Splendid Strength

Review: The Iliad, Translated by Peter Green

Bust of Homer / Wikimedia Commons

When it comes to picking a translation of the Iliad or the Odyssey, readers of Homer sometimes feel as if they are being forced to choose between the beautiful and the good. The most popular translations of Homer are either praised for their poetry or for their accuracy, but not for both.

Robert Fitzgerald and Robert Fagles’ translations are known for their lovely verses, but also for taking liberties with the text. Meanwhile, Richard Lattimore’s translation is known for being line-by-line accurate to the Greek, but also for being convoluted and difficult to read. However, his fidelity to the text makes him the standard translation for purists.

In his new version of the Iliad, Peter Green, a professor emeritus of classics at the University of Texas at Austin, attempts to give us a translation that is as faithful to the Greek as the Lattimore while being easier to read, and, more important, easier to hear. Green believes that a poem "so oral in its essence … should be naturally declaimable."

Because Green’s Iliad is written to be read aloud, the language is much simpler and less lofty than the Lattimore. Yet like Lattimore, Green insists on "preserving the strangeness" of Homer, the aspects of his poetry that strike the modern ear so oddly—the repeated formulaic phrases, the consistent use of epithets (Achilles is always "swift-footed," even when he is merely sitting around) and the long, long, similes.

Green’s pacing is quicker and livelier than Lattimore’s. Because his language is less fussy, one can better appreciate the rhythms in the text, so that even simple lines can sing: "And Patroklus called in a carrying voice to his comrades" or "Off with you to the hut now, pick up that hefty spear."

The virtue in Green’s translation comes from its meter. Homer’s poetry is written in dactylic hexameter, six sets of dactyls, a poetic foot consisting of one long sound and two shorts. It sounds something like this: DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi DAH-didi (the dactyl can also consist of two longs, a DAH-DAH). It beats forward, like the drummer keeping time for rowers on a galley ship.

This meter is very difficult to render into English: Greek poetry relies on vowel lengths, but in English, vowel sounds have no fixed quantity. For this reason, Fitzgerald and Fagles abandon the hexameter.

But throwing out Homer’s meter, Green says, robs the reader of Homer’s stately and majestic rhythms, which contribute greatly to his momentum and power. However, he adds that when a strict dactylic hexamter is rendered into English, it results in over-long lines that drag lugubriously.

Green’s solution is to use a loose approximation of Homer’s meter ("a variable 6/5 stress line ranging from 12 to 17 syllables"). This meter echoes the Homeric meter without trying too hard to force the English language to take on unnatural, ancient characteristics. Green’s approach results in passages that are deceptively simple and highly musical.

For example, in this passage, Homer describes Achilles’ inability to sleep due to the grief he suffers from losing his dear friend Patroklus to his great enemy, Hektor. The last line is particularly lovely:

…sleep the all subduing
got no hold on him: he kept tossing this way and that
missing Patroklus—his manhood, his splendid strength,
all he’d been through with him, the hardships he’d suffered,
facing men in battle and the waves of the cruel sea.

The pace of this passage seems to build and build until Achilles can no longer contain his heartache:

Recalling these things he shed large tears, lying now,
Stretched out on his side, but, restless, sometimes again
on his back, or prone. Then again he’d rise to his feet
and wander, distraught, by the seashore…

The description is uncomplicated but the movement here is rapid, and the pacing is as restless and as agitated as Achilles. The symmetry in the line "stretched out on his side, restless, sometimes again," coveys something of the obsessive, circular thoughts and shifting around that define a sleepless night.

Compare Green’s translation with Lattimore’s. Achilles’ mourning is more solemn, expansive:

…he tossed from one side to the other
in longing for Patroklus, for his manhood and his great strength
and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships
he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of big waters.

This passage is defined by long vowel sounds that demand big pauses: "Hard crossing of big waters" is especially stately.

Remembering all these things he let fall the swelling tears, lying
sometimes along his side, sometimes on his back, and now again
prone on his face; then he would stand upright, and pace turning
in distraction along the beach of the sea…

Although the translations are line-by-line similar, there is clearly a difference in tone. In the Green, Achilles mourns, "all he’d been through," with Patroklus, and in the Lattimore, Achilles focuses on the "actions he’d seen through to the end with him," confining his friendship to the field.

Green’s Achilles seems lost; he "wander[s]" by the water. In the Lattimore, he "pace[s]."

Lattimore’s Achilles is still devastated, but he is more controlled. Is this correct? When Achilles is mourning for Patroklus, he does terrible, blasphemous things. He executes a string of young Trojan prisoners on the funeral pyre. He desecrates Hektor’s corpse for days. Lattimore’s Achilles, who seems more in command of himself, is therefore more terrifying. Yet the mix of rage and gentleness we see in the Green translation seems to match the actions of the Achilles we see later, who eventually returns Hektor’s corpse to Hektor’s father.

Classicists will have to lay down judgment as to whose translation is more technically accurate. On the whole, Lattimore’s poetry may be better. Green takes a while to ease his way into the Iliad—his first few books are merely serviceable, with flashes of musicality, until around Book 10 (the night attack) when the poetry starts to get very good. The dense glamour of the Lattimore translation is consistent the whole way through.

To appreciate Green’s Iliad, it helps to read some passages aloud. This translation will be more accessible to first-time readers than the Lattimore, but it does not sacrifice accuracy.

Translators who soften the difficult parts of the Iliad with the conventions of English poetry can make Homer seem more familiar and accessible to readers, but it actually keeps them further from the text. The fact that Homer is so different, and even alien, is part of what makes him appealing.

Green retains almost everything—the repetition, the meter, the rituals, the perplexing expressions—while keeping the verses clear and uncluttered.

By "preserving the strangeness" of Homer, the translator gives the reader the fullest possible access to the ancient mind, into Homer’s distant universe of wine-faced seas, god-like men and bronze skies.