Few literary terrains are more treacherous than translation. Add to that translating an ancient text into a modern idiom (much like translating Martian into contemporary English), and you get an idea of the challenges involved.
Two of the cornerstone texts of the Western tradition are both the Iliad and The Odyssey, attributed to the Greek poet Homer. Both were epic poems meant for recitation – in the largely oral tradition of the Greeks, bards and poets would recite this remarkable narrative from memory, milking the dramatic moments for all their worth. (Well … parts of it from memory, as it would take some eight hours to read aloud.) The Iliad deals with the Achaean attack upon the city Troy over the abduction of the beautiful Helen. Troy is defended by the king, Priam, and his sons, Hector and Paris (who romanced Helen away from her home).
However, the overarching narrative of war is secondary to the story of Achilles, the greatest of Achaean warriors. He stays at the shore for most of the action, nursing an ego bruised by his Achaean comrades. He refuses to intercede in the fighting, though his near-superhuman abilities would easily turn the tide. The great mystery of Achilles is that he is a superman in all things but emotional stability, having all the sensitivity of a six year old girl.
Also involved are the gods and goddesses, particularly Zeus and Hera, who play with the warring factions much like heartless children pulling the wings from flies.
The epic is written on a very high note – every book within it needs not only a stirring inner-voice, but an inner soundtrack of every Wagnerian finale. With the Iliad, too much could never be enough.
Some 20 years ago, both The Iliad and Odyssey were translated anew by scholar and poet Robert Fagles (1933-2008) to great critical acclaim. A professor at Princeton University, Fagles understood the necessity for narrative drive and rhythm, and he had a deep and profound understanding of the differences between the ancient world and today.
As one who grew up on the Alexander Pope translation of the Iliad (and the T.E. Lawrence version of The Odyssey), I had thought another translation superfluous. It was only when a copy of the Fagles Iliad fell across my desk weeks ago that I realized how much I had missed. Here is how Fagles opens the epic:
Rage -- Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles,
murderous, doomed, that cost the Achaeans countless losses,
hurling down to the House of Death so many sturdy souls,
great fighters' souls, but made their bodies carrion
feasts for the dogs and birds,
and the will of Zeus was moving toward its end.
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
Fagles takes a (literally) heroic epic and makes it full-blooded once again. Perhaps too full-blooded, as Fagles seems to relish the copious amounts of gore and grue to be found in Homer. Here’s a good example:
chopped the horn of Peneleos' horsehair-crested helmet
but round the socket the sword-blade smashed to bits --
just as Peneleos hacked his neck below the ear
and the blade sank clean through, nothing held
but a flap of skin, the head swung loose to the side
as Lycon slumped down to the ground...
Idomeneus skewered Erymas straight through the mouth,
the merciless brazen spearpoint raking through,
up under the brain to split his glistening skull --
teeth shattered out, both eyes brimmed to the lids
with a gush of blood and both nostrils spurting,
mouth gaping, blowing convulsive sprays of blood
and death's dark clouds closed down around his corpse.
Horrible stuff – but much more effective when read aloud. And while rereading Fagles’ Iliad, I read much of it aloud, finding the rhythm to the words and a better understanding the bardic tradition. As Fagles said in an interview for the Paris Review: As I read Homer, he’s a remarkable combination of the timeless, immortal phrase, and of the timely, too, and he’s meant to be heard, not read. “Homer makes us Hearers”—in Pope’s fine formulation—“and Virgil leaves us Readers.” The Iliad is more than half dialogue, direct discourse; the Odyssey more than two-thirds. Both are very dramatic poems, in other words, filled with many voices. It’s as if Homer were a ventriloquist, projecting his voice into the voices of dozens of people living within his poems. That’s one of the most important things to capture—if you can—the dramatic sense that he conveys. Whole books (Books Nine and Twenty-four of the Iliad, Nineteen and Twenty-three of the Odyssey, the reunion of the king and queen) could be lifted out of the text and placed directly on a stage. They’re plays waiting to be performed.
And yet … and yet --- I found something profoundly disturbing during the 10 days or so I immersed myself in Homer’s world. The heroic walked hand-in-hand with the merely brutal; the sublime often culminated in the petty and parochial; and, worse still, the universe seemed indifferent in equal measure to human achievement and suffering, with nothing at the end but the black void of death.
We like to think that, in the thousands of years since the creation of this poem that mankind has made tremendous strides, and indeed, we have in science, technology and our understanding of the world. However, the inherent cruelty of the human heart remains a mystery as deep today as it was to Homer. Why do we crave and recoil from war in equal measure? Why do we pray to a god (or gods) who make sport of us? And, in the end, what does all the toil, the pain, and, also, the triumph mean? In answering such questions, we are no further along than Homer.