A Review of Emily Wilson's Iliad
How Homeric language might be found or lost in translation.
Homeric poetry is ‘swift’, scholars will tell you. It can be read quickly because phrases, and sometimes entire scenes, repeat themselves, and this is because oral poetry depends on ‘formulaic’ language, repeated metrically identical phrases that are the poet’s tools. Much of it can be skimmed, because you half know what’s coming. This makes Homer an excellent text for an intermediate Greek class; the repetition means that you can become reasonably fluent quickly. Chances are, if you look up and learn a word, the text is quick to give you it back, often in the same phrase. And by the third or fourth time, you own it. It is the great strength of Emily Wilson’s new translation of The Iliad that it captures this ‘swiftness’ of Homeric verse, although not by staying faithful to the formulaic language. In a consistent, bouncing meter of iambs, often aided by heavy use of alliteration, her translation skips on, piling simple phrase upon simple phrase, all culled from contemporary language. Very little seems strange. This gets across at least a part of the Homeric experience. ‘Homer didn’t sound archaic to the Greeks’, she likes to say, and her translation accordingly prioritizes accessibility. It’s as ordinary as English can reasonably get.
But is it true that Homer didn’t sound archaic to the Greeks? At the very least the texts have their own poetic language, related to but distinct from the spoken language that surrounded them, and create a coherent, fantasized heroic world that draws from vastly different centuries of Greek language and culture. Moreover, despite much scholarly efforts to deny this, Homer is a poet in the modern sense too, full of puzzles and riddles, precise word choices, striking metaphors, and variations on clear themes that are artfully set up and developed. To return to the intermediate Greek student, alongside the excitement of gaining fluency, there are moments when the language sticks out, is strange, unpredictable, and demands extra attention. The language gap forces you to read more slowly, and gives space and time for reflection. For these moments, Wilson is less successful. In what follows, I’m interested in exploring some of the translation’s weaknesses, weaknesses that even a moderate amount of Ancient Greek helps you discover. But it’s worth stating that many of these are endemic to any translation. Translation, by necessity, can hardly come to terms with the Greek’s thematic motifs, nor the strangeness and specificity of Homer’s language. So think of this brief review as mainly an invitation to learn and explore Homer in ancient Greek.
When I first teach students poetry, I often ask them to concentrate less on what the text means, and more on what it says. When Robert Burns claims his love is like a ‘red, red rose’, the meaning is fairly clear. He loves her. A lot. But why a rose? And why red? And why is the adjective repeated? Start answering those secondary questions, and you’re engaged with poetry. Homeric studies, and particularly the awareness that the poetry was initially composed orally, by professional bards can too easily encourage this reductionism to ‘meaning’. As the well-worn example goes, ‘‘well-balanced ships’ just means ‘ships’ in Homer, because the full phrase takes care of a specific metrical value within a line of hexameter. In and of itself, I think this idea is deeply wrong. But regardless it sets up a temptation that Wilson often falls into; if you work out what you think the Greek means, and translate that, you can lose what the Greek says in the process. At times, that can also be a lot.
Consider an example from Book 1. When Chryses supplicates Agamemnon in order to regain his daughter, captured by Agamemnon in a raid, and now somewhere between Agamemon’s slave-girl and proxy-wife, Agamemnon angrily rejects him with the following threat:
ἀλλ᾽ ἴθι μή μ᾽ ἐρέθιζε σαώτερος ὥς κε νέηαι.
But go, don’t provoke me, so you might return home safer. (my ‘literal’ translation)
Wilson offers, instead: ‘Now go! Do not enrage me!/ Go, if you want to get away alive.’
