The English Iliad

On three English translations of 'The Iliad'

By John FarrellOctober 30, 2012

The English Iliad

SINCE THE SIXTEENTH CENTURY, English translators have been striving to do justice to The Iliad. It is a poem of brutal, relentless violence, but it is a violence without haste. The action unfolds in a boundless, inexhaustible present. Warriors die, but they do not age. The hour hangs at dawn, dusk, noon, or night, without transition. Opponents meet on the field, in the midst of chaos, but there is time to exchange pedigrees or insults without stint. And Homer’s hexameters, with their stately pause at each half-line, proceed with an Olympian pace fitting the detachment of their godly source. The unhurried movement of Homer’s verse plays against the graphic assault and energy of the action, intensifying their effect. Sublime passion and urgency rendered bright and hard, with none of the blur of time.

Two generations ago, Richmond Lattimore’s Iliad of Homer — which the University of Chicago Press recently reissued with a new introduction by Richard Martin — captured the majestic repose of Homer’s verse with great fidelity. Lattimore is scrupulously faithful to the original. He uses Greek spellings for the characters’ names, so Achilles is “Achilleus” and Ajax “Aias.” He hews closely to Homer’s text, keeping interpretation at a minimum. And except for an occasional archaism, his language is straightforward and unadorned. Lattimore’s fluid, flexible six-beat line is especially apt for the quiet moments and lyric touches of the poem. He gets admirably close to Homer’s voice. Unfortunately, experience as a literature professor has taught me that, even for gifted new readers, Lattimore’s Iliad is slow going.

The 1990 appearance of Robert Fagles’s Iliad offered a new experience of Homer, one that finally made the excitement of the poem accessible to readers of English. The style of Fagles’s Iliad is writerly, almost novelistic. The action is densely packed and rapid, boisterous, full of energy. Fagles exploits every scene for maximum vividness, taking almost all the slack out of Homer’s deliberate movement. The boldness of his approach is announced in the opening line of the poem, which begins with a key word: ”Rage.” Both of Homer’s classic English translators, George Chapman and Alexander Pope, rendered that first word, menin, as “wrath.” Lattimore toned this down to “anger,” but Fagles raises the volume again, and justifiably so. “Anger” does well enough for the dishonored Achilles who refuses to fight until the death of his beloved comrade Patroclus, but “rage” does far more justice to the berserker who emerges once Patroclus has been killed.

Fagles’s Iliad, though, takes liberties with the text that may be too much for some purists. He does his best, for instance, to make Homer’s heroic similes, each of which stands out as a discrete performance, blend less conspicuously into the fabric of the text. Even more radical is his approach to Homer’s epithets. In the Greek Iliad, the epithets are not context sensitive: “swift-footed” belongs to Achilles almost like a part of his name. He does not have to be running to deserve it; he can be sitting in his tent playing the lyre and still be “swift-footed Achilles.” But Fagles, in his desire to avoid mechanical repetition, tried to make the epithets contribute to the action of the scene. So, for instance, in Book Six, during the great conversation between Hector and his wife, Andromache, instead of simply referring to “Hector of the shining helmet,” as Homer does, Fagles tells us repeatedly that “Hector’s helmet flashed.” This happens so often that the poor Trojan seems to be dazzling in the flood-lights of a Hollywood set.

Fagles’s experiment with epithets is the only serious blemish on what is otherwise a distinguished translation. I once had the chance to ask him how he justified his treatment of the epithets, and he told me he believed the poet would have inflected their meaning in performance, an explanation I find hard to credit. It was also interesting to hear Fagles insist that his guiding aim was in every way to imitate Homer’s voice, whereas in my experience the effect of Fagles’s approach — and it is a superb effect — is to make Homer not so much audible as readable.

Now we have two new English versions of the Iliad, by Anthony Verity and by Stephen Mitchell. Verity is the anti-Fagles, a defender of accuracy and purity, and he sets his register from the first word by going back to Lattimore’s choice, “anger.” In his “Note on the Translation,” Verity renounces both poetry and “poetizing” while pledging fidelity to Homer’s line-numbering. Thus he provides an excellent crib. Unfortunately, his ear is not as true as Lattimore’s, and there is little sense of pace in his work, either fast or slow. So while he is a helpful interpreter of Homer, and the edition is rich in information, Verity’s Iliad is much less energetic than Fagles’s and, compared with Lattimore’s, its slightly more modern vocabulary does not make up for the lost sonority and movement. As an illustration, here is Lattimore rendering the unexpectedly beautiful death of Priam’s son Gorgythion, struck by an arrow in the chest.

