What a difference a translation makes -- The Iliad translated by Robert Fagles

book review by Richard Seltzer, seltzer@samizdat.com, http://www.samizdat.com



I first encountered The Iliad in Alexander Pope's translation, when I was in the fifth grade. To me, it was a story of battles and adventure told in heroic couplets. I read it looking for static facts -- who killed who -- like today's fifth graders learning the names and unique powers of new Pokemon or dinosaurs. I had no particular interest in character or story, which was fortunate because Pope subordinated those elements to his chosen scheme of meter and rhyme.

For example, in Pope's translation, in Book 16, p. 309 in the Heritage edition:

On the plumed crest of his Boeotian foe
The daring Lycon aim'd a noble blow;
The sword broke short; but his, Peneleus sped
Full on the juncture of the neck and head:
The head, divided by a stroke so just,
Hung by the skin; the body sunk in dust.
...
Next Erymas was doom'd his fate to feel,
His open'd mouth received the Cretan steel:
Beneath the brain the point a passage tore,
Crash'd the thin bones, and down'd the teeth in gore:
His mouth, his eyes, his nostrils, pour a flood;
He sobs his soul out in the gush of blood.
The rhythm and rhyme give a nobility and an sense of inevitability to the gore. The metric scheme ordains the fate of these victims just as surely as the gods do. In fact, it is very difficult to visualize the scene portrayed -- the sounds overwhelm the sense. And what better word than "steel" to rhyme with "feel"? -- regardless of the fact that the weapons were actually made of bronze, and steel was unknown at that time.

Later, in high school, when I heard about Homer's formulaic repetition of fixed phrases like "rosy-fingered dawn", I didn't know what the teachers were talking about. Pope liked variety, and opted for synonyms, even ones like "steel" that weren't quite accurate, instead of repetition.

I remembered well who was the father of whom and who killed whom. But the couplet provided a sense of an ending, over and over again -- start-stop, start-stop, interrupting the flow of the narrative over and over again. I had no sense of the personalities or emotions or values of the characters. Even the lengthy similes got lost, twisted beyond recognition by the rigors of the rhyme.

Fagles and Bernard Knox (who wrote the introduction) give Pope high praise. Knox, in fact, says that Pope's "translation of the Iliad is the finest ever made" (p. 7). No doubt a scholar who knows the original Greek intimately can appreciate Pope's creative verse interpretation. But for someone who has never encountered Homer before, Pope's translation keeps the reader at a considerable distance from the beauty and the power of the original.

Let's look at that same passage from Book 16 in Fagle's translation (pp. 423-424):

...Lycon, flailing,
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.
The violence is graphic. Each death is anatomically detailed and vividly shown. Nothing gets in the way of the horror of war. Nothing glorifies the random, brutal maiming and slaughter.

For me, reading Fagles translation was like reading a totally different book -- a far better one. I got involved in the characters and the situations, in the tragedy of Hector and the tragedy of Achilles. And the thematic unity as well as the story line were compelling.

Consider the opening. Pope reads:

Achilles' wrath, to Greece the direful spring
Of woes unnumber'd, heavenly goddess, sing!
That wrath which hurl'd to Pluto's gloomy reign
The souls of might chiefs untimely slain;
Whose limbs unburied on the naked shore,
Devouring dogs and hungry vultures tore:
Since great Achilles and Atrides strove,
Such was the sovereign doom, and such the will of Jove!
Here the couplets and the contorted diction slow you down. Once you sort out the complex circumlocution, you are let with a static image -- like a battle scene on a vase -- that gives you little sense of the story and its major themes.

Fagles begins:

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.
Here the rhythm and the images carry you forward. And the central theme -- the contrast between the fighters' souls and their carrion flesh -- stands out. What is a man? What does it matter what he does during his short time above ground? How does the foreknowledge of imminent death affect a man's actions? Does the mortality of humans -- the fact that they must die and hence that their actions have irrevocable consequences -- give meaning or nobility to their acts? In some sense, mortality makes men greater than the gods. For the gods, all action is basically trivial, like a cartoon, where you know that the characters cannot be killed, cannot be permanently maimed, that whatever happens to them they'll pop right up again and get on with further shenanigans. The gods provide comic contrast, heightening the tragedy of the mortals who strive and die on the stage in front of them. The gods' intervention in the affairs of men is just another aspect of the random coincidences, emotional surges, and irrational impulses that humans must deal with continuously, just as they must deal with the frailty of their flesh -- the future carrion -- which is somehow, briefly, animated.

