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Preserving Homer’s Magic
Emily Wilson’s superb new translation of the Iliad makes the familiar text arrestingly powerful and fresh.
by Homer, translated by Emily Wilson
Norton, 848 pp., $39.95
THE TRANSLATOR OF HOMER faces a major difficulty: How does one convey the content and experience of oral poetry to a public that has probably not heard poetry read aloud since grade school? Recently, translators have tended to respond to this challenge by abandoning serious efforts at meter, rendering the poem either in prose or in a free verse that amounts to prose with line breaks. Such choices have their virtues: Robert Fagles’s editions from the 1990s remain some of the most popular on the English-language market, and they are justly admired for preserving both the formulaic diction and the swift, easy readability of the Iliad and Odyssey. But the people who composed and were taken up by the poems of Homer’s epoch did not experience them in a context of silent and interior reading, which such translations suit best.
Theirs was instead a public verse, sung with a lyre at festivals by bards whose social role was a combination of archivist, prophet, and thaumaturge. Two major features separated it from ordinary speech: a distinctive diction marked by formulaic phrases and even entire formulaic scenes, a system that enabled poets to compose verses on the fly; and a distinctive meter, interdependent with the diction, that was used only for the kind of public verse that claimed historical, moral, and even divine authority. When this kind of verse is rendered into prose, we lose precisely the quality that elevated it from mere speech into the collected wisdom of an entire culture, a wisdom that could lay plausible claim to having come from the gods themselves.
Emily Wilson’s work revitalizes an approach to Homeric translation whose primary goal is to preserve that magical quality by prioritizing the experience of Homer as poetry. In 2017, her Odyssey drew attention for a circumstantial fact—it was the first complete translation of the text into English by a woman to be published—but that book also represented a renewal of the tradition of putting Homer into English verse. Her Iliad continues this renewal, and it also showcases Wilson’s own evolving understanding of her work. This time around, she has given herself the luxury of straying from Homer’s line count, and she has made up for the major difficulty this might present for readers: In addition to line numberings of Wilson’s translation in the right margin of each page, the book maintains a steady count by tens of the lines in the Greek text in unobtrusive gray numerals to the left. This will greatly aid teachers who wish to compare her choices with others or with the original as well as scholars who might prefer to use her version for quick browsing. It is a small courtesy, but one that makes the book much easier to use for a variety of purposes with hardly any impact on the ease of readability.
As for how the poem reads: Wilson continues to choose iambic pentameter as the scaffolding for her Homer, with allowances here and there for an extra weak syllable at the end. One is meant to feel the beat and even to read the text aloud, with enjambments eventually resolving into end-stopped units of sense in the best traditions of blank verse. Pentameters are the most familiar and therefore the most readily accessible kind of English verse, and for the most part, Wilson’s lines read quite smoothly.
But occasionally, even an experienced reader will stumble over a Greek name that, though Latinized, nonetheless retains some Greek phonological quirks that may puzzle Anglophone readers. Although Wilson is scrupulous about the prosody of these names, there were many occasions when I found myself re-reading a line to work out a particularly unintuitive scansion. Aliquando et boni dormitant Homeridae, to be sure, but in English verse and Latin script, we expect certain diphthongs and digraphs: If diacritical assistance would help even a fellow specialist, it would help the general reader even more.
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Perhaps the greatest obstacle in rendering Homer into metrical English is the unavoidable loss of formulaic diction. The system of formulaic phrases is foundational to the poem’s density of meaning, and to ignore it entirely would be an injustice to poem and reader alike. Wilson is fully aware of this problem, and for her Iliad, she has worked out enough such phrases to sketch in outline the experience of the original within the constraints of her pentameters. The resulting effect is not so formulaic as to overwhelm (or stultify) first-year undergraduates and other readers who might be new to such poetry, but it is unusual enough to create a clear impression that this is a different kind of poetry, and it creates meaning differently from the poetry that people living in a literate society are used to.
When Wilson’s effort at formulaic diction comes together with the steady meter, one begins to glimpse the poetic magic that Plato thought too powerful and dangerous to be allowed into the just city. The Homeric characters speak across time and language and seem more real, more elemental than we are, their words raised above mere dialogue by the alternating beats. Simply for reminding us of this indescribable but undeniable poetic power, Wilson deserves the praise of everyone who professes to love literature.
THE ENGLISH REGISTER OF WILSON’S Iliad is mostly direct and unmarked, perhaps tilted slightly toward the contemporary. The material itself marks and elevates it: long Homeric speeches, digressions, and similes are allowed to mold modern language into archaic shapes. This is as it should be: Archaizing registers are difficult to maintain, while contemporary registers risk aging a translation prematurely; both risk drawing more attention to the register than to the substance of the poem. A translator’s choices in the opening lines are always worth examining, so I quote them here. (You can look over a version of the original Greek text for this passage online.)
Goddess, sing of the cataclysmic wrath
of great Achilles, son of Peleus,
which caused the Greeks immeasurable pain
and sent so many noble souls of heroes
to Hades, and made men the spoils of dogs,
a banquet for the birds, and so the plan
of Zeus unfolded—starting with the conflict
between great Agamemnon, lord of men,
and glorious Achilles. (1.1–9)
We are in good hands. “Cataclysmic” for οὐλομένην is excellent: another Greek word of equal syllabic count. “Wrath” is more apt than the usual “rage” for μῆνιν: It better encompasses both the wounded pride that begins the conflict and the inhuman, world-shattering fury that grips Achilles at its end. This is famously the first word of the poem in Greek, but since there is no way to make good English out of that, Wilson has sensibly given it an emphatic line-final position, and “sing” remains in its vital second position. “Greeks” for “Achaeans” is a consistent choice throughout the poem, and a justifiable one for any reader not concerned with the minutiae of Bronze Age ethnography.