He bent drooping his head to one side, as a garden poppy
bends beneath the weight of its yield and the rains of springtime;
so his head bent slack to one side beneath the helm’s weight.

                                                              (Lattimore 8: 306-308)

Here is how Verity renders the same lines:

As when in a garden a poppy droops its head to one side,
heavy with the weight of its seed and with spring showers,
so his head, weighed down by his helmet, slumped to one side.

                                                               (Verity 8: 306-308)

Lattimore’s “garden poppy” is superior to Verity’s roundabout “in a garden a poppy,” and the repeated sounds of “bent,” “bends,” and “bent” in Lattimore add to the softening effect of the image. Verity, by contrast, mars the last line with the word “slumped,” the heaviness of which counteracts the gentleness of that poppy’s drooping.

While Lattimore excels Verity in delicacy, Fagles is stronger in the midst of the fray. In Book Sixteen, Patroclus, just before his own death at the hands of Hector, takes a stone and smashes the head of Hector’s charioteer, Cebriones, whose eyes drop out of his skull as he falls to the ground. Full of his own glory, Patroclus indulges in a poetic conceit, comparing the fallen eyeballs to oysters in the deep. Fagles’s Homer continues:

and you taunted his corpse, Patroclus O my rider:
“Look what a springy man, a nimble, flashy tumbler!
Just think what he’d do at sea where the fish swarm—
why, the man could glut a fleet, diving for oysters!
Plunging overboard, even in choppy, heaving seas,
just as he dives to ground from his war-car now.
Even these Trojans have their tumblers—what a leap!”

                                                               (Fagles 16: 867-873)

Now here is Verity:

Then, charioteer Patroclus, you addressed him jeeringly:
“Well, this is a very nimble fellow, and an agile diver!
Doubtless if he were on the fish-rich sea this man
could leap from a ship and satisfy the hunger of many
by looking for oysters, even in very stormy weather
so agilely does he now dive from his chariot on to the plain.
So, it seems, there are acrobats even among the Trojans.”

                                                             (Verity 16: 744-750)

Fagles is far more energetic and vivid, though Verity is, as usual, closer to Homer’s text. The apostrophe to Patroclus is a striking feature of this scene, Patroclus being the only character in The Iliad to be directly addressed by the poet. Verity gets it right with “charioteer Patroclus,” but Fagles’s embellishment, “O my rider,” lends rueful intimacy at a key moment, and “rider” makes Patroclus more dashing and reckless than “charioteer” as the warrior moves hubristically toward his doom. Both translators succeed in conveying Patroclus’s irony toward Cebriones, but ­­Verity’s rendering, in which the diver could “satisfy the hunger of many,” can hardly compete with the vividness of ­Fagles’s “glut a fleet.” Fagles’s Patroclus ends sardonically, commenting “what a leap!” — a translator’s invention, but quite in the spirit, if not the letter, of the scene. Readers will have to decide for themselves whether they prefer Verity’s rather bald accuracy or Fagles’s insightful embellishments.

In contrast to Verity, who prefers accuracy to panache, Stephen Mitchell does make a claim to poetry for his Iliad, and it is a good one: he brings to Homer the fine ear that graces his superb translations of Rilke. Like Fagles, he chooses a flexible, five-beat iambic line, but more than Fagles, or even Lattimore, he preserves the iambic rhythm. Reading his Iliad, one feels the constraint and fulfillment of meter and, as in Homer’s original Greek, the stability of the verse provides a counterweight to the pressure and energy of the action. So Mitchell’s Iliad offers genuine pleasures unavailable in any previous English version.

It must be said, though, that if Mitchell’s translation is artful, it is frequently an art of subtraction. On the authority of the revisionary classicist M. L. West, Mitchell streamlines the canonical text of The Iliad, dropping five hundred lines considered by West to be interpolations, along with the whole of Book 10, which has long been regarded as the work of another poet. Unfortunately, in his introduction Mitchell presents West’s speculative theorizing about the composition of the poem as if it were established fact. (In general, Mitchell’s introduction and notes are quite inferior to what Bernard Knox brings to Fagles’s or Barbara Graziosi to Verity’s translations.)

