“I Began With Sound”

"My task was to make this ancient poem about death feel vividly, unarguably alive."

I first began reading Homer in high school, early in my study of ancient Greek. I liked the Odyssey, but I loved the Iliad with a passionate devotion. I have now lived with this poem for some 35 years—­rereading it, teaching it in the original and in various translations, and, now, rendering it into English. For the past six years, I have worked intensively on this translation. But even now, when I turn back to lines I have read hundreds of times already, I find that the raw power of the Greek still startles me, like Athena suddenly tugging Achilles by the hair to stop him in his tracks. Often, I am unable to read without goose bumps, tears, or both.

Human mortality is at the center of it all. I know no other narrative that evokes with such unflinching truthfulness the vulnerability of the human body. Yet the Iliad also makes the whole world feel gloriously alive. People, gods, animals, and even objects are always in motion, swooping down mountains or dashing across the field of battle. The beautiful, rhythmical language evokes the noisy clash of bronze and the rumble of the sea. We hear many voices: almost half the poem consists of direct speech, and richly varied personalities are audible in the distinct ways that each character talks. No thought, no feeling, is left unexpressed; men scream, sob, shout, and weep. There is quiet tenderness—­as when Hephaestus welcomes his foster mother, Thetis, to his home, or when Dione soothes her daughter for her slightly scratched wrist. There is comedy, as when Idomeneus and Meriones argue about who has the bigger spear. There are sublime thrills, as when shield clashes on shield like the buffeting winds at sea. The poem’s imagery is extraordinarily varied and vivid: the narrator can shape-shift like Proteus, becoming by turns a frightened lion, a furious boar, a shepherd, a frazzled mother, a thought, a dream, a storm.

There is nothing like the Iliad. No translator, including me, can fully replicate all the poetic, dramatic, and emotional effects of the Greek. No translation can be simply “the same” as the original. A translator who underestimates her task will produce a clunky, incoherent mess. So I knew from the start that I had to make careful decisions about which features of the Greek poem I most wanted to echo, and work with diligence, humility, and creativity to find ways to construct those effects from scratch, within the entirely different palette of the English language.

I began with sound. The vast majority of contemporary English translations of the Homeric poems render the regular meter of the Greek into prose or nonmetrical free verse—using line breaks, but no regular sonic pattern. These translations are written for the page, not the tongue and the ear. Nonmetrical renditions of Homer do not provide the auditory experience of immersion in a long narrative poem, where the immutable pattern of sound is as omnipresent as the waves beating against the shore. I wanted to honor the poem’s oral heritage with a regular and audible rhythm, and with language that would, like the original, invite reading out loud, and come to life in the mouth.

Moreover, the Iliad emerges from a long oral tradition, shaped by many minds and many voices, and its narrative includes a multitude of perspectives, voices, and points of view. Achilles has a particularly unusual way of speaking, and the speech patterns of other characters are also clearly distinguished. But in many English translations, all the characters sound more or less the same. Recent Homeric scholars have traced the subtle shifts in narrative point of view, so that, for instance, we see Andromache’s external actions when she hears bad news of Hector—she drops her shuttle, she dashes to the wall—but then we begin to see as through Andromache’s eyes, when she notices bitterly that the horses dragging her dead husband are not showing care for him, as she could do herself—​and that the clothes she worked so hard to make are getting ruined. Yet translations often reduce this narrative flexibility, creating a more monolithic voice for the Homeric narrator—and often a voice that is more unambiguously militaristic and aristocratic than that of the Greek original. I hoped to fashion a language for Homer in English that might be supple enough to encapsulate numerous shifts in perspective, both large and small.

