict lasting from 1939 to 1945, involving most of the world's nations—including all of the great powers—eventually forming two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis...

, while bombs were falling. Each night after supper, Rieu would sit with his wife and daughters in London and translate to them passages from the Odyssey. The Penguin editors are said to have been dubious about the commercial prospects for the book (1946), but it became recognised as a classic itself, celebrated for the smooth and original prose, and the forerunner of Penguin's immensely successful series of translated classics.

Often, though, he embroidered Homer's verse, following the principle that has since become known as dynamic equivalence or thought-for-thought translation. Whereas a literal translation would read, for example, "As soon as Dawn appeared, fresh and rosy-fingered," Rieu's version offered, "No sooner had the tender Dawn shown her roses in the East." Some of his renderings seem anachronistic or in the wrong linguistic register: "the meeting adjourned," "I could fancy him," and, "It's the kind of thing that gives a girl a good name in town." He sometimes discarded Homer's anonymous immortals: "A god put this into my mind" became "It occurred to me." Rieu tended also had to make the characters more courteous by preceding orders with "Kindly..." or "Be good enough to..." Some of these foibles were amended in a revision made by his son D. C. H. Rieu
D. C. H. Rieu
Dominic Christopher Henry Rieu was a classical scholar and son of the famous E. V. Rieu. After attending Highgate School, he studied English and Classics at Queen's College, Oxford. As part of the West Yorkshire Regiment in 1941, he was injured at Cheren and subsequently awarded the Military Cross...

. Another son, C. H. Rieu, translated The Acts of the Apostles
Acts of the Apostles
The Acts of the Apostles , usually referred to simply as Acts, is the fifth book of the New Testament; Acts outlines the history of the Apostolic Age...

 by Saint Luke
(1957) for the Penguin series. The sole contemporary rival to his prose translation of the Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

was a verse translation by Richmond Lattimore
Richmond Lattimore
Richmond Alexander Lattimore was an American poet and translator known for his translations of the Greek classics, especially his versions of the Iliad and Odyssey, which are generally considered as among the best English translations available.Born to David and Margaret Barnes Lattimore in...

By the time Rieu retired as general editor of the Penguin Classics series, he had overseen the publication of about 160 volumes. He assiduously tracked down all the scholars and translators he wanted for each, creating a series that combined sound scholarship with readability, and accessibility through authoritative introductions and notes. Rieu himself also translated the Iliad
The Iliad is an epic poem in dactylic hexameters, traditionally attributed to Homer. Set during the Trojan War, the ten-year siege of the city of Troy by a coalition of Greek states, it tells of the battles and events during the weeks of a quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles...

(1950), the Voyage of Argo (1959) by Apollonius of Rhodes, The Four Gospels (1952) and Virgil
Publius Vergilius Maro, usually called Virgil or Vergil in English , was an ancient Roman poet of the Augustan period. He is known for three major works of Latin literature, the Eclogues , the Georgics, and the epic Aeneid...

's Pastoral Poems (1949). Having become an Anglican in 1947, Rieu sat on the joint churches' committee that oversaw the production of the New English Bible
New English Bible
The New English Bible is a translation of the Bible into modern English directly from the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic texts . The New Testament was published in 1961...

 (1961-70). The genial and witty Rieu was a friend and editorial mentor of the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon
Olaf Stapledon
William Olaf Stapledon was a British philosopher and author of several influential works of science fiction.-Life:...



Rieu is less known for his children's verse, Cuckoo Calling: a book of verse for youthful people (1933). This he expanded as The Flattered Flying Fish and Other Poems (1962). A selection of his verse appeared in A Puffin Quartet of Poets (1958). For Rieu himself, his poems were a sideline, aimed mainly at children, but they are not without charm.


Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh
Patrick Kavanagh was an Irish poet and novelist. Regarded as one of the foremost poets of the 20th century, his best known works include the novel Tarry Flynn and the poems Raglan Road and The Great Hunger...

evoked the translations' crisp and readable character in a poem "On Looking into E. V. Rieu's Homer":
"In stubble fields the ghosts of corn are
The important spirits the imagination heeds.
Nothing dies; there are no empty
Spaces in the cleanest-reaped fields."

Further reading