Mitchell also decides to remove most of the epithets and patronymics that accompany the characters’ names, arguing that these Homeric signatures do not add to the meaning of the particular scenes where they occur. Omitting the epithets as dead weight makes more sense than bringing them falsely to life, as Fagles does, but it does make for a certain thinness to the characters’ identities not to be ritually reminded at each mention of their distinguishing characteristics and the names of their fathers. Those repetitions may be an artifact of oral composition, but they also reflect the concerns of Homer’s world.

Yet there are advantages to Mitchell’s minimalist approach. His Homer, like his Rilke, has an attractive lucidity and directness, and the freedom he gains by dropping Homer’s identity-markers helps achieve these qualities. Here, for instance, is how Mitchell conveys the scene in Book Twenty-Two in which Andromache, working at her loom, hears the noise that portends Hector’s death:

But Hector’s wife had not heard
anything yet; no one had brought her the news
that her husband had stayed outside the wall of the city.
She was at work in her chambers, in front of the loom,
weaving a purple robe in which she was making
a pattern of colored flowers. She called to her handmaids
to put a large three-legged cauldron over the fire
so that the hot water would be there for Hector’s bath
when he returned. Poor innocent, how could she know
that far from all baths Athena had cut him down
at the hands of Achilles?

                                                 (Mitchell 22: 428-438)

Compare how Verity renders these lines:

Now Hector’s wife had not yet learnt
what had happened, for no trustworthy messenger had come
to tell her that her husband had stayed outside the gates.
She was at her loom in the tall house’s innermost part, weaving
a red double cloak, and working a pattern of flowers into it.
She called out through the house to her lovely-haired servants
to set a great tripod over the fire, so that Hector might have
a warm bath when he returned from the fighting—poor
innocent that she was, and did not know that grey-eyed Athena
had beaten him down at Achilles’s hands, far away from baths.

                                                        (Verity 22: 437-46)

Mitchell’s rendering has a lovely intimacy and clarity, though it is achieved by stripping away much of the Homeric elaboration that appears in Verity’s more faithful text. Instead of the awkward “no trustworthy messenger,” Mitchell gives us the blank and abstract “no one” bringing Andromache the news of Hector’s death. Gone, too, are other details that Mitchell finds distracting from the main effect: the tallness or loftiness of the inner chamber where Andromache works, the double fold of the cloak, the reference to the “lovely-haired servants,” rendered by the beautiful Greek work euplokamois, and Athena’s epithet, “grey-eyed”; Mitchell drops them all to concentrate on Andromache’s growing fear. This approach brings Homer closer to us, though something is inevitably lost in the process. Still, Mitchell nicely catches the most important poetic effect here: the irony of the phrase “far from all baths,” which, as in the Greek, appears in the middle of the sentence and sets up the mention of Hector’s killing, whereas Verity saves this phrase limply for the end, “far away from baths.”

Despite his fine ear, Mitchell’s taste sometimes lapses. While Fagles can slip into diction too colloquial to sound like Homer, Mitchell descends to outright vulgarity, particularly in the rendering of insults. Admittedly, these are a translator’s challenge. They must sound fresh enough to be animated without becoming anachronistic. This is a hard balance to strike, but in some cases Mitchell breaks the scales. His Odysseus, battering Thersites with his scepter in Book Two, warns the soldier that next time he talks out of turn he will “whip his ass.” There is, of course, nothing elevated about this scene, even if we are meant to admire Odysseus’s energy in keeping discipline. But a Homeric hero should not be deliberately vulgar. It’s like giving him a weapon that hasn’t been invented yet. Similarly, Hera sounds a little too contemporary when she puts down Aphrodite as a “stupid twit” or when she calls Artemis a “sniveling little bitch” before she “smack[s] her around her pretty ears.” In spite of all her foibles, Queen Hera should not be played by Bette Davis. Perhaps Mitchell’s most regrettable lapse of taste occurs in the climactic meeting between Achilles and Hector when Achilles calls his soon-to-be-slaughtered opponent alaste, “wretch.” Mitchell this gives this as “son of a bitch” — a dreadful choice.

Despite these faults, Mitchell’s rendering of Homer, while not quite the equal of Fagles’s, is an attractive one, and will win The Iliad new readers, while Verity’s work will be of great value to students trying to get as close as possible to the substance of Homer’s vision. In these days, when the role of poetry in our culture is so insubstantial that a stray zephyr could waft it out of sight, we should be grateful to these talented scholars and poets for keeping us in touch with the achievements of the past


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LARB Contributor

John Farrell is professor of literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author, most recently, of The Varieties of Authorial Intention: Literary Theory Beyond the Intentional Fallacy.


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