Book Review: The Iliad
translated by Anthony Verity
Oxford University Press, 2011
Fittingly enough, there’s a war perpetually raging around Homer’s Iliad. It’s not Homer’s war between the valiant Trojans and the angry Greeks avenging the abduction of Helen, but it shares at least two things in common it: each side has merit, and each side is immovably convinced that the gods are for it.
The war is one of translators – or more properly, translators’ philosophies. When Homer (whoever he was – I think the Earl of Oxford is the current leading candidate) composed his poem thousands of years ago, it was already an intensely artificial thing; as translators never tire of telling us, no ancient Greek ever spoke the ancient Greek that fills the lines of this epic and gives it such unmatchable power. Homer was writing in a poetified diction and meter, over 15,000 lines of dactylic hexameter that bears virtually no relation to the natural dum-dee-dum of spoken English. So when it comes time to translate Homer into English, two paths diverge.
Basically, it’s the choice of any translation: do you make a scrupulous representation of the original at the risk of killing its appeal, or do you take liberties with the original in the hopes of conveying its spirit? The long history of Homer in English is studded with great examples of both. In the golden age of 20th century translations, the one by Richmond Lattimore was the quintessential by-the-book version, and perhaps the one by Robert Fitzgerald could stand in for all the more adaptive versions (up to a certain point, that is: the psychedelic metamorphoses of our late, great Idomeneus, Christopher Logue, for example, can have no part in this).
The 21st century now has one example of each school of thought. Stephen Mitchell has produced a looser, ear-driven adaptation of a recension of the poem made by Homer scholar Martin West, and now, for Oxford University Press, Anthony Verity has taken the other route, trying to stay as close to Homer as possible:
I have tried to avoid importing alien imagery, and have preserved variations in sentence length. Similarly, I have kept clear of ‘poeticizing’ Homer at one extreme and reducing the scale of his invention to the level of a modern adventure story at the other. Both approaches, not unknown to recent translators, tend to get in the way of the poem’s directness and power.
If we take our translator at his word, we should then turn the page and begin to find directness and power. This does indeed happen, although not always to the extent – or even in the ways – that Verity himself might intend. Look at the piteous little moment from Book Nineteen when plaintive captive Briseis comes upon the corpse of Patroclus laid out in the tent:
‘Patroclus, chief delight of my heart, how wretched I am!
When I went from this hut you were still living, but
now, marshal of the people, I come back to find you
dead; how one evil always follows another for me!
I saw the man to whom my father and revered mother
gave me disfigured with the sharp bronze in front of my city,
and my three brothers, born to the same mother as I was,
all of them very dear to me, meeting their day of death.
Even so, when swift Achilles killed my husband and sacked
the city of godlike Mynes, you would not let me weep,
but declared that you would make me godlike Achilles’
lawful wedded wife, and would take me in your ships to Phthia,
and would hold a marriage feast among the Myrmidons;
so now I mourn you inconsolably; you were always kind to me.’
There’s certainly directness there, although as in the Lattimore translation, fidelity to the original goes some way toward blunting the dramatic impact of the moment (first-time readers of Homer especially might not feel the full power of it). Only some way, though: Verity’s strong, graceful approach preserves the wonderfully Homeric double revelation of the scene – until that moment, had we quite noticed the equivalence between Briseis and Patroclus, each in a way captive to the whim and charisma of Achilles? Had we thought to wonder if that might have fostered an intimacy between them? For that matter, had we thought much about Briseis at all – not as a plot device, but as a person? The enjambments here are all of dark surprise and bad things – they stutter the lines down forward to that heartbreakingly insufficient ‘you were always kind to me.’ It’s expertly done.
Throughout his translation, Verity enlists subtlety and stark insistence to do the work most translators handle with clever (and even, in Fitzgerald’s case for example, anachronistic) word-choice. This is a leap; the modern age especially, birthed in nightmares, is enamored of sentimentality – Homer’s snare-drum baldness runs the risk of leaving modern readers unsatisfied. Ironically, it runs the risk of making modern readers think their translator is being lazy (I cackled with laughter the first time I heard a student apply that word to Lattimore! His translation may be many things – turgid and dull-as-dishwater come to mind – but it certainly is never lazy). Verity repeatedly takes that risk and makes it work, as in the lightning-fast moment from Book Twenty-Two when a triumphant Hector, backed by his brother Deiphobus, confronts Achilles before the walls of Troy thinking to end this super-warrior’s menace at last. He throws his spear, which hits Achilles’ shield dead center and bounces off like a twig. Undaunted, he turns to Deiphobus for another spear – but his brother is gone. Hector knows immediately that the sight of Deiphobus had been an illusion of the gods, and that he’s alone, facing the worst killer in the world. And he knows exactly what it means:
‘This is the end; the gods are surely calling me to my death.
I was certain that the hero Deiphobus was near at hand,
but he is inside the wall, and Athena has deceived me.
Now indeed a miserable death is close, no longer far off,
and there is no escape …
Verity’s Iliad builds to a greater, more persuasive power than can be found in Mitchell’s, but it requires more wherewithal from the reader, as Homer should. And Verity is enormously aided in his work by the Introduction and Notes of Homer scholar Barbara Graziosi, who does for Verity’s translation here what Bernard Knox so famously did for the 20th century translation of Robert Fagles. In both cases, the art of translation itself is given a stout defense against the inroads of showy innovation:
There is often a dynamic, expressive tension between the traditional formulations used by the poet, and the specific situations he describes. Formulae fasten characters and things to specific qualities, but the poet tells a far less stable story. Leaders, for example, are called ‘shepherds of the people’, but in the Iliad the people perish, inexorably. It seems then that the tools of oral poetry, far from being a convenient but stilted aid to composition, enable the poet to tell his story powerfully and idiomatically.
But as with the great Knox Introduction to the Fagles Iliad, so here: there’s a deep, rich quality to the thinking involved; it almost steals the show. Graziosi’s work on Homer has always been superb, but she outdoes herself in these pages – including this little aria of observations, which is the finest thing about Homer yet written in the 21st century for a popular audience:
… what readers ask of the Iliad is whether things can be different. Whether we must imagine wars and more wars, like Hector when he prays for his son, or whether there can perhaps be peace – and even a poetics of peace … The Iliad itself offers no clear answer, only fleeting images of peace in the form of distant memories, startling comparisons, and doomed aspirations. Hector runs past the place where the Trojan women used to wash their clothes before the war. Andromache wishes Hector had died in his own bed. Athena deflects an arrow like a mother brushing away a fly from her sleeping baby. On the shield of Achilles – which is a representation of the whole world – there is a city at war, but there is also a city at peace. There is a wedding and a vintage, and a row of boys and girls dancing to music. These images are precious, because they are so very rare.
Our lists have now been entered, one on either side. Despite his protestations to the contrary, Stephen Mitchell has given us an Iliad in which the translator (and his ideology) takes precedence over the poem – not a desecration, since the translator has a rare sensitivity and the courage to craft a scene, but not a straightforward temple offering either. And Anthony Verity has given us an Iliad as Homer might have sung it, a thing of long chant-lines and sacerdotal scansion that risks doing the one thing Homer doesn’t want: alienating a willing audience. Probably by accident, the two translations represent afresh for a new century the war about Homer. That war will go on, and unlike the devastated Greeks and Trojans, we’re only the better for it.