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Book Review: The Iliad

Homer: The Iliad

Translated by Edward McCrorie

The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012

The cover of Edward McCrorie’s verse translation of Homer’s Odyssey (published almost a decade ago by the Johns Hopkins University Press) featured a photo of a travel-beaten satchel on a sunlit beach, which was of course apt: as a visual shorthand for the long-voyaging Odysseus’ struggle to reach his home of Ithaca, it could scarcely be beat – and the decidedly contemporary feel of the image didn’t hurt any, verse translations of ancient epics being somewhat difficult to sell to a public that increasingly reads children’s books without embarrassment. The translation itself was a trifle lackluster, but the vivacity was much appreciated just the same.

McCrorie has now followed up his Odyssey with an Iliad, and Hopkins has once again given it an inventive, contemporary cover image: Neil Leifer’s famous photo of a young Cassius Clay (who would later change his name to Muhammad Ali) standing over a dazed Sonny Liston after a punch nobody saw sent the former champ to the canvas in May of 1965. In the photo, Clay is angrily urging his opponent to get up – the encounter has a visceral personal element that again makes it the perfect totem for the poem’s violence – especially the climactic fight between Achilles and Hector, which ends much the same way, with the victor standing over his opponent, taunting (“Mongrels and birds,” he says here, “will wholly devour you”).

This Iliad is a trifle lackluster as well, although sometimes flinty and beautiful and often very odd.

Not Erwin Cook’s comprehensive, welcoming Introduction, which does very well the necessary task of laying out the epic’s story and characters, explicating the nature of the work in a way that’s both informative for the student new to Homer and interesting for the scholar – Cook’s work is solid, nothing odd to it.

But McCrorie’s work, that’s a different story; he’s made some very odd choices, and to understand them, we turn of course to that very will and testament of the odd: the Translator’s Preface.

Throughout the epic, Homer underscores the rule of Doom. As a poet and translator now in America, I deeply respond to that ominous tone and wonder how, working with current ways of English poetry – however removed from the ancient Greek – I might approximate both sound and sense in the Iliad. For … I steer away from two assumptions: that translation is a form of treachery, and therefore pointless, and that only transliteration qualifies as respectable. Rather, I try to approximate, drawing as closely as possible to both sense and style in the original.

Fair enough, and the normal genuflection for Homeric translators (although that slightly discordant “in America” note sounds again, when McCrorie describes the way Athena tricks Homer into thinking his brother Deiphobos is with him as he confronts Achilles at the climax of the poem; without apparent irony, McCrorie writes “As an American I regret Hektor’s flight. I also loathe Athene’s lack of fair play”) whether they follow it or not. The usual straw men are duly present – nobody in hundreds (perhaps thousands?) of years has seriously held that all translation is a form of treachery or that the only respectable form of it is transliteration – and the concluding profession, the striving to draw close to the ‘sense and style’ of the original, is dutifully borderline impossible, but it’s the manner that quite literally tell the tale – and McCrorie has chosen a manner that’s an uneven marriage of defiant eccentricity and a slightly angular stateliness. In a word, odd.

Here’s the quick exchange between Hector and King Asius in Book 12:

Then the son of Hurtakos, Asios, groaning,
slapped his two big thighs and angrily called out,
“Fatherly Zeus! Now you’re a tricky lover
through and through, for I hardly fancied Akhaian
war-chiefs halting our strong, unbeatable right hands.
Yet like wasps with their nimble bellies, or nesting
bees building combs by a rock-littered footpath –
not gone off from their hollow house but remaining
close to the young, guarding them all against hunters –
so these men, just two, aren’t minded to yield ground
close to the gates until they’re killed or they kill us.”
Nothing he said, though, moved the mind of the great Zeus
who had planned in his heart to lavish kudos on Hektor.

We can agree that ‘bees building combs by a rock-littered footpath’ is very good, but what reader (American or otherwise) won’t stumble over those nimble-bellied wasps? Who won’t start hurriedly re-reading when they hear Asius refer to Zeus as a tricky lover? These things might be closer to the sense and style of the Greek, but McCrorie is writing English, and nimble bellies aren’t strictly comprehensible. A nice clear prose version has it like this:

“Ah, Father Zeus, I did not know that you too were such a lover of the lie. I never thought those bold Achaeans could withstand our fury; I fancied we were irresistible. But look at them now, ready, the pair of them, to kill or be killed before they give way from the gate, like supple-wasted wasps or bees that have built in a hollow by a rocky path an won’t be driven from their home, but stay and fight it out with the huntsmen for their children’s sake!”

Supple-waisted is very little better than nimble-bellied, although at least waists can be supple, but here Zeus is a lover of lies, not a lying lover, and most of all, the only thing any reader is thinking about having read McCrorie’s version, when Hector gets what’s coming to him, it’s not a thumbs-up from his mid-manager. Here’s the line without the lingo:

This outburst from Asius had no effect on Zeus, who had made up his mind to let Hector have the glory.

It’s just about as easy to understand why a translator might choose ‘kudos’ as it is to deplore the choice – there’s a fundamental distrust lurking behind such choices, a distrust that Homer alone (even in a faithful translation) can do his job. He can, and there are many passages in this Iliad where McCrorie not only lets him but helps him, giving his readers a weird, jerky eloquence that’s intensely memorable. Listen to Aeneas baiting Achilles:

“Come then, let’s not talk further like children
while we stand surrounded by struggle and combat.
Sundry rebukes we both could name, they are many;
nor could a hundred-benched ship carry the whole weight.
Mankind’s tongue is a twist of many and varied
sayings, words broadly ranging this way and that way.
Every word you say is a word you could hear said.
Why this quarreling, then, both of us facing
off to taunt each other as though we were women
hotly chafing in soul-devouring conflict?
Out they go on the road to rant at each other,
truths and many lies, anger tells them to use both.
Yet your words won’t alter the bent of my prowess,
not till you face and fight me with bronze. Come on then,
let’s be fast testing each other with spears and their bronze tips.”

We can very much appreciate that “Every word you say is a word you could hear said” (W.H.D. Rouse has it “Whatever kind of words you speak, such will you hear”), as we can appreciate a good deal else in this odd, lunging version of Homer. Whether that good ultimately outweighs the kudos – and, one almost shudders to recall it, the presence of a place called Olumpos – is a more open question than perhaps our translator thinks. His labors here are compromised even when they’re undeniably lively – but the result isn’t quite a knockout.