The Iliad feels grand, noble, and sublime, but it uses simple, direct syntax, designed for ready comprehension when the poem is performed out loud. Homeric verse is magnificent but not difficult; the language is far easier and more straightforward than, say, Pindar, Thucydides, or Aeschylus. However, many modern English translations of Homer use contorted, unnatural language that seems to me quite alien to the experience of the Greek. Many versions create a reading experience that mirrors how first-year language students labor valiantly through each word, but have only a foggy notion of what it all means. I wanted my English to enable an experience more like that of an ancient listener, who would have heard and understood Homer in oral performance from childhood onward, as a gripping form of live entertainment, and as a formative guide to life—not as a difficult old book requiring slow, belabored reading and a mountainous set of footnotes. At the very least, I hoped to create an experience parallel to that of a modern person who can read the original fluently. In translation, as in the original, Homer’s language should enable immediate comprehension and deep emotional engagement.

For the Iliad, I needed a voice of bronze, a voice of wind, a voice of fire. I needed to forge greatness without hyperbole, power without pomposity: as massive as a mountain, as soft as night, as powerful as sleep.

Ideally, literary translators should not grind the beef, pork, and lamb of their originals into an unidentifiable hot dog. Instead, the distinctive stylistic features of each original should remain distinct in translation. Having published English translations of Seneca, Euripides, and Sophocles, I wanted to make Homer in my translations sound different from any of them—just as the originals are composed in wildly different styles of verse. In Homer, there is none of Euripides’ allusive, witty cleverness, Seneca’s rhetorical bombast, or Sophocles’ densely metaphorical, riddling phrasing. Homeric Greek has a limpid clarity and freshness that needs to sparkle in the English, like the clear, almost painful brightness of sunlight on bronze. My task was to make this ancient poem about death feel vividly, unarguably alive. I wanted to echo its rumbling, regular musicality, its proto-dramatic array of characters, and its noble simplicity.

To glimpse a goalpost glinting in the distance is one thing. It is another to urge the clattering chariot and sweating horses onward to attain it through the haze and dust. In turning from the Odyssey to the Iliad, I knew I had to start again as if from scratch. Nothing could be taken for granted. For the first two years of working on the translation, I was more or less completely stuck. I read and reread lines and passages from the original out loud, and read and reread my own early, stillborn failures, experimenting with phrasing and line lengths and rhythm, rejecting one unsatisfactory solution after another, and hearing, repeatedly, the vast gap between my grasp and my reach.

Gradually, my task became clearer—­as when Zeus clears the thick fog from the battlefield in Book 17, so that the mortals who struggle to claim the dead Patroclus can at least die in the light. I slowly began to understand with more precision how my Iliad translation must necessarily be different from my Odyssey. The Odyssey required a fluid sequence of disguises, supple and strong as an olive branch winding through stone. For the Iliad, I needed a voice of bronze, a voice of wind, a voice of fire. I needed to forge greatness without hyperbole, power without pomposity: as massive as a mountain, as soft as night, as powerful as sleep.

Homer transports us to a world that is very distant from our own. And yet some of the most difficult challenges of translation emerged as much from the closeness as from the distance between the worlds. For a twenty-first-century reader, there is nothing unfamiliar about a partisan society riven by constant striving for celebrity, dominance, and attention, where rage and outrage are constantly whipped up by extreme rhetoric and the threat of humiliation, and where grief and loss constantly bleed into yet more rage and aggression. But current attitudes and experiences of “status,” or “fame,” or “celebrity” (all of which may have negative connotations) are quite different from attitudes about “honor,” “glory,” or “renown” (semiarchaic words with more positive connotations). The various terms for social approbation in the Iliad, including kudos and kleos, do not correspond exactly to any of these terms: they are neither negative nor archaic nor grand. Where possible, I have used words that evoke the ordinariness and pervasiveness of the Homeric warrior’s desire to win by defeating, slaughtering, and stripping his opponents in battle, and by outdoing his peers—for instance by rendering kudos as “success.” I have also frequently resorted to the more positive, more old-fashioned terms (for instance, “honor,” not “celebrity”), in the hopes that the reader can adjust to a world in which the desire for an eternal name is viewed both as marvelously heroic and terribly costly, and also quite normal. I echo the original in using different words for different categories of status-symbol objects, even though English generally does not make this distinction: I used “trophy” for geras—an object or enslaved woman won in war—but “prize” for aethlon—an object or enslaved woman won in athletic competition. I hoped the social world of the poem would emerge as alien in certain precise ways, but never incomprehensible.


