Our book today is Homer’s Iliad, a choice some of you will have been expecting all throughout this “summer books” thread, since I’ve made no secret of the fact that I re-read Homer every year, the Iliad in June and the Odyssey in August. I use them as mental bookends to what we’ll increasingly need to call “traditional summer,” the hot, humid stretch from 1 June to 1 September (or, in the U.S., from Memorial Day to Labor Day) that’s less and less meaningful in a planet that’s heating up so rapidly. Decades and decades ago, when I first implemented this Homeric re-reading habit, the mere possibility that the Earth, the seasons themselves, would change in my lifetime was as far outside the realm of my imaginings as, say, the benign collapse of the Soviet Union or the fact that a washed-up C-list Hollywood actor would become the greatest president in the republic’s long history. But the Earth itself is changing, and as its mean temperature continues to rise (with each successive year not only globally hotter than the last but also the hottest ever until then recorded), rampaging super-storms and melting infrastructures will become the norm, summer will stretch from one end of the year to the next, and “traditional summer” will be the stretch from 1 June to 1 September in which it’s a rainless average of 135-140 degrees Fahrenheit in Boston. Obviously, there will be no Stevereads in such dark times.
But until then, we have “traditional summer,” when June is warm but pleasant, July is a firestorm of broiling heat and sopping humidity, and August starts like a furnace and slowly, grudgingly tapers off toward the “warm but pleasant” area of the spectrum again. And as long as we have “traditional summer” I’ll have “summer reading.” And as long as I have summer reading, I’ll turn to Homer!
Ah, but which Homer? Since time immemorial, I’ve opted in the summer to read Homer in English-language translation rather than in the Greek, even though in recent years I’ve entertained graver and graver doubts about the efficacy of any translation of the Greek and Roman classics. With every new translation of Catullus or Horace or Virgil or Homer that appears in the Open Letters Post Office Box, with every one of these things I read, I see more and more shortcuts, more and more creative license that strikes me as lazy or unwarranted, and less and less of the joys of the original being conveyed in any way.
So far, I’m staving off a wholesale moratorium by reminding myself that a large joy of reading any translation is the pleasure of the translator’s company, not the reviving of the original author’s. As Leland de la Durantaye writes in the latest Boston Review, “Even under the most favorable circumstances translation is a difficult process, punctuated by moments of stark and alarming impossibility.” That helps to move the whole spotlight from conveying a writer’s work to a monoglot audience onto watching a translator do what amounts to a pastiche performance. And every summer, I spend a little time before my bookshelves deciding which pastiche performance I’ll pick this time around. There are always leading contenders, starting, for me, with the great translation completed by dashing, oafish George Chapman in 1611. Chapman translates Homer into a bragging, rollicking Elizabethan quasi-epic (or maybe it always was that? After a hundred pages of Chapman, you’re so word-drunk you don’t even clearly remember anymore), with the dialogue seeming to resound for the stage. Take the moment in Book Thirteen when Ajax and Hector come near enough to each other on the clashing front lines to exchange taunts; the Greek ranks had been blasted by direct intervention from Olympus, and Ajax is eager to make sure Hector knows that with Jupiter off the battlefield, things will go quite differently:
“Oh good man, why fright’st thou thus our men?
Come nearer. Not Art’s want in warre makes us thus navie-bound,
But Jove’s direct scourge; his arm’d hand makes our hands give you ground.
Yet thus hop’st (of thy selfe) our spoile. But we have likewise hands
To hold our owne as you spoile; and, ere they countermands
Stand good against our ransackt fleete, your hugely-peopled towne
Our hands shall take in, and her towres from all their heights pull downe.
And, I must tell thee, time drawes on when, flying, thou shalt crie
To Jove and all the Gods to make thy faire-man’d horses flie
More swift than Falkons, that their hoofes may rouse the dust and beare
Thy bodie, hid, to Ilion.”
“Vaine-spoken man and glorious, what hast thou said? Would I
As surely were the sonne of Jove, and of great Juno borne,
Adorn’d like Pallas and the God that lifts to earth the Morne,
As this day shall bring harmefull light to all your host; and thou
(If thou dar’st stand this lance) the earth before the ships shalt strow,
They bosome torne up, and the dogs, with all the fowle of Troy,
Be satiate with thy fat and flesh.”