Next is a choice that speaks to the depth and richness of Wilson’s understanding of the text, including the history of the Homeric text itself. “Banquet for the birds” stems from the older and now-disfavored reading, οἰωνοῖσί τε δαῖτα; that phrase is now generally thought to read οἰωνοῖσί τε πᾶσι, “for all the birds.” I think Wilson made a superb choice here: The alliteration is irresistible, and it shows the rich array of options available to a translator capable of making use of good critical editions. It is also the reading most familiar to Greek students who do not go on to advanced Homeric studies: They will know it from Benner’s Selections from Homer’s Iliad, which has remained the standard college introduction to the poem for the past century—making it also an endearing homage to a common touchstone.
Finally, we come to “Agamemnon” for the epithet Ἀτρείδης, “son of Atreus,” which demonstrates how a little bit of judicious semantic infidelity can produce the right epic atmosphere. In English, the parallel use of names makes much more sense than preserving their original imbalance, and the parallel combination of adjectives with initial G and names with initial A—“great Agamemnon” and “glorious Achilles”—allows Wilson’s text to replicate over two lines the same structural parallel between the two men that the Homeric text achieves in one line.
Wilson is especially effective at rendering the language of the Homeric simile: direct and poignant evocations of the natural and domestic worlds that are far away from the dirt and blood of a battlefield but invade the action with vivid and shocking images:
Meanwhile, across the middle of the plain,
some Trojans were still running for their lives,
as when at dead of night a lion comes
and all the cattle run from him but one,
who meets her death—between his jaws, he seizes
her neck and snaps it and then gorges down
her entrails and her blood—so Agamemnon,
the mighty son of Atreus, pursued
the Trojans, always slaughtering the hindmost. (11.230–238)
The battle scenes themselves also flow well; they are grim catalogues of men whose names and histories we learn only at the moment that they are cut down forever:
Iphidamas struck Agamemnon’s belt
under the breastplate and with confidence
in his strong arm, he pressed in hard, but failed
to pierce the shining belt. His spear-tip bent
like lead against the silver. Agamemnon
grabbed the spear from his hand, fierce as a lion,
and with his sword, chopped off his head and killed him.
So there he fell and slept the sleep of bronze.
This poor man came to help his countrymen,
and died a long way from his wife, his bride,
and never lived to benefit from her,
despite the marriage gifts he paid for her.
He had already brought a hundred cattle,
and vowed a thousand other animals,
mixed flocks of sheep and goats. His herds were countless.
But Agamemnon, son of Atreus,
slaughtered him, stripped away his splendid armor,
and strode all through the Greek crowd wearing it. (11.306–323)
The word choice is straightforward and unpretentious: This is a translation that has set a few definite constraints and, within those, has aimed primarily at clarity. This will make it an excellent choice for first-time readers as well as a welcome addition to the collections of enthusiasts. Teachers in particular—at both the secondary and university levels—will be desperate for the paperback edition; if the publisher has any sense at all, they will release it no later than mid-August of the coming year.
A WORD OF CAUTION BEFORE I CONCLUDE: Wilson’s Odyssey was not without its detractors, and her Iliad has drawn occasional mutterings, but it behooves us to distinguish between criticism of taste and criticism of merit, and within the latter, between informed criticism and the flatulent windbagging of culture-war pundits. Anyone is perfectly within their rights to say that Wilson’s Homer does not suit their taste; it will probably not be my first choice of English translation, either. (My scholarly work has concentrated on formulaic diction, so Lattimore has been my personal English edition of choice.) But because part of Wilson’s project has been to avoid euphemism in depicting the highly patriarchal slave-owning society of the archaic Greek imagination, she has become a target for volleys in the culture war.
One recent commentator complains (and it is a common complaint) that Wilson’s choice to say “complicated” for πολύτροπος in the first line of her Odyssey is “insulting [to] Odysseus,” seemingly unaware of the multivalent thrust of the term or of modern translators’ attempts to render its ambiguity. A year of college—or, God forbid, seminary—Greek is no more sufficient for evaluating a Homer translation than is a year of college Spanish for judging a Don Quixote. A more learned review damns her with faint praise: Yes, the verse is excellent, but must she be so reductionist in her portrayal? Wilson has made choices, the same as any other translator has: These choices place emphasis on one thing and not on another. To complain “but there’s more to it than that!” is nearly redundant: of course there is, because we are reading English and not Greek.
Criticism of this kind is a misuse of learning to muddle discussion for the sake of scoring points rather than to clarify it for a curious public. There is plenty of intelligent and reasonable criticism of Wilson’s work to be had from people who know the poems well—the Bryn Mawr Classical Review was positive but not uncritical, and I myself think her choices at Odyssey 15.365 were the wrong ones—and there is no need to give credence to people who consider their own desire for attention an adequate substitute for the knowledge and consideration that must attend real critical judgment.
Wilson has produced a translation so consistently good that I was unduly outraged at coming across one bad line: at book 8, line 243, Hector calls out to his horses: “Now Swiftfoot, Blondie, Flame, and godlike Sparkle,” a line that Aristarchus would have athetized and that Wilson’s editor ought to have struck as entirely too precious. But my taste is neither hers nor yours, and Wilson’s deep love for and understanding of the Iliad—by her own admission, the greater of her Homeric loves—shine through every page of this superb translation. The completion of her verse Homer amounts to nothing less than the renewal of an English poetic tradition.