When Robert Fagles translates Homer, legions of earlier translators are looking over his shoulder, along with Homer himself, a lively presence from 2,700 years ago. Then there is what he refers to as "the translation police," that cadre of keepers of the Homeric flame who will allow no divergence from the original.

In a recent interview, Fagles declined to name the members of the translation police because he did not want to "call them down from heaven with lightning bolts." Undaunted, he has had his own way with Homer, six years ago with his acclaimed translation of "The Iliad," currently with his version of "The Odyssey." With both books, he has approached Homer as a kind of bardic performance artist, uncovering a spontaneity behind the lapidarian poetry.This month Fagles was awarded the PEN/Ralph Manheim Medal for lifetime achievement in the field of translation. One other sign of his success is that, along with the text of "The Odyssey" (published by Viking), there is the audio version of the complete poem, recorded by Ian McKellen on 12 cassettes and running 13 hours and 10 minutes. McKellen's performance, in which he acts as narrator and plays all the characters, is the ideal accompaniment to the book. Homerists can listen as they read.

The published text, now in its seventh printing, has sold 50,000 copies and the audio version 9,000, a bonanza for such a literary work. The book costs $35 and the tapes, $45.

Asked why he had chosen to translate "The Odyssey," despite all the extant versions, Fagles indicated that there are as many reasons as there are Disney Dalmatians, and the first is that translation is not "a word-for-word equivalent, but an interpretation." Quoting W.H. Auden, he regards a translation as "Braille for the blind."

"Homer is always changing," he said. "You might say that he's fixed back there in time, but he's always being transformed by subsequent ages that absorb him and revise him and see him according to their own lights." Although the text is fairly stable, Homer is "something of a moving target."

Taking a historical perspective, he said: "You can plot the whole course of Homeric translation in terms of war and peace. In times of relative stability, `The Odyssey' seems to come forward; in times of conflict and aggression, it's `The Iliad.' `The Odyssey' is very much a postwar poem that concerns readjustment." Another major difference is the emphasis in "The Odyssey" on domesticity and the role of women.

For Fagles, it is as important to know what poets are doing "in the name of Homer, as it is for me to master Homer himself." He amended that statement, "Or herself. I doubt very much that Homer was a woman, but Robert Graves thought so in that fascinating book of his called `The Authoress of the Odyssey.' " It is also theorized that there was more than one Homer, but Fagles said he had "always resisted the idea of Homer as committee." He added: "If Homer was a performer, as he seems to have been, rather than a writer, there is all the room in the world for another performance. If Homer were the one telling the story, he probably had to ventriloquize his voice into the voices of a multiplicity of characters, very much what Ian McKellen is doing."

Through centuries, the work had to be handed down by word of mouth. The question of authenticity leads Fagles to a serendipitous conclusion: "It's nice not to have to face the heirs of Homer. If I thought the translation police were a problem, God knows what the heirs would be."

Although some translators feel a keen sense of competition, he said, he takes a more evolutionary approach: one translation leads to and feeds another. He is, however, disparaging about George Chapman's 17th-century version, the subject of the Keats poem, "On First Looking Into Chapman's Homer." On last looking, Fagles retained his skepticism: "I find him almost impossible to read. He's everything Homer is not. He is complicated and clumsy and Homer is swift, direct and simple." Fortunately, "Homer managed to survive Chapman and fall into Pope's hands," and Pope's Homer is "senatorial, finished, a highly literary product."

Through the years, a wide variety of writers have re-envisioned Homer in prose as well as verse, from T.E. Lawrence, who because of his own adventures in Arabia identified with Odysseus, to E.V. Rieu, who worked as a plane spotter in England during World War II at the same time he was translating Homer in what was to become a Penguin Classic edition.

Two contemporary writers were crucial to Homer and closest to Fagles. Reading Richmond Lattimore's "Iliad" as a freshman at Amherst College, he experienced a Keatsian epiphany, and ended his pre-med curriculum and began studying Greek. Robert Fitzgerald's "very lyrical, very personal" "Odyssey" was a further revelation. He admired their work (and Fitzgerald became a friend), but he is candid about their perspective: "Both were more interested in translating Homer into a literary artifact than in producing a kind of performance."

Fagles said there was an awakening of interest in Homer, akin to that in Jane Austen. As an example, he mentioned the Hallmark Entertainment version of "The Odyssey" starring Armand Assante, which is to be broadcast on May 18 and 19 on NBC. "It is a hungering for stories we can sink our teeth into," he said.

In his version, Fagles wanted to combine the timely and the timeless. His purpose, he said, was "to convey the sound of many voices." On one level, this means diversifying the language. For example, in many translations, there are repeated references to the "resourceful Odysseus." "If I did that," he said, "I would feel resourceless." In response, he reinterprets the Greek word polumatis. Depending on the context, Odysseus is varyingly referred to as "the great tactician," "the great teller of tales" and "the man of all occasions." On the other hand, there are some givens in Homeric translation: the expression "wine-dark sea."

Speaking pragmatically, Fagles says there may come a time when his version will be considered out of date. If so, it will not be outmoded by "events or modes of scholarship but by a writer who has an idea for doing it in a way that hasn't been done before," the need, in other words, for "a new kind of Braille for the blind." As with Fagles, there will always be intrepid voyagers in the world of Homer. Despite all difficulties, he said, "the business of translating Homer is irresistible."