A new translation of the Iliad

Book review: Peter Green’s effort is not entirely successful

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

8 August 2015

9:00 AM

The Iliad, Homer: A New Translation Peter Green

University of California Press, pp.580, £19.95, ISBN: 9780520281417

‘Why do another translation of Homer?’ Richmond Lattimore asked in the foreword to his own great translation of the Iliad first published in 1951. It was a doubt he was grateful his friends and family had refrained from expressing in the long labour of translating the Greek. But he had a response for any who dared: it was ‘a question which has no answer for those who do not know the answer already’. Homer exists to be translated, largely for what Peter Green has called ‘its uncanny universalist insight into the wellsprings of human nature’. Homer is one of the sources of truth; it demands to be known. The last 200 years have had no shortage of candidates come to drink at that well — more than 40 English Iliads in the 19th century, another 30 in the 20th and eight so far in the 21st, a Victorian level of production, nearly all of them coming out of America. There are several more set to emerge.

Green’s is the latest. It is the culmination of a wonderful troubadour life as a journalist, film critic, adventurer, soldier, scholar, novelist, historian, poet and translator of both Latin and Greek. He is now 90 years old, the Dougherty Centennial Professor Emeritus of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin, and it is no criticism to say that the best parts of his book are professorial: generously informed and clarifying footnotes, deft character summaries and subtle plot synopses, all of which are infused with a helping-hand mentality. This is an Iliad which makes something inherently strange and profoundly difficult much less so.

Where it doesn’t work is in the poetry. The question is as old as translation itself: do you make the English feel as rich and alien as the Bronze Age words of the Greek, driven along by the sombre and splendid music of their hexa-meters? Or do you drag that strangeness into the light of modern accessibility? Do you cultivate, in other words, the strange or the known, poetry or history, the remote atmosphere of violence and suffering, of fragile beauty and unforgiving force, or do you focus on the explicable facts of the case, the plainest version the words of the Greek can bear?

Green chooses the second. Take for example the moment at the beginning of Book 19 when Thetis, Achilles’s mother, delivers to her son the new armour which the smith-god Hephaistos has made for him. It is one of the Iliad’s moments of scalding intensity, the point at which the cosmic destruction of revenge about to be wrought by Achilles on the Trojans has its beginnings. The armour itself is a thing of terror and Achilles’s men, the Myrmidons, cannot look at it. Only the hero himself can encounter its cosmic power.

Alexander Pope wrote smoothly in about 1720:

Unmoved the hero kindles at the show,
And feels with rage divine his bosom glow.
From his fierce eyeballs living flames expire,
And flash incessant like a stream of fire.

This is 18th-century civility and restraint, the passion held quite comfortably within the couplets. Chapman’s great loping Elizabethan translation, loved by Keats, is franker, rougher, larger:

Cold tremblings tooke the Myrmidons; none durst sustaine, all fear’d
T’oppose their eyes. Achilles yet, as soon as they appear’d,
Sterne Anger enterd. From his eyes (as if the day-starre rose)
A radiance terrifying did all the state enclose.

The Greek says nothing explicitly of ‘the day-star’, only of a ‘brightness’ under Achilles’s eyelids, as if of a torch or lightning, but Chapman’s vision of a vast sun burning like the sunrise from Achilles’s pupils is one of the great moments of English translation.

It is a strange fact that addition in translation reveals more than strict adherence to the original. Christopher Logue’s War Music adds, and what he adds is some astonishing kind of urgent reality. His Achilles looked at the armour

Lifted a piece of it between his hands;
Turned it; tested the weight of it; and then
Spun the holy tungsten like a star between his knees,
Slitting his eyes against the flare, some said,
But others thought the hatred shuttered by his lids
Made him protect the metal.

Logue’s addition of that acid, etching light emanating from Achilles’s glare, takes its place alongside Chapman’s sunrise as one of the great moments of English translation. Then Logue adds this: ‘His eyes like furnace doors ajar.’ That vision of brilliance in the dark, unsourced in the Greek beyond the light seen under Achilles’s lids, is nevertheless the poetry of Homer made explicit.

