Books May 2016
A classic restored
A review of The Iliad: A New Translation by Caroline Alexander by Homer.
Of the myriad appeals tendered for why one should read Homer, the most compelling is consistently overlooked. Certainly the dramatic narratives of the Iliad and the Odyssey might provide justification alone. The wanderings of Odysseus, his archetypal personal struggles mirroring our own struggles with people, nature, and events, and his subsequent resurrection from obscurity to kingship are original and unmatched. The same holds for the Iliad, the magisterial narrative of the ruinous divine anger of Achilles who entreats his mother, the goddess Thetis, to bring death to his fellow Greeks for their disrespect and loses his best friend Patroclus as an unintended consequence. Other justifications are ready at hand. The Homeric epics form the bedrock of the literature of Western civilization, supplying material for the Athenian tragedians, Rome’s Virgil, and our own Milton, Pope, Tennyson, and Joyce. Knowledge of Homer lends cultural depth to all subsequent literature, including the New Testament, whose authors’ minds were filled with Homer, as were those of all the literate classes of antiquity. Yet the most significant reason to read the epics, and perhaps the central reason the epics have survived, is the magnificence of the poetry itself, perfected over centuries of oral tradition and finally set down in writing after the transition from the early script known as Linear B to the imported Greek alphabet. The epics are the cumulative voice of an entire culture announcing its arrival on Earth with its attendant triumphs and failings.
The surest means of access to Homer is to learn Greek. R. J. Cunliffe writes in his Lexicon of the Homeric Dialect: “Let a man once acquire the power to read Homer as he reads Spenser or Milton, and he will have a possession which he will change for no other, an unfailing source of solace and of the purest pleasure.” The alternative is to choose the best translation. For decades, I have insisted that Richmond Lattimore’s 1951 translation was the gold standard, and that all others were works primarily of personal artistry. Some are great poetry, but they are not Homer. For over sixty years, Lattimore’s has been the most faithful line-by-line translation, preserving the Iliad’s powerful, multifaceted narrative thread. No one could shake me from my view.
Now the guard has changed, and a new gold standard has appeared, a 2015 translation by Caroline Alexander. It meets and often exceeds the philological and poetic standards of Lattimore. Certainly, it should replace the widely distributed translation of Robert Fagles—an attractive retelling of the Iliad, but far from Homer. His is a prime example of translation that tramples on Homeric perfection like a clumsy restorer of a Michelangelo. To support these claims, I offer a representative comparison of their translations of Iliad 17, lines 426–455, where the immortal horses of Achilles, weeping for the dead Patroclus, stand unmovable.
First, consider Lattimore’s rendition of the opening lines:
But the horses of Aiakides standing apart from the battle
wept, as they had done since they heard how their charioteer
had fallen in the dust at the hands of murderous Hektor.
And at a distance from the battle the horses of Aeacides
had been mourning from the time they first learned of the falling of
in the dust at the hands of man-slaying Hector.
Beginning with line 427, Lattimore translates the verb κλαῖον as “wept,” rather than “mourned” or “lamented.” The word has both meanings, but later in lines 438 and 441, since he requires a different word to be consistent with the Greek, he is compelled to translate μύρομαι as “mourning.” Yet in Homer this word means only “weeping” and similarly in later Greek “trickling,” “melting,” or “flowing,” as a river. It does not carry the force of a mental state. Alexander follows the Greek precisely, using the verb “mourn” in the first case and then “weep” thereafter. Fagles uses “weep” in 427, but then “mourned” in 438 and “tears flow” in 441, sacrificing both consistency and precision.
In truth Automedon, the powerful son of Diores,
hit them over and over again with the stroke of the flying
lash, or talked to them, sometimes entreating them, sometimes
Indeed Automedon, the courageous son of Diores,
struck them again and again, lashing with his swift whip,
again and again he spoke to them with soothing words, again and
again he threatened.
Lattimore’s lapse in these lines is his decision to overlook the central artistic feature, the threefold repetition of the word πολλὰ, roughly “many,” thus eliminating the anaphora. Conversely, Alexander captures the violence and pathos of the scene with the threefold repetition. Fagles merely skips over it. He renders the line with the phrase “oath on oath,” but this is purely a personal flourish. Lattimore describes the whip as “flying,” though Homer’s word means “quick” or “swift,” and is cognate with the verb “to run.” Alexander closely translates as “swift,” also preserving the alliteration in the Greek between the words for “swift” and “strike,” θοῇ and θείνων. Fagles translates “stinging,” for no apparent reason.
They were unwilling to go back to the wide passage of Helle
and the ships, or back into the fighting after the Achaians,
but still as stands a grave monument which is set over
the mounded tomb of a dead man or lady, they stood there
holding motionless in its place the fair-wrought chariot,
leaning their heads along the ground, and warm tears were running
earthward from underneath the lids of the mourning horses
who longed for their charioteer, while their bright manes were made
as they streamed down either side of the yoke from under the yoke pad.
but they were neither willing to go back to the ships by the broad
nor into the fighting with the Achaeans,
but remained unmovable as a marker of stone that stands upon
the burial mound
of a man who has died, or of a woman.
So they remained motionless, holding the splendid chariot in place,
hanging their heads upon the earth, and hot tears
from their lids flowed down to the ground as they wept
with longing for their charioteer; and their luxuriant manes were
soiled as they streamed down
from under their yoke-pad on either side.
