Emile Victor Rieu CBE (10 February 1887 – 11 May 1972) was a classicist and publisher, best known for his lucid translations of Homer, as editor of Penguin Classics, and for a modern translation of the four Gospels which evolved from his role as editor of a projected (but aborted) Penguin translation of the Bible. His translation of the Odyssey, 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. He was a scholar of St Paul's School and Balliol College, Oxford. In 1923, he joined Methuen Publishing, where he was employed as Managing Director from 1933 to 1936, before becoming Academic and Literary Adviser. The University of Leeds awarded him an honorary D.Litt in 1949 and he received the CBE in 1953. In 1951, he was appointed President of the Virgil Society and, seven years later, Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature.
The inspiration for the Penguin series, initially faint, came early into World War II , while bombs were falling on London. Each night after supper, Rieu would sit his wife and daughters down in the drawing-room and translate passages from a copy of the Odyssey on his lap. His subsequent rendering of that volume would come to be recognised as a classic itself, celebrated for the smooth and original prose which gave its characters a memorable spark of their own.
Often, though, he embroidered Homer's verse. Whereas the direct 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". He also employed a number of contemporaneities, like "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" becoming "it occurred to me") Rieu also had a habit of rendering the Ancient Greeks more courteous than they really were, "Kindly" and "Be good enough to" preceding myriad orders. His son amended many of these foibles.
By the time of Rieu's retirement as general editor of the Penguin Classics series, he had overseen the publication of approximately 160 books. He assiduously tracked down all the scholars and translators he wanted for each.
The genial and witty Rieu was a friend and editorial mentor of the science fiction writer Olaf Stapledon. His son, D.C.H. Rieu, has revised his translations. Rieu is less known for his children's verse, Cuckoo Calling: a book of verse for youthful people (1933). He also penned The Flattered Flying Fish and Other Poems. He was influential in the development of Oxford University Press in the early 20th century.
It was one of his sons, C.H. Rieu, who translated The Acts of the Apostles by Saint Luke which was published by Penguin in 1957.
E. V. Rieu died in London in 1972.
Patrick Kavanagh evoked the translations' crisp and readable character in a poem "On Looking into E. V. Rieu's Homer":