But it might not be Chapman this time around, since I’ve been pretty steadily re-reading his plays and might not be able to stomach quite so much more of his bombast, delicious as it is. And certainly you can’t get much further from Elizabethan bombast than the ultra-fine drawing room urbanities of Alexander Pope, whose 1720 Iliad (in the satisfyingly plump Penguin Classic, of course) is done in gorgeous rhyming couplets that sap almost all of Homer’s power and substitute for it a conception of the poet’s art that would have been utterly unrecognizable to both Homer and Chapman:
“Hector! come on, thy empty threats forbear:
‘Tis not thy arm, ’tis thund’ring Jove we fear;
The skill of war to us not idly giv’n,
Lo! Greece is humbled not by Troy, but heav’n.
Vain are the hopes that haughty mind imparts,
To force our fleet: The Greeks have hands, and hearts.
Long e’er in flames our lofty navy fall,
Your boasted city and your god-built wall
Shall sink beneath us, smoaking on the ground;
And spread a long, unmeasur’d ruin round.
The time shall come, when chas’d along the plain
Ev’n thou shalt call on Jove, and call in vain;
Ev’n thou shalt wish, to aid thy desp’rate course,
The wings of falcons for thy flying horse;
Shalt run, forgetful of a warriour’s fame,
While clouds of friendly dust conceal thy shame.”
And if it’s clear even from Ajax’s taunt that Pope is filling in spaces in order to facilitate his rhyme scheme, it’s even clearer in Hector’s response:
“From whence this menace, this insulting strain?
Enormous boaster! doom’d to vaunt in vain.
So may the Gods on Hector life bestow,
(Not that short life which mortals lead below,
But such as those of Jove‘s high lineage born,
The blue-ey’d Maid, or he that gilds the morn.)
As this decisive day shall end the fame
Of Greece, and Argos be no more a name.
and thou, imperious! if thy madness wait
The lance of Hector, thou shalt meet thy fate:
That giant-corse, extended on the shore,
Shall largely feast the fowls with fat and gore.”
Of course, when considering Iliad translations another Penguin Classic comes to mind, the best-selling 1950 version by E. V. Rieu, done in ringing prose that holds up marvelously well in the face of half a century of higher-profile verse versions. His Ajax is still angrily defensive, but now and then he slips into British public school slang:
“You there,” he called to Hector, “come closer, and give up these futile efforts to make Argives run away. We do know something about war, and if took a thrashing, it was Zeus with his wicked scourge that gave it us. I suppose you imagine that you are going to destroy our ships? But we too have hands, which are ready to fight for them, and likely, long before you get the ships, to capture your fine town and sack it. As for you, I say the time is drawing near when, in your haste to save yourself, you will pray to Father Zeus and the other gods to make your long-maned horses faster than falcons as they gallop home with you to Troy in clouds of dust.”
And likewise with Hector’s response, which has an amusing hint of the antiquated class system:
“Aias,” he said, “arrant nonsense is what one expects from a clodhopper; but you surpass yourself. Of one thing I am sure – sure as I am that I should love to spend my days as the son of aegis-bearing Zeus and the Lady Here with the honours of Athene and Apollo – and that is that this day will be disastrous for the whole Argive force, and that you will die with the rest of them, if you dare to stand up to my long spear, which is going to tear your lily-white skin. Yes, you shall fall by your own ships, and your flesh and fat shall glut the Trojan dogs and birds of prey.”
For many years, I favored the 1974 translation by Robert Fitzgerald – there’ve been many consecutive summers in which I picked Fitzgerald time after time. There’s a very appealing baroque flavor to his version, a flintiness that almost approximates the hard edges that bark your shin when you read Homer in the Greek. The most dramatic element of this Ajax-Hector exchange isn’t the fact that each man spins out a hypothetical scenario (characters spin fantasies all through the poem, almost by reflex) but rather how violent this wishful thinking is – and Fitzgerald captures that fairly well:
“Come closer, clever one!
Is this your way to terrify the Argives?
No, we are not so innocent of battle,
only worsted by the scourge of Zeus.
And now your heart’s desire’s to storm our ships,
but we have strong arms, too, arms to defend them.
Sooner your well-built town shall fall
to our assault, taken by storm and plundered.
As for yourself, the time is near, I say,
when in retreat you’ll pray to Father Zeus
that your fine team be faster than paired falcons,
pulling you Troyward, making a dustcloud boil
along the plain!”