Although Lattimore captures the funereal solemnity and simplicity of the scene, there are occasional lapses. For instance, his phrase “dead man or lady” is unbalanced and inaccurate. The Greek reads simply “man or woman.” There is no need to raise her to the peerage; death is the same for all. Fagles attempts to right the wrong, but embarrassingly changes the wrong word, translating, “lord or lady.” Alexander gives us “of a man who has died, or of a woman.” Simple. Direct. Homer.
Lattimore describes the horses’ manes as “bright.” The Greek θαλερός does not mean “bright.” It means “in the prime of vigor, lusty, blooming, full, rich, fat, thick, abundant.” It is cognate with the verb θάλλω, “to grow profusely,” “to flourish.” Alexander’s choice of “luxuriant” is precise. With “luxurious,” Fagles casts into the same lexeme, but returns empty-handed. Homer is not depicting vulgar earthly luxury: Achilles’ immortal horses are a contrasting vision of life, strength, and vigor in a setting of violent death. Meanwhile, Fagles does not grasp the fundamentals of the Greek word, and his overreaching renditions accumulate. He blindly translates the adverb ἀμφοτέρωθεν as “down along the yoke,” instead of the correct “either side of the yoke,” while Lattimore and Alexander render the word with care. Doesn’t the correct translation capture the profusion and bounty of tears in a superior way? Why change it?
As he watched the mourning horses the son of Kronos pitied them,
and stirred his head and spoke to his own spirit: “Poor wretches,
why then did we ever give you to the Lord Peleus,
a mortal man, and you yourselves are immortal and ageless?
Only so that among unhappy men you also might be grieved?”
Alexander gives us:
And seeing them as they wept the son of Cronus pitied them,
and shaking his head he addressed his own heart:
“Ah, poor wretches, why did we give you to Lord Peleus,
a mortal man, you who are ageless and immortal?
Was it so you might suffer grief among unhappy men?”
Both are true to the Greek, though Alexander unravels “weeping” and “mourning” expertly, as discussed above. Moreover, Lattimore reverses the order of “ageless and immortal” while Alexander retains the same order of the Greek since it is also used at Iliad 12.323. This may be hypercritical, but it serves as a perfect illustration of Alexander’s humility before the greatest of poets. Fagles translates the single adjective “mortal” as “a mortal doomed to death.” While it is true that we are all doomed to death, his gloss mars Homer’s art. The Homeric brachylogy of the lone adjective is echoed by the single words “ageless” and “immortal” in an elegant tripartite structure. Fagles then renders the single word “you,” referring to the horses, as “you immortal beasts.” Why does he chose to add the word “beasts” in this scene of all scenes for immortal creatures that have the human capacity to weep and the divine ability to prophesy Achilles’ death?
Let us turn once more to Lattimore:
“At least the son of Priam, Hektor, shall not mount behind you
in the carefully wrought chariot. I will not let him. Is it not
enough for him that he has the armour and glories in wearing it?
But now I will put vigour into your knees and your spirits
so that you bring back Automedon out of the fighting
safe to the hollow ships; since I shall still give the Trojans
the glory of killing, until they win to the strong-benched vessels,
until the sun goes down and the blessed darkness comes over.”
As in the previous section, Alexander and Lattimore display admirable Homeric economy, but in the first two lines there is a significant contrast with curious ramifications. Alexander translates,
“But verily, not on you, nor your elaborate chariot
will Hector son of Priam ride; for I will not allow it.
Is it not enough that he has the armor and so exults?
I shall cast strength in your knees, and in your heart,
so that you bring Automedon safe from fighting
to the hollow ships. And I shall still give the Trojans the glory
of killing, until that time they come to the well-benched ships.”
Even though the words “you” and “chariot” are in the dative, the case of the noun required by the verb “ride,” Lattimore chooses only “you” as the object and then forms a prepositional phrase with “in” for the chariot. Alexander takes both words as objects separated by “and.” Moreover, she thoughtfully construes the restrictive function of the small but critical word “γε” as focusing on the horses, not on Hector’s action, by beginning the line with “But verily, not on you . . . .” Her closer translation suggests the act of riding on horseback, which only appears once in the Iliad. In Book 10, Odysseus rides away on the backs of the horses he stole from Rhesus, king of the Thracians. Alexander makes an accurate yet provocative choice. Fagles, meanwhile, offers:
“But Hector, at least, will never ride behind you,
you and your blazoned chariot. I will never permit it.
What more does he want? The arms are enough for him—
Priam’s son with his empty, futile boasting.
But I will fill your legs and hearts with strength
so you can save Automedon, bear him from the fighting
back to the fleet. For I still will give the Trojans glory—
killing all the way to the benched ships till the sun sinks
and the blessed darkness sweeps across the earth.”
This is careless. The Greek verb for “ride” contains an element that unambiguously means “on,” not “behind.” How does a soldier ride behind a chariot? In another chariot? Fagles simply ignores the grammatical challenges of the lines. There are cascading problems in this section. “What more does he want?” is not in the Greek text. In line 451, he changes “knees” to “legs,” an unforgivable blunder. In the plural, the knees are regarded as the seat of strength. There are many examples, such as Iliad 4.313–14, which Alexander translates:
O old man, would that, like the spirit in your very breast,
your knees’ strength might keep pace with you, and your
power be unwavering.
Caroline Alexander has far exceeded my hopes and expectations. She offers a text free from confusing circumlocution and personal artistic ambition. She is a grandmaster of restoration, delivering the Iliad unembellished, faithful to the Greek, and uniquely accessible. Her translation itself promises to be ageless and immortal.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9, on page 69
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