Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Declaiming Homer

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Declaiming Homer

Article excerpt


A 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.

Peter 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 Billinspired 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 midVictorian characterizations of the text in lectures that were published as On Translating Homer. …

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