These high tests are the only ones to which it is worth submitting a new translation of the Iliad and this is Green’s version:

Trembling swept through the Myrmidons: no Man dared
To look directly at them, but flinched away. As Achilles
viewed them, his wrath swelled further, his eyes glared out
terribly under their lids, like blazing fire.

This is serviceable but scarcely revelatory, unresponsive to the intensity or grip of the original, sensing neither the fear nor grandeur of it. It is, for all its ordinariness, surprisingly inaccurate. Trembling doesn’t sweep through the Myrmidons in the Greek but ‘holds’ them. In the middle of these Greek lines there is a big ‘But’, a mark of Achilles’s distinctness from ordinary men, which Green’s ‘As Achilles viewed them’ simply omits. Lattimore’s version was ‘Only Achilleus/ Looked, and as he looked the anger came harder upon him/And his eyes glittered terribly under his lids, like sunflare.’ Besides, for Achilles to ‘view’ this armour as if casting his eye over it in Selfridges is scarcely adequate. Nor is ‘flinched’ right; the Greek means to shrink or back away, a withdrawal from the realm of terrifying greatness, a scale of fear which the word ‘terribly’ can also no longer convey in English. A ‘blazing fire’ might be the sort of thing one has in a Cotswold fireplace on a cold evening but it does not have the qualities of irreducible otherness which have burned in Achilles’s heart and eye for the past three or four thousand years.

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  • diogenes

    What a rare pleasure: a translation of a Classical text reviewed by a writer who has a sense of what makes poetry and what doesn’t.

  • Michael Lair

    Interesting and informative, but somehow I don’t quite see, at least on the face of the quoted and dissected text, what is so bad about Professor Green’s rendering. The comparatively major inaccuracies of Chapman and Logue (which is a quite bizarrely inflated total rewriting) are swallowed cheerfully but “swept” vs. “held”? Also, Green’s version says clearly “no Man dared to look directly at them…” and then “as Achilles viewed them” which would seem to effectively convey the idea that Achilles was the only one who viewed them, (and indeed the word “view” can be said to convey the quality of Directed Inspection rather than merely “looking” at the shoe displays in Macy’s…) Is the rest of it worse? Of course now I must read it to see for myself but this rather nitpicking article is “not entirely successful” as a convincing critique of Professor Green’s work. It goes without saying, readers want a translation that conveys the poetic wonder of the original, but perhaps judgment of what is or is not successfully “poetic” is not so easy to pin down.

    • Al_de_Baran

      I think that the author of the piece makes his criteria and argument very clear for what he considers to be acceptable deviations from the literal. One may agree or disagree, but the criteria are clear.

    • urstoff

      Logue’s work is definitely not meant to be a faithful translation, but instead a modern poetic recasting. It is odd to see him praising Pope, though, as forcing the poem into heroic couples ends up omitting much.

      That said, having read parts of Green’s translation, there doesn’t seem any reason to choose it over other translations (although it can’t hurt to read a new version if you’ve read all the others). Although looked down upon in stodgier circles (where the likes of Fitzgerald reigns), Fagles’ translation is hard to beat. Lombardo’s version is great if you really want to read the Iliad as a war poem, although some people (not me) are turned off by the slang (ever heard actual soldiers talk? It’s not high poetry).

  • Peter Newey

    On the translation of the Iliad, Richard Bentley, a widely respected classicist and contemporary of Alexander Pope, wrote: “It is a pretty poem, Mr. Pope, but you must NOT call it Homer.” The very notion of transposing Homeric hexameters into any other metrical form is in itself singularly fatuous. The best one can do is sacrifice the poetry and essay a translation into modern, idiomatic prose, as did T.E. Shaw with the Odyssey (1928-31), still the best translation in existence to date.