W.W. Norton (2023) h/b 757pp £30 (ISBN 9781324001805)
In her eloquent and acute ‘translator’s note’, Emily Wilson writes that no translation of the Iliad can replicate all its effects. Peter Green, whose version came out in 2015, aimed for it to be ‘naturally declaimable’. Wilson also insists on the importance of hearing the verse, but her own style is not so much declamatory as natural. She uses iambic pentameter, the standard form of blank verse, and a modern diction which is hardly ever, if at all, heightened, and which sometimes shifts towards the colloquial (although she rightly avoids, as she says, language which belongs too obviously to recent time). In her long and excellent introduction, she refers to ‘the almost childlike simplicity and truth’ in some words of Achilles, and she conveys this aspect of Homer’s art finely. A great virtue of her translation is that she does not intrude herself.
Her plainness also carries the reader – or the listener – effectively through the battle scenes which make up so much of the poem and need a forward momentum. For example (from Book 8):
Then Teucer pulled his bowstring back and shot
another arrow, aiming straight at Hector,
longing to hit him, but again he missed.
Apollo foiled his aim. Instead he hit
strong Archeptolemus, his charioteer,
careening into battle. Teucer’s arrow,
piercing his chest beside his nipple, threw him
out of his chariot. …
Matthew Arnold said that Homer was eminently rapid, and Wilson catches this quality. This style works well for the similes too: in her introduction she quotes the famous comparison of the Trojans’ watchfires to a starlit night, which ends,
The vast expanse of upper air breaks open,
And all the stars are seen—the shepherd’s heart
Is glad—so many were the gleaming fires
Burned by the Trojans on the plain of Troy.
That is appropriately luminous and clear, although, as it happens, the repetition in the last of these lines is not in the original. In another famous place, by contrast, she removes a repetition. This is Helen’s description of Hector’s kindness, in her lament over his body—said in Tom Brown’s Schooldays to be the most beautiful words in all literature (except perhaps the Bible). Literally and unbeautifully, they can be rendered, ‘with your gentleness-of-mind and with your gentle words’. This is Wilson: ‘With your sweet kindness and your gentle words.’ That indeed has the right note of gentle sweetness, although the vanished repetition is a loss.
Another passage which she quotes is the picture of Hector’s child being frightened by the plume on his father’s helmet:
The baby wailed and wiggled back to snuggle
Into his well-groomed nurse’s lap and dress.
Wiggling and snuggling nicely fit the homely domesticity of this moment. But in other places the language lapses less pleasingly. Sarpedon to Glaucus, for instance:
Nor would I urge you to participate
In war where men win glory. But in fact,
A million ways to die stand all around us.
‘Participate’, ‘in fact’—the tone is subtly wrong: this sounds more like the boardroom than the battlefield. No soldier, surely, has ever called on another to ‘participate’ in combat. ‘In fact’ could easily be adjusted to ‘in truth’. And why ‘A million ways’, rather than ‘Ten thousand’, which is not only better but is what the Greek says?
These touches of banality are unintended, but with the Deception of Zeus Wilson deliberately drops towards the demotic. Zeus recites to his wife Hera a catalogue of the women whom he has possessed, culminating in the declaration that he desired none of them so much as he now desires her. In Wilson’s translation he twice says of a woman that he ‘got her pregnant’. (In the original, the god is more delicate: ‘and she bore …’) And then,
I never wanted anyone before
As much as I want you right now. …
The translation is indeed close to the original, although ‘right’ is Wilson’s addition, and it does make a difference. The issue is perhaps one of personal taste, and some readers, I expect, will appreciate the matey tone. But although this scene is in some sense light relief from the battle, it is not exactly comic, and if Zeus is presented as merely a randy bloke (and tactless with it), we miss the Olympian grandeur of this paean to vast desire. The coupling of Zeus and Hera, soon to follow, will be not only a contribution to a comedy of manners but also a great cosmic act.
Mostly the translator of Homer does not have to worry, as (say) the translator of Greek tragedy does, about what the words of the text mean. A fascinating exception comes in Book 18, when Achilles pours out to his mother his grief for Patroclus. ‘I have lost him,’ he says—words of profound simplicity. Wilson translates them twice over: ‘I lost him, killed him.’ Might the words mean, ‘I destroyed him’? Some have thought so, at least in the past. A lot hangs on this, because if the latter is Achilles’ meaning, he expresses remorse: he feels guilt as well as shame. Wilson has presumably pondered the matter and concluded that both senses are present: hence the double translation. I believe, as I think do almost all scholars today, that ‘destroy’ is impossible—indeed that it is crucial to the poem’s moral scheme that Achilles does not express remorse. This is not the place to argue the issue further, but although I think that Wilson is wrong here, one can see the attention that she has brought to the matter.
Arnold said that Homer, as well as being eminently rapid, was also eminently plain and direct and eminently noble. Wilson catches not only the rapidity but the plainness and directness too. ‘Noble’ may not be quite the right term for Homer’s style, but most readers probably recognise the characteristic that Arnold was trying to find the word for. It does not necessarily require an elevated language, and because the poem’s story and spirit are intrinsically heroic, the plainness and directness will in themselves largely achieve it, as Wilson’s version confirms. It is a pity about the lapses into flatness; if she can ever bear to revise her work, it would be worth the labour.
This translation is an impressive achievement. Throughout the twentieth century the form of classical literature which spoke most powerfully to the modern mind was tragedy. There are some signs that Homer may now taking over the top position; if so, Wilson’s work will be an important contribution to this reversal.