translated by peter green
university of california,
608 pages, $29.95
translator of Homer is like a pentathlete, who needs not just sheer stamina but a variety of skills. The first example of European literary writing adapts episodes of the Trojan War myth from a long, winding oral tradition. Homeric poetry speaks of the excitements of the Archaic period (among them a handy new alphabet and the revival of trade), the breakdowns of the recently ended dark age, and the Mycenaean warrior and palace society. Some narrative elements appear not even to be Bronze Age but instead Neolithic. Only a profound and patient scholar can even comprehend all this.
Moreover, the Iliad and the Odyssey are works of singular genius—whether a single man (called “Homer”?) composed them or not. The Iliad’s few weeks of action late in the ten-year Trojan War, and the Odyssey’s homecoming adventures of a single veteran, constitute a tour de force at the beginning of Western poetry. “Homer” blends freshness and tradition, heart-stopping beauty and hard-headed reasoning, violence and tenderness, the drama of the moment and the contemplative gaze down eternity, all to incomparable effect. Any translator of Homer needs to aspire to the same.
But a translator has to do this starting from poetic modes that don’t exist in English. Hardest of all to imitate—but very important to vindicate—is the meter of epic, which depended for its basic rhythms on how long a speaker paused on different types of syllables, not on which ones he emphasized. A syllable with a long vowel, or a syllable ending in two consonants, was dwelt on roughly twice as long as other syllables, regardless of which one in a word was stressed in ordinary speech—stress making no significant difference in the time it took to say a syllable. Thus, the Iliad’s first word, the Greek for “rage,” was pronounced simply máynin outside poetry, but within it had that first long-vowel syllable drawn out, and that drawing out was more audible than the accent. English has only stress meters. To link the two systems through translation is a little like trying to represent on Earth paintings from a planet that has a different color spectrum than ours.
eter Green is well qualified to understand these problems. He dates his Greek studies from boyhood. He is known primarily as a historian (and especially for his work on Alexander the Great) but has a broad range of achievement that is typical of the elite of his generation: a double-first at Trinity College, Oxford, World War II service, expatriate years in the Aegean, historical novels, contemporary biographies, lots of classical translation, decades of teaching in America. In his preface, he summarizes in twenty-four clear, concise pages not only the questions about where, when, and how the poems emerged but also the history of Homeric translation into English.
Regarding the second, he sees a critical juncture in the Iliad of Richmond Lattimore, which during the GI Bill–inspired spread of American humanities teaching “sought . . . to give a wholly Greekless readership the closest possible idea of what Homer had been about, metrically, linguistically, and in literary terms.” Green sets this “Hellenizing” aspiration in approving contrast to seventeenth-century poet John Dryden’s “modernist” intention to write as if Homer “were living, and an Englishman.”
For Lattimore’s and his own adjustment to the hexameter, Green credits C. Day Lewis, whose Aeneid was published in 1952:
By a real stroke of luck, this translation was commissioned for broadcasting by the BBC, which meant that it was, precisely, aimed at a nonclassical general public that would, in the first instance, hear rather than read it. It therefore had perforce to be, like its original, declaimable, a quality sadly to seek in most previous versions, but fundamental to all ancient epic.
“Declaimable” puts me in mind of Matthew Arnold’s famous mid-Victorian characterizations of the text in lectures that were published as On Translating Homer. But what, for example, does Arnold actually mean by calling Homer “noble”? Would Homer himself have understood the English word? The closest Archaic Greek terms concentrate on prowess and pure social standing, however cynically used. Likewise, “declaimable” sounds dubious. The Homeric poems were recited in a sonorous chant. Declamatio was a strutting kind of rhetoric the Romans developed hundreds of years after the Homeric style of recitation was established.
And the English “declamation” is an apt word for what you did on the BBC in 1952, when, now that your civilization was saved, you were offering ordinary people a version of that civilization’s academic mysteries; or what you did in a Midwestern university classroom of the same period, in front of bemused veterans. The subtext, in either case, was that people were awfully lucky you had gone to all this trouble; they had better be impressed.
Dryden seems to allude, in contrast, to the tentativeness and flexibility of the imagination. How would I write this if I were Homer? How would Homer write this if he were me? By implication: What’s a striking way to write this? What will attach people to what I write? (Dryden was a literary entrepreneur.) To my mind, this line of inquiry is likely to get you deeper inside Homer’s head than is calculating an authentic equivalent to the historic hexameter. Whatever Homer did, it wasn’t anything like that. It’s not surprising that Dryden’s Homer—whistling away all such worries and going gung-ho for the reconstitution of great popular poetry—is highly readable and a minor classic in its own right, though it’s often hogwash as a rendition of Homer’s words.