Reading Fagles' Iliad, I come away, too, with a notion of the main elements necessary in building a novel:
1) the mythic/historic context
2) the characters, who interact and are motivated within that context
3) the plot, which is based on conflict among the characters, arising from their nature, rather than from artificial circumstances.

Once you have established the complete story, you then decide
4) the perspective/point of view
5) the starting point
6) what gets shown, what gets told, what gets hinted at, and what is left unshown/untold

In this case,
1) At Troy, historically in the Bronze Age circa 1200 BC, but also within the context of Greek mythology and legend, which provides rich details of heritage and incident and cause-effect, stretching back 3-6 generations and including gods as ancestors,
2) Achilles interacts with Agamemnon, Hector, and Priam, movtivated by anger and pride and revenge, and finally compassion, based on a sense of common humanity/mortality
3) through a series of actions that are the high points in the war of the Greeks against the Trojans.
4) The story is told from an omniscient perspective -- separate from and higher than the perspective of the gods, who are players, too, in this drama. But this omniscent narrator has human sympathies and occasionally addresses select individuals directly, in the second person, as if he knew them personally, and feels their pain. As in Book 16, (p. 440) "Struggling for breath, you answered, Patroclus O my rider..." followed by Patroclus' dying words, spoken to Hector.
5) The telling of the story begins in the ninth year of the war. (Surprisingly, this is 20 years after the abduction of Helen by Paris -- Book 24, line 899, p. 613).
6) The action is presented as happening sequentially over the course of about six days. One event follows another -- next, now -- generating ever greater forward momentum, rather than events happening in parallel (meanwhile), with stops and starts (as with heroic couplets). The omniscent eye moves freely here and there in space, but not in time -- like a spotlight bringing this set of events and then that to our attention, with a sequence of sunrises and sunsets sharply delineating the time. Later we learn that more time has in fact passed. For instance, we have only been told of two days from the death of Hector to the arrival of Priam at Achilles' tent, but we are then told that Hector has been dead for 12 days. While such inconsistencies might be due to the vagaries the text has undergone over the centuries and questions about authorship (single genius vs. oral tradition), the effect is right: we are presented with the story told in psychological time, with the heightened sensitivity and memory of critical moments -- that's the "real" time of this narrative. The time of calendars and clocks is secondary. And through speeches and similes we get a view of the world beyond -- vignettes from other events that are part of the same mythic structure, and scenes from the everyday life of ordinary mortals -- but always subordinated to the scene at hand, the immediacy of the on-rushing narrative moment.

Reading this Iliad is a pleasure, rather than a chore. You get caught up in the characters and the story. You get intrigued by the rich detail about life 3000 years ago, and at the same time can feel the aspirations, fears, and emotions as natural and familiar.

Here is an ancient masterpiece freshly presented in such a way that it commands your attention and stimulates your imagination.

PS -- Here's a sample of some doggerel I wrote back in the sixth grade, inspired by Pope's translation of the Iliad.  Keep in mind, I was very serious in this endeavor -- the humor is unintentional:

O'er the seas a ship does ride,
Carrying a most beautiful bride.
Oh what a fair and beautiful dame,
Helen of Sparta was her name.
Her husband is Pais by name,
Prince of Troy, with farflung fame.
Menelaus, her lawful spouse,
Is searching all over his house,
For the bride Paris stole away,
On that dreadfully awful day.
To Agamemnon he rushes,
After his hair he brushes.
For those with strong stomachs, I'll post the rest at www.samizdat.com/doggerel.html

PPS -- Reading The Fall of Troy by Quintus Smyrnaeus (c. 400 AD) can help you appreciate the accomplishment of Homer. Quintus tells the parts of the story of the Trojan War that Homer didn't tell directly. But his version is just a litany of who killed whom, punctuated with lame similes and speeches. Many of the characters are the same as in Homer, and many of the events were foreshadowed even described in Homer, but here they have no punch. (You can get the etext of The Fall of Troy at The Gutenberg Project http://promo.net/pg/

PPS -- The Trojan War by Olivia Coolidge is probably the best introduction to the story. It can be read and enjoyed by anyone from about age 10 up. It is avaiable at Amazon.com



Discuss books at  Blogging about Books http://www.samizdat.com/blog/

Making sense of the myths behind Greek tragedy, in particular the mythos of Pelops/Atreus/Agamemnon, article by Richard Seltzer
Play, "Without a Myth or Amythos" by Richard Seltzer
Other book reviews by Richard Seltzer

The Greek and Roman Classics CD includes works of history, literature, religion, and philosophy (most in translation, some in Latin), in plain text, with software that lets you listen as well as read.

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