Wilson’s language is certainly vigorous and straightforward: ‘if you want to get away alive’ tells us Agamemnon is a rash, violent man, who likes to show off his power over life and death. But what is lost? First, the form Agamemon’s threat takes, the sneering, patronizing euphemism, ‘return home safer’. He mentions his safety to hint that he might be in control of it: Chryses is safe at Agamemnon’s whim. But this rhetorical strategy of only hinting at his power sets up the dynamics of escalation in Book 1. Both Agamemnon and Achilles are slowly goaded into being more explicit, turning their half-threats into actual threats. My favorite New Yorker cartoon involves a cartoon of an obvious marital dispute: ‘Let’s stop now before we start saying things we mean’, runs the caption. But the joke only works if what they mean remains half-said.
Speech in The Iliad is a rhetorical contest, where actors pick up words already used by their opponents, and unpick what is ‘half-said’ until what everyone ‘means’ is painfully clear and hard to take back. The word ‘safe’ itself kicks off a crucial motif of the tussle between Agamemnon and Achilles throughout Book 1. Calchas will only explain the reason Apollo has sent a plague against the Greeks if someone vouches for his safety (1.83), gesturing back at Agamemnon’s threats to Chryses. Agamemnon will soon echo his own words when he is forced to return the priest’s daughter because, in Wilson’s translation, he wants the ‘army safe not dead.’ (Iliad 1.117) Agamemnon now needs to confirm, publicly, what should be obvious - that he wants the army safe. But it’s clear to all his anger is already getting in the way of that. Achilles, as he gives back Briseis later in the book, will pounce on this weakness, claiming Agamemnon is incapable of keeping the Greeks ‘safe’ as they fight by the ships. (1.344) Wilson cuts off the motif at the start.
If ‘safer’ looks forward to the fight over safety, the idea of ‘return home’ picks up and deepens a phrase used earlier by the priest Chryses. In exchange for his daughter, Chryses hopes the Greeks get to ‘come home well.’ (εὖ δ᾽ οἴκαδ᾽ ἱκέσθαι, 1.19). ‘Coming’ home gets replaced with ‘returning home’; ‘νέηαι’ links to the Odyssean notion of nostos, the safe journey home from the war that Odysseus will strive for. Agamemnon’s behavior threatens all the homecoming of the Greeks, who become, within the space of The Iliad, strangely vulnerable, the potential loss of their ships leaving them as prone to the total destruction that hovers over Troy. The simple phrase ‘return home safer’ starts as a veiled threat, and then morphs, in Homer’s narrative, into existential crisis.
The strangeness of Homeric language can itself open into thematic motifs. Consider the first line of Book 6, given with Wilson’s translation:
Τρώων δ᾽ οἰώθη καὶ Ἀχαιῶν φύλοπις αἰνή
Without the gods the Greeks and Trojans clashed in bitter battle.
‘Without the gods’ picks up the explanation of the verb ‘οἰώθη’ by both ancient and modern commentators. After the Gods had entered the war in Book 5, Book 6 will focus on humans, and in particular Hector’s final return to Troy to meet his wife: hence ‘without the gods.’ But the verb is far stronger than ‘without’; it means to be left ‘alone’,οἶος, abandoned or forsaken: ‘The awful battle-cry of Trojans and Greeks was abandoned’: the passive voice obfuscates any obvious subject. Is it overinterpreting to suggest that a key motif of Book 6 is abandonment? Glaucus and Diomedes will be left alone to fight on the battlefield, apart from the rest of the warring parties; there, they find a family connection to each other, and an unlikely peace. In this case, a ‘space apart’, two warriors alone and away from the peer pressure of the warring sides, allows a rapprochement; or, one could say, they temporarily ‘abandon the battle-cry.’ Less happy is the Hector and Andromache story. After a moment of panic when he fails to find his wife in her chamber, Hector will soon reject her advice to fight within the city, and instead will leave her behind forever, even as he imagines her future ‘day of slavery’ as she experiences that very abandonment. The failed reunion with her will be replaced by the meeting at the start of Book 22 with Achilles. He will meet Achilles ‘alone, apart from others’,’οἶος ἄνευθ᾽ ἄλλων’, in a phrase that, for me, echoes the ‘abandonment’ motif from the first line of Book 6. The ‘abandonment’ of battle will be temporary, tragically so. Perhaps I am overinterpreting. But, in a perfect world, I would prefer a translation that gives me the option.