Granted, I’m here entering metaphysics, the science of being, which perhaps is folly on my part—but if you asked me what Homer most essentially is, I wouldn’t say, “a Greek hexameter poet” (there were lots of these, most of concern only to academic specialists), but “the classic Greek hexameter poet.” If someone could reflect what was classic about him—without, as Dryden does, just making things up—that person would really be translating him.
n his preface, Green calls blank verse “the most obvious, and the most misleading” of “all those comfortingly familiar, yet wildly misleading, fallbacks” for translating the hexameter. For his part, Green uses an archaizing verse line, twelve to seventeen syllables long and with only five or six stresses. How does this work to the ear, and to the intellect? Here’s his version of what I regard as the most moving passage of Greek literature, from Book 24 of the Iliad. King Priam of Troy, no longer caring about his own life, has come by stealth to the Greek camp to reclaim the body of his son Hector from Hector’s slayer, Achilles.
true son I had left me to guard the
city and its people
you slew untimely as he fought in
defense of his country—
Hektōr! It’s for his sake I’ve come,
now, to the Argives’ ships,
to recover him from you. I bring
with me ransom past
Revere the gods, Achilles, and to
me show pity,
remembering your own father:
but I’m the more pitiable,
for I’ve borne what no other
mortal on earth has yet
I’ve brought to my lips the hand of
the man who killed my
So saying, he stirred in Achilles
the urge to weep for his
he took the old man by the hand,
gently pushed him away.
Both had their memories: Priam
of Hektōr, killer of men,
as, bitterly weeping, he crouched
at Achilles’ feet,
while Achilles wept, now for his
own father, now again
for Patroklos: their joint mourning
resounded throughout the
Some of this—like the line right after Priam’s speech—is very beautiful. But elsewhere much of the original power is lost. The Greek hexameter has heavy rhythms; there’s no mistaking that it’s poetry in a traditional form. The reader of Green’s version may need prompting to detect meter at all. In any case, the effort to deliver a more “Homeric” experience in detail undermines literary experience. I can’t help but think of my undergraduate classmates memorizing plot outlines and characters’ names instead of reading the Lattimore translations, because they simply saw no point in reading. Detail trumped poetry.
Blank verse at least has the advantage of being embedded in the target language, English, as the hexameter is not. This is why Green ends up with a wordiness suggesting contrivance. “For I’ve borne what no other mortal on earth has yet endured” is a translation of the line that in Greek goes (more or less) literally, “I bore such things as not yet any on-earth mortal other.” There’s no call, except a metrical one, for the two synonymous verbs in English.
Truncation is a price levied by a short, strict English meter like blank verse. In contrast, a Greekish meter demands additions contrary to Arnold’s ideals of plainness—often additions of adjectives that have no equivalent in the Greek. There’s no counterpart in the original to Green’s “joint” in “Their joint mourning resounded throughout the hut.”
’m not claiming that there’s a superior formula for translating epic, let alone that I have it. However, I do speculate that the humanities (like most other parts of modern culture) labor under—data. In literary research, the sheer amount of and the overweening authority granted to the data (as if in obedience to Silicon Valley hype about “data-driven solutions”) can be the tail wagging the dog. Like other inanimate, power-bestowing things, data engross attention and diminish the living relationships—with other people, with God—that mediate reality. Data don’t talk back; they just let us write on them our self-confirmations and our claims that people who don’t have data in similar abundance are (by definition) mistaken. Data can be the broad path into confusion, as witnessed by Green’s decision—based on too many and too great a variety of inputs, taken too seriously—to use the common English spellings (like “Achilles”) of some Homeric names and arcane transliterations (like “Hektōr”) of others. Any ignoramus who calls that wrong is right. It’s like an Olive Garden customer insisting that you have to salt boiling pasta, no matter whether the head-office wonks calculate that this ages the pots faster and adds a little to the underwriting bill.
I had a humiliating but instructive time with my translation of Aristophanes’s comedy Lysistrata last week. I’d prided myself on having massaged the dated jokes and enlarged on them in footnotes. However, when I did a talk-back with a local cast, I found that they’d taken in quite little—but that it didn’t appear to matter. They were inspired by the ancient dramatist’s idea of a sex strike to end a war, and they were pumped up on their own rapidly interchanged ideas for staging. A three-hundred-pound man, for example, is going to play a baby with a single line.
I went home and read pieces of my translation again, and I was shocked at how inadequate it was for their enthusiasm, and certainly for Aristophanes’s brilliance. But then I considered what a pathetic thing literature would be if translators could live up to it. Because it can’t fail, we have to.
Sarah Ruden is a visiting scholar in classics at Brown University.