Symonds’s Facts, Our Future

By Emily Rutherford

I struggled constantly with terms for social categories. Many translations describe the dominant warriors as “princes”—but this term is more appropriate for an early modern nation-state than for the little clusters of men from different territories who travel to Troy to fight. I aimed for more neutral language, such as “leader” (for the Greek basileus or archos) and “troops” (for the Greek laos), to allow the reader gradually to discover the social structures and hierarchies of this strange yet comprehensible world. Similarly, I avoided the word “castle” either for Priam’s dwelling place or for the mound of sand knocked down, in a famous simile, by a child. The world of Homer is not medieval or early modern, and I hoped to provide a clearer sense of the small scale of the whole Trojan War by making the warriors live in huts, tents, and houses, not pavilions.

The poem’s story, and its intense emotional and poetic power, always takes precedence over any ethical, political, or personal lessons that readers may want to take from the Iliad. Evaluative language risks connoting specifically modern schemes of value. For example, I considered, but rejected, using “macho” or “machismo” as renderings of specifically masculine forms of aggression, such as agēnor thymos and agēnoriē (both related to anēr, “man,” with the prefix ag­ suggesting excess: terms that are central to the poem’s precise account of the intimate relationship between aggression, arrogance, and masculinity). In translating this cluster of terms, I generally use fairly plain words such as “pride,” which is much less obviously gendered than the Greek. Similarly, I have used terms such as “skill” and “talent” for aretē, a word that came to mean “virtue” in later Greek, but in the world of the Iliad primarily connotes military excellence.

Working on this translation, I have thought constantly of my experiences in the classroom over the past few decades, and especially the needs of students approaching the poem for the first time. I have also thought constantly about the needs of general readers of any age, who may have read the Iliad numerous times before in different versions, and whose needs may be different from those of students working through the text with an instructor. I want these readers to have, in the present volume, everything they may need to experience the devastating power of this epic.

In ways that are often hard to articulate but run through everything, my work has been deeply informed by my own experiences. I have been reading Homer throughout my adult life. Whenever I hear blustering winds and rainstorms, surging rivers or choppy seas, when I watch a flock of geese or a swooping hawk, when I walk through rustling woods or up a mountainside, I know I am inside the world of Homeric similes. Even the most trivial moments of daily life remind me of Homer. I notice that my feet are not “well-oiled” whenever I tie my sandals on. I cannot watch my dog happily rolling in mulch without thinking of Achilles, prostrated by grief and tossing around in the dust. More seriously, the poem gives me a language to understand my deepest emotions and those of people around me. When I weep for my mother, who died recently in a distant land, I remember the grief of Achilles and of Priam. The Iliad is with me always. My own life, as a parent, a child, and a human being, has taught me to understand the poem more deeply.

As a civilian with no direct experience of combat, I have been particularly grateful and honored to have the opportunity to talk to a number of military veterans in Dartmouth, Philadelphia, and New York, as well as cadets and officers at West Point, about the Homeric representation of war. These brave and thoughtful servicemen and servicewomen often say that the Iliad, more than modern popular representations of warfare in film, video games, or fiction, strikes them as true to their own complex experiences, although the military terrain and technology evoked in the poem is entirely different from those of any modern conflict.

Even people who have enjoyed the Odyssey often tell me they have found the Iliad difficult, boring, or both. But the original is the most gripping and heartbreaking work of literature I know. I hope my translation allows even a few more readers to feel the power of this extraordinary poem, and may invite others to hear this marvelous narrative again in a new voice.

Calliope, the Muse of heroic poetry, probably has better things to do than help a mere translator. Nevertheless, I have prayed for her aid daily for over a  decade, as I worked to create these two translations of the Homeric epics. Now that the task is done, I lay my words at the feet of the goddess. icon

This text is excerpted from Emily Wilson's note to her new translation of The Iliad (W. W. Norton & Company, 2023) and was commissioned by Charlotte Rosen. Featured image: Cassandra, 1885 by Anthony Frederick Augustus Sandys / Wikimedia Commons (CC0 1.0)