The idea of two people being ‘alone together’ leads me to another favorite topic of intermediate Greek classes: the Homeric ‘dual’, the grammatical form perched between singular and plural that is used when two people act together, and most easily translated by ‘both’. The dual form creates some infamous problems. In Book 9, when an Embassy of apparently three heroes (and two heralds) goes to the tent of Achilles to persuade him to return, dual forms start popping up, and spawn lots of scholarly attempts to explain to whom they might refer. Wilson ‘solves’ the problem by ignoring them, plumping for the simple third person plural, and offering a footnote to assure us that she is at least aware of the problem. But what this takes away, as with ‘abandonment’ in Book 6, is the repeated idea of ‘duality’ that is at the heart of Book 9, and indeed the entire poem. The embassy arrives, in their puzzling ‘pair’, to find Achilles and Patroclus ‘alone together’, in a marked domestic space, as Achilles sings a song to a one-person audience. They are emphatically not spoken of in the dual, perhaps because their roles are separated: singer and audience. But the tragedy of The Iliad is their ultimate failure to become a pair, to do anything together again. They are the real, failed ‘duals’ of The Iliad.
Much of the literary sophistication, in the poem, comes from the artful use of repetition, and Wilson’s translation too often seems to translate each phrase in a vacuum, erasing the connections that should provoke interpretation. One final example from Book 9 can give a sense of the problem. Agamemnon offers a long speech, outlining the gifts he will give to Achilles, should he return to fight. He ends by suggesting that, in return, Achilles should yield to him:
καί μοι ὑποστήτω ὅσσον βασιλεύτερός εἰμι
ἠδ᾽ ὅσσον γενεῇ προγενέστερος εὔχομαι εἶναι. (Il.9.160-1)
‘Let Achilles bow before me,
Because I have more power as a leader,
And I am proud to be the older man.’ (Wilson, Il.9.200-202)
‘Because I have more power as a leader’ is a more prosaic version of Agamemnon’s literal ‘Inasmuch as I am kinglier’, and this in itself might seem insignificant. However, when Odysseus later repeats this speech to Achilles in his tent, he is careful to omit these lines; Agamemnon sums up the explicit point of the gifts, to help subordinate Achilles to the ‘kinglier’ man, and this idea would surely not have been received well by Achilles. Agamemnon’s generosity is a power move. But even more importantly, Achilles himself signals he is aware that this is the point of the Embassy by, unwittingly echoing Agamemnon’s language. Agamemnon offers him the chance marrying one of his daughters, and Achilles suggests he should find a son-in-law who is ‘kinglier’:
ὅς τις οἷ τ᾽ ἐπέοικε καὶ ὃς βασιλεύτερός ἐστιν. (Il.9.391)
‘Someone more suitable, more like a king.’ (Wilson Il.9.506)
One could, I suppose, infer from the overlapping meaning of Wilson’s phrases, ‘more power as a leader’ and ‘more like a king’, that Achilles is on to Agamemnon’s game. But Homer’s repetition does the work for you by repeating ‘kinglier’. And this is only tracing the repetition of one of the striking words used by Agamemnon in these memorable lines. One could follow other complex interpretive paths by tracing the repetition of ‘yielding’ (turned into ‘bow before me’) or the formulaic ‘claim to be’ (here translated ‘proud to be’, elsewhere by a variety of other phrases) throughout the poem. But not in this translation.
In short, Wilson’s art too often, for me, replaces Homer’s art. It would certainly be possible to write an entire review on Wilson’s art alone, perhaps in a poetry journal. It is an entertaining read. But for me, remembering my ‘non-modern’ Homer got in the way; rarely have I longed so much to teach the text in Greek, or remembered my youthful teenage self’s immersion in it in intermediate Homeric Greek class half a lifetime ago.
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