But Fitzgerald’s tendency for clotted, self-consciously antique phrasings, I’ve come to see, gets in the way of his version of the power of Homer, and you can really see that in Hector’s reply, where Fitzgerald’s fussing with word-order inadvertently (I hope) draws attention away from the yelled, spitting comments being made:
“Aias, how you blubber;
clumsy ox, what rot you talk! I wish
I were as surely all my days
a son of Zeus who bears the stormcloud, born
to Lady Hera, honored like Athena
or like Apollo – as this day will surely
bring the Argives woe, to every man.
You will be killed among them! Only dare
stand up to my long spear! That fair white flesh
my spear will cut to pieces: then you’ll glut
with fat and lean the dogs and carrion birds
of the Trojan land! You’ll die there by your ships!”
In more modern times, the most celebrated Iliad has been the 1990 translation by Robert Fagles (with a magnificent Introduction by Bernard Knox), which sold like hotcakes in a beautiful Viking hardcover, then sold like hotcakes in a sturdy Viking paperback, and then sold like hotcakes as the Penguin Classic Iliad that bumped Rieu’s from the publisher’s frontlist. I never quite warmed to the Fagles translation the way so many other readers did; he seems at many places to be the very last thing Homer ever is: wordy. But the last time I re-read his translation I perceived more of what I think he’s about – there are fine little internal rhymes, and there’s a sense of rhetorical pacing that owes virtually all of its dramatic punch to 20th century fiction. This little moment in Book Thirteen is a good example, in fact, since Fagles is at his best in rendering dialogue. The very word-choices of his Ajax – “packed with people,” “gut and crush” – reflect a bruiser:
“Madman! Here, come closer -
trying to frighten Argives? Why waste your breath?
No, no, it’s not that we lack the skill in battle,
it’s just that the brutal lash of Zeus that beats us down.
Your hopes soar, I suppose, to gut and crush our ships?
Well we have strong arms too, arms to defend those ships -
and long before that your city packed with people
will fall beneath our hands, plundered to rubble.
And you, I say, the day draws near when off you run
and pray to Father Zeus and the other deathless gods
to make your full-maned horses swifter than hawks -
whipping dust from the plain to sweep you back to Troy!”
And his Hector’s response is that of an affronted intellectual, a community college instructor who dislikes not just the effrontery of his one obnoxious student but that student’s very existence. He scorns – almost scorns – his enormous enemy with clipped reminders (“And you will die with the rest”):
Enough of your blustering threats, you clumsy ox -
what loose talk, what rant!
I wish I were as surely the son of storming Zeus
for all my days – and noble Hera gave me birth
and I were prized as they prize Athena and Apollo -
as surely as this day will bring your Argive death,
down to the last man. And you will die with the rest.
If you have the daring to stand against my heavy spear
its point will rip your soft warm skin to shreds!
Then, then you’ll glut the dogs and birds of Troy
with your fat and flesh – cut down by the beaked ships!”
And if I’m feeling extra-adventurous (or extra-patient), I can always reach for Stanley Lombardo’s 1997 translation, which drew a good many astonished review when it first appeared – mainly because of the audacity with which he cuts corners in order to convey drama. It’s an approach that would have been immediately recognizable to George Chapman, actually, although every time I revisit Lombardo, I’m reminded that the same approach can have markedly different results. Here’s his Ajax:
“Come closer, sweetheart. No need to be coy.
We’re not exactly inexperienced in war,
You know. It was Zeus who whipped us before.
I’m sure you’d like to rip our ships apart,
But be just as sure we have hands to defend them.
Your city, with all its people, will likely fall
A lot sooner, captured by us and plundered.
As for you, the day will soon be here
When you pray to Zeus and all immortals
For your combed horses to outfly falcons
And take you through the dusty plain to Troy.”
And here’s his Hector, talking about metaphorical as well as literal guts:
“You bumbling ox, what a stupid thing to say.
I wish it were as certain that I were Zeus’ son
And Hera my mother, and that I were honored
Equally with Apollo and Athena
As it is that this day will bring doom
To every last Greek, and you among them,
Killed by my long spear, if you have the guts
To wait for it to pierce your lily-white skin
And leave your larded flesh to glut the dogs and birds
Of Troy, after you had fallen amid the ships.”
Of course, if the day is hot enough, anything goes. But “come closer, sweetheart”? Maybe I’ll try the Stephen Mitchell version again.